Revisiting the tragedy of 1984

No, this isn’t about George Orwell’s Brave New World and critique of totalitarianism. Orwell was concerned then with the menace of fascism and communism in Europe.
History has revealed they were false gods. But State control over the lives
of its citizens, the nightmare conjured up by Orwell, has greatly increased
due to technological advances.

November 2004 is a time for reflection. It marks the twentieth anniversary
of a shameful episode in Indian history. Literally thousands of Sikhs were brutally
massacred and burnt alive, their women dishonoured, their children impaled,
their houses burnt and their shops looted. Delhi was the worst affected in these
communal riots, but there were other parts of the country where the loss of
life and property was also considerable.

Ostensibly, the rioting was to avenge the assassination of Indira Gandhi by
two Sikh members of her guards on 31 October 1984. This led to an upswelling
of public anger against this dastardly act. But how could the killing of innocent
members of the Sikh community avenge Indira Gandhi’s assassination? Her life
was in mortal danger after Operation Bluestar resulted in the Golden Temple
in Amritsar being stormed, angering the entire Sikh community in India and abroad.
A violent reaction was inevitable. Of course, the transparent joy and public
celebration by the Sikhs of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in several places
alienated them from the majority community.

1984 marks the failure of Indira Gandhi’s ‘divide and rule’ policy, whether
it was applied to the Opposition-ruled states or in her own party. This was
her prescription for acquiring and staying in power. Bhindrawale was her creation,
propped up to weaken the Akalis by pitting Sikh extremism against the moderates;
unfortunately, it did not quite work out that way in the Punjab. Bhindrawale
became the genii come out of the bottle, and she paid for her Machiavellian
policies with her life. Several awkward questions arise, but twenty years after
the event they should be honestly answered.

Was there any central direction of the anti-Sikh pogrom? The answer is an unqualified
‘yes’, appreciating the fact that it started on signal, but, more importantly,
stopped after 48-72 hours all over India. How was this possible unless unseen
fingers were controlling this macabre puppet show? What was the role of the
Central and State leaderships? Indifferent at best, and collusive at worst.
After all, the Hobbesian bargain envisages that citizens part with some of their
civil liberties to the State for ensuring their individual and collective security.
That bargain breaks down if the State collaborates with miscreants who imperil
the citizen’s right to life and property. The citizen is then left with a couple
of choices. Either to ensure his own security by private means. Or by taking
up arms against an unjust State, which is exactly what happened after 1984.
People who had lost their dear ones felt they had little to live for and were
willing to die for any plausible reason while confronting the State. The price
of 1984 was a decade of insurgency and lost development in the Punjab, with
Pakistan proving only too willing to support Sikh extremist activities and prejudice
Indian security.

1984 is significant for three reasons.

  • First, it was an example of a major communal riot being inspired and supported
    by the State. The failure to suppress it, and permit the mayhem to continue
    for a while, bespeaks a breakdown of law and order and the failure of governance.
    1984 encouraged the later communal riots against Muslims on the occasions of
    Advani’s rath yatra in 1991, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in
    1992, and the Godhra incident in 2002. The complicity of the State in permitting
    all these riots to occur and continue requires no elaboration.

  • Second, 1984 illustrated the career opportunities available to organisers and
    perpetrators of communal violence. Not only are they immune to prosecution,
    but also become qualified for high office. Several Cabinet Ministers and high
    bureaucrats, even Constitutional authorities, in the current and past Government
    have their hands steeped in blood. No inquiry commission is needed to identify

  • Third, the moral was effectively conveyed to the minority communities, whether
    they be Sikhs or Muslims or tribals or others brutalised by New Delhi that the
    only way to seek justice from the State was to take up arms against it. The
    operations of this pernicious logic are evident in Kashmir, the Northeastern
    states, and the eight States afflicted by left extremism.

Can the wrongs of 1984 be righted? Certainly, yes. At the minimum the perpetrators
and organisers of that tragedy should be removed from Government. Optimally,
they should be publicly exposed, and proceeded against in the courts. More is
expected from a minority community headed leadership than doing nothing at all.