1984 - why we must keep on asking questions

Written by Jeevan Deol | Jeevan Deol | Updated: Oct 31 2009, 04:09am hrs
Twenty-five years ago this week, India lost a prime ministerand thousands of Sikhs were killed in pre-meditated violence in Delhi, Kanpur and other cities across much of the North. The events of 1984 were fateful ones for the Indian nation and for Sikhs in India and abroad; what is most striking a quarter century later is the silence that largely surrounds them.

The killing of innocent Sikh men, women and children across the country was a national tragedy for India, not just for the Sikhs. The 1984 riots are by no means the first Indian national trauma to be shrouded in silence: the violence of Partition was largely absent from discussions in the public sphere until the 1980s, despite the important ways in which it shaped India, its politics and its social realities. Reactions to the events in Ayodhya, Mumbai and Gujarat have legitimised public conversations about violence against religious groups. It is now time to discuss 1984 more fully.

Much can be learned from the silences around the 1984 riots, and much can still be done to open them up despite the passage of time. To do so would not just serve the interest of the Sikhs, as is so often assumed, but would also lay the groundwork for a change in the politics of the nation as a whole. The failure of successive governments to deliver justice on behalf of riot victims or to open up alternative routes to restitution and reconciliation has reinforced a politics that repeatedly falls short of accounting publicly for the Gujarat riots and the destruction of the Babri masjid. The central conceit of this politicsthat the best strategy is to hold out until silence and the passage of time forgive or bury the consequences of violenceis occasionally ruffled by ineffectual street protests or the throwing of a shoe at a press conference. But until the silence endsand through a process more public, more participatory and more robust than the Nanavati Commissionthere can be scant hope of real lasting change in the political dynamic that values the reputation of national political figures above the fate of the victims of violence.

Indias emerging culture of greater openness in government may eventually mean that the silence ends. Although some will invoke the spectres of religious unrest or communal tension as reasons to avoid public disclosures about the turbulent events of 1984, the reality is more complex. Public interest demands a fuller account of the events and the underlying politics that shaped the destiny of the Indian nation so decisively twenty-five years ago: the relationship between politics and religion in Punjab, the dynamics of negotiation and confrontation between the Centre and the Akalis, Operation Bluestar, and the riots. Creating a greater public understanding of these events will entail uncomfortable revelations and difficult realisations for some. But if Indias new political culture of sharing information is to do the work of creating a stronger public sphere, there will have to be a broader recognition that openness brings a more complex and nuancedand often less positiveview of the legacy of politicians and governments.

Some categories of information such as secret intelligence and operational strategies against insurgents will need to be protected, as they are in other countries. But ultimately a better sense of how and why government and the political classes took the decisions that led to the events of 1984 can do nothing but strengthen the importance of consensual politics and transparent decision-making in Indias present.

Equally, a fuller narrative of the dynamics of decision-making at the Centre will prompt responses, justifications and explanations from other actors: state politicians, religious leaders, political activists and student leaders. The breaking of these myriad silences will open up long-overdue debates on the politics of religion in Punjab, religious justifications for violence, and the often flexible relationships between insurgents and local politicians. It will not just be the government and the Centre that will have to re-evaluate the effects of the past on present political dynamics; this too could have significant implications for Indias understanding of the insurgencies and violence that it currently faces.

Many of the issues that lay behind the grievances of Sikh separatism are now on the cusp of becoming live issues again. Falling water-tables in Punjab foreshadow a coming irrigation crisis that will likely lead to fresh inter-state disputes over the division of river waters; changes in agricultural markets have begun to squeeze small and medium cultivators in ways that call into question the sustainability of their lifestyles; and Sikh religious politics in Punjab are once more threatened with fracture by complex webs of relationships between political power-brokers and sectarian sub-groups.

No one would argue that the re-emergence of these issues will lead to the rise of another separatist movement in Punjab, let alone to killing on the scale of the 1980s and 90s. Changes in the way states relate to the Centre, the increasing salience of market economics, the activism of higher courts and the increasing self-confidence of Indias self-image have fundamentally changed the ways that citizens relate to the state and have made available new means to air and pursue grievances.

The violence of the 1980s and 90s will not return. But the silences around the events of 1984 and the types of politics they continue to justify will colour the present and the future for as long as they are maintainedand not just in Punjab or among the Sikhs.

The time for silence about the events of twenty-five years ago has ended: let the discussion begin.

The author has taught Indian history at Oxford and Cambridge Universities