I am a proud Sikh but the 1984 riots are not something I try to think much about. This month, Kultar’s Mime, a play based on Sikh poet Sarabpreet Singh’s poem was presented in New York City. It was a simple production. A series of paintings of the pogrom with key incidents and people who feature in the narrative was the main backdrop . Five caucasian students narrated and acted out the parts of the four innocents who were caught up in the violence.
It disturbed me deeply and brought back unwanted memories. Of bewilderment, grief, hate, bitterness and guilt.
That fateful October my family was in three different places. My parents were scheduled to move back to India from Syria at the year end and my pregnant mother was visiting Delhi to sign a house deal. My sister and I were in a boarding school in the Himalayas. 31st October, Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. For the next four days, unable to contact us in India, my father helplessly witnessed the government sponsored carnage against Sikhs in India.
From 31st October to 3rd November 1984, mobs drunk on liquor and hatred, and armed with simple axes and tools marched through neighborhoods seeking out Sikh households. Sikh men were singled out; their trademark uncut hair was forcibly cut off; they were hacked to death, strangled with their turbans, and their bodies burnt while they were still alive. Sikh women and girls were raped and brutalized in front of their families.
My grandparents mourned that it was almost like the carnage of the 1947 Partition; this time by people they were inextricably bonded with.
My mother’s cousin was dragged out of the train while he was on his way back to his Army base after a brief holiday. He was brutally beaten and then killed on the train tracks with a burning tire around his neck. In my boarding school, we were taught basic evacuation processes should the lust and anger driven mob break through the barriers. Every night we slept fully dressed, ready to escape to the hills behind the school. Each of us had a backpack with some food and water in it. It never occurred to me, or the other young girls what would become of us if the mob broke through the flimsy barricades.
In Delhi after the riots, no one would rent their house to us because we were Sikhs. My grandfather insisted we take up residence in his house. My parents were furious and hurt. We were enrolled in a Sikh school to avoid the trauma of being singled out.
My Hindu friends audaciously insisted that Sikhs had invited this pogrom upon themselves. When my friend in college boasted that her family was revered because they had saved their Sikh neighbors, I retorted bitterly, ‘Thanked you for what? Would you have not expected the same from your friends? How do you even sleep with what has been done?’. ‘You bloody Sikh’ became a derogatory term and an abuse for those brief, yet long years. To be treated like a second class citizen in one’s own country was unbearable.
Initially I was ambivalent. I had never thought of my Sikh identity. My best friends were Hindus, as was my boyfriend. There was a plethora of Sikh jokes but there was no malice in them. Now I felt bitter anger against my friends, and guilty too. I had cried on Indira Gandhi’s death - she had been my role model; I felt like I had betrayed my family. While I had mourned her loss, because of her, my family was closeted in terror and my old grandparents had to pay a bribe to be removed to the safety of a refugee camp.
With the passage of time, we chose to sweep those memories under the carpet. I stopped discussing it with my friends, and within five years everything reverted to normal. Sikhs recovered from the brutality and once again became the wealthy entrepreneurial community. The Gurudwaras continued to serve langar, the community meals, to all with love and graciousness. There were inter-religious marriages between Sikhs and Hindus again, and their music, movies, food , dance and clothes came to dominate popular Indian culture.
It was as if the riots were a minor tear in the social fabric and it had been darned and repaired. The damage seemed to be visible only to a section of Sikhs. Despite innumerable eye-witnesses, the politicians and hoodlums that had led the mobs against the community were never brought to justice. I wondered why Hindus did not stand up with the Sikhs on this issue. The two communities were inextricably linked. Historically, many Hindu families gave their first born son to the Sikh religion as a mark of respect; then why were those bonds not honored? Why has there never been an apology, sign of regret, or personal accountability for those horrendous crimes? To date, I don’t quite understand this.
Kultar’s Mime made me restless . I had never spoken to my teenage children about the Sikh massacres in 1984; I had not felt the need. At this stage, would it be better to not let them bear the burden of uncomfortable history? After all, my feelings had changed. Only for that briefest time had I felt discriminated against and never since have I felt inferior or different. I bear no anger or bitterness. My sister and cousins are married into Hindu families. My primary identity is that of an Indian, and then a Sikh. Would the knowledge of the carnage change the way my children think of themselves? Would they feel lesser pride in being Indian? Would they feel angry? What was the point of disturbing their peace?
Eventually I told them about the 1984 riots. I decided they must be aware of the history of their people. There is no rationale for violence against other human beings, even if religion, caste, economics, gender or race are used as excuses. While it is imperative to let go of bitterness, hate and anger, we must not forget. Not because we want revenge, but the mere act of not forgetting those nameless victims is meaningful. Justice may never be served, but keeping a dialogue open may help families who lost their loved ones find closure.
Understanding our own violent pasts may lead us to empathize with people in conflict regions across the world, and while history is condemned to repeat itself, perhaps victims of irrational hate may not feel so alone.
This is the least we can do.
<p><a href="http://www.desicomments.com/"><img src="http://www.desicomments.com/dc1/11/154613/154613.jpg" alt="Little Sikh Girl" /></a></p><a href="http://www.desicomments.com/desi/sikhism/">Sikhism</a> | <a href="http://www.desicomments.com/sikhism/little-sikh-girl/">Source</a>
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