The book meanders through the “murder of Sikhs” “what the state was doing” and the “men behind the violence”.
On December 14, 2008, U.S. President George Bush Jr was in Baghdad. Two shoes were hurled at him by Muntadar al-Zaidi, a journalist. Muntadar was sentenced to a year in prison. On April 7, 2009, Jarnail Singh hurled a shoe at Union Minister P. Chidambaram to express his frustration at continued inaction against anti-Sikh rioters of 1984. Jarnail Singh, a reporter, was not prosecuted but he lost his job. The book under review is Singh’s account of the incident, its background and consequences.
Democracy in India has got soaked in blood many times. Class violence apart, there have been cases of group/mob violence before 1984 and after. Assam’s Nellie massacre in 1983 was worse than the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. Post-Babri Masjid demolition, there was group violence in Mumbai in 1992, about which we have a report by the Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry. Then, in 2002, came the Gujarat pogrom, the cases related to which are still under investigation. Six years on, Orissa was the scene of murderous attacks on members of the Christian community. In all these incidents, mobs were successful in committing unspeakable atrocities on hapless victims. Worse, most culprits are roaming free, with impunity.
The anti-Sikh violence of 1984, which resulted in the death of around 2,500 people, has many chroniclers, and Jarnail Singh is the latest. Among the chroniclers, some are of the sectarian ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ variety and some are of the non-sectarian, democratic, human rights type.
Punjab was not just the land of economic plenty. It also became the land of ecological nightmares, social disparity, and cultural distortion. Men from the dominant caste, say keen observers of Punjabi culture, are given to boasting on three counts — that they are enterprising Singhs, unlike ‘bhaiyas’; martial, not sissy; and Jats, not Dalits. Such a mindset inevitably courts collision with the ‘others’ of different hues.
And the movement for Khalistan was built around supremacist delusions born out of it. The Khalistan agitation consumed its own offsprings, although the saga has its home-grown panegyrists. Between 1981 and 1993, it claimed the lives of 11,694 people, of whom 7,139 (61 per cent) were Sikhs, says K.P.S. Gill in The Knights of Falsehood (1997).
In the non-sectarian category, Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar got together to record the horrific events from a secular viewpoint. The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation (1987) was the outcome of their joint venture.
The police did some good work in securing peace for Punjab but then they were guilty of unconscionable excesses too. The human rights perspective is available in the work of Ram Narayan Kumar (1953-2009). Kumar, who hailed from Andhra Pradesh, co-founded the Committee for Coordination on Disappearances in Punjab and co-authored Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab (2003), which provided a wealth of information on 600 cases of human rights violation. Taking cognisance of that information, the National Human Rights Commission initiated follow-up action and trials are on in some cases.
Twists and turns
Jarnail Singh’s book is a 165-page ‘quickie’ containing six chapters. Beginning with October 31, 1984 — the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated — it meanders through the “murder of Sikhs,” “what the state was doing,” and the “men behind the violence” before reaching the climax, the shoe-throwing episode.
Born to a migrant carpenter, the author grew up in a ‘refugee’ colony in Delhi with seven siblings. On becoming a journalist, Singh closely followed the twists and turns in the investigations/cases of Delhi anti-Sikh riots. At a Press conference when he could not take the “technical” responses to his questions anymore, he hurled a shoe at Mr. Chidambaram.
It is a matter of satisfaction for Singh that, after all, the wheels of law has turned, howsoever little or late! The foreword by Khushwant Singh is uncharacteristically dull. The publishers have rushed to publish it without an index. The book is non-sectarian and it might sell. But is it the best work in this genre?
I ACCUSE… — The Anti-Sikh Violence of 1984: Jarnail Singh; Penguin Books India Pvt. Limited, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 350.