Amandeep Sandhu hopes that his soon-to-be held session at The Hindu Lit for Life, will help break the silence in Punjab on the 1984 riots.
His book, “Roll of Honour”, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize, 2013, and after successful sessions at the Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai, Amandeep Sandhu is once again going to take the stage at the Delhi chapter of the literary festival, scheduled to be held on February 8. This time, he will be seen with his fellow panellists, Rahul Singh, Manoj Mitta and Sashi Kumar, in a session titled “Anatomy of a Riot”, moderated by Sunil Sethi and marking the 30th anniversary of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. “I’m really very honoured that I’ve been included in a panel that has such tall figures,” says Sandhu, who, after authoring a book that tackles both the personal and the political spaces of 1984, completes a panel that is both invested and interested in the events of 1984.
Asked about what the audience can expect from the discussion, Sandhu is humble, admitting that in the company of such veterans, he will gain a lot by just listening. He talks about the article he has recently written for The Hindu’s Literary Review, titled “The carnage that shook society”. “It’s a summary of all that has been written and done on the riots”. Being a Sikh and Punjabi himself, Sandhu says that he feels extremely disappointed and saddened that “Punjab hasn’t responded to the ’84 riots almost at all”. The one thing he hopes to talk about in the session is this silence of the State. I’d like to point out that before blaming the nation and the legal system, why doesn’t the Sikh community introspect and examine what it has done itself? Not a single big story has come out of Punjab.” Sandhu hopes that the discussion will be able to push the conversation into Punjab and the idea of the State starting to acknowledge the past. “Because the riots are so linked to the other events of ’84, there is a need for Punjab to speak about those events, about the riots, and about itself. None of the big Punjabi writers, filmmakers and culture critics have done much on the riots, including, I’m sorry, Gulzar sahib. He made Maachis but the songs and dances in the movie took away from the realism of the story.” For Sandhu, the real hope from the panel discussion is that it will provide a platform where the Punjabi community can acknowledge the very complicated past it has had, as well as look at the other communities that have gotten involved in its history.
“The fundamental issue I have is that, post the ’84 riots, the Sikh narrative has become a narrative of victimhood. I don’t think Sikhs were ever conceived as victims or needed to portray this all the time. Along with that, the in-fighting within the community post the riots is another concern I have.”
The silence within Punjab, Sandhu believes, is linked to the idea of what is a community and what is a nation. “The beginning of modern nationhood includes a social contract between the people and the State, and I think ’84 fundamentally hit at that social contract. Some responded by getting out of the State, a fact borne out by the huge exodus that happened after the riot. Others fell in line and now, they see a Sikh as the Prime Minister, the head of the Planning Commission, and the Chief of the Army.” But for Sandhu, having Sikh personalities at the helm of power doesn’t change the fact that there has been no acknowledgement of who was responsible for the riots and who should be punished. “You can only say sorry if you acknowledge guilt. To me, this is a hollow story. Even what happened three days ago with Rahul Gandhi wasn’t an acknowledgement.” Sandhu adds that he agrees with Manoj Mitta’s statement that evidence has been systematically camouflaged, and worked against delivering justice to poor victims. “If you go to colonies in Jhandewalan and other places in Delhi, the Sikh community doesn’t want to talk because it’s just too messy.”
The idea of ’84, Sandhu feels, has been simplified. “People just think that Blue Star happened, then Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and then the Sikh community was killed. But the first victims were actually the Hindus. When the terrorists were murdering Hindus, why didn’t the community rise around that? There is a selective narrative around the riot now. As a country, we’ve lost our ability to tell our story, and it’s now just becoming a topic for the political parties to milk.”
Sandhu draws the distinction between the 1984 and 2002 riots, saying that while the State failed in Gujrat, there was an engagement of the two communities in what was going on, thought one, the Muslim community, and was not really allowed to respond. “The Delhi riots were a pogrom, where you found and killed Sikhs and their families.” He adds that there has been no systematic investigation of the truth, and the ’84 riots were heinous, but there was a background, including things that were going on in Punjab. “Only when you include all acts of violence can you have a complete narrative. Otherwise it’s just selective representation, and a case of your riot is better than my riot.” Sandhu adds that the only real victim is the public that has lost its voice and any forum of discussion.