Before moving on from the past, there has to be reconciliation with what happened in 1984. That is possible only when the guilty are punished.
In the November 3-16, 2012 issue of Frontline, I wrote an essay entitled “Ending the Silence” about the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Right after it came out, I had a discussion with a friend who wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it. Her stand was that the riots were bad, but what could be done about them? Instead of writing about them, it was best to forget and move on. I did not say anything at that moment.
Four months later, however, I brought up the issue with her when she was all worked up, because a Delhi newspaper had forgotten to print a picture of her late mother on her death anniversary. She spent the entire morning fuming at the newspaper. On one occasion, she even said she felt as if she had let her mother down, even though it wasn’t her fault that the newspaper had made a mistake. It was then that I said, “You are so disturbed because a newspaper did not mark the anniversary of your mother’s death; a mother who died of natural causes. How do you think someone whose loved ones were butchered in front of their eyes feels while the killers walk about scot-free?”
That, in a nutshell, encapsulates why the inexplicable exoneration of Sajjan Kumar, one of the prime accused in those riots, is such an unmitigated tragedy. If he had received his just deserts, then the victims would have had something to cheer. His exoneration, however, only serves to bruise their psyche further, while keeping the issue of the riots alive by heaping more insult on grievous injury. It is all very well for those of us who experienced the riots as mere bystanders to talk about forgetting and moving on. But how does someone who lost near and dear ones bury the tragedy and carry on with normal life as if nothing happened? They cannot. Before moving on from the past, there has to be some reconciliation with what happened. That can only begin to take place once the guilty are punished. Until then, the victims cannot know any peace, and nor can the society in which they live.
What does the fact that this bunch of mass murderers, I am sorry but there is no other term to describe them, continues to survive to this day say about us as a society? We consider ourselves a caring people. Yet when it comes to a social conscience, we must rank among the most bereft democracies. Maybe our family-centric culture pulls us in that direction. The family takes up so much of our love and devotion that all we can summon, when confronted by the pain of others, is apathy. Or maybe it is the deeply divided nature of our society, where ethnic, regional and religious divisions are perpetuated in the name of preserving identity to an extent that makes it difficult for us to attach to someone on purely human grounds. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that by tolerating some of the worst outrages we have allowed ourselves to degenerate into a society where the basic justice necessary for a dignified existence is not the birthright that it should be in a democracy. Rather, it is something that has to be fought for in the streets. That was true in the instance of Nirbhaya, and it may very well end up being the case here.
In “Ending the Silence” I wrote: “After the beginning, possibly the most important thing in a story is its ending. A satisfying ending can salvage a mediocre story by making it memorable.” The story of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots has lacked such an ending for almost 30 years. After failing an entire community by allowing the riots to occur, we have prolonged the agony of those who suffered by constantly refusing to mete out the necessary justice which will give the victims the closure they deserve.
“Ending the Silence”, I thought, would be my last word on those riots. I had already published a novel, Time Is a Fire, and two short stories with another on the way on the issue. I felt I had said everything that needed to be said and was in no mood to reiterate old themes. It seems, though, that I planned without taking into account the acquittal of Sajjan Kumar. Hopefully, by the time this column is printed, concrete measures will be under way to redress that blunder. Even though the hour is late, hopefully the guilty, whoever and wherever they are, will get their comeuppance and the whole sorry chapter consigned to the rubbish heap of history, which is where it belongs.