BAREFOOT Harsh Mander

Resisting erasure

The poster of Punjab 1984.  

Indian cinema avoids traversing wrenching and traumatic passages of the country’s recent history. There are remarkably few films which reflect and analyse India’s bloody Partition, communal and caste violence and militancy. The blood-drenched decade of Khalistan militancy and counter-insurgency in Punjab from 1984 to 1995, a harrowing phase of the country’s collective history, is particularly erased from national consciousness. The importance of Anurag Singh’s film Punjab 1984 is that it breaks these silences, with a compelling, unflinching, and morally robust account of the agony of Punjab’s people during that traumatic decade. Among the most significant recent Indian films, it deserves far more attention even outside Punjab than it received.

The narrative begins with the killing of an old pilgrim during the army assault on the Golden Temple on 1984, which so wounded the collective psyche of Sikh people that it spurred — along with the massacre of Sikhs after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination a few months later by her Sikh bodyguards — a generation of militant resistance in Punjab. The story focuses on the search of the aged pilgrim’s wife for her son who is ‘disappeared’ by the police after being falsely charged for militant crimes.

Her poignant and hopeless search mirrors literally thousands of similar testimonies, which I heard travelling occasionally with human rights crusader Ram Narayan Kumar in Punjab’s countryside. The police, armed with the lethal licence — to kill at will — for counter-insurgency, picked up literally thousands of young men, many of who had nothing to do with militancy, and who they illegally detained, tortured and murdered in fake ‘encounter killings’. In the film, three youths providentially escape extra-judicial killings: one, the widow’s son is captured to abet their neighbour who has bribed the local police to expropriate their farmland; a second is a radical poet; and the third simply a luckless boy who fell in love with a girl related to a policeman.

The film does not baulk from portraying brutal police human rights assaults. That its horrific stories are not fictitious is confirmed by both the CBI and NHRC. CBI in 1996 presented to the Supreme Court evidence that in just three crematoria of Amritsar, 2,097 illegal cremations were undertaken by security forces between 1984 and 1995. Independent human rights investigation established that illegal disposal of bodies by security forces were not confined to Amritsar but occurred in all districts of Punjab. Sixty per cent of ‘disappeared’ men were subsequently killed in police ‘encounters’. Victims included doctors, lawyers, journalists, students, businessmen, farmers, even government civil and police employees. Police routinely refused to inform victims’ families, and extorted money from them. The NHRC, after 10 years of tortuous proceedings pursued resolutely by bereaved families and human rights defenders like Ram Narayan Kumar, Indira Jaising and Ashok Agrawaal, confirmed extra-judicial executions and illegal cremations, ordered compensation, but unconscionably refused to hold any officer or agency criminally accountable for the violations.

The film affectingly depicts the enormous human costs of this runaway police lawlessness, cruelty and corruption. But at the same time, it does not defend the resort to retaliatory violence by Khalistan militants. The three film protagonists who escape extra-judicial killings join the ranks of Khalistan insurgents. But writer-director Anurag Singh displays moral courage by resisting justifying or glorifying Khalistan bloodshed or politics. He is severely critical of militant strategies, commonplace during those grim days, of planting bombs in buses killing hundreds of innocent passengers, or pulling Hindu passengers out of buses and slaughtering them in cold blood. Many popular and influential portrayals of not just Punjab, but also Maoist and other insurgent movements, often condone and even exalt such resort to violence.

The film only loses its way entirely in its final sequences, which appear to celebrate personal revenge killing of corrupt policemen, in the most egregious traditions of popular Hindi cinema.

Still, I found exceptional that while Anurag Singh truthfully depicts the mammoth state human rights violations of those years, he does not shy away from exposing the corruption and random cruelty which besets all violent political movements as well. In so doing he remains unswerving to his consistent humanist convictions. This led to predictable attacks on the film, not just from apologists of counter-insurgent operations, but also from radical supporters of Khalistan.

The film recalls for me Ram Narayan Kumar’s writings about those times, of the ‘disappeared and dead’ and the ‘shipwreck of survival’ of bereaved families. But I recall also Kumar’s letter to his friends shortly before his tragic untimely death: ‘India is not incapable of humanitarian compassion and empathy. Its capacities to trample human rights and to pretend that nothing disconcerting happened are also immense.’ Anurag Singh breaks this pretence, and instead turns the spot-light on this intensely painful chapter in our recent history, otherwise threatened with popular erasure.

The views expressed in this column are that of the author’s and do not represent those of the newspaper.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 1:42:57 AM |

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