1984 (anti-Sikh Pogrom) and the Spectre of Narendra Modi

By Ravinder Kaur,

As India begins the countdown to the 2014 general elections, a new discourse has started taking shape around its minority populations. It is called the ‘what about 1984’ argument. The supporters of Narendra Modi in a bid to deflect attention from his role in 2002 pogrom usually throw 1984 at his critics. The critics have lately begun responding by placing 1984 pogrom in a less grave category in comparison to 2002. The difference we are told is the political ideology – Congress is inherently secular and 1984 an aberration whereas BJP is communal and 2002 symptomatic. This unfortunate comparison means that the ‘what about 1984’ argument has unintentionally turned 1984 pogrom into an exclusive Congress problem even when it sets out to call out Modi’s anti-minority stance. The role of Hindutava ideology has been airbrushed out of the history that led to 1984 pogrom as a consequence.

Photo Courtesy: LiveMint
Photo Courtesy: LiveMint

Indeed the spectre of Modi’s political ascent looms large in public imagination. The reasons are well founded. The brutality of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, the fake encounter killings, economic boycott of Muslims and spatial segregation that keeps Hindus and Muslims apart in Gujarati cities is all too well know. The thought of Gujarat being replicated on an all-India scale is beyond imagination especially for the minority communities.

Yet the ‘what about 1984’ argument is not only on morally thin ground, but also historically inaccurate. It is built upon what I call the problem of coherence where complicated histories are deliberately cast aside to create neat, symmetrical narratives of the events being contrasted. But we all know there is no coherence in politics as in life, and therefore it is all the more important to account for inconsistencies, disorders and overlaps that underpin the politics of anti-minority violence in India.

I will begin with the frame of reference itself which is divided into seemingly two distinct polarities – communal and secular. Within this framework, 1984 is now categorized as the handiwork of ‘secular’ forces whereas 2002 is deemed ‘communal’ in character. In a classroom setting, this taxonomy might seem sensible, but if you ever asked the victims of violence they would most likely have a hard time telling apart secular violence from communal violence. Once the perpetrators descend upon you, the only language that is spoken is the language of death, rape and life-long wounds. Yet the 1984 pogrom is now increasingly viewed through this neat dichotomy even when its history is knotted and hard to fit in a coherent storyline.

The 1984 pogrom is usually traced to the assassination of the former Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi who was fatally shot by two of her Sikh bodyguards twenty nine years ago. This quick narrative somehow elides over the messiness and ideological entanglements of what used to be called the ‘Punjab problem’. In 1980s and 1990s, Punjab occupied the same exceptional space that Kashmir occupies in India today; and the Sikhs were categorized as ‘terrorists’ and anti-national the way the Muslims are alienated today. The ‘Punjab problem’ was shorthand for a place and people considered insubordinate and in need to control. It was classified as a ‘disturbed territory’ sharing sensitive borders with the arch-enemy Pakistan for a long time. It is often forgotten that BJP was an advocate of tough measures and LK Advani, the Hindutava strongman of yester-years routinely spoke of armed intervention to end militancy in Punjab. The RSS rhetoric in Punjab was exactly the same as in contemporary Kashmir where the BJP/RSS favor a hawkish flexing of muscles of the Indian state.

The point is that in 1990s, the Congress party as well BJP shared the rhetoric of ‘Sikhs having gone too far’ and in need of being ‘taught a lesson’ at a fundamental level. The ‘Punjab problem’ at that stage was seen through the prism of Hindu-Sikh alienation and anti-national activities of the Sikhs around which most mainstream political parties had formed a kind of consensus. The Opeartion Bluestar in June 1984 was an outcome of this political consensus, and the military intervention was seen by many as a necessary action required to control militancy. The violence that sparked after the assassination of Mrs Gandhi on 31st October was built upon these prior fractures rather than clear cut party affiliations.

While Indira Gandhi was leader of the Congress Party, she was admired on the other side of the political spectrum in the RSS camp as well for standing her ground against militancy. It is well known that after the Bangladesh war, Atal Bihari Vajpayee hailed her as an incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Durga. Even posthumously, she is frequently praised by RSS as a fearless leader, and more recently by Bal Thackrey as the ‘woman who had guts and knew how to rule’ in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Samnaa. These Congress-BJP entanglements have increasingly been erased from public memory when it comes to making sense of anti-minority violence. It is often forgotten that several RSS functionaries are implicated in the 1984 pogrom too even though it was led by prominent Congress Party leaders. Similarly, the secular parties are known to have turned away their eye from anti-minority violence under their jurisdiction. It may very well be political opportunism than communal ideology, but that does not erase moral and legal culpability by any measure.

The question is this – is it possible to create a coherent narrative of anti-minority violence neatly split along party lines. The answer is no. Those who seek coherence can only do so if they choose to gloss over these entanglements between political parties and shared rhetoric of disciplining minority communities. The coherent narrative of our violence vs your violence is of a more recent date. It began taking a firm shape after Srimoni Akali Dal made an arrangement for political power sharing with the BJP in Punjab. Once the alienation of Sikhs from the Congress party had been harnessed for political gains, it became politically inconvenient to speak about the role BJP had played in sharpening and exploiting Hindu-Sikh cleavages. The former ‘terrorists’ have by now been rehabilitated within the national imagination as harmless, cheerful tricksters in a slew of Bollywood blockbusters like ‘Singh is King’ and ‘Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye’. The Sikhs have also been incorporated in the RSS family in the form of Rashtriya Sikh Sangh where they have been reallocated their traditional role as the militant wing of Hinduism.

The use of 1984 and 2002 as moral retort – as rhetorical means of making moral equivalence, and thereby neutralizing culpability – has become mainstream in the past two years or so. The trend can be linked directly to the rise of Modi on the national political scene and the rising political stakes. In this scenario, 1984 and 2002 are no longer signs of human brutality and loss, they have become useful weapons in one’s political arsenal.

Perhaps it’s time to call out the ‘what about 1984’ type of teleological narratives. In many ways, it is the same argument that Advani made some years ago, though in reverse, when he called 2002 a mere ‘riot’ compared to the ‘organized carnage’ of 1984 without any parallel in Independent India’s history. It may be politically expedient to throwback 1984 and 2002 at the opponents to reveal their sins, but in the long run it does little to counter the kind of politics that makes anti-minority massacres at this scale even possible. The very framing of the question discloses the failure of political imagination to even speculate a future beyond two political parties. It is as if the only outcome the political arithmetic allows is a choice between the Congress and BJP.

Those arguing politics in terms of ‘what about 1984’ basically ask us to choose, and live with, the lesser evil of the two. This dispassionate gradation of human pain and suffering must be rejected even when it is made in the name of progressive politics.

Ravinder Kaur is a Historian based in Copenhagen. Reprinted from Kafila.org with permission. 

  • hrpanjwani

    I agree that the question is stupid. But the onus for this falls on those who keep saying ‘Modi is a bad choice because of 2002’ even after he has been exonerated in court. Those who say ‘what about 1984?’ are simply latching onto a phrase that they know the other side cannot answer and one that supporters like to hear.

    Inaccurate? Demeaning? Divisive? Yes to all of the above. But Indian politics is not about a mature and informed populace and Indians love jugaad more than sense. Dont expect that to change in the next 6 months.

  • Pritam Singh

    Excellent