Integrity and Steadfastness in the Season of Violence and Vagrancy: Musings on Punjab Crises and 1984 Anti-Sikh Pogroms in Sandhu’s Roll of Honour
Terror, communalism and violence have been recurrent bloody processes in the history of both colonial and postcolonial India. It’s essential to analyse the configurations of power that led to the violence surrounding Partition of 1947, and continues to result in the violence ravaging the postcolonial times, too. The Partition of India in 1947 shaped our societal contours and its fractured legacy lengthens to give rise to ‘new subjectivities, new consciousness and new social arrangements (Pandey 2001: 50). Certainly, the partition of ’47 proved to be an ‘enmeshed kink’ in the silken history of India’s syncretic, tolerant and pluralistic past. Partitions, with reference to religion based divisions, and the ensuing violence lives on in post-colonial times to such an extent that we should truly prefer the phrase ‘partitioned times’ to the more common ‘post-colonial times’ (Samaddar 2003: 21). Priya Kumar aptly describes the ‘past-in-present-ness of partition as a history that is not done with, or refuses to be past’ (Kumar 1999: 204). Truly, partition has become the defining moment for interrogating the past to understand the contemporary turmoil over religion. Earnestly felt in this scenario is the need to confront contending narratives of the past.
Jan Assmann, a pioneer and distinguished cultural memory theorist, etches reciprocity between hermeneutics and cultural memory. He postulates that, the theory of cultural memory draws our attention to the role of the past in constituting our world through dialogue and intercommunication, and it also investigates the forms in which the past presents itself to us as well as the motives that prompt our recourse to it. While hermeneutics concentrates on the role of understanding by accessing the texts of memorable events. Assmann elaborates more on this: ‘If hermeneutics defines man as a being that understands, the exploration of cultural memory defines this understanding being as one who remembers. Gadamer himself has repeatedly argued that all understanding is nurtured by a pre-understanding that comes from memory’ (Assmann 2006: ix-x).
Uncovering the nature of human understanding, twentieth century German philosopher of hermeneutics Hans-Georg Gadamer, highlighting our nature as historical beings gave the concept of ‘historically effected’ consciousness stating how our consciousness is streamlined by historical episodes and milestones. With regard to the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, Jyoti Grewal asserts: ‘The year 1984 sits in Sikh history, Punjabi history and Indian history as an unresolved, unjust, indefensible, unwarranted and prejudicial chapter’ (Grewal 2007: 220). Unquestionably, appalling historical catastrophes like these plague our consciousness; breeding dis-ease these events inflict us and become active sites of our memory and mourning.
The prelude to the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms retrogresses back to the dark period of ‘Emergency’ from 1975–77. Indira Gandhi’s ‘rule by decree’ met rugged antagonism from the Akali Dal in Punjab; the citizenry recompensed by ousting Congress from the state in the 1977 Assembly elections. Embittered Indira Gandhi could not withstand the new regime of Akali Dal-Janta Party in Punjab. To undermine the Akalis, her son, Sanjay Gandhi, along with her loyalist Sikh politician Giani Zail Singh (the defeated Chief Minister of Punjab who was in 1982 sworn-in as the President of Indian republic) created a grotesque Frankenstein in the form of Bhindranwale – the fourteenth head of the Damdami Taksal. The quoted extract underscores how Indira Gandhi’s unguarded impingement activated a reign of terror and insurgency in Punjab:
In its original avatar, the Damdami Taksal was an innocuous outfit devoted to Sikh theology, and functioned quietly from its obscure headquarters in the town of Chowk Mehta, near Amritsar. But its transformation from a Sikh seminary to a cradle of terror in 1975 was the handiwork of an insecure Congress party which propelled the Taksal as an alternative to the Akali Dal and Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee or SGPC and unleashed its new leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale on the people of Punjab.
(Mukhopadhyay 2015: 36)
In the mid-1980s, Bhindranwale spearheaded a strong separatist movement in Punjab, demanding Khalistan as a homeland for the Sikh community. Subsequently, Bhindranwale entered the Akal Takht – the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, facing the central shrine in the temple premises, and turned the venerated Golden temple into his headquarters. Mrs gandhi’s politics boomeranged, embarking her in a state of helplessness before the radical fundamentalists. In her bid to end terrorism she sent the army into the Golden Temple of Amritsar, offending the religious sentiments of Sikhs. The violation ofBhindranwale spearheaded a strong separatist movement in Punjab, demanding Khalistan as a the sacred space angered Sikhs across the world. The effect of this action was the assassination of Indira Gandhi by the Sikh guards who were part of her security arrangements on October 31, 1984. Over the next three days, Sikhs all over the North India, especially in Delhi, became the targets of organised sectarian violence. This gruesome mass murder seized 2,733 inculpable lives (the final death toll as per RK Ahuja commission) in Delhi alone, and left behind a residue of widows, orphans and charred memories. Veritably, the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984 registered a shameful episode in our country when the disposition of secularism was hijacked by the politics of communalism. More than three decades and nine commissions later, justice stays adjourned, making a persistent mockery of the grief of those who lost their loved ones to this state-sponsored heinous massacre. Considering the selective and orchestrated nature of violence the usage of Russian parlance “pogrom” deems more apt to describe the 1984 anti-Sikh violence as: ‘A pogrom is a violent riot aimed at massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group’.
This research paper attempts a revisiting of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms through the literary enterprise of Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour (2012), while interpolating some other daring, scholarly and sensitive ventures from varied fields on the same cause.
1984 as a public discourse is kept stirring by conscientious journalists, social activists, litterateurs and popular culture connoisseurs alike; to articulate, accost and ameliorate the ulcerating wounds of history. In support of this thesis, germane here is a mention of Kultar’s Mime – an artistic rendering of the aftermath of anti-Sikh pogroms. It is a play based on an unpublished poem of Sarbpreet Singh, directed by his daughter Mehr Kaur. Singh fictionalised the poignant reality of a deaf and mute boy Avtar, whose father was lynched right before him during the carnage. The boy excruciatingly articulates his pain by miming. Sarbpreet credits that the stimulus to pen the poem came from a reading of an academic paper titled Stories of Children by anthropologist Veena Das. The paper archived the impasse of the young Sikh children who survived the ’84 massacres and were later holed up at the Widow’s colony, Tilak Vihar, Delhi, in the name of relief and rehabilitation. The play universalises human pain and courage by connecting the audiences with the 1903 massacres of Jews in Kishinev by interpolating within the play, Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik’s poem, In the City of Slaughter. Fathoming despair and revenge, the play recreates compassion, hope and recovery. Quoting an excerpt from the poem:
Gentle again, the wheel will turn and evil will take flight
Into a million blazing suns shattered will be the night.
(Qtd in Kumar, Umang)
Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sandhu succeeds in bringing alive the predicament of the adolescent Appu in insurgency-ridden Punjab of the 1980s. It is July ’84 and ‘Operation Bluestar’ to annihilate Bhindranwale and other fundamentalists in the Sikhs’ Vatican- Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple) has just culminated. While it’s complementary follow up military exercise, ‘Operation Woodrose’ is ongoing throughout the Punjab countryside to nab innocent young men and subject them to unexplained butchery in the garb of overseeing militancy and restoring normalcy. During the summer break Appu’s childhood friend Joga was picked up on the same pretext. Appu being a ‘mona’ Sikh and a military school ward is spared an identical nemesis, making his intuitive yet simple self to clinch a demented norm prevalent in those dire straits: ‘They associated dangerous Sikhs with long hair’ (19). Nonetheless the horror unleashes on all concerned as Joga’s assaulted body is found on the banks of a canal. Amandeep Sandhu’s guileless chronicle of this context is a gut-wrenching expose of army’s barbarity targeted at enfeebling and wounding the Sikh psyche:
I saw that the army had shaved off Joga’s long hair. His bald corpse was entangled in the dangling roots of the tree….Rigor mortis had set in and Joga’s body had bloated. His trousers were torn. The men found it difficult to straighten his broken legs. His naked back had purple welts. His tormentors had broken his fingers….Caked blood had congealed on his broken nose and torn lips. (20)
Eventually, as the summer break ends, Appu readies himself to lord over his military school in Jassabad, Punjab. This is his final year and in concord with the school tradition, the senior most class disciplines the junior cadets. From the last six years Appu is envisaging to illustrate his name on the school’s famed ‘Roll of Honour ’as school prefect. After all, for this day only, he and his classmates bore all the ‘ragra’- the practice of corporal punishment or vehement discipling at the hands of their seniors and staff both. But to their utter dismay, school authorities make radical rule changes, and dissolve the existent senior-junior polarities. Pulverised in the above status quo, Appu tries to stand firm.
The existent power structures and malignance of violence seep into the microcosmic spheres of society. Balraj - the former school prefect and Appu’s role model joins the Khalistan Commando Force, Akhad and Lalten adopt a pro-Khalistani stance, and the prevalent orgy of sexual violence that the seniors perpetrate on the juniors, remains unabated. Not sequestered from the elderly belligerence, children as adult ‘prototypes’ reflect the ethos of the wasteland that Punjab has turned into. One hears echoes of anthropologist Veena Das’s discourse of ‘descent of violence into the ordinary’ : ‘This theme of annihilation of the world, or of finding oneself within the scene of world-annihilating doubt, is not necessarily tied to big events…but is still part of the everyday’ (Das 2007: 7).
Entwined in the double bind of the personal and the political, as terror and ensuing fear reigns supreme at the school and the state front, Appu traces the genesis of violence in social inequalities: ‘In both places, there are those who could hurt and those who could get hurt. Did it need riots or an unusual system, like in school, to make people realise their inequalities?’ (118). At another point of time he annotates in the similar vein: ‘One Indira Gandhi, one Bhindranwale…one Balraj. It was always one person who ruled, one person who dictated how others would live’ (234). Amidst these deliberations Appu momentarily finds his Baba’s advice bombastic: ‘You are entitled to a struggle, not the benefits’ (77). But in the long run, these words prove to be ‘tried and true’ keeping Appu upright in the face of adversities, and rooted in righteousness. The lexicon of Appu is one of resilience, of a veracious Sikh who is faithful to the ethical code enshrined throughout in the Sikh scriptures. Appu rises above all improprieties despite the onslaught of violence and racial discrimination. Jettisoning anger and despair, he actively chooses to raise ethical questions.
Appu’s struggle stretches for good twenty-five years. Chasing away his fears and coming to terms with his stay at military school, and insurgency-torn Punjab as well as anti-Sikh pogroms and the recurrent atmosphere of communal vengeance throughout the country, isn’t a cake walk. The truth that dawns after prolonged deliberations is a revelation that probably being a spectator to other people’s pain is voyeurism: ‘May be wekhan was not all. Samjhan, understanding, was what I needed and through understanding, a way of judging. Pehchanan’ (233). I read here resonance of Sandhu’s literary father, the Polish writer - Ryszard Kapuscinski who created his books from a combination of three elements: ‘The first is travel: not travel like a tourist, but travel as exploration, as concentration, as a purpose. The second is reading literature on the subject: books, articles, scholarship. The third is reflection, which comes from travel and writing’ (Wolfe). The author also seeks inspiration from the keen social perception, and championing of social cause in the legendary writings of John Steinbeck. However his models for Roll of Honour were William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Time of the Hero owing to similar thematics of ‘loss of innocence in a failed society’. In relation to the question of being a ‘mere spectator,’ I find it pertinent to quote here an auxiliary instance from the writers’ fraternity : notwithstanding his firsthand experience of the 1984 Delhi carnage, writer Amitav Ghosh felt incarcerated in writing directly about these events. His punctilious mind was not ready to ‘perceive literally everything as aesthetic phenomenon-completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth’ (Ghosh, ‘The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi’). Ghosh’s ravaged mind seeks solution to a very pertinent query: ‘How was I to write about what I had seen without reducing it to a mere spectacle’ (‘The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi’). WB Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ runs as a regular motif in the Roll of Honour with the titles of chapters based on it, manifesting a common pattern of rise of militarism and the ensuing trauma worldwide.
As a writer of testimonial fiction and non-fiction, Sandhu lays bare the Punjab crises in a nuanced manner, and fittingly problematises it from a non-partisan viewpoint. Being an alumnus of a military school at Punjab and having witnessed the crises from close quarters Sandhu’s stereoscopic vision of detached ‘insider’s pathos’ is reformatory. Quoting from the novel, author’s alter ego – Appu’s denouement that serves as a counter to the narrow confines of religion and provinciality:
It is a chance that I was born into a certain family, or a community, a society, or a nation. But when I parade the dictates I inherited at birth-colour, religion, place, language, family, and other markers of identity-my birth becomes a joke, drawn out through my life. I wonder who laughs at it. For when I live like that or am willing to die for them, I feel I am a caricature of what I could be. (237)
The author demonstrates how by letting these restraining aspects define us and our deeds, we make a mockery of our humane selves. Certainly, bigotry makes one see the world through biased eyes, muddling one in a slough of holy mess.
Appu learns the hard way that sectarian principles and dogmas are progenitors of separatist and secessionist movements. Roll of Honour and Sandhu’s non-fictional writings on Punjab persuasively articulate that Sikhs as ever disciples or learners must uphold the syncretism and all-inclusiveness of the faith by dissuading intra-community casteism, and cultivating gratifying inter-community kinship. Bearing testimony to the savagery of the militants and the state alike, the writer senses the desiderata of stepping beyond the cloak of victimhood, and outspanning despair. Instead, he preferred being ‘a sovereign witness, free from being appropriated’ (Daftuar, Swati). The ordeal called for a self pilgrimage, ascertaining the remnants of evil within one’s own self as bespeaks the couplet of Kabir, used as epigraph to the novel: ‘When I went to look for evil, I found none as wretched as my own heart’.
Today, when racial atrocities have become a regular feature, the bruised selves of the victims and the witnesses demand redressal which can come through dialogue initiated by conscientious writing and representation through diverse mediums and perspectives. As, till the time, the traumatised await justice and expression, healing will remain elusive contriving alienation, prejudice, communal disharmony, and escapism through drugs and other decadent means. Of countless intents of art, the most modulated and harmonising one, is the twin proposition of disturbing the comfortable and pacifying the disquieted. Its rendition asserts that catharsis and healing can come through a will to confront the ugly past. Honouring the crucified and persecuted of ’84, and making eloquent the plea for justice, art and literature dares to document the state-sponsored sectarian strife, and blatantly chronicles this often glossed-over ignominious episode of India’s dreadful past. It equally serves as a social archive on the subject, capable of shaking many coming generations from falling into an amnesiac stupor.
Works Cited and Consulted
- Assmann, Jan. Religion and Cultural Memory. California: Stanford University Press, 2006.Print.
- Daiya, Kavita. Violent Belongings. New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2013. Print.
- Das, Veena. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.Print.
- Grewal, Jyoti. Betrayed by the State: The Anti-Sikh Pogroms of 1984. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
- Kumar, Priya. “Testimonies of Loss and Memory: Partition and the Haunting of a Nation.” Interventions, 1(2): 201-15. 1999. Print.
- Mukhopadhyay, Nilanjan. Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press, 2015. Print.
- Pandey, G. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.
- Sandhu , Amandeep. Roll of Honour. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2012. Print.
- Samaddar, R. A Biography of the Indian Nation. New Delhi: Sage, 2001. Print.
- Daftuar, Swati. “Top of the Charts: Amandeep Sandhu.” The Hindu. 21 December 2013. Web. 01 March 2016.
- Ghosh, Amitav. “The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi.” The New Yorker. 17 July 1995. Web. 15 March, 2016.
- Kumar, Umang. “Kultar’s Mime: A Play that Recreates the Anti- Sikh Violence of 1984.” TwoCircles.net. 08 October 2014. Web. 20 March 2016.
- Wolfe. “An Interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski: Writing about Suffering.” The Journal of the International Institute. Volume 6, Issue 1, Fall 1998. Web. 12 March 2016.