A new book sheds light on one of India’s darkest moments

A new book sheds light on one of India's darkest moments

1984: India’s Guilty Secret author Pav Singh says that the victims of the anti-Sikh violence, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 8,000 people three decades ago, are still waiting for justice.

(Raj Gedhu)

Three decades ago, one of the darkest periods in modern Indian history took place. In June 1984, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military assault on the most significant religious place of worship for India’s 15 million Sikhs, the Darbar Sahib (known commonly as the Golden Temple) in Amritsar, Punjab. The Darbar Sahib had been occupied by militants calling for regional autonomy for the Sikh minority of a predominantly Hindu India. Many hundreds, possibly thousands, of Sikh and Hindu pilgrims caught in the crossfire were killed in the assault. The temple was badly damaged. Four months later, Gandhi was murdered by her two Sikh bodyguards on 31 October in an act of retaliation. Following Gandhi’s assassination, Hindu attacks against India’s minority Sikh population broke out in a number of cities across the country. Over four days, Sikh businesses and homes were burned and people were dragged from their homes and murdered. In New Delhi alone, almost 3,000 Sikhs were killed in what is now understood as a pre-planned and coordinated genocidal massacre. The unofficial death toll is at least 8,000 people. This January, a new book about the events of 1984 was published. Equal Times talks to UK-based author Pav Singh about 1984: India’s Guilty Secret.

Why has there been so little written about this topic?

This is the first book [published on the subject] in the West. There have been a handful of books in India, but they have always been very partial stories; so a journalist may talk of what he saw from his point of view or the lawyer H.S. Phoolka wrote what he saw from his perspective. But there has never been a book that shows the total picture from all the avenues and there’s never been a book that talks about the 33-year-old cover-up. It is puzzling. Maybe you needed someone who was involved with it but who could also step back – being in England you can have a more general view. Also [I am] someone who has researched other genocides and some aspects can be compared with what happened with Darfur, Srebrenica and the Holocaust. The international viewpoint was really needed because this story is really comparable to those [events], although not in scale when talking about Darfur or the Holocaust.

What motivated you to write this book?

In 2004 I took a sabbatical year in India to write an Indian travel book. It was only when my uncle on my mum’s side took me to some of the areas which were affected [by the violence] and I met some of the victims that I became more involved in the issues around 1984. But even then, I wasn’t planning on writing a book. I was collecting the testimonies and evidence and collating them. I did that for about a decade. I was in India every year during the decade but the year I spent there was when I got the bulk of material. That was also the year that the Nanavati Commission report [into the violence] was released. Some of the evidence I used was from the first inquiry, the Misra inquiry in 1985, but the affidavits were never released until 2005 onwards. Then one day, a Canadian author called Jaspreet Singh who had written a fictional book called Helium about the 1984 pogroms, said to me: ‘Why don’t you write the real story?’ That was two years ago.

Can you tell us more about this 33-year-old cover up?

It started from day one. The [Indian National] Congress party [the long-running, broad-based political party in power at the time, and to which the Gandhi family belonged] controlled the narrative and that has always been the issue. The first thing Rajiv Gandhi [Indira Gandhi’s eldest son and successor] said was that these were some riots and that they were spontaneous. That nothing about them was organised, nothing about them was rigged, nothing about it being a genocide. The story has always been controlled by them. That was a real issue that I wanted to tackle and the only real way to do that was to look at the evidence. They [the Indian National Congress] have been very clever in making sure that those people involved were exonerated or protected, given complete impunity and they’ve been helped by the system in India, by the judiciary and the police. That is why I am calling for another investigation that is totally independent. The first two inquiries had the government, judiciary and police all involved, hence, it was quite easy for them to cover it up.

Who exactly was involved in the violence?

From the top, Rajiv Gandhi facilitated it. He did nothing and because he did nothing he allowed the genocide to take place. He didn’t call the army on the first day - they could have stopped it because the police were involved. It was inaction on his part and then he promoted the perpetrators. He made sure that those involved were rewarded. He never had any sympathy for the victims and refused to instigate an independent inquiry. Even when he did, he used it to cover up his party’s members. People such as HKL Bhagat, the MP for east Delhi was involved. Sajjan Kumar in west Delhi, Jagdish Tytler in the centre, Lalit Maken – all these very senior leaders at the time in Delhi were all involved and it was only the Nanavati [Commission] that identified their involvement.

Have any of these figures been brought to justice?

HKL Bhagat went through a court case. He was indicted for leading groups of armed attackers and inciting them to violence, but he died without being brought to justice. Two key ones with cases against them are Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, so hopefully now that their cases are open we can start afresh. They are suspected of inciting mob violence and, in some cases, the alleged killing of Sikhs. I am hopeful but not too optimistic that the government and authorities involved have learnt the lessons from the past and will do the investigations properly.

What about those who actually carried out the violence?

The police didn’t take the evidence, they covered up the evidence. When the first information reports were given by victims, the police ignored or deleted names. There is a problem with that. Not all the people will be brought to justice.

What kind of assistance did those affected by the violence receive?

People did not really receive the help [in terms of compensation or even a day of commemoration] that they needed. There was no counselling that was offered. [Today, victims] are still stuck in a time warp. My call is not just for justice but a safe space where women and children can talk about these ordeals. This is something no one has ever raised. Rape was hidden, even within the [Sikh] community, and I think that we need to start giving [victims] the confidence, allowing them to talk and then hopefully start the prosecution. But these women can’t come out and talk about their experiences. It’s not just the fear of the people who raped them, who are probably local people, but also the stigma of speaking out. A lot needs to change before we can even get to prosecutions.

What do you hope will happen in writing this book?

My hope is that it will trigger debate, a new debate and a new way of looking at what happened. Firstly, we need to challenge the official version of the ‘spontaneous communal riot’. I also call upon both the Hindu and Sikh communities to reclaim the reality of 1984. That many non-Sikh neighbours hid Sikhs from the mobs and many continue to call for justice. There are various other things I would like to happen that I talk about in the last chapter. There must be thousands of people in India today who must know how it started, what really happened: what the logistics were, who supplied the weapons and kerosene, the white phosphorus, who distributed the lists, who brought the mobs in on buses. Thousands must have the information that we need and we need them to come out. In terms of justice, we need to create an independent mechanism to have a proper independent investigation. So maybe we need a truth commission along the lines of South Africa or something where people can start talking.