Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Massacre of the Sikhs by the Congress Party in 1984: Memory and History, Helium, a Novel

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

Jaspreet Singh
Bloomsbury, 2013

Violence is a part of History and the Nation States of today prefer to erase violence, especially collective and concentrated acts of demonic destruction of life from the pages of History. India is not an exception. In the West, the Holocaust is passed off as a Nazi aberration with the ordinary Germans participating only as innocent bystanders and this version history sits quite comfortably with the ideological and political realities of the Cold War and post Cold War geo political environment. In India too, there has been a denial of violence as a factor in the collective existence of India. The "Secular" scholars wax rather eloquently about the "Idea of India" which they associate with Jawaharlal Nehru ignoring the fact the he oversaw the largest mass killing in the history of the Indian subcontinent when the political leadership of the Congress and Lord Mountbatten decided to bring forward the date of Indian Independence from 1948 without bothering to prepere for the enormous tragedy that was to unfold. We may not ever know the numbers, but a figure of 3 million killed or displaced on both sides of the border is certainly possible, making the birth of the so called democratic republic of India one of the most bloodstained in the twentieth century. Yet the acolytes of Nehru pretend that Nehru and his Interim Government cannot be blamed.

The "communal factor" and the "comunalism" in Indian politics is one thmeme that plays itself out in Indian historiography without any theoretical or empirical understanding. The framing of the political issues either prior tpo Partition or Post Partition (I deliberately do not use the world Independence) as "communal" or "secular" is a game that began with the Congress when it participated in the 1937 Elections in the United Provinces and other parts of British India under the Government of India Act of 1935. The Congress did not win a single seat earmarked for the Muslims though it presented itself as a "secular" and the only organization that represented all sections of the Indian population. Instead of introspecting and trying to comprehend the alienation of the Muslim population the Congress did what it always does best: it created a bogey man so that it could use the bogeyman to frighten the Muslims into supporting the Congress. From 1937 after the Congress failed to win even a single seat and when the Muslim League swept all the Muslim seats thereby exposing the fact that the Congress did not enjoy the support of the muslim minority, the Congress leadership particularly Nehru and his "progressive" faction within the Congress started virulently attacking the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtrtiya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and converted the political discourse on the future of India as a common homeland for both Muslims and Hindus into one of conflicting religious identities.  The more stridently Nehru lambasted the so called Hindu organizations whose strength was very poor amidst the electorate, the more aggressively Jinnah put forth his case for Pakistan. The fact is that the failure of Congress leadership and its cynical use of a non existing threat to garner support of the Muslim minority resulted in strengthening the march toward Partition. To this of course, we can add the folly of the resignation from the Minstires in 1939 anf the 1942 Movement. This rehearsal of history is needed to set the stage for the most horrendous act of violence committed by the Congress party in Novemnber 1984 when it organized the killing of Sikhs in different parts of Northern India and the capital, New Delhi on  a scale that even the Germans would have found amazing.

The failure to confront the real the structural underpinnings of violence in modern India, meant that the country could live in denial and pretend that violence did not exist in India in any organized sense. The fact is that the Congress party, particularly in Northern India had begun to use violence as an instrument of political mobilization even in the pre partition days. Gyanendra Pandey and other historians conflate all acts of political violence as "communal violence" thereby giving the Congress party the benefit of doubt. 

In 1984 soonn after BBC announced the death of Indira Gandhi at the hands of Beant Singh and Satwant Singh her two Sikh bodyguards, the leadership of the Congress party in New Delhi decided to take vengence. Rajiv Gandhi famously justified the violence saying , "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes". For three whole days rampaging mobs of Congressmen went from house to house looking for Sikhs. They were armed with a database of names and addresses inn the form of telehone directories and electoral rolls. Whereever Sikh men were found, the Congressmen cut their beards and hair and doused them with petrol and burnt them alive. What was worse is that successive Congress Governments abetted the crime by destroying evidence and impeding investigation. Not a single man was convicted though it is well known thta H K L Bhagat, Lalith Maken, Arjun Das, Sajjan Kumar, and Jagdish Tytler were all involved in the killings. In several of them were even appointed ministers.

The novel, Helium which we are reviewing is a classic inn its own right. It is a work of fiction but fiction is only the form because it explores the dark savagery of 1984. Violence is often the starting point of great works of literature of which Primo Levi's works come to mind. Jaspreet Singh too has done just that. He is a memory keeper, a conscience keeper, a record keeper and above all a Historian who uses his novel to memorialize the unthinkable and verbalize the pain and suffering of countless victims. As one who has also relentlessly worked to keep the memory of 1984 alive, I salute Jaspreet Singh and have no hesitation in saying that this is one of the best novels ever written on a difficult and contentious theme. The acolytes of the Congress Party and the apologists of 1984 want to deflect blame and undermine memory by drawing a false parallel with 2002. 1984 like the holocaust is a unique event. and cannot be that easily domesticated in categories of ordinary experience.

The story revolves around the son of a Delhi IPS officer who perhaps under political compulsions looks away when a Sikh Professor at IIT is killed. Raj carries the burden of the guilt of his father and much later in life meets Nelly Kaur, the widow of the Professor who has collected the documentary and visual evidence of the horrors of 1984 in an archive in Simla. The memory of dark deeds committed even in the soft glow of political and ideological consensus can devastate a human being and this novel explores that aspect in detail.

Lastly: In these so called post colonial times when History is seen as a "discourse" without any contact with a reality, we need novelists like Jaspreet Singh who use the craft of the historian to document the horrors of the past as sirens warning the future about the devils lurking within us.And History has to be retrieved, recorded and remembered.

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