Anniversaries of tragedies are dreary occasions, stained by a past that is resuscitated only so that it can be buried for another year by the ritual of observance. So, much will once again be written about the massacre of Sikhs in 1984—the Congressmen who led the mobs, the victims who died and the eyewitnesses who live on, clinging to a futile hope for justice. But in the interstices of such events, life also changed for so many Sikhs who did not directly experience the violence.
Cleanshaven with only an inchoate sense of being a Sikh, I was then at Pilani, my first semester at an engineering college in Rajasthan. On the afternoon of 31 October, the BBC confirmed that Indira Gandhi was dead. I can recall so many of us exulting, as classes were called off. Ragging had just come to an end and for us freshers, it was an occasion to walk to the market and sit at ease over chai and samosas.
It was only over the next few days that the gulf between me and the majority of my fellow students became apparent. The campus gates barred outsiders, classes and life went on as usual for most students. However, I could not get through to my family in Delhi for several days. The censorship of papers only made the trickle of news of violence unfolding in the city that much more forbidding. There was nothing I could do, but not for a moment could I escape worrying about what may be happening in Delhi.
Over the years, I have picked up a sense of what it meant to be in Delhi for those few days—the burnt cars and silent streets, as well as a policeman’s mocking laughter over a call from my family to the control room to help relatives who were less favoured by their location. In a house in West Delhi, an old uncle and aunt and a young cousin faced mobs at the gates. A childhood friend later recounted how fellow passengers hid him under a second class berth behind a suitcase as mobs searched the train. As soon as the train started moving, he lopped his hair off.
In comparison to the brutality of the actual violence, none of this should matter. Yet it does. My inchoate identity became subject to a far stronger sense of self scrutiny. In some sense, the same thing happened to many others. It resulted in a rethinking of what it means to be an Indian and an aggressive defensiveness at being Sikh. For me, as for most Sikhs, Sikh jokes stopped being funny in 1984.
In the subsequent decades, others have been forced to live through the same horror. In 2004, two years after the Gujarat massacres, I walked through the charred remains of Gulbarg society in Ahmedabad, listening to a man who survived the mob that killed Ehsan Jaffrey. Just recently, a friend of many years showed me a few short pieces he had written about growing up a Hindu in Amritsar in the years that Khalistanis unleashed their madness. I could recognise the echo of my experience in their words.
This then is what I have come to believe—to be a minority is not a fact of birth, but of circumstances. What such a minority fears is not the violence of the State, but the moment when a mob decides to usurp the State’s monopoly over violence. Safety for a minority lies only in a State that is secular, plural and willing to exercise its power to thwart a murderous mob. A State, that is, that can ensure that eventually a Kamal Nath and a Narendra Modi are put behind bars.
The need for such a State also leaves me contemptuous of those who celebrate men like Kobad Ghandy, the well-to-do Bombay boy who went on to become a Naxal leader. The product of a complacent middle class that has never felt any sense of siege, Kobad is typical of the Naxal leadership and their urban sympathisers. Never actually having faced the dread of a mob, these men can casually talk of doing away with the State in the name of the people. Neither do they think twice about the murder of ‘class enemies’. Remember, every mob that resorts to violence and recognises no restraint over its own acts of murder does so in the name of the people.