The practice of garnering political and strategic gains from devastating instances of violence is neither new nor unique to the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Nellie Massacre (1983), the Anti Sikh massacre in Delhi and other parts of India (1984), the Mumbai riots (1992) and Gujarat (2002) have been milked both by different political outfits as well as by certain non-political figures, in different ways.

Skeletons in the Congress’ closet

The Indian National Congress benefitted not just from the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, but also from a highly polarised general elections campaign that followed the pogrom. During the campaign, the patriotism of Sikhs was questioned. The Congress advertisement, for instance, stated:

“Why should you smile uneasily at your next-door neighbour just because he belongs to another community or speaks another language? Why should you feel uncomfortable riding in a taxi driven by a taxi driver who belongs to another state?”

While commenting on the 1984 pogrom, the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi made a highly insensitive remark: ‘when a big tree falls the earth shakes’. He also did not have anything to say about the victims of the violence. Similarly, in Gujarat in 2002, the BJP benefitted from a divisive campaign, and returned with a thumping mandate. 

While both BJP and Congress have been shedding crocodile tears for political mileage, the Congress party has chosen to refrain from raising the issue of 2002, in multiple elections conducted in Gujarat. Likewise, the BJP only seems to recall 1984, when it has to deflect criticism pertaining to 2002, mob-lynching of Muslims in India, as well as numerous other incidents of violence, including the most recent communal riots in north-east Delhi.

A BJP minister, while reacting to the BJP government’s handling of recent communal violence. invoked 1984 in order to justify the recent violence.

Many individuals have fallen into this trap set by BJP and Congress, with some Sikhs and others comparing the numbers of 1984 and 2002 to try and prove that 1984 was worse. While there is no doubt, that in terms of casualties 1984 was worse — and a large section of the media did not even question Rajiv Gandhi about the violence that ensued back then — the playbook for 2002 was identical to that of 1984 and the atrocities inflicted on Muslims – men, women and children – were of a similar nature. The hate and distrust spread against the Muslim community was also similar, if not worse, and the justification used for the religious violence was equally shameful.

The liberal commentators who support the Congress have, on the other hand, been trying to underplay 1984. They assert that being anti-Sikh is not part of the Congress DNA, while being anti-Muslim is part of the BJP DNA. Numerous liberal commentators have also pushed this thesis. They often point to how Congress appointed a Sikh Prime Minister in 2004, and how Sikhs have far greater representation in the Congress Party in Punjab.

One prominent academic wrote a recent article where he dubbed 1984 as a ‘semi-Pogrom’ and 2002 as India’s first full-blooded pogrom.

The skyline of Ahmedabad filled with smoke as buildings are set on fire by rioting mobs during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 | Wikimedia Commons

Two of the main accused in the 1984 Anti Sikh violence Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar (sentenced to life imprisonment in 2018 by the Delhi High Court) have been Members of Parliament on a number of occasions after 1984. Tytler was a Minister in Narasimha Rao’s government, and had been inducted into Manmohan Singh’s cabinet, but was forced to resign in 2005 after the Nanavati Commission Report. Pressure from the Left parties, which were part of the Congress led UPA-1 government, also played a role in Tytler’s resignation.

Madhya Pradesh CM, Kamal Nath, admired by many journalists within New Delhi’s cocktail circuit, was also named in an affidavit submitted to the Nanavati Commission. This affidavit suggested that Nath was controlling a violent mob near Delhi’s Gurdwara Rakabganj.

The need for empathy

The fact that we choose to delve into intricate technicalities, compare two grave instances of mass violence and thereby start indirectly defending one over the other is rather unfortunate. 

In the past few years, however, things have begun to show some change. Sikh activists abroad speak up not just for 1984, but also violence against Muslims and other minorities and vice-versa. Similarly, in India, Sikh groups stood by Kashmiri students, after the abrogation of Article 370 (in one instance, Sikh groups helped 32 Kashmiri girls to reach home safely). A number of Sikh groups have been part of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act CAA at Shaheen bagh.

In 2019, Sikhs commemorated the 550th Gurpurab (birth anniversary) of Guru Nanak Sahib whose essential message was one of compassion towards all, and standing up for the oppressed.

As the violence in northeast Delhi violence ensued, Sikh religious organisations were the quickest to react. The Jathedar of Akal Takht, Giani Harpreet Singh asked Gurudwaras to provide shelter and all possible relief to the victims of these riots, with a six member committee being set up to take stock of the situation. Even in 2019, the Jathedar of Akal Takht had taken strong umbrage to some objectionable remarks made against Kashmiri girls by BJP leaders. 

International NGO Khalsa Aid was also prompt to react and begin relief work. Khalsa Aid has, time and again, dealt with flak from various sections for its relief work, including for the help provide in Rohingya Camps in 2017 and to Kashmiris, post abrogation, in 2019.

There have also been individual instances of compassion in one case a Sikh shopkeeper Mohinder Singh, along with his son Inderjit, rescued their Muslim neighbours to a safe location. Ironically, Mohinder Singh was a witness to the gruesome violence of 1984.

As a goodwill gesture towards the Sikh community, the Muslim Community of Saharanpur has decided to give up it’s claim on disputed land (the land had been bought with the objective of expanding a Gurudwara complex but had led to riots in 2014, and the issue had reached the Supreme Court). This too is a strong example of religious co-existence in grim times.

Thus, amidst the political apathy, we did see strong impulses of empathy and solidarity. This is important, because in the last few years, there has been a concerted attempt at othering Indian Muslims, not unlike how the Congress sought to other the Sikh in the 1980s and 1990s.

No simple binary

This does not in any way mean, that the rescue and relief efforts are by Sikhs alone. Even in 1984, while the political class may have failed many, a large number of civil society activists came to the rescue of Sikhs and have contributed towards the quest for justice for the victims of the pogrom. In the recent Delhi riots, there have been many cases of Hindus, like Premkant Baghel, rescuing Muslims.

Hopefully, religious minorities will show greater solidarity with each other. Hopefully, the narrative will shift from ‘1984 vs 2002 vs 2020’ to ‘1984, 2002 and 2020’. 

Policy makers are unlikely to learn lessons, but not just minority communities, but all victims of communal violence, are beginning to realise the essence of solidarity and the fact that the methods and motives of religious violence are similar, if not identical. While politically, minorities may still have to make uncomfortable choices, renewed activism has given them a scope for finding a common ground.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Delhi-based political commentator, associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal University, Sonepat.

Featured image: Photos from the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom | Wikimedia Commons


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