If you are from India or have followed events in India wherever you are in the world, the very mention of 1984 is bound to bring back horrific memories. You will probably remember the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, India’s then Prime Minister, and the consequent massacre of the Sikhs, especially in and around New Delhi, the nation’s capital. Many books have been written about this tragic incident in our country’s history. In my view, “1984: India’s Guilty Secret” by Pav Singh (published by Rupa, 2017) is, one that lays bare what actually happened in just four days that year. Pav Singh is based in the UK and spent a full year in India researching material for this book
You must remember that Mrs. Indira Gandhi , who was also the President of the Indian National Congress, was supremely powerful in the India of those days. The excesses that took place when she had declared an unprecedented State of Emergency for 21 months in 1975-77 were still fresh in the minds of the people even as they voted her back to power in 1980.
The tragedy of 1984 is interlinked closely with the situation in the Punjab. To battle her political rivals, the Akali Dal, from 1977 Mrs Gandhi had supported Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale through her Home Minister Zail Singh, (who by 1984 had become the President of India). Over time she realized that she was riding a tiger which she could no longer control. The political battle for the Punjab, the terror attacks that followed by militant Sikhs , and the storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984 by the Indian Army in Operation Blue Star, were all, in one way or the other, responsible for her assassination. She was shot dead by her own bodyguards, ironically both Sikhs, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh. As she fell to their bullets in the morning of October 31, 1984, the Sikh community at large had no inkling of what was to follow.
Over the next four days , from November 1-4, 1984, Sikh women were raped, many maimed and mutilated for life, while Sikh men were murdered, often burnt alive. The famous Sikh writer and journalist Khushwant Singh wrote, ” for the first time I understood what words like pogrom, holocaust and genocide really meant.” Pav Singh writes that 8,000 Sikhs, possibly more, were hunted down and slaughtered in a systematic manner by rampaging mobs. All through the book, the author argues that crimes of such magnitude and viciousness could not be done had they not been planned in advance.
The ruling Congress Government sought to play down the killings as being a spontaneous our burst of anger against the Sikhs for the killing of their beloved leader. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi himself famously said addressing a large rally, “When a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little.”
It is now understood that much of the violence could have ben stopped had the Army been called out and had the police been less partisan. The media as always played to the tunes of those in power. The events in Delhi were termed “anti- Sikh riots” . Nothing can be further from the truth. In riots, people of warring communities die. In 1984 all who died were Sikhs, men, women and children. They had been singled out for retribution by mobs baying for the their blood instigated allegedly by leaders of the ruling Congress Party. It is tragic that despite three decades having gone by and many inquiries by successive Governments, the major villains of the dastardly crimes have by and large walked free, even to this day. The book mentions Congress leaders such as H K L Bhangat, Lalit Maken, Sajjan Kumar, Dharam Dass Shastri, Jagdish Tytler, and Kamal Nath as being involved in some way or the other.
Pav Singh’s book is not for the squeamish. Based on written commentaries and more recent eye witness accounts of survivors, it describes the horrors of 1984 in graphic detail. It covers the savagery of the rapes and killings by crowds who yelled they wanted ” Blood for blood!” He names the people involved in trying to downplay the crimes including senior and top bureaucrats and police officials. They did what they thought would please the powerful Congress leaders.
“1984, India’s Guilty Secret” is not just another book on events that took place long ago. It awakens in the reader a sense of injustice and anger that such horrors could take place in the capital of the world’s largest democracy. What’s worse is that for decades after, the lackadaisical approach of Governments and our laborious legal and bureaucratic processes ensured a result one hated but expected! That nothing, after all, would happen to the guilty.