I remember how it all started twenty five years ago, almost to the day. It was about 1:00 PM on 31 October 1984 that we were told to go home immediately. I was in my Batik class whiling away an hour of extracurricular activities. My feeble attempts at dyeing a piece of cloth were being shouted down by my instructor, a starving artist who would rather paint his own abstract compositions than teach a bunch of surly middle school children.
Our minor miseries were ended by something altogether more sinister; India Gandhi had been shot dead by her bodyguards and the school had been asked to send its children home. As we all know now, Sikhs all over Delhi and the rest of India were to pay a heavy price for Mrs. Gandhi's assassination.
By the next day, the looting had started. In our middle-class South Delhi colony, the violence was restricted to burning and the destruction of property. Our Sikh neighbours were all safe in the houses of friends. In other parts of Delhi - Trilokpuri, for example - the violence took thousands of innocent lives. When I went back to school ten days later, all my Sikh classmates had lost their turbans. Sikhs in Delhi, who until that day had been trusted friends, neighbours and employees had become objects of pity and fear.
Unlike Hindu-Muslim violence, which had a communal history, there was no history of individual Hindus and Sikhs disliking each other. Sikhs had a reputation of being honest, hardworking people with a zest for life. Soon, that impression was replaced by that of the terrorist as the Kanishka bombing and the violence in Punjab followed the violence of 1984. Delhi was soon full of police checkpoints, sandbags and all. No one stayed outside after 8:00 PM.
Arguably, we are now over that sorry period in Indian history; it is possible claim that Sikhs are as much a part of the Indian mainstream as they used to be - and even at the top of the political ladder. Unfortunately, the lessons (mostly bad ones) learned during those terrible days have been applied again and again elsewhere in India.
Twenty-five years later, two facts from 1984 stick in my memory: a pogrom like the one orchestrated in 1984 needs active state support and secondly, we 'ordinary' citizens are quite easily cowed down by fear, a fear that has no foundation in truth. It is tragically laughable now but in the days following the first wave of violence, citizen patrols were organised in my colony, not to protect Sikhs, but because we were afraid of Sikh avengers coming from nearby Punjab to take revenge on us.
I still remember, after a particularly loud late night noise, my friend V. (he was a few years older and drafted for guard duty) running in from Africa Avenue, shouting "sardar aa gaye, sardar aa gaye." In that moment of fear, if there had been a few un-burnt Sikh houses, we would have burnt those ones as well. How was that fear manufactured? After all, the city was crawling with policemen and military personnel. If they were not present to guard and protect us, both Sikh and non-Sikh, what were they doing?
It is tragically laughable now but in the days following the first wave of violence, citizen patrols were organised in my colony, not to protect Sikhs, but because we were afraid of Sikh avengers coming from nearby Punjab to take revenge on us.
India is a democratic country but one of the less attractive aspects of our democratic state is how it has managed to create an atmosphere of fear in local pockets every now and then. It happened with the naxalite movement in the seventies, it happened in post-1984 Delhi and then Punjab, it continues to happen in Kashmir, it happened in Gujarat after Godhra and it is possibly going to happen in Chattisgarh and Jharkhand when we start targeting Maoists.
In each one of these cases, state complicity in violence is direct. We all know about the use of voters' lists to target members of a minority community. I can attest from my 1984 experience that the voter-list theory of riots isn't made up; I saw them being used with my own eyes.
The thing that puzzles me still about 1984 is: why did ordinary people (non-Sikhs, that is) go about doing what they did? There was no history of Hindu-Sikh violence. Then, why did so many young men, many of whom I had seen on cricket grounds in the neighbourhood, go around my colony looting and burning? What madness took over their hearts? To say that the state abetted the violence is to miss the point; why did people let themselves be persuaded to attack innocent others?
We have all heard how H K L Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and other Congress leaders gathered their followers and made them loot and kill. But who are these followers who found it so easy to kill? After Godhra, I heard more than once the following refrain: unko sabak sikhani thi (we had to teach them a lesson). Was it the same impulse in 1984? That somebody had to be taught a lesson? But why, and to what avail? These are questions that I have not been able to answer.
Nevertheless, 1984 makes clear that communal violence is a misnomer; if it can be manufactured overnight, it has very little to do with religion or community. In a country as diverse and poor as India, we are all suspicious of one another, but to go to war against another community requires a lot more than ordinary hatred. I have only one plausible explanation for the manufacture of this hatred, and that reason starts with something good, with the end of the Emergency in 1977.
The Emergency is the only time in post-independence Indian history when the rule of law was suspended all over India. Until then and never since has the entire nation been put into abeyance. I have a theory about the lessons learnt from the emergency: in my opinion, the popular revolt against the Emergency and Indira Gandhi's subsequent loss of power taught her, her party and by suggestion the entire political class that the nation as a whole is sacred, that the Indian public will not stand for a transformation of the democratic polity as a whole.
I believe that it must have been a hopeful time, that progressive people all over India must have felt in 1977 that we have decisively rejected an authoritarian form of government. India was not China or Singapore. Unfortunately, the Janata Party government fell almost as soon as it got started. Indira Gandhi was soon back in power in 1980, chastened but not cured of her authoritarianism.
In the Congress governments of 1980-1989 you see several local emergencies, where constitutional rights were suspended in one part of India or the other on various pretexts. These local emergencies came in a rush in the fateful year of 1984: there was the Army action on the Golden Temple, the dismissal of the NTR government in August 1984 and then in the post-1984 riots. The rest of the eighties saw K P S Gill's Punjab, the stolen election in Kashmir and the subsequent violence, the IPKF and so on. Clearly, the political class was learning a lesson: it is OK to subvert the law temporarily for political purposes, as long as it doesn't go out of hand.
Post-Congress governments have been as clever at following this maxim as their congress predecessors. Sabak sikhani hai, after all. Unfortunately, the subversion goes out of hand more often than not - just see the consequences of the Kashmir election and the IPKF. Even Narendra Modi might be a more chastened chief minister after the electoral debacles of the BJP in 2004 and 2009.
That the political class has learnt the appropriate scale of violence is only to be expected. But the continuous repetition of 1984 style violence also says something very unflattering about the man on the street. For every H K L Bhagat there are ten followers willing to burn and kill. Why does every politician and thug have a ready supply of devotees? What does it say when Modi continues to be re-elected in Gujarat while the BJP is losing nationwide? Do Indians subscribe to a 'local violence and global nonviolence' policy? That we are willing or perhaps even eager, to use non-constitutional means to settle political scores at the local level?
Rajiv Gandhi famously said about the communal violence of 1984, "when a giant tree falls, the earth below shakes". We should all be happy that while the falling tree makes the earth shake, it doesn't cave in entirely; that would lead to all out civil war. But even the tremors cost lives.