1984 and the Spectre of Narendra Modi: Ravinder Kaur

Guest Post by Ravinder Kaur 

As India begins the countdown to the 2014 general elections, a new discourse has started taking shape around its minority populations. It is called the ‘what about 1984’ argument. The supporters of Narendra Modi in a bid to deflect attention from his role in 2002 pogrom usually throw 1984 at his critics. The critics have lately begun responding by placing 1984 pogrom in  a less grave category in comparison to 2002. The difference we are told is the political ideology – Congress is inherently secular and 1984 an aberration whereas BJP is communal and 2002 symptomatic. This unfortunate comparison means that the ‘what about 1984’ argument has unintentionally turned 1984 pogrom into an exclusive Congress problem even when it sets out to call out Modi’s anti-minority stance. The role of Hindutava ideology has been airbrushed out of the history that led to 1984 pogrom as a consequence.

Indeed the spectre of Modi’s political ascent looms large in public imagination. The reasons are well founded. The brutality of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, the fake encounter killings, economic boycott of Muslims and spatial segregation that keeps Hindus and Muslims apart in Gujarati cities is all too well know. The thought of Gujarat being replicated on an all-India scale is beyond imagination especially for the minority communities.

Yet the ‘what about 1984’ argument is not only on morally thin ground, but also historically inaccurate. It is built upon what I call the problem of coherence where complicated histories are deliberately cast aside to create neat, symmetrical narratives of the events being contrasted. But we all know there is no coherence in politics as in life, and therefore it is all the more important to account for inconsistencies, disorders and overlaps that underpin the politics of anti-minority violence in India.

I will begin with the frame of reference itself which is divided into seemingly two distinct polarities – communal and secular. Within this framework, 1984 is now categorized as the handiwork of ‘secular’ forces whereas 2002 is deemed ‘communal’ in character. In a classroom setting, this taxonomy might seem sensible, but if you ever asked the victims of violence they would most likely have a hard time telling apart secular violence from communal violence. Once the perpetrators descend upon you, the only language that is spoken is the language of death, rape and life-long wounds. Yet the 1984 pogrom is now increasingly viewed through this neat dichotomy even when its history is knotted and hard to fit in a coherent storyline.

The 1984 pogrom is usually traced to the assassination of the former Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi who was fatally shot by two of her Sikh bodyguards twenty nine years ago. This quick narrative somehow elides over the messiness and ideological entanglements of what used to be called the ‘Punjab problem’. In 1980s and 1990s, Punjab occupied the same exceptional space that Kashmir occupies in India today; and the Sikhs were categorized as ‘terrorists’ and anti-national the way the Muslims are alienated today. The ‘Punjab problem’ was shorthand for a place and people considered insubordinate and in need to control. It was classified as a ‘disturbed territory’ sharing sensitive borders with the arch-enemy Pakistan for a long time. It is often forgotten that BJP was an advocate of tough measures and LK Advani, the Hindutava strongman of yester-years routinely spoke of armed intervention to end militancy in Punjab. The RSS rhetoric in Punjab was exactly the same as in contemporary Kashmir where the BJP/RSS favor a hawkish flexing of muscles of the Indian state.

The point is that in 1980s, the Congress party as well BJP shared the rhetoric of ‘Sikhs having gone too far’ and in need of being ‘taught a lesson’ at a fundamental level. The ‘Punjab problem’ at that stage was seen through the prism of Hindu-Sikh alienation and anti-national activities of the Sikhs around which most mainstream political parties had formed a kind of consensus. The Opeartion Bluestar in June 1984 was an outcome of this political consensus, and the military intervention was seen by many as a necessary action required to control militancy. The violence that sparked after the assassination of Mrs Gandhi on 31st October was built upon these prior fractures rather than clear cut party affiliations.

While Indira Gandhi was leader of the Congress Party, she was admired on the other side of the political spectrum in the RSS camp as well for standing her ground against militancy. It is well known that after the Bangladesh war, Atal Bihari Vajpayee hailed her as an incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Durga. Even posthumously, she is frequently praised by RSS as a fearless leader, and more recently by Bal Thackrey as the ‘woman who had guts and knew how to rule’ in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Samnaa. These Congress-BJP entanglements have increasingly been erased from public memory when it comes to making sense of anti-minority violence. It is often forgotten that several RSS functionaries are implicated in the 1984 pogrom too even though it was led by prominent Congress Party leaders. Similarly, the secular parties are known to have turned away their eye from anti-minority violence under their jurisdiction. It may very well be political opportunism than communal ideology, but that does not erase moral and legal culpability by any measure.

The question is this – is it possible to create a coherent narrative of anti-minority violence neatly split along party lines. The answer is no. Those who seek coherence can only do so if they choose to gloss over these entanglements between political parties and shared rhetoric of disciplining minority communities. The coherent narrative of our violence vs your violence is of a more recent date. It began taking a firm shape after Srimoni Akali Dal made an arrangement for political power sharing with the BJP in Punjab. Once the alienation of Sikhs from the Congress party had been harnessed for political gains, it became politically inconvenient to speak about the role BJP had played in sharpening and exploiting Hindu-Sikh cleavages. The former ‘terrorists’ have by now been rehabilitated within the national imagination as harmless, cheerful tricksters in a slew of Bollywood blockbusters like ‘Singh is King’ and ‘Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye’. The Sikhs have also been incorporated in the RSS family in the form of Rashtriya Sikh Sangh where they have been reallocated their traditional role as the militant wing of Hinduism.

The use of 1984 and 2002 as moral retort – as rhetorical means of making moral equivalence, and thereby neutralizing culpability – has become mainstream in the past two years or so. The trend can be linked directly to the rise of Modi on the national political scene and the rising political stakes. In this scenario, 1984 and 2002 are no longer signs of human brutality and loss, they have become useful weapons in one’s political arsenal.

Perhaps it’s time to call out the ‘what about 1984’ type of teleological narratives. In many ways, it is the same argument that Advani made some years ago, though in reverse, when he called 2002 a mere ‘riot’ compared to the ‘organized carnage’ of 1984 without any parallel in Independent India’s history. It may be politically expedient to throwback 1984 and 2002 at the opponents to reveal their sins, but in the long run it does little to counter the kind of politics that makes anti-minority massacres at this scale even possible. The very framing of the question discloses the failure of political imagination to even speculate a future beyond two political parties. It is as if the only outcome the political arithmetic allows is a choice between the Congress and BJP.

Those arguing politics in terms of ‘what about 1984’ basically ask us to choose, and live with, the lesser evil of the two. This dispassionate gradation of human pain and suffering must be rejected even when it is made in the name of progressive politics.

Ravinder Kaur is a historian based in Copenhagen

26 thoughts on “1984 and the Spectre of Narendra Modi: Ravinder Kaur”

  1. A very good incisive analysis.
    There is a difference between communal poisoning and communal flare ups.

  2. The ..B..I..G.. difference between “1984” and (not just) 2002 is quite apparent to all right thinking people. Godhra mODI/bjp/vhp/rss are a communal entity. Communal violence is their central theme/mantra. These criminals have incited communal violence all over the country in the past,,are doing so today and will continue on a massive scale in the future if allowed to come to power. The Sikh killings were a spur of the moment reaction, under very trying circumstances given that Ms. Gandhi was killed in a horrible way) however gruesome it was. THE Sikh KILLINGS WAS A -ONE OFF- BLACK MARK FOR CONGRESS . Congress must come clean about the Sikh riots and prosecute the guilty with jail or death. That message has to be sent out. Congress will never let this happen again, I am sure and the Congress is the only force standing between these treacherous killers and a safe india for not just the country’s minorities ….but for all its citizens without exception!. SO PLEASE DO NOT EQUATE THE CONGRESS PARTY WITH THESE KILLERS. WILL THIS ENTITY CALLED THE BJP SUPPORT THE DEATH SENTENCE FOR COMMUNAL KILLERS?. WHY IS THIS EVIL GROUP EVEN ALLOWED TO BE A POLITICAL PARTY?. THE ELECTION COMMISION HAS A RESPONSIBILITY TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION.

    1. Are you trying to justify the 1984 tragedy? SO WHAT if Indira Gandhi was killed? Don’t you remember how the Godhra riots started ? It was by the burning of the Sabarmati express. Both these events were shameful. Such kinds of acts cannot be justified by any means.
      And how can you say for sure that such killings were a one off black mark for Congress? For all we know, this can be true for the BJP; there has been no such occurrence in a BJP ruled state after 2002 and instead the people of Gujarat voted Modi back to power twice after 2002. On the other hand, More riots have occurred in Congress or its allies ruled states and yet no one bothers to point the finger at them. How would you justify whats happened in Assam and Muzzafarnagar lately?

      1. Every human life is precious. No one has the right to hurt or kill their fellow human being. I made it quite clear that the Congress Party must prosecute the people behind the Sikh Riot and even execute them if the Supreme Court so decides. Where have you read about a mODI /BJP supporter saying that modi criminals should be prosecuted and executed?. These criminals do not even admit to the communal murders. In fact -THEY- claim to be SECULAR and accuse the Congress of being COMMUNAL!!. The Modi/bjp gang, like i mentioned has Communal Violence as their central theme and the fact that they are against the ANTI_COMMUNAL BILL is self explanatory. Call a spade a spade!.

      2. What is happening in the North East is insurgency backed by the Chinese. Just like the Punjab problem was the handiwork of Pakistan’s ISI. Is New Delhi supposed to sit back and ignore these critical problems?. The Muzzafarnagar Communal riots were the handiwork of the modi/bJP gang, something these criminals do just before election time. In fact mODI invited the accused in the Mussafarnagar riots to his rally as CHIEF GUESTS!. The sheer arrogance of these Psychopaths is mindboggling.

      3. Do you have anything to say about the attack on the Christian community in Mangalore-Karnataka during the BJP rule?. Innocent church goers were beaten including priests, nuns and the churches burnt….ON CHRISTMAS DAY!.

  3. Ravindar Kaur’s ‘1984 and the spectre of Narendra Modi’ is a well argued case that analyses the varied contexts of 1984 and 2002. This should be compulsory reading for tv journalists who are ignorant of political history or deliberately choose to be so. ” What about 1984″ is a classic question to skirt and shirk responsibility for state-abetted human brutality.The moot point is how do we ensure it is not repeated albeit in less tragic modes. Take the case of Khandamal where the violence was more recent and had another community traumatised and relegated to refugee status. Also the Mangalore/Karnataka church vandalism that relegated Christians to frightened second class citizenship. We focus on riots/violence where deaths are high and neglect the ones where a minority’s psyche is brutalised into submission by state abetted majoritarian hegemony. This is as much about Kashmiri Pandits as Mangalore’s Christians and Muzzarnagar’s Muslims. We just need to get Ravindar Kaul’s arguments into the current national discourse because the current media discussion is being deliberately reduced to simplistic q.e.d arguments.

  4. Sorry, but this is a rather badly-written article. You say that “in 1990s, the Congress party as well BJP shared the rhetoric…” First of all this is wrong – BJP never said anything about “Sikhs” — it commented on “Khalistanis” though. Secondly, even if we accept your argument, how did something that happened in the 1990s was responsible for the 1984 riots? Did BJP invent a time machine?

    Khalistan movement originated when the Sikhs in Lahore became afraid that they would be left without a homeland if Pakistan is created. There were contentions between the Arya Samaj and the Khalsa, and this conflict had no involvement of RSS, Bajrang Dal or any other Hindutva organization. The real problem came due to issues like the language-based reorganization, the river water dispute with Haryana and antics of Jagjit Singh Chauhan. A large number of youth became unemployed due to modernization of agricultural techniques during the Green Revolution, and unlike in other states, they could not get industrial jobs as the Indian Government did not set up heavy industries in Punjab (due to its proximity to the Pakistan border). Then Indira Gandhi propped up Bhindranwale in a bid to split the Sikh votes, the Sikh-Nirankari clashes took place, the Khalistani militants started killing moderate Sikhs and Hindus like Jagat Narain, Indira Gandhi ordered the disastrous Operation Blue Star. RSS or any other Hindutva organization had nothing to do with these events (no, the Nirankaris are not part of the Hindutva movement).

    The worst thing you can do is accuse RSS/VHP of trying to dilute the distinct Sikh identity by trying to claim the Khalsa as a panth within Hinduism. They also did that with Buddhists and Jains, but we didn’t see any Buddhist or Jain militancy. The reasons for the Sikh militancy and the anti-Sikh genocide were not related to Hindutva – they were invention of Congress and Congress alone. Trying to blame Hindutva organizations for 1984 riots or the events leading up to these riots is not only absurd but also intellectually dishonest.

    Maybe you should google this quote (by a Sikh): “RSS has played an honorable role in maintaining Hindu-Sikh unity before and after the murder of Indira Gandhi in Delhi and in other places It was the Congress (I) leaders who instigated mobs in 1984 and got more than 3000 people killed. I must give due credit to RSS and the BJP for showing courage and protecting helpless Sikhs during those difficult days. No less a person than Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself intervened at a couple of places to help poor taxi drivers.”

  5. “1984 is now categorized as the handiwork of ‘secular’ forces whereas 2002 is deemed ‘communal’ in character.” This is nonsense. There is nothing secular about the massacre of all who belong to one religious group. The SAD, the Hindu Right, and the Congress have been changing their stands as convenient. “The Sikhs have also been incorporated in the RSS family…” is a ploy which Sikhs should see for what it is. It is my conviction that the Congress has been going easy on 2002 because it gladly took the help of the RSS/BJP in 1984.

  6. Dear learned author,
    Please stop selectively interpreting events to suit your own objective. Only two lines for ur entire article –
    1. Bhinderwale was a creation of Indira to undermine the democratically elected govt of Punjab ruled by Akali Dal (non Congress Party)
    2. Why every secular/communist conveniently forget burning of 50+ Hindu in a train near Godhra while talking about 2002 riots?

    1. you missed the point of author completely. whether godhra train burning , or assassination of indira gandhi . none of these events can justify massacre of innocents. if indirectly some one justify gujrat carnage then some people might try to justify 1984 genocide. the problem will not rest here. all terrorist take the perverted reasoning and try to justify the their cruel inhuman acts on grounds of imaginary or real grievances. some people take recourse of history and talk about settling historical errors like babri masjid etc. therefore language of revenge is harmful for entire civilization. by the way alleged mastermind of godhra train burning case along with his few associates is honorably acquitted by lower court. some people are convicted. case is in higher court. let’s see what result will emerge. baneerji committee whose leaked findings are circulating (officially baneerjee committe report not declared) says that godhra incident was not a terror act but just an incident.

  7. The sikh women has lied many times in this article first of all she is a NAZI as she thinks repeating a lie 100 times will made it true. Indira gandhi was one of the most anti hindu leader with no religious background the myth of vajpaye calling her a durga is similar to gandhi saying hey ram. Both are false. Further sikhs should have allowed hindu mobs to kill them and rape them as their killers and rapist were none other than their hindu brothers.

  8. We can debate for decades around what caused the communal violence but fact of the matter is –
    • A son blamed an entire community for her mother’s death just because her killers belong to that community. That’s 1984
    • A staunch Hindu CM avenged the killing of 50+ innocent Hindus by teaching the whole community; the killers belonged to, a barbaric lesson. That’s 2002.

    And both of them were able to do it because they were in power and own the government machinery.

    I am a firm believer that if Supreme Court of India can pass a judgment that the CM and DGP of the state, SP and DC of city would immediately have to resign if any communal violence occurs there will be no such indent. This happens because the GOVERNMENTS allow it to happen.

    1. As far as I know, give or take a few inches, Narendra Modi is five feet six inches tall. Only someone who crouches or bends in front of a five foot six inches man would need to find him tall.

      1. While Modi himself may not be the tallest, he plans to have a statue constructed which will be taller than the Statue of Liberty. It is rumoured that Modi’s brain-child will have plumbing similar to that of the Manneken Pis of Brussels.

  9. What was done to bring peace in Punjab can be repeated in Kashmir. People who don’t vote here should not bother to serve sermons to the voters of this country.

  10. Well the article is factually incorrect a Hindutvawadi forces protected Sikhs and not incited the violence a is claimed.Punjab Insurgency is the sole creation of Indira Gandhi who propped up Bindhranwale against SAD and raked up their Anandpur-Sahib resolution.The reason that riots didnt spread to Mumbai because Bal Thackeray said no Sikhs are to be hurt by any person and Mumbai remained calm during the incendiary 80s where it was marred by gang violence mill strikes and communal violence. Please get the article fact checked before it is posted.These are lies plain lies and this narrative is sort of taqqiya being employed by left wingers who by far have killed more Indians in their insurgency .

  11. It was a sad time for Punjab. Not just Sikhs, all the people of Punjab suffered due to this insurgency. As rightly said, crimes of few people from a community are sins that effects the whole community. Few insurgents made whole Sikh community suffer. These political bastards reaped a lot from these differences created between Hindu community and Sikh community. I am not a supporter of this articles as it has been written by communal perspective. Why people forget that numerous Punjabis irrespective of their religion were killed at that time, shot, wounded, kidnapped, looted and burnt.
    Indira Gandhi created her own demons for what she paid in full but Punjabis are still paying the price. Punjabis forgot that they are not just Hindus and Sikhs, they all belong to same community that is being Indians. Delhi had the same situations. Few political idiots made people believe that they have to avenge their brothers and sisters killed by their own Indian brothers and sisters by killing their Indian brothers and sisters.
    This is what happened in Gujarat and again political mahamanush were the only ones to reap profits.
    And Kashmir is a whole different story, the people do not even consider themselves Indians.
    We are Indians before we are Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi, Christian or whatever religion we belong to.

  12. There is no excuse for 1984 just as there is no excuse for 2002. The contexts were different and it can be no ones case that one was different from the other. The lesson to be learnt is that it is time we identify the root cause and surgically remove it from our society.

    Mixing politics with religion is a dangerous cocktail and all persons who resort to this for short term gains should be exposed and not allowed to poison the social fabric of our country.

    Granted that this much easier said then done. And yes,it will take a long time and that is the reason why we need to start soon. Why not TODAY ?

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