Guest post by RAVLEEN KAUR
When June 1984 comes up in conversation, the same talking points invariably arise – “it was the state’s burden to attack; they had no choice”, “Bhindranwale had to be taken down”, or “Punjab was already bleeding”.
What these oft-repeated phrases – a product of the tight PR messaging campaign on the part of the government – glide over is the scope of human suffering that occurred in June 1984 – and most glaringly, suffering that was perpetrated by those in power, by those who had been elected in a democracy to uphold the rights and dignity of the people who they killed in 1984.
Anthropologist Talal Asad has noted the “notorious tactic of political power to deny a distinct unity to populations it seeks to govern, to treat them as contingent and indeterminate.”
With the belief that every Sikhs who was alive in 1984 has a story to tell, the 1984 Living History Project is depicting the unity in trauma of a people, who, in 1984, felt attacked as a people. The 1984 Living History Project is working to give a platform to ordinary people who lived through the massacres of both June and November. The project was initiated in 2012 by Sikh millennials. Realizing that the generation who experienced 1984 firsthand was getting older and that time was running out to capture their stories, they began a grassroots effort to capture as many stories and testimonies from Sikhs worldwide, one video narrative at a time. The first videos were their own parents and grandparents, recorded on smart phones and edited and shared rather seamlessly. The Project’s web platform allows easy Steps to make and share videos; something other Sikhs around the world have been doing through the 30th and 31st anniversary years of 1984.
A short montage of varied June 1984 voices, watched by nearly 40,000 viewers this week, also, is presented here:
For three decades, the voices of millions of ordinary Sikhs have been drowned out by political posturing. What crime had the women and children sleeping in the Darbar Sahib guest rooms committed to be shelled to death? What can be said to justify adolescent boys shot dead point-blank with their hands tied behind their backs with their turbans?
Let’s move away from Amritsar and take a look at the state of Punjab. Dozens of other gurudwaras – in places like Mukstar and Ludhiana and Patiala – were also attacked by the military that week. One man the Project interviewed remembers an army official taking five young men from his gurudwara to his army camp. Once he was there, he was tortured brutally. Another woman remembers visiting a gurudwara in Patiala and seeing blood and babies’ toys everywhere. These lapses in what is supposed to liberal society that upholds civil rights are often minimized by those justifying the attacks. But they will haunt witnesses for the rest of their lives.
Legal justice and political arguments aside, what was hijacked from a minority community that week was not just their sacred space , but also their narrative. Before the events of June 1984 Punjab unfolded, a media blackout was imposed. Foreign reporters were summarily kicked out of the state – including one AP reporter who was arrested months later for staying in the state*. The reverberations of that media blackout that shut out the voices of the people and the press continue to ripple across time.
Thirty-one years later, deep-rooted hegemonic silences remain in place. Personal and collective histories have been largely unaddressed by the official historical record.
But, tied to millennial Sikh spirit, this project is not about victimhood. It is about voice and resilience. It is about honoring the agency of suppressed communities to tell their stories in the face of a machinery that has silenced them.
It is very easy to suggest that “moving on” from the trauma of that massacre is as easy as erasing the topic from conversation. On the contrary, such an approach only deepens wounds that have yet to heal. The manifestations of these wounds are seen in the news articles of June 2015: flag marches in Jammu* and police marches in Amritsar, heightened alert on the anniversary of June 1984, while Sikhs are noted to have engaged in another scuffle inside Darbar Sahib, with media focus entirely on these few dozens rather than the thousands killed 31 years ago, with no mention and no remorse.
With the simple idea that the ordinary people who were killed and cremated in secrecy in 1984 left behind other ordinary people to mourn, remember, and recall, the 1984 Living History Project has gained momentum as a fora of counter-memory and collective healing.
Ravleen Kaur is Research Fellow working with the 1984 Living History Project