Pav Singh, 1984: India’s Guilty Secret.
(New Delhi: Rupa, 2017), 295 pages, INR 395.
This is the fallout of the assassination of the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, explored boldly and in gory detail. So much so that Pav Singh apologises to the reader beforehand for what he is about to expose before them. Over 8,000 Sikhs were killed during those fateful three days in November 1984 and much of the information was suppressed. One did get to see movies like Ammu, but for the most part it remained under wraps. One should not comment that the present scenario has allowed the Sikh pogroms to come out into the open, but that conclusion is inevitable. There is no longer any need for secrecy and various vital documents have been declassified allowing researchers easy access to interviews.
The leader of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, used the phrase maut ka saudagar (merchant of death) that echoes again and again in the mind as one turns the pages of this book. In the aftermath of the riots and the massacres there was no media to speak up against the successor prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and the government which stood back and allowed events to take their course, citing grief as the main reason.
Pav Singh’s main contention in the book is that the Congress would have taken its revenge on the Sikhs even without the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That the pogrom was planned as payback to the demand for Khalistan and the Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s activities that spread to the heart of Punjab. One could argue that the Congress Party is currently in power in Punjab, despite the efforts of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Akali Dal, something which proves that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is willing to let bygones be bygones. Singh, however, contends that the Congress used the word “riot” to wash their hands of any complicity in the massacres, rather like what followed in Gujarat after Godhra—though no one has thrown that comparison at the Gandhis.
Pav Singh, the son of immigrants to the United Kingdom, spent quite a bit of time mulling over the events and this book, designed for an international audience, is the result. A lot of space has been given to explaining why the riots should have been called a pogrom, backed up with hundreds of interviews pieced together and examples taken from the Nazi camps of the Second World War. He also uses quotes from the speeches of the former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who at one point stated that the government had failed the Sikhs and that the events of 1984 were in negation of the Indian Constitution.
The author points out Western governments, with lucrative trade deals on their scanners, turned a blind eye to what was happening in Delhi. The result is that the magnitude of the tragedy is still unknown outside India and that massive cover-up is reflected in the title of the book. Singh points out that 147 police officers were indicted for their part in the killings but not one of them has yet been convicted, though the Supreme Court has recently asked for a reinvestigation of the charges.
The book has its flaws—some of the chapters are not well paced and occasionally, with memories of his family’s experiences in 1984, Singh allows his feelings to override his journalistic detachment. Perhaps, too, he does not manage to prove his point that the massacre was a long-planned conspiracy—which becomes difficult to establish in the face of the post-1984 support of the Sikhs shown by the Congress. He is, however, brutal and direct and does not beat about the bush. India has mauled its minorities time and again and something needs to be done to stem the flow so that such incidents do not recur. Though whether a cynical world can be induced to sever trade relations remains to be seen.