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Indelible memories

Print edition : Sep 09, 2005

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It is easy for a nation to forget the violence that it committed on its minority groups and move on, but for the victims the trauma never ends.

ANNIE ZAIDI AMAN SETHI in New Delhi

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against oblivion.

- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

IN his book, the Czech writer speaks of the compulsive individual need to keep intact personal narratives that the state tears apart by violence, undermines by erasure, and unravels by substituting personal testimonies with official documents. The Nanavati Commission report - the 10th and final report on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 - has deftly picked up the threads of a distraught community and woven them into a narrative palatable to the state and the powers that be. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, for its part, presented an Action Taken Report (ATR) expressing its concern regarding the conduct of police officers and politicians, but refrained from bringing the guilty to book.

How do state-sponsored cover-ups affect communities? How does a failure to acknowledge violence affect its victims? Why do some incidents become "chapters that refuse to close"?

The riots of 1984 illustrate how an incident is taken from the public realm of shared experience and transformed into an official event. Often the two have little bearing on each other. In the former case, the riots are described in terms of horror, trauma, grief, loss and anguish. They are first person experiences of the movement of fear, hate and violence through a city. The official event is an archival collection of first information reports (FIRs), official transcripts and reports prepared by retired Judges. The main point of divergence occurs when the FIRs are filed.

"I saw the police helping the rioters in Trilokpuri," says Trilok Singh, a riot survivor from Tilak Vihar. "Where was I supposed to file my report? Since then they have never come back for the truth." Most riot survivors interviewed by Frontline had similar stories to tell. The police's complicity in the rioting and their refusal to file FIRs have been recorded in several reports published at the time, including reports such as "Who are the Guilty" published by the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), and press reports by journalists such as Rahul Bedi and Joseph Maliakan.

The complicity of the police was crucial to the construction of an official discourse. The police played a vital role in the cover-up by refusing to record many testimonies. By refusing even to examine affidavits filed on the basis of personal testimonies and eyewitness accounts, the state delegitimised the Sikh voice - deeming it unreliable and unimportant. By refusing to act against errant police personnel on the grounds that they have retired, the state indicated that it was ready to condone violence, provided that it was directed against an appropriate community at an appropriate time.

Retirement is a poor excuse for inaction, according to Jaskaran Kaur, executive director of ENSAAF, an organisation that investigates human rights violations and has published an exhaustive report on the 1984 riots, "20 Years of Impunity". She said: "It [the government] is limiting itself to prosecutions based on dereliction of duty. I don't see how one's retirement will influence whether he is charged with conspiracy to commit murder, or murder itself. That has nothing to do with your tenure in office."

TILAK VIHAR provides one of the strongest testimonies of the riots. Termed the "colony of widows", it is where riot victims from Trilokpuri, Mangolpuri, Sultanpuri and other areas inhabited by the Sikh community were relocated. The survivors of 1984 stay along one main street in the colony, an urban ghetto bound tight by grief. Family after family speaks of sons, fathers and relatives lost to a raging mob.

In interviews with Frontline, several young men provided graphic descriptions of the attacks, which have been transmitted from one generation to another. The riot has now acquired the characteristics of an epic with stories of martyrs, stoic survivors and miraculous escapes.

The riot also exists in the form of the daily violence perpetrated in the form of single mothers struggling to raise entire families. What is particularly disturbing in Tilak Vihar is the sense of resignation among its residents. The second generation of residents has grown up in a neighbourhood plagued by unemployment and insecurity. This has resulted in a complete alienation of the Sikh community. Children prefer to stay away from school because their parents cannot afford uniforms, books and so on. Older boys allege that classmates at school intimidate and humiliate them. The absence of a certified education has made it very difficult for young Sikhs to find work, resulting in frustration and an alarmingly high rate of substance abuse.

While no formal survey has been carried out in the area, residents acknowledge that drug abuse is a common phenomenon among youth in Tilak Vihar. Chamni Kaur, for instance, points to her own son. "We've been trying to get the authorities to take note, but the police are not moving a finger. I've caught them dealing, red-handed. At least 50 young men have died or killed themselves owing to addiction. My son slashes himself with razor blades. It is like we're being killed a second time."

Dr. Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist who worked with victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, explained that substance abuse was common in the aftermath of riots in at least three out of every 10 victims. He said: "In violent situations, the biggest issue for survivors is the existential crisis. They lose their personal value system." He explained that children grow up with behavioural problems, strained inter-personal relationships and a tendency towards substance abuse. Such addiction should not be treated like an illness, according to Dr. Shetty. "It must be seen as a symptom of alienation and treated as such."

At present, there is no formal de-addiction programme in Tilak Vihar. The Deen Dayal Hospital nearby used to have a programme, but it was shifted to Ghaziabad.

Dr. Shetty added that the only way to heal victims and to prevent alienation and ghettoisation was to ensure intensive cultural intermingling. But he agreed that there will be no closure for the community unless justice is done.

BY their very nature, events like the 1984 riots defy "closure". It is hard for the state to compensate the victims for all they have lost. This is especially true in cases where the state had a definite role to play in the perpetration of riots. Why the community expected the Nanavati Commission report to be different from its predecessors is unclear. Given that it comes 21 years after the event, it would be hard for the commission to throw any new light on the incident.

As matters stand, perhaps it is not so important to set up another commission of inquiry as to simply act on the basis of the testimonies already available. H.S. Phoolka, a Supreme Court advocate who has been fighting to bring the guilty to book, said: "While I would prefer not to comment on the adequacy of the report at this stage, let the government just implement its recommendations. That is the very least it can do."

The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Commitee (DSGMC), the supreme arbitrator of the community's affairs in Delhi, has evolved a formula for "justice" that seeks compensation as a means of redress. "We realise that prosecuting Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar will not bring back the dead," says S. Paramjit Singh Sarna, president of the DSGMC. "But, the Sikh community needs closure. Accordingly, we have come up with a list of demands." The riot victims' association affiliated to Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj, Tilak Vihar, too has put forward a set of demands.

Sikh organisations are united in their demand that Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and all the accused named in the various inquiry commissions reports are stripped of their official positions and privileges and tried like ordinary citizens. The government must ensure that all victims are adequately compensated for their losses, and pending payments for government-allotted houses are waived. The Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj association has demanded that Rs.25 lakhs be given as compensation to the next of kin of those killed in the riots. The community has called for the creation of quality educational institutions for its children and demanded that those orphaned by the riots be given government jobs. Babu Singh Dukhiya, who heads the Shaheed Ganj association, said that the government had assured it that the list of demands would be taken into consideration.

Much has been written and said about the politics of forgiving and forgetting. It can be argued that the only way to break the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence is to move beyond the memory of that violence. Unfortunately, while it is easy for a nation to forget the violence that it committed on its minority groups and move on, for the victims the violence never ends. Sarna from the DSGMC warns that injustice is a fertile breeding ground for terrorism. The only way to close chapters truly is to ensure that justice is served, and visibly so.

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