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Targeting a Community
A review of The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of 1984 by Jyoti Grewal (New Delhi: Penguin; 2007; pp. 224; Rs. 275).


Business Standard, Jan. 8, 2008

Photo: 1984 Sikh massacres

Jyoti Grewal has written this book with passion. This is understandable. The author, along with her sister and parents, was a victim of the attack against the Sikhs in 1984, although she has played down this fact in the book and there is no formal disclosure in the book barring a casual hint in the acknowledgements. She was not physically harmed. Her family too was relatively safe, as they lived in an upper middle-class residential colony for senior government officers in New Delhi.

But the trauma of being a Sikh in those three days after the assassination of Indira Gandhi was no less devastating than that of the surviving relatives of the 3,000 Sikhs (the largest number of them were in Delhi - the death toll, for the record, is bigger than the total number of lives lost in the Gujarat riots in 2002) who were killed by frenzied mobs. A few of her neighbours (who like her father were senior government officials) refused to give them shelter, which they sought as they feared that Sikh houses were being targeted and even government housing colonies were not being spared.

For those who were not present in Delhi in 1984, in particular, the book captures this trauma rather well. What happened in Delhi and in different parts of the country during those three days of November 1984 is something that no civilised society can condone. The highlight of the book is Grewal's detailed account of what happened to the victims, based on the interviews she had conducted with victims and witnesses of the Sikh killings.

The book carries only seven of those interviews ('the heart of the book,' according to the author), but these are adequate to establish her central thesis that the killings were nothing else than a pogrom against the Sikhs, endorsed by the state. She successfully debunks the belief that the attack against the Sikhs was a spontaneous reaction of people to Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards and to reported, but unsubstantiated, instances of some Sikhs celebrating the killing of Indira Gandhi.

Other assassinations in the country (Mahatma Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi) did not witness such a reaction against the community to which the killer belonged. So, it would be naive to argue that Indira Gandhi's killing by her two Sikh bodyguards would provoke such a reaction, she says, though with little conviction. In support of her contention that the Sikh killings were nothing else than a pogrom, she cites the oft-quoted statement of Rajiv Gandhi about the earth shaking when a large tree is uprooted.

Her fingers are squarely pointed at Congress leaders at that time, who through their inaction let the killings continue for three days. She accuses Rajiv Gandhi of having betrayed moral indifference to the killings by quoting Gandhi in an interview published in The Hindu. Even Manmohan Singh has not been spared. His statement of apology to the nation does not meet with the author's approval as she says a mere apology is not enough. Justice must be seen to have been done.

As for what prompted the killings, if they were not the outcome of a spontaneous reaction, Grewal cites political developments in the early 1980s and the strained relations between the Congress and the Akali Party in Punjab. She has tried to establish a causal connection between the Congress' failed attempt at political containment of the Sikhs (the Congress strategy to use Bhindranwale to destabilise the Akalis and later finding Bhindranwale too difficult to manage, which eventually led to Operation Bluestar) and the killing of Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination.

In the process, Grewal makes a valiant attempt to go beyond recapturing all that went wrong in those three days by trying to place the Sikh killings in a political context and speculate on whether the alienation of Sikhs in India will give rise to another crisis. It is here that the book runs into problems. A book written with passion can often suffer from sweeping generalisations without adequate data or empirical evidence.

Thus, her prognosis that the Sikh problem may resurface again remains as flawed and unsubstantiated as her passionate assertions on how the Anandpur Sahib resolution of the Sikhs was not a secessionist document. The book scores as a historical account of how innocent Sikhs were killed and the state machinery looked the other way. But it fails in producing a well-reasoned analysis of why she thinks how the Sikh situation might go out of control again.