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A Chronicle of the "Dark Decade"
A review of Dreams After Darkness: A Search for a Life Ordinary Under the Shadow of 1984 by Manraj Grewal (Delhi: Rupa); January 2004; pp. 224.


Deccan Herald, Oct. 17, 2004

Photo: Dreams After Darkness by Manraj Grewal

How the fires of militancy in Punjab were 'ignited' and 'doused' has been brought out with a high degree of freshness in Grewal's book.

The book titled Dreams After Darkness: A search for a Life Ordinary Under the Shadow of 1984 by Manraj Grewal is about the 'people who lived militancy in Punjab.' The decade of the 1980s witnessed the peaking of the turmoil in Punjab, often perceived as the 'dark decade.' Grewal's book is a story about what she calls 'the children of the dark decade.'

The book brings out the story of ten sons of Punjab - their dreams, struggles, agonies and realisations. The story of people like Karamjit Singh Sunam, Kanwar Pal Singh, Atinder Pal Singh and Isher Singh, to mention a few, makes interesting reading. The history and developments of those times are presented innovatively and sophisticatedly by the author. Those were times when the idea of Khalistan 'seeped into the common lexicon.'

The argument here was that only a separate homeland for the Sikhs could help them to protect their religion, culture, economic rights and collective identity. An exclusive concern with these interests became the rationale and overriding objective behind the Sikh leaders' formulation of their politico-economic demands. Economically, the Sikhs have been a successful community, hence the stresses and strains of those days were primarily 'psycho-social' and 'socio-cultural.'

Various factors contributed to the deteriorating state of affairs in the seventies and eighties. These included the differences between the Congress government and the Akalis on issues like the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (passed by the Akali Dal in 1973); the question of withdrawing the case filed by the Akalis in 1978 on the river waters dispute; and the issue of linking the disputed Abohar and Fazilka to the transfer of Chandigarh.

The situation also deteriorated because it was handled as a problem of a political party, rather than as a national problem. The power struggle involving the Congress Party and the Akali Dal in the early eighties became bitter. Moreover, the civil unrest in Punjab was largely perceived and handled as a 'law-and-order problem.' Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale capitalised on these developments to project the image of 'the discriminated and victimised Sikh.'

The developments culminated with Operation Bluestar on June 5, 1984. It impacted on the very 'psyche' of the Sikh identity. Many scholars trace the origins of militancy in Punjab to Operation Bluestar. Operation Bluestar succeeded in doing what militants had failed to do.

The 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom following Indira Gandhi's assassination further distanced the Sikh community. The author rightly observes: 'Sikhs who considered themselves the protectors of India, suddenly found themselves in need of protection.' The idea of a separate state for the Sikhs caught on. The situation was also exploited by the Inter Services Intelligence [I.S.I.] of Pakistan. All these developments took place despite the fact that the Sikh community had emerged as the most affluent of all the ethnic groups in India.

The 'wonder' about the Punjab situation as the author writes is that 'like many others who had given up on Punjab, they were surprised when it slid back into the mainstream, as smoothly as it has slid out.'

How the fires were 'ignited' and 'doused' has been brought out with a high degree of freshness in Grewal's book. The anecdotes provided in the book delve into the 'psyche' of the Sikhs, their fears, mindsets, influences, strategies, perceptions and misperceptions.

Stung by the label of 'terrorists' and the Sikh 'pride' having been dented, many ordinary Sikhs sympathised with the militants. The ten chapters have brought out the reasons for Sikh militancy during the 'dark decade,' the factors and forces that had kept it afloat and the reasons for the transformation. Ultimately, however, it was the 'triumph of the people' because, after all, most of the Sikhs never wanted a separate state.