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1984: A Sikh Story


The Sikh Times, January 17, 2010

Photo: Sonia Deol

I just finished watching the new B.B.C. documentary '1984: A Sikh Story,' presented by Sonia Deol. The film has attracted a ton of criticism, causing Deol to delete her Facebook page.

My own reaction to the film is quite positive. Sonia Deol was a good choice for a narrator. She is reasonably adept at straddling the Western and Eastern ends of her cultural influences.

The film presents new material and perspectives, not just a recycling of old footage. For example, I appreciate Deol's effort to visit Damdami Taksal. This is the place where Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale rose to fame and notoriety prior to moving into the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, Punjab. I visited the Damdami Taksal in 2006. At the entrance to the complex, I was told that I could not enter until I took off my taqiyah (Turkish cap) and covered my head with a patka (square piece of cloth) instead. That is when I realized how much more conservative this place is relative to the average gurdwara in India or abroad.

The historical background is presented by the film in a fairly balanced manner. Also, one has to appreciate that the documentary got access to some pretty hard to reach people. You can't get much more authoritative perspectives than those of Mark Tully, Major General Kuldip Singh Brar, Senior Advocate Harvinder Singh Phoolka, and Indarjit Singh.

I have personal experience of the difficulty in reaching these folks, especially the ones who are targets of assassination due their roles (either for and against) in the movement for Sikh autonomy (mid-1980s to mid-1990s). For example, in 2006 I tried by level best to reach K.P.S. Gill for an on-camera interview. He almost agreed but at the last minute his need for caution got the better of him. I would surely have settled for an interview with General Brar. I waited inside Phoolka's office for an hour or so before giving up on an interview with him. I did, however, record on-camera interviews with many others including Virsa Singh, Ralph Singh, Mary Fischer (all of the Gobind Sadan Sikh sect), Gurtej Singh Brar (formerly IAS), Patwant Singh, Ranjit Singh Gill alias Kukki (accused in the assassination of Lalit Maken in revenge for the 1984 Sikh massacres in Delhi). Of all these encounters I will write another time.

As with any work, there are a few gaps one can pick on. For instance, the reason provided for why the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar is 'so holy' -- because it houses the Guru Granth. At best, an incomplete and naive answer. As any informed Sikh knows, the presence of the Guru Granth doesn't make the Golden Temple any holier than any other gurdwara. The Golden Temple is revered for its historical significance, architectural beauty, and political connotations.

It is also irresponsible to state that Bhindranwale was shot and killed while he 'ran from the front of the [Akal Takht].' It is clear that Bhindranwale's dead body left the Golden Temple complex after Operation Blue Star. But the precise circumstances of Bhindranwale's death have never been established.

I continue to be irked by the use of the term 'rioting' to describe the genocidal massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere after the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards who were avenging the army's assault on the Golden Temple a few months earlier.

However, some of the critique from other quarters has been plain silly. Examples include Dr. Sadhu Singh, chairman of the Council of Sikh Temples in the U.K., complaining about the portrayal of Bhindranwale because he was 'looking like Bin Laden' or about Deol shown 'dancing with Hindus' celebrating Diwali.

I completely fail to understand the uproar. Overall, this is a moving account and I am grateful to the B.B.C. and Sonia Deol for the undertaking.