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India: The Broken Middle

by Dilip Simeon, 1 November 2014

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The violent events of 1984 signify the breakdown of consensual politics and the ideal of composite Indian nationhood. When communal animosity spreads across society, it corrodes the social conscience and (directly or subliminally) produces a genocidal consensus. In the aftermath of 1984 we also witnessed the decay of a reliable criminal justice system, the effects of which are still unfolding. It is time for us to see beyond parties, and pay attention to the functions of communal ideology. The reality today is that extremism is a mainstream phenomenon.

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The Broken Middle
Dilip Simeon

If justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning – Immanuel Kant

Once crime was as solitary as a cry of protest; now it is as universal as science. Yesterday it was put on trial; today it determines the law - Albert Camus

The year 1984 remains India’s Orwellian year par excellence. Why? Because it is the defining moment at which the language of public life became loaded with the requirement of deceit. The gap between official and political utterances and the evidence of our eyes and ears became an unbridgeable chasm; and even the thin pretension that state institutions and the Government of India existed to uphold the law of the land and the security of citizens was dropped into a furnace and evaporated into thin air. There is nothing more terrifying than the sensation that truth itself has ceased to exist, that silence is all that is left to us because no one is listening, or none may be trusted. That was what I, and many of my friends and fellow citizens, felt in those three days in late 1984 – and indeed in the months and years that followed.

The violent events that swept through New Delhi and other urban centres in 1984 were a state-enabled, politically sponsored, communally-inspired carnage of Sikh citizens because they belonged to the same community as the assassins of the prime minister. State power rested with the Congress party. Most of the killers were ordinary people who, egged on by senior Delhi Congressmen and their local henchmen, believed in the primitive idea of collective guilt (i e, that all members of a community carry responsibility for the crimes committed by some amongst them). Very likely they also believed that they would neither be stopped, nor face trial for their deeds. Indeed, many rioters believed that they were engaged in patriotic activity, that mass murder was something that their political leaders and patrons actively desired. Moreover, many people with no political connections spoke in terms of Sikhs needing to be taught a lesson, etc.

In effect, we were in an atmosphere of genocidal consensus. I do not mean that everyone had become a potential murderer, but that a large section of the population that did not directly attack Sikhs nevertheless condoned such attacks or remained indifferent to the takeover of the streets by hooligans. Communal violence has been a constant feature of Indian politics since the 1920s, but a state-enabled communal massacre in independent India’s capital, under the aegis of the emblematic party of Indian nationalism was unprecedented.

Precisely because of this, 1984 is the year of the broken middle. Mob violence on a mass scale entered mainstream political culture. No longer could it be claimed that the politics of revenge emanated from the margins of the polity. It was the middle ground that was now shattered, giving fresh impetus to communal concepts of nationalism. The year 1984 set a new standard for the normalisation of brutality and lawlessness in the Indian polity. It undermined faith in the Constitution and gave strength to criminal elements in political parties and society at large. It strengthened communal bias within the bureaucracy and police, and generated widespread cynicism.

Having allowed the violence to rage for several days, the commanders of state institutions decided to stop the bloodletting. After that, a tidal wave of frightening words swept through society. Contemporary speech could broadly be divided into two kinds – blatant justification, as in “they deserved it” (which had the merit of frankness); and varieties of escapism and/or self-exoneration, as in “Sikhs distributed sweets after the assassination”, “in any family sometimes the elder brother has to slap the younger brother”, “Congress workers are responsible, not us”, “after all, they killed the prime minister, it was an outpouring of patriotic grief”, “when a great tree is uprooted, the ground is bound to shake”, etc. The year 1984 prompted our opinion-makers and ideologues to indulge in a gigantic cover-up operation that was simultaneously an exercise in self-delusion. Partisan buck-passing was raised to the level of an art form. Who has not heard it said that the RSS/BJP cannot be condemned for the Gujaratcarnage of 2002, because, after all, the Congress also engineered carnage in 1984? This argument acts like an opiate for some of us. Everybody is guilty, ergo nobody is. One massacre deserves another.

In 1984, one saw official bias at work precisely when the neutral authority of the state was most needed. Violent mobs were shouting communal slogans, desecrating gurdwaras and burning Sikh passers-by in the streets to assert communal superiority. And many residents of Delhi were enjoying the spectacle. Yet in the midst of all this, what we got was a passive Home Minister Narasimha Rao, delayed summoning of sufficient armed force, biased utterances and abetment of crimes by policemen on duty, non-registration of FIRs, doctoring of evidence, deceitful behaviour of public prosecutors, irresponsible behaviour by mass media sometimes amounting to instigation of violence, blatant judicial whitewash, punishment transfers of responsible functionaries, and collusion amongst bureaucrats, police and political executives to the point of granting one another impunity for criminal negligence or worse.[1] Instances of gang-rape are still being covered up. 

Most of these features were visible in Gujarat in 2002, including the shameless speed with which political gain (calling elections in a communally charged environment) was extracted from the revengeful climate. Advertisements issued by the Congress Party during the 1984 Lok Sabha elections appealed to such sentiments by representing India’s border shrinking inwards. These factors point towards criminal complicity at the highest level of state institutions. Such complicity cannot work unless large numbers of responsible officials are biased, and, moreover, unless they believe that the public at large is cynical or equally complicit.

In January 1985, newly elected Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi entered a joint session of Parliament accompanied by President Zail Singh and H K L Bhagat, a man whose constituency was the venue of some of the worst violence (The Times of India, 1996). A resolution was adopted condoling Indira Gandhi’s death. Rajiv made a mild statement of sympathy, but no one saw it fit to condole the deaths of thousands of Indians cruelly murdered for no fault of theirs. Twenty-one years later, on 11 August 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared in the Rajya Sabha that 1984 was “a great national shame, a great national tragedy”, and that he had “no hesitation in apologising not only to the Sikh community but the whole Indian nation”. He denied that the Congress leadership was complicit in the violence, whilst admitting that certain leaders had been implicated by the Nanawati Commission. Jagdish Tytler was obliged to leave the ministry, and Sajjan Kumar his local government post.

The most enigmatic question that 1984 confronts us with is why and how the larger world can without warning, drag innocent people into a hell of agony and despair. At such moments, not just state institutions but the very universe reeks of injustice. In such situations, even a simple acknowledgement of our suffering can help ease the pain. But our tallest political leaders were incapable of this – in fact their utterances and behaviour rubbed salt into the wounds of the bereaved. Whatever this says about Indian policing, it says more about the incoherence of India’s conscience, even though some judges use phrases like “collective conscience of the society”.[2]Who are we, after all? What does it mean to be a nation? The year 1984 threw these questions in our faces yet once more. Other than the assumption that might is right, no answer is as yet forthcoming.

Wool over our eyes
What is meant by the phrase ‘requirement of deceit”? It is quite simple.

It is misleading to say that the actions of the Government of India are always grounded in law, when the police cannot be trusted to cognise terrible crimes transpiring in front of their eyes. To pretend otherwise is deceitful.

It is misleading to say that India’s criminal justice system can be trusted to uphold the Constitution, if the utterances of even a single judge carry the odour of communal bias. To pretend otherwise is deceitful.

It is false to say that public prosecution is being conducted in the interest of justice and public order, when the Public Prosecutors seek to protect wrongdoers. To pretend otherwise is deceitful.

It is misleading to claim that political parties represent the interests of all Indians, when, in fact, we can see them working for sectional interests and/or promoting communal divisiveness. To pretend otherwise is deceitful.

It is false to claim that J S Bhindranwale was merely a religious preacher who was persecuted by the Indian state on account of his campaign to cleanse Sikhism and fight for justice. Such claims seek to wipe away the memory of his involvement in violent crime, contempt for moderation, instigation of hatred, desecration of the Golden Templeand pretension to speak for the entire Sikh community. To pretend otherwise is deceitful.

It is misleading to frame the question of responsibility in purely partisan language, such as “Congress killed Sikhs”. Senior Congressmen were the prime movers of the carnage, but it is not enough to say this. Such a frame glosses over the intense and palpable communal hatred intrinsic to the violence of 1984. It disguises the fact that the killers saw themselves as patriots teaching a lesson to “anti-national Sikhs”. It overlooks the surcharged communal atmosphere in north India in the early 1980s, an atmosphere that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cynically manipulated from time to time. It does not explain why many people with no sympathy for the Congress applauded the violence as just retribution meted out to an entire community. It cannot explain why Sajjan Kumar, still under trail for his acts in 1984, received the maximum number of votes in India in the 2004 elections.[3] In 1984, the Congress transformed itself into a vehicle for communal ideology and violence. But ideology has origins over and beyond organisations. The ideological feature is as important to remember as the organisational one. To pretend otherwise is deceitful.

The partisan approach also diverts our attention from the acceptability of controlled mobs, private armies, vigilante groups and political assassination. Private armies have thrived in India since before 1947. In November 1947, the All India Congress Committee (AICC), which included Patel and Nehru, passed a resolution naming “the Muslim National Guards, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Akali Volunteers and such other organizations” as “an endeavour to bring into being private armies”, calling them “a menace to the hard-won freedom of the country”.[4] However, the Indian polity has been unable to control vigilantism, which operates across a broad political spectrum.[5] Indeed, the seamless links between private armies and so-called “mainstream” parties indicate that the ruling elites do not wish to, or cannot do away with them. Sometimes these formations acquire an autonomous or semi-autonomous existence. An examination of the political, human and financial resources of the insurgent groups of the North-East, the Khalistani armed factions of the 1980s, Islamist lashkars and mujahidin, and numerous caste-based vigilante groups can reveal these links. The Shiv Sena named itself an army and repeatedly engaged in hooliganism against ethnic minorities in Mumbai. Its leader hailed the terrorist expertise of the Tamil Tigers, aside from his numerous speech-acts of violent incitement (The Times of India 2003). Yet it remains a pillar of the establishment in Maharashtra.

Privatised violence is the elephant in India’s drawing room. It is the clue to the phenomenon of mainstream extremism. Indian governments tend to depict “left-wing extremism” as India’s biggest security threat, whilst simultaneously sheltering armed formations such as the Salwa Judum and Ranvir Sena, and permitting RSS-affiliated paramilitaries and fronts such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal, along with fanatical Islamist ulama, to freely indulge in hate speech and hooliganism. The Maoist armed groups are just one among many private armies, and they too have links with vested interests. To pretend that networks of vigilantes can operate for decades without some level of support from bourgeois civil society is to deceive ourselves.

Thus the phrase “requirement of deceit” implies that large sections of society, across all communities and beyond the elites, need a diet of lies sustain themselves, to disguise their complicity in mass crime, to convince themselves of their own virtue, or to enable daily life to transpire as if nothing dire had ever happened. This requirement also arises from the widespread human tendency to highlight things that buttress our arguments, and forget the things that make us uneasy. We wish good and evil to be clearly demarcated, but unfortunately they often come in mixtures. This is another reason for the generation of necessary illusion.

Recollections of 1984 are a means of preserving the lived experience of those events. Two important documents are the citizen’s report entitled Who are the Guilty? (Mukhoty and Kothari 1984), and Delhi Riots: Three days in the life of a Nation (Chakravarti and Haksar 1987), a collection of first-person accounts. Mitta and Phoolka’s book on the carnage appeared in 2007. Pritam Singh’s (2010) work on human rights includes a history of events prior to June 1984. All of these deserve a close reading.

I will place here some of my own memories...

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[1] These aspects are described in detail in three texts – Mukhoty and Kothari (1984), Chakravarti and Haksar (1987) and Mitta and Phoolka (2007).
[2] From the Supreme Court judgement awarding the death sentence to Afzal Guru, dated 4 August 2005. 
[3] Sajjan Kumar won with over eight and a half lakh votes (Mitta and Phoolka 2007: 73).

[4] Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 90, p 541, Gandhi Heritage Portal
[5] My argument about the political implications of India’s private armies may be read in A HardRain Falling: on the death of TP Chandrasekharan and related matters (EPW, June 2012)” (Simeon 2012).

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