1984 & 2002: Is My Violence Better Than Yours? A Fact Check
NEW DELHI: A badly written, and slightly garbled Press Trust of India report has stated that Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar has sought to differentiate between the 1984 anti-Sikh and 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Delhi and Gujarat respectively.
Garbled as the first two paragraphs of the report read: Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar today compared the alleged onslaught on varsities with Gujarat riots alleging both of them were carried out "with support" from state machinery even as he stressed that there is a fundamental difference between "emergency" and "fascism".
Asserting that there is a difference between 2002 riots and 1984 Sikh massacre, Mr Kumar alleged that Gujarat violence was carried out through state machinery while the other was caused due to mob frenzy.”
So not reposing great trust in media coverage with the reporter covering this event clearly looking more for the headline than the substance, the very fact that several leading newspapers have unquestioningly published the news makes it mandatory, perhaps, to speak of the 1984 violence that seems to be lost to public memory at times.
The 1984 carnage began just after then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her security personnel. Rumours that Sikhs were distributing sweets were spread through the mohallas of Delhi and in no time mobs were collected to attack Sikh businesses, taxi stands, residences, with trucks and buses and trains being stopped and the Sikh passengers killed. It was three days of sheer horror, unbelievable for those of us who covered the violence day and night, as we watched Delhi erupt in targeted mob violence, with fires dotting the landscape. The city was deserted, the mobs ruled the streets, with the mission to kill any and all Sikhs they came across.
The police had disappeared. It did not exist. So had all security as taxi stands around Parliament and Lutyens Delhi were set ablaze as well by the mobs, roaming the streets with impunity. We saw a truck driver dragged out and killed in front of us. We saw bonfires in Trilokpuri with bodies being burnt. In fact as two of us approached the area in a rickety old ambassador, we saw young people running. Probably the white ambassador was seen as government. Then we saw the bonfires, and stopped to see what was being burnt. There were at least a dozen of these, with four to five bodies in each. No police, no administration.
The mobs were led by Congress leaders, with Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, HKL Bhagat ---all Delhi leaders---in the lead. The mobs---we were stopped by many to verify our credentials as journalists----were a mix of the urban poor, traders and the low middle class armed with lathis, and jars with kerosene and matches. At one point they told us they were looking out for foreign journalists who would not be allowed to move on the roads of Delhi. Houses in posh South Delhi too were not spared, with Sikh families running for their lives, as mobs broke down the doors and set the properties on fire.
Rumours were being spread rapidly, day and night, heightening tensions and inciting the mobs. Several journalists reporting the events later wrote of RSS cadres being mobilised in numbers as well. But the leadership remained with the Congress party that was in power at the time. Rumours ranged from water supply being poisoned, to a particularly vicious one claiming that the trains coming in from Punjab were carrying bodies of Hindus. This incited mobs to collect on the outskirts of Delhi, stop the trains on the tracks, go into the compartments, drag out the Sikh male passengers, burn them to death and place the bodies back in the trains. In The Telegraph at that time we were the first to report that 200 Sikhs had been killed in this manner in less than 24 hours. I was at the railway station counting the bodies.
At that time newspapers did not identify communities. But I remember the discussion that took place between Kolkata and us in Delhi on whether or not to identify the persons killed as Sikhs. I insisted it was necessary as just a ‘200 dead’ headline would feed into the rumours that had got the Sikhs killed in the first place. Finally the editors relented, and we carried the “200 Sikhs…” headline. It did douse the fires, but had the establishment media of those days up in arms against us.
The state was involved. It was party to the violence. It stood by and watched the massacres. It was not as if people were being killed in some remote area, but right in the capital of India, in South Delhi, in Lutyens Delhi, with smoke from the fires rising to the skies. Teach them a lesson, seemed to be the unspoken wisdom of the government at that time. After the violence continued for all of three days, the Army was finally given directions to move in. A semblance of peace returned, with the terrified Sikhs coming out of their homes, wailing for the hundreds who had been killed.
And what confirmed this, was a speech made by the new Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi at the Boat Club lawns, where he justified the violence by saying that when a big banyan tree falls, the earth is bound to shake a little. At that time security was not what it is today, and we reporters were allowed near the dais. Hearing him we could not believe our ears, and had to physically restrain each other from shouting our protest.
The 2002 violence in Gujarat was equally horrific. This time the target were the Muslims, the violence sustained and deliberate, the trauma acute, the scars and wounds still raw. The same rumours, the same mobs, this time hunting down Muslims. The police had disappeared, as had the administration. There was no government for days as the mobs searched and killed Muslims with impunity. The difference was that this time a large number of women were attacked and killed as well, brutally without mercy.
As in Delhi, so in Gujarat, the perpetrators of the violence remain free. The comparisons are many, the differences minimal and few.
There is no justification for either. The argument that ‘my violence is better than yours’ is pathological, to use a mild term. The victims need justice, that has been elusive for all. The state was involved in both, as was the administration, as was the police. And instead of seeking to absolve themselves of the one, while pointing fingers at the other, the BJP and the Congress should take strong, decisive action to bring justice to the victims, and to the memories of the hundreds killed by their own people to feed into naked political ambitions.