'First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out…

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out…

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out…

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me…

and there was no one left to speak for me…'

The world has come a long way ever since German theologian and Lutheran pastor Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller shared this powerful verse. The persecution and targeting continues, but so do the efforts to combat it.

How would one take Niemoller’s strong message to the readers in an Indian context? An attempt in this direction has been made by Canada-based journalist of Indian origin Gurpreet Singh in his book ‘1984 - When they came for the Sikhs’.

Although the writer says that the work is essentially targeted at an audience of children, particularly adolescents, the content is quite serious. Even adults looking to refresh their knowledge of contemporary India in the last four decades, and how things have indeed gone from bad to worse for the minorities and the marginalised, are likely to read this book cover to cover.

The events have been described in simple language but the content remains ‘heavy’. Each page of the book has the text in two languages English and Punjabi, along with some hard hitting illustrations and photographs that rattle the conscience of the reader.

The Punjabi translation has been done by Punjab-based translator Boota Singh, while the illustrations have been drawn by British Columbia based painter Jarnail Singh.

The book begins with the harrowing developments of Operation Bluestar, carried out by the Indian Army in the Golden Temple complex in Punjab. It then talks about the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, by her two Sikh bodyguards and the anti-Sikh pogrom that followed in Delhi and elsewhere. The pogromwas marked by inhuman killings, rapes and loss to property along with denial of justice.

Talking about Operation Bluestar, the book says that, “All other alternatives to make the militants surrender through negotiation, a siege, or cutting off the water and power supplies were avoided to make it appear like a spectacular victory over one group of people.”

Niemoller’s relevance to the events of that time can be gauged from the lines in the book in context of the anti Sikh pogrom where the writer conveys, “However, the privileged majority remained indifferent to such blatant repression. Even the so-called liberals looked away and considered and still see Congress as a sacred cow.

“They very conveniently overlooked the grievances of the Sikhs. Rather than standing up for an aggrieved minority or doing anything meaningful to assuage their hurt, these liberals were carried away by the one –sided propaganda of the Congress party.”

The writer says that it has been well documented that the supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also relished the sufferings of the Sikhs.

But it is not just about the events of 1984. The book moves further to draw parallels between the pattern of 1984 and the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, that had followed the burning of S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express in Godhra in which 58 Karsevaks were charred to death.

“The pattern of violence was similar to the one observed in 1984,” the book mentions. It also explains the politics of religious polarisation, and the political dividends that are sought after by those who participate in such politics.

The book then goes on to talk about the anti-Christian massacre of 2008 in the eastern state of Orissa (now Odisha), and the campaign of the majoritarian right wing elements on religious conversions while mentioning that India’s traditional secular conventions allowed people to change their religion.

The book very clearly states, “The fact remains that most poor and marginalised sections of India, especially Dalits (so called untouchables) and Adivasis (indigenous people), often become Christians by choice to avoid caste-based persecution within the Hindu society.”

Talking to this reporter the author said, “What inspired me to write this book was a visit to Germany in 2018 when I visited Niemoller’s house and studied his life. It was interesting to note how from initially being a supporter of the Nazis he had opposed them for Nazification of the Church and had later become a champion of human rights. I had written an essay on my return on what I felt and the relevance of Niemoller in present times.”

He mentions in the book itself, “Back in Berlin, I was wondering where Indian society has gone since 1984. In the German capital, we could hardly see any residue of Nazi era being celebrated, whereas India has gone backward in spite of tall claims about diversity. The Nazis actually have become mainstream in India and live among its citizens.”

It mentions how the right wing glorified Adolf Hitler and justified the Holocaust. It goes on to mention, “Had others stood up for the Sikhs in 1984, the fate of contemporary India would have been different. I really wish Niemoller was alive to see this and relate it with his own experience and guide us all.”

The writer mentions how Muslims and Christians continue to be targeted, while Sikhs face a challenge of being assimilated into Hindu body politic. It goes on to say that Dalits and Adivasis stand all the more vulnerable in a ‘Hinduised’ India.

The last line of the book’s text sums it up, “It’s time to learn something from the legacy of Niemoller. If there is any take away from that, it is the lesson of uniting and fighting back for everyone and not leaving others in harm’s way before it is too late.”

When asked why he has tried to reach out to the audience of children with such a serious subject, Singh said, “The new generation has to know every story. They need to know how things have changed over the last 40 years. There is a lot of symbolism in this book as well. The voices of sanity continue to suffer.”

Giving the example of intellectual and activist Gautam Navlakha, he said, “He was the one who had written the book ‘Who are the Guilty?’ on the developments of 1984 and he has been imprisoned under the present regime. The voice of reason has been targeted over the years. There has to be a platform to raise these issues.”

The book was released on January 13, on the eve of Niemoller’s birth anniversary. Incidentally, 1984 was the year in which Niemoller had passed away at the age of 92 years.

Title: 1984-When They Came for The Sikhs'

Author: Gurpreet Singh

Publisher: Radical Desi Publications Ltd. Canada

Price Rs 100