Moving Past the Event of 1984

Guest blogged byNavdeep Singh Dhillon

The reformist, humanitarian wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt (32nd President of the United States) and first lady of the world Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.

Over the past few years, I have become quite disheartened over the state of the discussion of 1984, based on conversations Ive had with seemingly well-educated people and what Ive seen in the media. The record seems to be stuck on events and has barely moved an inch into the arena of ideas.

A few months ago, an entire issue of India Abroad was devoted to 1984 and I was initially interested to read it. But after reading just a few paragraphs, I realized it was the same ole, same ole: a recap of the events by people who were narrating their experiences during 1984 and shortly thereafter. The experiences themselves were very vividly told, but the articles didnt seem to have any real purpose, other than to keep the conversation within 1984.

It is obviously extremely important to know the facts, the history, the events that took place, the backdrop, and of course the people involved. But there should be a now what? aspect put into place that involves something more than mentioning the names of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, rehashing the timeline, the people involved, holding a few film screenings and handing out fliers. Shouldnt there?


This image, in my estimation, sends a strong, yet disturbing universal message of the shared pain of every human being, regardless of religion, class, or skin colour; it is of a victim from the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which took place in December of 1984

Weve all heard, in some capacity, about the two major events that shook India in 1984: Operation Bluestar in June (allegedly named after an air-conditioning company), and the assassination of Indira Gandhi, which allegedly triggered the and the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi from October 31st to November 2nd. But what about the third event The Bhopal Gas Tragedy which didnt affect the Sikhs directly? Are there really no connections to be made?

The present-day aftermath of Operation Bluestar and the Delhi pogroms have largely gone unnoticed by filmmakers, writers, and activists. People have written and made documentaries on the widow colony in Delhi, for example, in the context of the 1984 Delhi pogroms. But what is not as widely publicized, what has not warranted a documentary or any incisive articles in mainstream publications are the children of these widows, children who are all grown up now. Some have escaped the slum, but most have largely turned to drugs, alcohol, or prostitution. The colony has become such a notoriously dangerous area that even rickshaw drivers wont venture to this region because of its reputation.

The children of these 1984 widows are just one part of the legacy the event has left in its wake. In an incredibly bold act, the human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra attempted to seek justice for the parents and siblings of the disappeared by making public to the entire world a list of identified bodies illegally cremated by the Punjab police in districts of Amritsar, Majitha, and Tarn Taran between June 1984 to December 1994. In 1995, Khalra himself disappeared during the watch of K.P.S. Gill. And with his death, discussion of the illegal cremations ended. This legacy all the people who continue to be victims of that years events must be remembered. Not only the people who died, but those who live. Because history repeats itself.

Days after September 11, 2001, the death of Arizona-resident Balbir Singh Sodhi sent shockwaves throughout the country. But for some, the constant visuals being shown by the media of a turbaned Osama bin Laden, followed by the Twin Towers falling and white patriotic Americans crying or climbing out of the rubble, created the environment in which it was inevitable for something like this to happen. The hate crimes committed against brown people in the wake of September 11, 2001 echoed the atrocities of 1984. But that wasnt and wont be the last time injustice goes unpunished.

I agree that we should commemorate and continue to seek justice for the victims of 1984. But what about victims of atrocities being committed in other parts of India? In other parts of the world? While I dont necessarily support the decision, I can understand the hesitation of any large Sikh organization fully endorsing the rights of Palestinians. But what surprised and saddened me is that no Sikh organization, in India or abroad, came to the aid of the Gujarat riot victims or drew the clear connection between what happened to Gujarati Muslims in 2002 with the Sikhs in New Delhi in 1984. Nor did they object here to use of the word riot. Can you really call it a riot when both sides arent spontaneously fighting, and when one side is doing all the damage? Hindu mobs were bussed into Gujarat, armed with voter registration lists of all the Muslims in various areas, lead by politicians, and the police did absolutely nothing for three days. Does any of this sound familiar?

I am grateful to organizations like Jakara and ENSAAF for keeping the discussion alive, but we as a community really need to find a way to elevate the discussion by drawing human connections with other communities. Otherwise its only a matter of time before Operation Bluestar, the Delhi pogroms, and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy disappear from history books altogether. And all people will know of India in 1984 are Bollywood heroes who didnt wax their chest hair, and Amitabh Bachchans top da performance in Sharaabi.

I suppose the difference between 1984 the event and 1984 the idea is that an event has to exist in a particular time period, whereas an idea encompasses an event, but also transcends a time period, makes connections with other ideas, and is not bound by any restrictions.

So my question to everyone is this: how do we move on from merely discussing the events and history of 1984 to delving into the ideas and implications of 1984, and to what end?

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14 Responses to “Moving Past the Event of 1984”

  1. Arvinder Kaur says:

    Today After 27 years Do We Still Want To Punish A Few Names And Think justice Accomplished Or We Want These Events Not To Take place At All . We Do Not Want Acts Like These Repeted In Any Part of The World They Keep Happening After A Few Decades . The Hatred And The Envy Are The root Cause Which Makes Us Forget That We Are All Humans And Are On The Top Of the Species Ladder . We Have A Mind Which Can Be Contolled And Should Be Controlled By Our Own Selves And Not Be Used As A Tool By Leaders Who Want To Meet Their Own Individual Hunger For Power As This Is What Guides Such Acts .

  2. dipi says:

    i'm sorry but can you really just move on after that injustice… you have enough evidence to say this…..can you feel what people are still suffering today because of that event………until true justice is served…….i don't think that many people will agree to move on.

  3. Harinder says:

    I think the the best answer is to leave it to “DIVINE JUSTICE”.
    All empires are known to carry out persecution/genocides to establish a nation/empire.

    From a Sikhs persepctive

    1) Mughals did two genocides :–
    a) Wada Ghalughara :–1762
    b) Chhota Ghalughara :– 1746
    2) British empire did one genocide in “Jallia walla bagh ” :–1919.
    3) Indian (hinduvta) empire did one genocide in 1984 to Sikhs .
    This is a property of all empires .
    Invaraibly the “SINS” which empires commit themselves are there reasons of down fall.
    Jewish empire fell,Mughal empire fell,British empire faded.
    One got to learn the “Art of Surviving Genocides” to enjoy this planet “EARTH”.

  4. Luxifero says:

    I think the thread of discourse, the exchange of ideas, the capacity to interact with other Sikhs on issues affecting one another has become marginalized over the last 25 years.

    More and more I'm hearing that the events of 1984 have become something of lore in Panjab itself. I had a meeting with a few young Panjabis a few nights back and they distinctly told me that this was the case. Speaking of Khalra: I spoke with a family member of the Khalra family and she recounted the very same narrative: people are less and less informed of the events that surrounded the events of 1984.

    How we expect a fair exchange of ideas and the creation of mechanisms to rehabilitate those victims, bring those responsible for genocidal policies, and all those involved in the massive human rights violations to account when the grieving population has been quieted?

    I think it's interesting that you brought up the Bhopal tragedy. It is a tragedy of untold magnitude and important one to understand. The number of lives affected has been estimated to be up to 500,000. Atrocious numbers by any account.

    Why people don't link the two is perhaps due to myopia and those responsible for understanding the causes of these disasters (really the political and legal system that failed the victims), atrocities and human rights violations committed against Sikhs and those committed against other minority groups, or other non-bhraminical groups, have failed to understand that all these issues go back to one big systemic failure in the Indian political and judicial system. We should be attacking this system, exposing its corruptions and ineptitude.

    Truth be told, there are a lot of reasons why we have failed as a community to indulge in any effectual work toward justice but they may sound like a string of excuses and perhaps instead of dwelling too heavily on our own ineptitude we start moving forward.

  5. Luxifero says:

    I'm going to detract a statement I made. I looked over what I read and saw some fallacies in my own reasoning the more I reflected on it.

    Our capacity to exchange ideas has increased over the last 25 years but our ability to use those capacities to pass on information have been marginal. That can be for a number of reasons. And I'm talking about very specifically those in Panjab and not the diaspora.

    Of course, I could be entirely wrong. I see these discussions within my own circle (which is heavily involved in these issues) but outside there seems to be less relevant discourse. It seems that raising awareness may just be the first step still, and unfortunately granted your discourse.

  6. brooklynwala says:

    great piece navdeep. i think in general there has been a lack of true "sarbat da bhala" coming from sikh institutions. the silence on the anti-muslim pograms in gujrat are a clear example, and like you say, the parallel between what sikhs experienced in 1984 and beyond is uncanny. yet we seem to only be looking out for ourselves. the great film "amu" ( that came out a few years ago did a great job of making the parallel though in a powerful way. i was glad to see that connection made, but it's far too infrequent.

  7. It is fascinating to see this discussion being raised in the Langarhall and not in the Indian House of Parliament or in the media for that matter ; raised to a level it deserved to be raised a long time ago. And is being raised by the younger generation, who the older Sikhs thought was drifting away from Sikhi as they knew it. It will be interesting to see if the Langarhall discussion humbles the powers to be, open their eyes and take it to the corridors of powers where it belongs to get at the root cause so that it never happens again. Good Luck Langarhall!

  8. singh says:

    Great article! In fact this reminds of something I read a little while ago – the immediate response to 1984 (and a response seen more in the previous generation) was an emotional one. It was, in my view, a justified one at the time but not one that could be sustained. While the wounds remain raw, the response has shifted to an intellectual one for the new generation. Understanding what happened, putting it in the appropriate context and appreciating its ramifications are necesary historical insights for our community!

  9. Harinder says:

    One of the effect 1984 had was to

    "Wipe the Smile of SIKHS face ".

    I dont see SIKH boys and girls smiling ,gleeing ,gossiping ,grinning ,paoing rapa rola the way they use to do before .

    My suggestion is look and be happy .

    It was after all one among the many genocides which all religions belonging to species homosapiens have undergone since homosapiens arrived on this planet earth.

    In any case it is a tool of the powerful to tell who is the "BOSS"

    by the "Victors Justice"



    and keep :–
    smiling ,gleeing ,gossiping ,grinning ,paoing rapa rola


  10. Harinder says:

    1984 brings out a pertient point

    "Is life possible for SIkhs beyond 1984 "
    It is "'END OF THE ROAD"

  11. guest says:

    "We never started a war before, but we have finished many."

  12. guest says:

    “Till this date, we are fighting for justice, which seems to be eluding us. Until and unless the culprits are punished, the souls of our near and dear ones will never rest in peace,”

  13. guest says:

    o(Justice) Insaaf is not to be beg- it is either provided or taken.