The Year of the Hawks, Kanwaljit Deol’s telling of 1980s Punjab, brings out the dynamics of the state and power very well.
The Year of the Hawks by Kanwaljit Deol is the second novel in recent years by a police officer about the troubled politics of an insurgency-riddled state. In 2015, Danesh Rana, an Inspector General (Jammu Range) in Jammu and Kashmir had written Red Maize, a brutal story of a brutal conflict. Deol’s book is different, although in its telling of 1980s Punjab, the slow boil run up to the clash between the army and the forces of Bhindranwale, the savage destruction of the Golden Temple and the assassination of Indira Gandhi, followed by organised mobs attacking Sikhs in Delhi and across the country, traverses somewhat similar terrain.
Though both have been police officers, Deol has focused less on the operational aspects of what happened, but rather tried to paint a broader canvas. At the centre of her narrative are two men. One of them is Fareed, a Sikh boy from the Punjabi hinterlands, with a drunkenly abusive father and a family fortune that is limited to a small field and cattle, and on the other hand is Sikand, the urbane son of a Hindu father and Sikh mother, a journalist who prefers to be an analyst. Through these two, and a small host of supporting characters, Deol sketches both the viewpoint of a sympathetic actor from Delhi painting the broad brush of history, as well as the viewpoint of those that lived the conflict, and had no escape from it – except for joining a side, whether militant or informer (or, in some cases, both.)
In a sense this is a bit of a loss. Deol understands the dynamics of the state and power very well, and is able to illustrate them clearly. One of the key scenes of the book is the treatment of Fareed and his friend, Jeeta, at the hands of the local police. At another point she describes how the killing of a DIG, barefoot and unarmed in the precincts of the Golden Temple, led to the loss of police authority and the consequent understanding by militants as to what they can get away with – a lesson the police learn as well.
It seems hardly the best way to ensure one’s security, announcing oneself with flags and lights and sirens, but the SP is convinced that the day he has to travel incognito, he will be a sitting duck. It is not just the common man who must be impressed with authority, it is the extremist, the fundamentalist killer too. The DIG was helpless, without his shoes in the temple; these people do not respect helplessness.
Only authority is bulletproof.
Similarly, Deol does a great job in portraying the rise of Bhindranwale and the inevitable violence that such movements spawn. In one of the clearest set-pieces of dialogue, Sikand confronts Bhindranwale with the terrible logic of what he has unleashed – and how all the paths to any peaceful resolution are cut off, made impossible.
‘You have used the weapon too,’ Sikand says. ‘You mention names and addresses of people in your lectures, on your tapes. You denounce the Sikh political leadership. And yet you never clarify your own position. You answer question with question. And dub all those who try to break out of this impasse by negotiating, as weaklings, fools, betrayers of the faith… Systematically all escape routes have been shut off, for your followers and for yourself. This can end only in disaster!’
And, of course, we know it does. Deol recounts the steps to that disaster, then the ensuing disaster, and the disaster that ensues from that, in painful, step-by-step, detail. In doing so, the novel spares nobody.
Despite the broad view, and the local view, though, the book seems to miss a step. Maybe it lies in the character of Sikand. As a senior journalist who is trying to analyse, prophesise even, while recounting the history of the Sikhs, he embodies the failures of India’s high-flying journalistic community that is too out of the loop, too in love with grand theorising, to have any real impact on the ground. Journalism is about reporting the facts – the ones people in power do not wish to be reported – not a treatise on history, but merely its first (error-riddled) draft.
In this, maybe Deol’s desire to be a novelist writing about a complex human character gets in the way of her storytelling. Sikand is a complex person, driven by various motivations, tugged and torn apart by the strings of history and loyalty that he cannot quite align with, but in the story of ’80s Punjab and assault on Harminder Sahib, no Delhi-based journalist, no matter how complex, is worth more than a footnote.
The real story is about a people, a movement, in a state that ended up feeling that everybody from the thanedar to the senior politician served, not them, but the powers-that-be, in Delhi. It is, at its core, a story of the loss of the feeling of people as sovereign – as citizens with a say in their own land – turned into peasants being compelled by forces they neither identified with, nor could communicate.
It is this failure of democracy, and the dangerous genius of a Bhindranwale who kept raising the stakes so high that he knew they could not be met, “only vaulting ambition, that overleaps itself”, that leaves a young boy to the courtyard in the Golden Temple, ready to die, not really fully knowing why, but knowing that the only thing that clears the confusion is his death.
We are in it now, is the shout in Fareed’s heart, leaping like a hot white flame. At last the enemy. At last the clear, the justified response. He is finished with the bitter aftertaste that licks the heels of every action. Gratitude flows out of him like a prayer. A man must do what he has to.