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“Time heals” is an often-repeated cliché. Presumably, time helps people leave behind the painful tragedies of the past and enables them to move on with life. This is how human beings normally come to terms with what appears impossible to live through, their experiences of violence and loss. However, all tragic moments or events do not have a similar afterlife. Human memory does not follow a linear pattern of remembering and forgetting; it has a very complicated existence, with multiple undercurrents. Even when many details are forgotten, some things remain.
Memories cannot be treated as mere mental or psychological hangovers. They have political and sociological sides to them. There are events and moments that become part of the collective memory, and are thus converted into defining moments in the making of communities and nation states. Examples of this could be the German Holocaust of the mid-20th century or the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Besides their historical significance and their institutionalisations through annual rituals, museums and chapters in history textbooks, they are also being constantly remembered and “lived”, even by those who have had no first-hand experience of the events or the sufferings they entailed. They are invented and reinvented by the later generations in their own contexts and for their own politics, even when the regimes in power may actively attempt to erase them from the collective memory. They tend to live on, secretly and oftentimes not so secretly.
It is in this context that the book under review, Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper, ought to be seen and read. Professor Richard Buxbaum highlights this in his foreword to Mallika Kaur’s book. Referring to the troubled times in the Indian Punjab and for the Sikhs across India during the 1980s, he writes: “Endemic violence not only disrupts; over time it also constructs lives, communities, places, political affiliations, and—perhaps above all—gendered categories and identities.”
The author of the book, Mallika Kaur, was born in 1984. She largely grew up in Punjab and then went to college in the US, where she studied in some of the leading universities of the world. Besides being actively involved with issues of gender rights, Kaur currently teaches at the University of California and also practices law. Her book is a combination of all these fields. Given her academic training, the book is based on rigorous first-hand historical research and field interviews with relevant actors. The book is also a document for advocacy of human rights and shows her passionate engagement with the subject. It is far from a “neutral” academic account of the event of 1984. The book has been written to systematically record stories of extensive violation of basic individual rights and the brutal cases of violence, inflicted by the state actors. Her focus is on the later part of the troubled years in Punjab, post Operation Bluestar.
The Punjab story of the 1980s is hardly forgotten. We also have a large volume of scholarly and journalistic accounts published over the past three decades or so to remind us of this. Some insiders, including those working with state and Central governments at that time, have published stories and accounts of what led to those tragic years and the events that unfolded.
The dominant narratives on Punjab of the 1980s have mostly been told as the story of a deep crisis of Indian nationhood, its legitimacy and the failures of its federalist politics. This is true even about those critical of the Indian government’s handling of the Sikh militancy. As is well-known, the beginning of the “Punjab crisis” of the 1980s is attributed to the Akali demand for autonomy. This was soon followed by the rise of Bhindranwale and his alleged demand for Khalistan, a separate nation-state. The Sikh separatists unleashed terrorist violence, often killing innocent people, in order draw attention to their demand. The Indian state responded with all its brutal might, sending in the Indian army to violently attack and ransack Darbar Sahib (the Golden Temple) in Amritsar. Besides killing the leaders of the Sikh separatist movement and damaging the holy shrine, thousands of innocent devotees were also killed during Operation Bluestar in June 1984.
This, however, did not end the violence. In less than six months, the serving prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. More violence followed. Thousands of innocent Sikhs were ruthlessly butchered during the first week of November 1984 in Delhi and elsewhere in the country. As a series of independent inquiries revealed, the murderous mobs were unleashed by the ruling establishment. The police stood by, rarely helping the innocent. The Indian judiciary also failed the victims of the Delhi violence.
This only further strengthened the Sikh militancy and the response of the state agencies became far more vicious. The police were given complete autonomy to deal with the violence. Besides listing and targeting Sikh youth, presumably involved with the militant movements, the police also infiltrated the ranks of Sikh militants. The police were even monetarily rewarded. Many officials saw in it opportunities for making money through extortion bids.
As Kaur’s book documents, underneath this war were innumerable stories of violence and abuse of individual human rights, cases of physical torture and killings, disappearances of youth, and complete disregard for individual dignity. However, even during such violent and dark times, there were individuals in Punjab who continued to raise issues of rights. Besides appealing in the courts, they often confronted the police officials, prepared documents and pursued cases, including lobbying with agencies and individuals outside India. Kaur’s book is woven around three such individuals – Ajit Singh Bains, Baljit Kaur and Inderjit Singh Jaijee – who, through their relentless work, “saved countless lives” even in times when hope seemed like the last thing possible. They were also the core sources for the material that the author uses for her book.
While providing an extensive and often extremely depressing account of violence and brutalities, Kaur also shows, by focusing on the work of these fearless human rights warriors, how humanity and hope has the ability to endure.
Surinder S. Jodhka is a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University.