BJP dishonestly harnessed 1984 pogrom to change 2002 narrative
Amit Shah’s assertion that a large number of Sikhs were killed in 1984, "but nothing was done for three days", was juxtaposed with the claim that there was no delay on the part of the Gujarat government in requisitioning the Army to deal with post-Godhra riots
In sharp contrast to efforts at deflecting public attention from Prime Minister Narendra Modi over alleged complicity or inadequacy in handling the Gujarat riots in 2002, by raking up the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, and positioning itself as a party committed to delivering justice to victims of the carnage and ensuring punishment of the guilty, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, were strikingly guarded in the immediate aftermath of violence targeting Sikhs that killed more than two thousand from the community in Delhi.
The latest assertions made by Union Home Minister Amit Shah are at odds with party and RSS documents of 1984. This demonstrates that the saffron brotherhood in 1984 either did not have the political courage to stand up to Hindu majoritarian sentiment against the Sikhs that the Congress enlisted behind it, or the BJP agreed with the dominant viewpoint of the then ruling party that a ‘message needed to be sent’ to the community.
Shah referred to the 1984 riots in the course of a long interview after the Supreme Court judgement dismissed Zakia Jafri’s petition for a review of the clean chit it granted earlier to Modi.
Shah’s assertion, that a large number of Sikhs were killed, “but nothing was done for three days”, was juxtaposed with the claim that there was no delay on part of the Gujarat government in requisitioning the Army to deal with post-Godhra riots.
The reference was made to the 1984 pogrom in the same breath while speaking about Modi and 2002 with the intention to depict the Gujarat riots in a lesser vein.
Shah is not alone in making exaggerated promises on ensuring ‘justice’ for survivors of the 1984 carnage. Several senior party leaders and Sangh Parivar’s political cheerleaders, masquerading as spokespersons, have made similar assertions in the last several years.
Revival of narration
Collectively, these leaders revived the narrative over the anti-Sikh pogrom that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination to argue that in comparison, Gujarat riots were not similarly politically motivated. It is further contended that political leaders guilty of enabling, even directly leading, the 1984 riots too remain unpunished as a result of which countless families have no sense of closure.
References to 1984 are routinely used as bulwark against mentions by political adversaries who highlight the ruthless slayings of Muslims in 2002 during Modi’s tenure.
Shah’s decision to refer to the 1984 riots must be seen sequentially with his earlier assertions on the anti-Sikh violence and ensuring justice for victims and punishment for the guilty.
The Home minister, then BJP national president, began a noteworthy public meeting in Pathankot, in May 2019, during the campaign for the 17th Lok Sabha by crediting Modi for “ensuring justice” to the families of the 1984 anti-Sikh riot victims. Shah, thereafter, pledged to ensure that culprits behind the pogrom would not be spared.
Banking on 1984
In contrast to the aloofness towards the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the BJP and its leaders, for well over a decade, have hyphenated it with the 1984 pogrom and shed copious sorrow for victims.
The effort has always been to project the violence during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as more ‘macabre’ a crime, than what happened under Modi’s watch.
In response to groups or individuals calling for action against those complicit in the Gujarat riots, BJP leaders, Shah including, hit back by saying that these accusers must first ensure that the guilty of the 1984 riots were punished.
This was a classic instance of politics of whatabouttery and blowing the dog whistle.
The intended message in Shah’s assertion is easy to comprehend. He said: “The Army headquarters is situated in Delhi and there are a lot of armymen in the city but despite that so many Sikhs were killed (during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots) but nothing was done for three days.”
For the targeted audience, this part of Shah’s speech would have been perceived as the Home Minister’s contention that critics, political adversaries and civil liberties activists had no right to question the Gujarat government for its role in 2002, because they did not put equally ‘tough questions’ to the Congress for its role over 1984.
No tears for Sikh victims
However, a scrutiny of some old BJP documents, and of its ideological fountainhead the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), dating to the period of these gory incidents, reveals that neither did the Hindutva fraternity pose tough questions nor did they shed tears for the Sikh victims on 1984. The current tear-jerking is certainly for contemporary consumption.
The first document that requires examination to assess the BJP’s response to the pogrom was the political resolution adopted by the party’s National Executive on November 14-15 in Delhi (still turbulent and badly fractured with relief camps bursting at the seams). It began with a politically vapid sentence that “Indian polity today stands at a critical crossroads of history.”
Phrases used in the resolution thereafter were non-specific in a situation where +2000 people were butchered – “breakdown of law and order, an absence of purpose and direction in governance, deep divisions within society marked by deliberately engineered communal and casteist passions, and a serious erosion of institutional strength.”
Elections were held within weeks of this executive meeting. Yet, the BJP did skirt the central issue over which the polls were fought – the violence being justified by the Congress through a communally charged advertisement campaign that raised fears over borders ‘moving’ to one’s doorsteps.
Banality vs confrontation
Sticking to political banality when the need was to confront the ogre, in its elections manifesto, the BJP referred to the pogrom as “bestial carnage” and “poison-fruit of Government’s Punjab policy.”
The only reference to riot in the manifesto was a demand that all “riot sufferers must be suitably and adequately compensated and rehabilitated” and that the party would “conduct in-depth socio-economic studies of prone areas to take effective steps for riot-prevention.”
The BJP’s conscious choice to underplay the anti-Sikh carnage and not make a single pledge to its victims was mirrored in the resolution of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the apex representative body of the RSS in early 1985. The resolution merely noted the already fragile social situation was “further aggravated” by the assassination and “shameful and tragic incidents of widespread, violence, loot and arson…”
The RSS patted its own back by recording that swayamsevaks had intervened to save Sikhs in certain localities “even at risk to their lives.” In terms of action from the government, it merely called for a judicial enquiry besides directing its volunteers to deepen “traditional bonds of Sikhs and non-Sikh Hindu brotherhood.”
The resolution did not acknowledge that ‘revenge’ mentality was behind the pogrom and that Sikhs were being viewed with suspicion, forcing many to alter physical identities by cutting their hair and stopping to don turbans.
Erasure of fundamental divergences
An important element in the BJP’s current offensive and references to 1984 is the erasure of fundamental divergences between different sections that worked to investigate and seek judicial interventions and remedies on the Gujarat riots.
All human rights activists, retired government officials, civil liberty organisations, other members of the civil society, non-pliant sections of the media and some opposition parties are painted in one hue.
They are accused of being part of a coordinated well-hatched conspiracy to destabilise the nation, create hurdles in its path of growth and development and sully Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reputation which is put at par with tarnishing India’s image.
Shah betrays ignorance on differences between various political and professional groups that steadfastly pursued justice on Gujarat 2002. It is also evident that he possesses little knowledge of the groups that persevered for more than three decades with the campaign to seek justice for the 1984 victims.
As someone involved in investigations of the Delhi chapter of the pogrom in 1984, besides engagement with the relief and rehabilitation of people affected in the violence, (besides writing a book on the sordid chapter of Indian history), I can definitively state that civil society and rights groups that assiduously pursued justice for victims of Gujarat riots, had their roots in the groups active in 1984 and its aftermath over decades. Many were also inspired by the successes in the campaign for punishing the guilty over their roles in 1984.
The complicity of the Congress government and several important leaders, including certain members of Parliament, was authoritatively established by the report entitled ‘Who Are the Guilty’.
This was investigated and published by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties and People’s Union of Democratic Rights, which emerged out of the phalanx of democratic and rights organisations established in the 1970s under the aegis of Jaya Prakash Narayan.
Human rights violations
These groups played a crucial role in flagging issues related to human rights and civil liberties in the wake of lifting of Emergency in 1977 and the formation of the government of the Janata Party, which the BJP’s preceding party, the Jana Sangh, merged into after Indira Gandhi’s stunning electoral rout.
Activists of these two organisations investigated instances of violence across Delhi and collaborated with volunteers of the spontaneously formed Nagirik Ekta Manch (that I was part of).
They recorded testimonies of people whose family members were killed and/or were witness to violence, arson and looting.
In the public eye, the Congress was put in the dock on the basis of this report and it became an oft-referred document for several years and remains easily accessible on Internet.
By painting civil society organisations and activists who built on this tradition that was nurtured by the like of JP and VM Tarkunde, the present lot of BJP leaders come across as selfish exploiters of painful memories of the 1984 pogrom.
They are guided solely by the objective to delegitimize the partial ‘gains’ made to secure justice for the victims of 2002 and ensure that memories of this horrific chapter in history does not fade away and get erased from history.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India, The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)