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A coming of political age

Savita-Vij1Savita Vij reflects on the devastating 1984 anti-Sikh riots, talks to the people who were trying to calm tensions, and asks what lessons we can learn

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the 1984 riots against Sikhs in Delhi, India. Speaking to a handful of volunteers who provided the only major co-ordinated relief effort in the city, and who described the events of 1984 as a landmark moment in their political coming of age, has made me think again about how 2nd and 3rd generation of South Asians in the UK have become politicised along the lines of faith.

1984 is a period of history which shocked and shaped the volunteers of ‘84. Sikh communities across Delhi from all backgrounds were targeted by mobs, following the assassination of India’s PM Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard.

What was initially seen as a spontaneous outburst of emotion began to show glimpses of organised and targeted violence which senior politicians and police became a partisan in. However 1984 is something that I’d heard about but didn’t really understand.

antisikh-riots

Burning shops in Delhi

Many times I’ve had a naive response to displays of separatism by young Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims in the UK – that we should focus on the ties that bind and not be brainwashed to be blind to them.

Unity was, and remains, my mantra of idealism but there seems to be a shift in my understanding of the politics behind this.

The volunteers that I spoke to painted a disturbing picture of democracy at its worst in India during 1984. Sikh men and their homes were looted and burnt and those expected to provide security – the police – simply watched.

And for years afterwards, there was a continued witch-hunt for Sikh men, notably across Punjab, alleged to be involved in militant separatist activities.

It is estimated that around 3,000 people were murdered. The impact globally was also devastating, especially in the UK and USA. These events triggered of a surge in support of Khalistani movements demanding a separate homeland for Sikhs.

It’s important to get behind some of the pro-Khalistan displays that I’ve seen in Sikh-dominated areas in the UK like parts of Birmingham or Slough, not just for non-Sikhs like me but also young Sikhs themselves.

When asking why a group of them were stopping cars on the road and waving anti-Indian slogans they had no idea. Greater knowledge should be shared about how it was a politically orchestrated riot and not Hindus versus Sikhs’; that there were also thousands of non-Sikh citizens that hid their Sikh neighbours in their homes and risked their lives confronting the mobs.

Those that took up leadership of the volunteer movement transformed a spontaneous outpouring of relief to a highly efficient response. Individuals like Poonam Mattreja [founder of Dastkar, the movement of Indian craftspeople] set up the Nagrik Ekta Manch – The Citizen’s peace forum.

This was with environmental scientist Ravi Chopra and activist Ravi Nair who also called the political leadership to the streets and co-managed around 15 relief camps.

Volunteers like journalist Rita Manchanda provided information to and from the relief camps, Madhu Kishwar [Editor of Manushi magazine focusing on Indian women’s rights], began re-uniting families torn apart by the violence; while students like Madhavi Kukreja and Rohini Pande provided counselling support to the overwhelming proportion of women in the relief camps.

In the case of the riots in Delhi, the actions of these volunteers was urgent. It would be a mistake to view their politicisation as simply ‘Left-wing secularists’, ‘middle-class’, ‘non-Sikh’.

They describe themselves as citizens who from our perspective quelled emotional pogroms that were destroying their cities and relationships that they grew up with.

The impact of what they saw, memories of gruesome murder and most importantly observing the state and police standing back re-enforced what some of them had learnt in subtle and more obvious ways, that citizens need to know how and when to take charge.

This kind of political maturing should be a goal that we aim for. There are many grounds to campaign on against the kind of atrocities that were seen in 1984 and it’s time that there was a wider shift in politicisation of younger South Asians whereby they can re-connect to these struggles on the basis of human rights issues and respond as citizens as well as their faith identities.

Savita Vij is the editor of CultivAsian magazine which to capture the many ways in which complex and even contradictory South Asian identities are expressed. Visit www.cultivasian.org

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