The anti-Sikh riots of 1984 left lasting scars and unanswered questions. How many were killed in Delhi and across India? Were these spontaneous riots because a big tree had fallen? What was the role of Delhi Police and others who worked for the government? What was the role of specific Congress politicians? Why has no one been punished? This last question isn’t quite factually correct. Some people have been convicted, though many high-profile individuals were let off on grounds of insufficient evidence.
There have been several commissions/committees—from Ved Marwah in 1984 to Nanavati Commission in 2000. There is a strong sense of justice not having been done and mass graves have been discovered in Haryana as recently as 2011. Understandably, 1984 and events around it have featured in non-fiction books, works of fiction and films, not just in English.
These are two new books on 1984. The first is by Pav Singh and is titled India’s Guilty Secret. In addition to an introduction, there are 20 well-written chapters, divided into two parts titled ‘The Crime’ and ‘The Cover-Up’.
Pav Singh lives in Britain and was drawn to the issue and identified with it because his extended family had narrowly escaped. He, therefore, felt compelled to tell the story, first as a report for the British Parliament.
While there continues to be new writing on 1984, incremental evidence is unlikely. Books exist by Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar, Jyoti Grewal, Manoj Mitta and HS Phoolka, Jarnail Singh, and Sanjay Suri. There are also reports by Citizens for Democracy and PUCL.
If one has read some or all of this, barring some updating, there will be little new in this book. The chapter titled ‘The Indifference of the West’ is an exception though. That’s an angle not usually explored. However, take something like the Citizens for Democracy or PUCL reports. The former is from 1985, the second from 1984. There can be an argument that since some reports, including of commissions/committees are old, there should be new books about 1984.
Indeed, some of the books I mentioned were published in the last 10 years. From that perspective, this is a book that has been written well, taking in the broader perspective (Bhindranwale) and not limiting oneself to the period between October 31 and November 3, 1984.
The second is a novel by Vikram Kapur, who has published novels earlier too, on other themes. Last year, Vikram Kapur edited an anthology of essays on 1984, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. (The anthology features in Pav Singh’s bibliography).
This novel is set in Delhi in 1984 and involves the lives of Deepa, from a Hindu family, and Prem, from a Sikh family. The two are engaged to be married, until 1984 tears their lives apart. What sets this novel apart is not just 1984, but the vivid descriptions of Delhi in the 1980s.
While one can’t get away from the horrors, there is a whiff of nostalgia for what Delhi was like then. Anyone who has lived in Delhi at that time will identify with the descriptions, Trilokpuri included.
The book has four sections—‘31st October 1984’, ‘Before’, ‘After’ and ‘Delhi 2004’. The first three are beautifully done, though the incidents are inevitably unpredictable.
Coming to terms with what occurred in 1984 is by no means easy, for those in real life, as well as for characters in a novel. Twenty years down the line, in Delhi 2004, the ending seems a bit forced and doesn’t do justice to the rest of the novel. Both books worth a read.