Making a Killing

Vivek Agnihotri’s disingenuous exploitation of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms

30 April, 2022

In the motion poster for Vivek Agnihotri’s upcoming film The Delhi Files, the silhouette of a Sikh boy reaches out for help within a bloodstained national emblem, as the opening verse of the Guru Granth Sahib plays in the background, followed by the sounds of jackboots, gunshots and sobs. Tentatively scheduled for release this October, the film is ostensibly based on the anti-Sikh pogroms of November 1984, though Agnihotri has said it is more generally about “how Delhi has been destroying ‘Bharat’ for so many years.” It will be the final instalment of his trilogy of historical revisionism, following The Tashkent Files, which wildly speculated about the death of the former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, and The Kashmir Files, which dealt with the “genocide” of Kashmiri Pandits.

The 1984 pogroms followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, who were seeking revenge for the former prime minister’s ill-conceived military attack on the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of Sikhism. Gandhi had claimed that the invasion, called Operation Blue Star, was meant to flush out insurgents who had stockpiled weapons inside the complex, but many Sikhs believed that the real objective was communal polarisation before that year’s general election, calling it an attempt to shore up the Hindu vote by teaching the Sikh minority a lesson. The moderate Sikh leadership, which had started a peaceful movement for religious and territorial concessions for Punjab, accused Gandhi and her Congress party of patronising extremists and letting them turn the Golden Temple into their stronghold. This, they alleged, was an attempt to weaken the Sikh cause and gain sympathy from Hindus, who had been targeted by some extremists.

They were proven correct as, soon after Gandhi’s assassination, state-sponsored lynch mobs targeted Sikhs throughout the country, with almost three thousand people killed in Delhi alone. Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as prime minister and justified the pogroms as the earth shaking “when a big tree falls,” went on to win the largest landslide victory in India’s electoral history.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has missed no opportunity to use the ugly events of 1984 to its advantage. Narendra Modi kept reminding voters about the pogroms in his election campaigns. He even went to the extent of describing them as terrorism, despite having presided over a similar massacre of Muslims in 2002, during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat. Although Modi was never formally charged, survivors of the Gujarat pogroms and human-rights campaigners continue to argue that the killings had his approval. As a result, several countries, including the United States, denied him a visa for over a decade, until he was elected prime minister in 2014.

Gurpreet Singh is an independent journalist based in Vancouver. He is the author of six books, including Notes on Nineteen Eighty Four, a compilation of his essays on the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. He is a broadcaster with Spice Radio, a co-founder of the online magazine Radical Desi and a contributor for the Georgia Straight.