The wilful ignorance of a new generation of “Liberals” shields the Congress from its culpability in the 1984 massacres

02 April 2016
Secure in the ideological blanket that the Congress, in theory, does not stand for violence against a community, a new generation of liberals has refused to engage with the reality of what happened in 1984.
AP Photo

For some reason, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar recently deemed it fit to compare the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 with the killing of Muslims in 2002. Kanhaiya’s conclusion, which he has since been forced to revise, was that the riots in Gujarat were politically organised, while the violence in Delhi was the result of a mob frenzy. The conclusion was so off the mark that I know of only one other person who has been ignorant enough to make this extreme a claim–the Congress Vice-President—Rahul Gandhi. In January 2014, during an interview with Arnab Goswami, the editor-in-chief of Times Now, Gandhi stated that the Congress government had tried to quell the violence in 1984, while the Modi government had abetted it in 2002.

Of course, Gandhi was right about the Modi government. But he had gotten his facts about the Congress’s position in 1984 wrong. As I had reported in my story for The Caravan, in 1984, the deployment of the army was deliberately delayed and the police refused to act while senior Congressmen such as Kamal Nath, HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar led mobs that murdered the Sikhs and pillaged their belongings. These mobs showed clear signs of direction, organisation and mobilisation. As has been well documented, Nath subsequently rose within the party and the attempts to shield Tytler, Bhagat and Kumar from justice were fervent. They continued to be fielded by the party for elections and held important posts. No action was ever taken against the senior policemen who failed to do their duty. Given that the Congress’s culpability for the events of 1984 directly indicts his family, Gandhi’s attitude is understandable, even if it is, by no means, excusable. But, what of comrade Kanhaiya and others like him?

Kanhaiya is a PhD student and now, often given to speaking on issues of national importance. There is a growing body of writing on 1984 that more than adequately covers the subject, and there should be no reason for anyone writing or speaking on the subject to plead ignorance. Yet, a large section of those who call themselves liberals and claim some intellectual attainment, do little better than Kanhaiya when speaking of 1984.

I have documented some such cases in the past but they are still worth repeating: “In a 2007 book The Clash Within published by Harvard University Press in the US and glowingly blurbed by none other than Amartya Sen, Martha C Nussbaum confronts the comparison thus: ‘The closest precedent to Gujarat… was the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi…’ She then goes on to make the claim that there were differences and that in the Delhi riots ‘rape and killing-by-incineration were not central elements of the violence.’” This is not just a mistake. It is a deliberate denial of the central elements of the 1984 violence by one of the most prominent moral philosophers of our times. I cannot imagine that she would have been allowed to get away with such monumental distortion had she been writing on the 2002 violence.

During the 2014 election campaign, several commentators argued that the events of 1984 were not in keeping with the Congress’s professed ideology while the violence in 2002 was consistent with what the Bharatiya Janata Party stands for. It is an argument that makes little sense. It suggests the Congress’ use of violence is instrumental and is not constrained in any way by its ideology. This would imply that, depending on the circumstance, any community, anywhere, could be targeted for murder by the party if it suits its political ends. In contrast, the BJP will always direct its violence at Muslims or Christians. Why the first should be preferable to the second is not clear. Surely, to those murdered, being killed in keeping with an ideology or in violation of it, would make little difference.

Given the attention the Sikh massacre attracted through the campaign in 2014, it would make sense that there should be renewed interest in the events of November 1984. In the period since, journalists Sanjay Suri and Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay have both released a book each—1984 The Anti-Sikh violence and After and Sikh-The Untold Agony of 1984—on the subject. Suri, in particular, details Nath’s questionable and possibly criminal role during those days. I attended both the launches and was stunned by the nature of the audience. They lacked the usual faces one encounters at Delhi book launches, and were preponderantly dominated by Sikhs. It was not as if the customary efforts to draw an audience had not gone into these events. The first was moderated by Sagarika Ghose, the former deputy editor of CNN-IBN, and the second by Bhupendra Chaubey, an anchor on CNN-IBN.

It doesn’t surprise me that most of those who are blind to the communal hatred being fostered by the current regime avoid these launches. They prefer not to deal in facts. But the conspicuous absence of an entire new generation of self-proclaimed liberals, whose main social activity seems to consist of attending the right book launches, suggests wilful ignorance. This ignorance is specific to the events of 1984. It is not born out of a disdain for history. After all, these liberals throng in large numbers to attend book launches when one of their own writes on the first or second World War.

This indifference reflects in the ill-informed and ahistorical arguments that are made in favour of the Congress. A recent article on the news website Catch News, that attempted to defend Kanhaiya’s original claim, is a case in point. The author argues, ”The difference [between 1984 and 2002] doesn't lie in what happened during the riots but what happened after them.” But while claiming that the Congress sidelines those involved in the massacre of 1984, he seems to be completely unaware of the role Nath played, or the party’s subsequent attempts to shield and reward both Kumar and Tytler.

This is illustrative. Secure in the ideological blanket that the Congress, in theory, does not stand for violence against a community, this new generation of liberals has refused to engage with the reality of what happened in 1984. This particular form of blindness leads them to believe that the Congress could not have orchestrated such a terrible event, because it does not stand for such atrocities. An adamant refusal to deal with the actual facts of the case allows them to live with this illusion.

This blindness has essentially protected a generation of entitled young people who have grown up in Delhi. Children of bureaucrats and politicians, linked to the Congress elite through the social networks of Lutyens’ Delhi, form the core of what passes for the new liberal elite. They are separated by their class from much of the BJP, and certainly from Modi. Most of them are well read, well educated and willing to speak with great ease about the flaws and the follies of the BJP. Yet, they remain immune to the truth about the Congress, particularly when it comes to the massacre of the Sikhs in 1984. This wilful ignorance spills over into their entire social network, spreading out to influence those such as Kanhaiya who have made no attempt to engage with the subject on their own.

In some measure, it is this generation that the novelist Jaspreet Singh deals with in Helium, his 2014 book centered on the violence of 1984. The protagonist, who was a college student in 1984, saw his Sikh professor burnt to death before his eyes. Years later, he confronts the role that his father, a senior policeman in Delhi, played during the massacre. It is the question of his father’s role during the 1984 massacres that Gandhi is yet to engage with publicly. It is also a question worth asking of every self-professed young liberal who traces their roots to the Lutyens’ elite. What role did your father, your uncle or your cousin play in the government during the violence in November 1984?

Sandeep Dixit, a Congress MP and the son of former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit, was one of the panelists at the launch of Mukhopadhyay’s book. He spoke of the massacres with a sensitivity that is rare among those from the Congress who have referred to the violence in the past. When I asked him what it is like to interact and work with the people in his party some of us consider culpable of murder, he admitted that the fact makes him uncomfortable. This goes some way in explaining his apparent unease with a party he has been associated with for a long time.

Yet, it is hard to forget that even someone with Dixit’s degree of honesty is able to sit and plan party strategy with men whose hands are stained with blood. It is at best, convenient, to recognise the truth of the party that his family has been associated with, while benefitting from that privilege. Most young liberals keen to defend the Congress are in a far worse ethical position. They bury the truth of the violence of 1984 to retain their social privileges. This denial of facts is a wilful suppression of the truth. It is a deliberate decision to overlook the stains of murder that still surround them.

Hartosh Singh Bal  is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.

Keywords: Congress Sikhs 2002 riots 1984 Sikh pogrom Kanhaiya Kumar Kamal Nath
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