India’s new reality: 1984 on the table but not 2002

Modi has raised the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in a big way in the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign

Quite rightly, there has been large scale condemnation of Sam Pitroda for the callous manner in which he recalled the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 in New Delhi and several cities across India stretching from Jammu and Kanpur in the North to Coimbatore in the South and Calcutta in the East to Mumbai in the West.

Pitroda's response cannot be termed as just flippant because deep down it emerges from a viewpoint that the Sikhs had it coming, that an entire community could be held responsible for the crimes of a handful. The technology maverick that he was, when Pitroda was 'imported' into India by his friend, Rajiv Gandhi, the pogrom had been denunciated yet it was also backed overwhelmingly by the Indian electorate which bought the Congress' campaign of fear of the "borders receding to our doorsteps" if the party was not voted back.

Pitroda's training in Indian political culture was honed on the basis of Gandhi's comment regarding the ground shaking whenever a big tree falls. (To set the record straight, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrongly alluded, during one of his campaign speeches, that the remark was made in the midst of the anti-Sikh violence. It was made a fortnight after the last of the embers had been extinguished and on Indira Gandhi's birthday.)

Thereafter, the government of the moment dallied on investigations and despite overwhelming evidence against key Congress leaders, no action was taken against them. Leaders like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler remained active in politics, the latter was even a minister during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) I tenure.

Till the journalist turned activist-politician Jarnail Singh infamously threw a shoe at P Chidambaram, then Union Home minister, the Congress routinely fielded the 1984 accused in various elections. In every poll, the pogrom remained a convenient issue for detractors of the Congress to rake up and the party was always defensive.

Rahul Gandhi's description of the pogrom as a "needless tragedy which caused tremendous pain" when he asked Pitroda to apologise for making a "completely out of line" statement, does not recognise that the chapter was shameful in which the Sikhs were specifically targeted. His words did not match the remorse of former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who in August 2005 told Parliament that he would not stand on any "false prestige and bowed his head in shame."

If the assassination of Indira Gandhi was a "great national tragedy" then the subsequent events were also "equally shameful", Singh said. Unhesitatingly, he apologised "not only to the Sikh community, but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution." The former prime minister also declared that this was not a personal apology, but he was making the statement "on behalf of the government and on behalf of the entire people of the country."

It is a grave tragedy that even after this assertion, Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sought to play politics given that at that time voting was pending in Delhi and is now due in Punjab on May 19. "I want to ask naamdar (dynast), you pretended to scold your mentor for what? Because he exposed what was always in the Congress's heart, and in the discussions of the naamdar family? Because he made public a family secret? Arrey naamdar, it is you who should be ashamed," said Modi.

But if 1984 was a case of state patronage and complicity in the specific targeting of a particular community, so was the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. But while the anti-Sikh violence keeps being whipped up by the BJP, the Congress and other opposition parties have failed to keep the issue of Gujarat anti-Muslim violence alive.

This is symptomatic of the entire polity succumbing to authoritarian majoritarianism and indicates the emergence of an ethnic democracy where political parties can continue to electorally contest the BJP, but they consciously stay away from articulating the angst of the minorities for the fear of alienating Hindu voters.

Previously, before Modi's emergence as a leader of national standing, the Opposition targeted him for his government's alleged complicity in the 2002 violence against Muslims continuing for several days. In 2007, Sonia Gandhi infamously made her maut ke saudagar (merchants of death) remark which greatly benefited Modi by providing opportunity to revive his image as Hindu Hriday Samrat or the Emperor of Hindu Hearts.

But once the BJP recovered from the shock of the 2002 riots and their leadership reconciled themselves to the fact that Modi would not be asked to resign because of backing from significant sections of the party and the Sangh Parivar, party leaders began to counter allegations against Modi with references to the 1984 pogrom. Even after Kamal Nath became Madhya Pradesh chief minister in 2018, the BJP leadership revived the 1984 narrative by referring to the accusations against him. At that time too, the Opposition made no reference to 2002.

The BJP has been presenting the anti-Sikh pogrom as a greater tragedy for which there had been no investigations against political bigwigs of the Congress party. In contrast, the BJP and Modi specifically, began to tom-tom the "clean chits" he received from courts at various levels.

Initially, the Congress was able to stand up to Modi and the BJP in this devious game of 'your riot was more heinous than our riot'. But, as his bandwagon gained in momentum and began forcing a change in the attitude of the people, the Congress became diffident of its strategy. In time, the Congress leaders too began displaying more consistently adherence to their Hindu faith and politically, the party stopped raising issues that were a concern to the Muslims and even Christians.

Sonia Gandhi once famously said that the Congress had a pro-minority image and the party started scaling down public display of inclusive politics. In these elections, references to 2002 riots have been completely missing and it has almost appeared that the horror of Gujarat never occurred. This has to do with both the success of the BJP in dictating the framework of the adversary's attack and also the changed societal viewpoint on key issues of inclusiveness, especially Muslims. Regardless of who comes to power now, this altered character of the polity is here to stay for long.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))

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