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As Stories Turn 30, 1984 Living History Project Gains Momentum

Hearing directly from Sikhs across the globe how they experienced the events of 1984 highlights what has been lost over ...

The 1984 Living History Project Team details its efforts to reclaim the narrative, thirty years after the horrors of 1984.

Some living-room stories are so special that they never get told or are rarely discussed: never to leave the family’s home or lips.

This simple realization by a few dozen young Sikhs gave birth to the 1984 Living History Project , a community-run memory-preservation initiative, which now has volunteers and has documented videos from across North America, South Asia and the UK. It is scheduled to train its first volunteer in Africa later this month.

Stories about the violence of 1984 across India are often only told quietly in Sikh homes and behind closed doors, whereas only a selective narrative makes the headlines. When stories of trauma have been diligently wrapped in blame and fear for over three decades, they are seldom publically accessible. This Project is changing that reality: one video narrative at a time.

Why in 2014?

Anniversaries of mass violence and atrocities are customarily recognized in ways that may not be inter-generationally appealing or empowering. During this thirtieth anniversary of 1984, an organic video-making initiative has grown manifold into the 1984 Living History Project.

In some ways, this Project was seeded in 2011, with an informal video-recording of a young man sharing his story as a child of 1984. As his face welled up with emotion, a friend decided to record his story to show some younger Sikhs who weren’t in the room and hadn’t ever heard a first-hand 1984 account from someone they knew. But, how many more younger people were out there and how many more first-hand stories needed to be told? The conversation grew.

Several children of 1984 have spoken to the Project now; their videos tagged under “Child Witness, Childhood Trauma.”

One of them remembers seeing Army tanks incongruously roll through the Punjab countryside in June 1984—“to my little mind… we were going to war with Pakistan”—and then visiting the shattered Darbar Sahib complex in Amritsar and realizing that the war was at home. He shares, “This particular year, has for some reason… been more emotional than any other year.”

Marking three decades of silence about violence will do that to some.

In many ways, this Project has been thirty years coming. Since the initial violence, brave attempts have been made at recording testimonies and preserving evidence. But real and perceived fears thwarted grassroots attempts. Some real and many illusory attempts for justice delayed and denied Sikhs the opportunity to be heard.

Waiting no more, Sikhs have now responded overwhelmingly to the Project’s 2014 call of a “Year of Videos” to mark the thirtieth anniversary of events that should have never transpired in the first place.

Why 1984?

1984 anti-Sikh violence is invoked in a myriad of ways, many of which feel cursory and some of which are downright opportunistic. All are incomplete.

‘The babies’ stuff [scattered in the gurudwara] is what I remember most...” says one interviewee, recounting her experience of walking through a bloodied Gurudwara in 1984.

Not in New Delhi. Not in Amritsar. But over 125 miles from Amritsar, in Patiala, where she was an eyewitness to the destruction at Gurudwara Dukh Nivaran Sahib in June 1984.

“Sky was all red at night... but later on we started smelling it…that’s how we knew what was going on.” Mass and secret cremations.

The tragic ‘widow colonies’ of New Delhi and essential reports such as “Who Are the Guilty” by rights groups, have at least made known—even though never redressed — the bloody mayhem in November 1984 in New Delhi. But, 1984 scarred Sikhs much beyond the country’s capital, and much before the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

What is cloaked quickly under the label of “Bluestar,” gets a deeper meaning through videos of eyewitnesses to those days of the escalated violence across Punjab in June 1984: telephone lines being cut on May 31, first test rounds fired into the Darbar Sahib on June 1; Punjab cordoned off from all media and strict curfew by June 2; all trains to Punjab being cancelled by June 3; families having no way of contacting loved ones and civilians dying of thirst, beatings, and retributive close-range firing between June 4-6; the reverberations being felt by Sikhs around the world as the news of the events finally began seeping through the media.

Hearing directly from Sikhs across the globe how they experienced the events of 1984 highlights what has been lost over the years due to the “official” 1984 narrative.

Whether in Punjab, Delhi, Calcutta, California, Singapore, Nairobi or anywhere else in the world, any Sikh old enough to remember 1984 has a story to tell.

“After June, the amount of vigilance we started to have was very high...because everyone...who was a friend of ours who was Indian, who was non-Sikh...the dialogue just fell off a cliff. We became alienated. We were the outsiders and they were the insiders...and I had always identified as Indian. I grew up in Africa...but we were all Indian... And now, all of a sudden, we wore a scarlet letter on our chest.”

This alienation was met with further dehumanization in November, as the public violence and mutilation, most-known across Delhi but in several other states as well, put Sikhs of all ranks on the run overnight.

Since 1947, it was the first time that Sikhs were branded as threats simply because they were Sikhs. Unlike 1947, the deadly branding of 1984 has not received due acknowledgement, much less redressal.

In his 1990 essay “The Survivor in the Study of Violence,” Amit Srinivasan of Delhi University noted the unmistakable link between the violence of June and November 1984: both “violation of the home,” religiously or domestically defined, “together served to crystallize [Sikhs’] new historical identity and stereotype.”

Capturing a range of reactions of Sikhs to this violent violation of home—each person is encouraged to speak for themselves, with “I” statements, about what they themselves saw, heard, felt—this Project helps develop a layered understanding of a landmark year. As much as it raises uncomfortable questions—for example, a Government White Paper released in July 1984 itself (and refuted by several eye witnesses) ostensibly detailed the killings in the Darbar Sahib complex in Amritsar, but what of those cremated quickly in places like the gurudwara in Patiala? — it also helps ease the guilt of ignorance about a recent history. Since 1947, it was the first time that Sikhs were branded threats simply because they were Sikhs. Unlike that branding of 1947, the deadly branding of 1984 has not received due acknowledgement, much less redressal.

Why Sikhs?

The videos we began collecting illustrated one fact: Sikhs will forever share 1984 as a common experience, across differences, as a community; whether direct or indirect victims of violence; bankers or farmers; doctors or government employees; men or women; politically left-wing, right-wing or in between.

Through an easy do-it-yourself process, everyone can contribute videos to the Project and help build the archive of a history that lives all around us.

So far, the Project interviewees are almost exclusively Sikhs. The interviewers are a group of young Sikh volunteers, unpaid, and not affiliated to any organization, though partnering with all organizations that want to help preserve history. Avoiding donation drives or fundraisers or waiting for professional assistance, this grassroots Project’s goal is to release videos as soon as possible: thirty years is too long already. 1984 simply won’t become better understood or less taboo in silence: the last three decades are testament.

The Project seeks to maintain its independence and capture a range of voices (recently one man declared “Indira Gandhi was India’s best Prime Minsiter” and then proceeded to recount his narrow escapes in November 1984.) The occasional hate mail is outweighed in the face of the obvious interest and support of over 37,000 Facebook followers.

Project volunteers are slowly expanding to interview non-Sikhs who played a role in 1984, those who want to share a story or simply share the pain.

But in 2014, the Project has been focused on the Sikh community:

The range and diversity within the community itself is one reason to keep focus internal. Another one is giving the community the respect and space to remember together.

Several interviewees speak of Christian, Muslim, Hindu and others who saved Sikh lives in 1984. (video tag: Allies ). As with the “Righteous among the nations,” non-Jews who rescued Jews, or the Hutu Rwandans who followed their conscience, the non-Sikh Indians who upheld humanity over politics of hate remain heroes.

Yet, as evident by the Sikh death toll, it is also unsurprising, that a much larger number of interviewees speak to how the Sikh minority was left to fend for itself, saving each other at great costs, and trying to make sense of persecution in their own home.

Anthropologist Tala Asad has noted the “notorious tactic of political power to deny a distinct unity to populations it seeks to govern, to treat them as contingent and indeterminate.”

Recognizing the resilience and unity the community has shown amidst deadly challenges, the younger generation of video-makers pays tribute to the Sikhs of 30 years ago: those who died and those who lived to tell their stories.

Sharing his memories of 1984 with his young children who insisted on being in the video rocking on each knee, one interviewee concludes: “Not in Sikh history… as we are exploring this topic more and more, this is going to be better understood as an important event in human history.”


1984 (3K)1984 Living History Project’s mission is to mark the watershed year of 1984 through capturing the stories of anti-Sikh violence in India, while recognizing the survival and resilience of a people.


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