Five incidents of mob violence that shook India, and the documentaries that ensured we wouldn't forget the horrors inflicted on our fellow countrymen.
In a new five-part series, Firstpost views bloody chapters in Indian history, through the lens of filmmakers who painstakingly documented their human toll. Some offer a granular perspective, others a wider framework to understand the contexts in which such violence occurs, and what the aftermath entails.
Featured in this series are Subasri Krishnan's What The Fields Remember, on the Nellie Massacre of 1983; Teenaa Kaur Pasricha’s 1984 - When the Sun Didn’t Rise, on the countrywide anti-Sikh massacre of 1984; Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots; Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, on the 2002 Gujarat riots, and Deepa Dhanraj’s Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko?, on the Hyderabad communal riots of 1984.
LIVING IN AJMER, Teenaa Kaur Pasricha’s immediate family had been relatively safe during the brutal violence visited on the Sikh community in 1984, in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. However, her uncle — travelling from Patiala to Delhi by train during this time — wasn’t. An angry mob attacked the train he was in, pulling out the Sikh passengers. They cut his hair, a marker of his identity. Then, even as other passengers were being murdered, Pasricha’s uncle managed to escape, seeking refuge in a nearby village.
“He was there for about five-six days, the people hid him,” Pasricha recounts. “Later, he returned home to Punjab. But he was so shocked by the whole incident, most importantly because his hair was cut, he didn’t go out of the house or meet people until his hair grew back.”
The anti-Sikh massacre of 1984 was among the worst acts of sectarian violence in post-Partition India. In the aftermath of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, frenzied Hindu mobs targeted Sikhs — razing down their shops and establishments; dragging them from their homes, vehicles or public transport and assaulting them; vandalising Sikh places of worship; raping women; and burning and cutting down the men.
Official estimates state that around 2,733 Sikhs were slain in Delhi alone, and more than 7,000 across India. However, it is believed that those figures are just the tip of the iceberg, and the actual death toll was much higher. Barbara Crossette, writing for the World Press Journal, said: “Almost as many Sikhs died in a few days in India in 1984 than all the deaths and disappearances in Chile during the 17-year military rule of General Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.”
Several members of the Congress-led administration — HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler among them — were implicated in the mass carnage, but 35 years later, the Sikh community is still to see a semblance of justice.
Attempting to “bring some sense of justice…by telling it through a story” Teenaa Kaur Pasricha made 1984, When the Sun Didn’t Rise; her documentary would go on to win the National Award. Pasricha — having heard of the horror perpetrated on her own uncle and other Sikhs — was saddened by the noticeable absence of the 1984 violence from history textbooks. Having been raised outside of Punjab and Delhi, she admits to having felt a certain inquisitiveness to find out “the real truth”. Her film underscores the community’s pathos, anguish and despair. Inescapable to miss in this narrative is the immense sense of bereavement, and the personal crises that followed after 1984.
Pasricha asserts that the pogrom against Sikhs cannot be called a “riot” as it has been referred to over the years. “It [the anti-Sikh violence] was termed a riot by the Congress government so that they could get away without taking any responsibility for it,” Pasricha says, emphasising that riots happen when two parties clash with each other. “There was no FIR registered by any person who was harmed by the Sikhs. On the contrary, there were 56 soldiers who were working for the Sikh army at that time, and they were killed in the ‘84 massacre. In India, more than 10,000 people were killed.”
Pasricha’s original idea had been to make a feature film based on the ’84 violence, and she was researching the subject as early as 2007. But there were few takers. In November 2011, soon after the release of her debut documentary (Hola! The Mighty Colours), she began shooting for When The Sun Didn’t Rise. Even as she spoke with the people who she hoped would participate in her film, and travelled between Mumbai-Delhi numerous times, she kept working on other projects. It was in 2017 that she received her censor certificate for the documentary.
Pasricha says it had been difficult to find a starting point — whether to centre her film in Delhi or in other parts of the country which also witnessed the horrors of 1984. Eventually, she did zero in on Delhi as she felt “in no other place in India could one find Sikhs, who have suffered through ‘84, living together”. Her groundwork included extensive conversations with the senior advocate and human rights activist HS Phoolka who has been at the forefront of the legal crusade against the perpetrators of the 1984 violence. With little knowledge of Delhi, Phoolka’s support was crucial in learning of survivors who Pasricha was then able to reach out to with the help of a contact.
1984, When the Sun Didn’t Rise opens in Delhi’s Tilak Nagar which, over the years, has come to be known as “Widows Colony” — many of the widows and families of those killed in 1984 live in this quaint neighbourhood.
“I have never heard of so many women living in a sorority with that kind of a common backdrop,” says Pasricha, adding that she was overwhelmed on hearing the colony’s moniker. She explains how it took centre-stage in her documentary: “These women are not from the rich/middle class; they are poor women whose husbands were daily wagers. So how did they survive? They were homemakers who knew nothing about the world outside. Suddenly when the men were gone, they had to don the hat of ‘the breadwinners of the family’ — going for daily jobs, earning money, handling bank accounts, taking pensions etc… And they continue doing that even today, about 34 years down the line. How did they manage to do all of that — that was the biggest transformational journey and I wanted to document it.”
The three women who primarily feature in Pasricha’s film — Kuldeep Kaur, Harbans Kaur and Meera Kaur — have their sorrow in common. However, they also had their individual journeys, and their lives took diverse turns after the calamity.
Kuldeep, who watched her husband being thrashed out of their home onto the streets, beaten and burned alive by their once-friends and neighbours, is today a woman of steel. She has fought many battles since 1984 and has been able to get compensation for all the 21 people she represented in court. “The judge asked me whether I was happy that all the accused in my husband’s death were punished. I told them there was no reason to be happy, as these people would have died anyway; they will spend the last few years of their life in prison. I would have been happier if this justice would have been done immediately,” she says, adding: “I have avenged the murder of my husband, I am at peace now.” Harbans wasn’t in Delhi when her husband was murdered in ’84; she was at her maternal house in Punjab. In the film, she recollects how she would often keep an eye out, hoping to find her husband amid all the strangers and the disabled on the streets. “As I had not seen his dead body, for many years I would keep staring out of the window while travelling in the bus to work...I would observe intently with the hope that I find him,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “But now over the last 7-8 years, I have realised that he will not return.”
Then there is Meera Kaur, whose younger son Mohan Singh is a drug addict. Having stolen to sustain his habit, Mohan’s wife and son have left him and now live separately. Meera has worked hard for the past 40 years, doing her best to raise her two sons, but struggles now with Mohan’s care. “He has been doing drugs for the past 8-10 years now out of sorrow. If I give him money for it, I am a good mother for him,” says Meera, in the film. “How much should I do? I am tired now. Thinking about this, I often feel I should just escape, but where? I cry and go to sleep in silence.”
Like Mohan, many youngsters in the locality have never seen their fathers. Drug abuse is prevalent. Girls are married off at a young age so they can escape the suffocating environs.
Pasricha says her choice of interviewees was intuitive; it’s something she’s learned through her years as a filmmaker — to rely on her intuition. Of Kuldeep, Harbans and Meera, she says, “Everyone has a different journey — whether it is in their real lives or through the one hour of the film. It is about how real and different they are, and that’s exactly how it happens in real life. Similarly, when a tragedy strikes, each one of us responds to it in a very different way and that came across as a trigger for the film, in terms of its characters.”
As much as the film chronicles the lives of the Widows Colony families, there’s another narrative at play too — that of Pasricha seeking justice for her community, and the identity crisis that followed since the events of 1984 unfolded. “A Sikh man puts on a turban each day just to remember the principles written in the Guru Granth Sahib that whenever there’s someone who needs a [piece of] cloth — be it a woman, child or someone needy — one could take off the turban and give it to them. In 1984, that same man was butchered just because of his identity; because of the turban he wore, he stood out in the crowd,” Pasricha laments. The events of ’84 illuminated how identity could be both: a source of strength as well as a point of vulnerability. “There is a lot of fear of identity among the Sikhs. Many took the decision of chopping their hair at that time and chose not to grow it back. Clearly, they wanted to safeguard themselves or wanted to get rid of this identity that is larger than life,” Pasricha muses.
For the Sikh community, the 1984 violence left wounds so deep that even after three-plus decades, the trauma cannot be erased. This makes the ignorance of the general populace towards the massacre particularly shocking. “For me, the biggest perpetrators were not Sajjan Kumar or Jagdish Tytler, but the common man — walking and living in Delhi even today — who saw this injustice happening and did nothing about it. What is then the collective conscience of this country? How does the collective conscience of the country substantiate or justify this kind of violence and move on without recalling the history, without even recording it?”
A report prepared jointly by People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in November 1984 read: “...the attacks on members of the Sikh Community in Delhi and its suburbs during the period, far from being a spontaneous expression of ‘madness’ and of popular ‘grief and anger’ at Mrs Gandhi's assassination as made out to be by the authorities, were the outcome of a well organised plan marked by acts of both deliberate commissions and omissions by important politicians of the Congress (I) at the top and by authorities in the administration…” Since 1984, 12 commissions have been formed, but the accused have either gone scot-free or their identities remain elusive. Several cases had been filed in the last 34 years; many have been withdrawn or forgotten.
“Everyone wants a normal life; no one likes to go to court every day fighting for a husband who died 30 years ago,” says Pasricha, pointing to systemic flaws that allow “anyone to get away with murder, a massacre, violence towards a particular community or tribe”. “Often there are no clear indications to the person who instigates the violence, whose interests are safeguarded in that. That’s not how a nation should be,” she points out.
Apart from the survivors, 1984, When The Sun Didn’t Rise also features Jagdish Tytler, among the accused in the 1984 massacre. Tytler says he had no role to play in the violence, claiming that his name is often linked with the event as political propaganda. Many others that Pasricha reached out to in areas like Trilokpuri, Mangolpuri, were reluctant to speak before the camera. Even as Pasricha worked to include voices from both sides, she faced a fair bit of opposition during filming. There were calls from those purportedly in the administration (the UPA was in power then) demanding they be given the film to “take care of”; drug dealers inquired about the documentary; cops who wanted to know why she was frequenting Delhi so often: “As a single woman making a film, I never wanted it to be the ‘talk of the town’, as I had no backing from anyone. I was aware my vulnerability could be targeted. But I think life is worth it when there is some purpose, and that kept me going,” Pasricha says. Later, Ollie Huddleston would come on board as a consulting editor and help Pasricha with an outsider’s viewpoint in discerning the “good stories amid many tragic stories and differentiating whose sorrow was bigger than the other”.
There were other hurdles to navigate: finding funds to sustain the project, paying bills, applying for grants. “The whole thing tests every cell of your body,” Pasricha says, wryly. “It is almost an ‘all-or-none’ case where you are risking everything — time and effort — without anything in return on the table. But it is still worthwhile to see where it takes you. If life is not about passion, then all you are left with is mediocrity and I don’t endorse mediocrity.”
On the personal front too, Pasricha had an uphill struggle. Right after she completed the film, she was detected with breast cancer. She admits she had neglected her health entirely, and that the diagnosis was a wake-up call. Now, as she looks back over the journey of crafting the film, she does feel a sense of satisfaction. “I used to be very depressed while I was shooting, as I was absorbing the emotions of these women who were narrating their horrific experiences. Surely it was a difficult journey, but also a very fulfilling one. I got to know so many stories, live so many lives.”
“Having that kind of empathy of knowing so many people who have undergone such trauma… one suddenly starts feeling like one is also a survivor of that massacre. I don’t know whether there is some kind of separation that is possible. But to make a good documentary, one has to absorb all the emotions to bring that on screen,” Pasricha adds. “It changes you as a human being.”
Watch the trailer of Teenaa Kaur Pasricha's 1984, When the Sun Didn't Rise here: