Off-centre | The Delhi Files: Truth or dare
It is speculated that ‘The Delhi Files’ will be about the anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984 under the watch of the Congress government led by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi
This is the first of a three-part series on what the new form of investigative and cinematic storytelling, which threatens to change the way India is narrated and represented across multiple genres and media.
It was mildly diverting, as well as somewhat distressing, to listen to the crossfire on primetime national news channels recently. The ruckus was over Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri’s announcement that it was “time to work on #The Delhi Files.” When he has not yet revealed the theme or topic of the movie, why such a brouhaha? The answer is simple. It is speculated that “The Delhi Files” will be about the anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984 under the watch of the Congress government led by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
No matter how hard they’ve tried, this is a stigma that Congress has not been able completely to wash off. Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, was shot and assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984. Rajiv Gandhi, her son, who was in West Bengal, flew in and was sworn in as the prime minister. Rioting and anti-Sikh violence, which had already broken out in Delhi, was not brought under control till three days later, on 3 November.
Till then marauding and murderous mobs, allegedly led by Congress party leaders and workers, combed through Sikh neighbourhoods, targeting some of the poorest members of the community in areas such as Trilokpuri. Elsewhere, Sikhs, easily identified by their turbans, were attacked, even killed at random. Sikh shops and establishments were also torched, looted, and ransacked all over Delhi. There were copycat acts in other parts of the country, but the worst violence and carnage were witnessed in India’s national capital. The toll in just four days was about 3,000 dead, as per official figures, and several thousand injured.
From that day till December 2018, there were no convictions, despite over ten high-level committees and commissions enquiring into the riots. Several Delhiites, however, have clear memories of those dark days of anarchy and violence. Parts of the city were in flames, with smoke billowing up visible from miles away. Police stations were deserted, with SHOs absent or absconding. No one picked up calls of distress or appeals for help. The city seemed temporarily in a state of lawlessness, even though the country had a new prime minister by late evening on the very same day that Indira Gandhi was killed.
With Agnihotri’s stupendous success at the box office, The Kashmir Files having grossed over Rs 250 crore, his intention to follow up with “The Delhi Files” naturally caused a ripple in the political circles and the media. Speculation is rife that the film will be an expose of the Congress government’s complicity in both inciting and covering up the riots. Actually, as far back as September 2021, the controversial filmmaker had posted an image of India’s tri-lion state emblem, soaked in blood, with the outline of what looked like a Sikh boy asking for help, with the background music indicating bullets being fired, soldiers marching, priests chanting, and a baby crying.
Watching the noisy contestants on national TV, with accusations and counter-accusations flying thick and fast, the question that an informed and the interested viewer would ask might be, “Who’s afraid of the truth? Whom will it hurt? Why so much alarm over a film whose very subject still remains uncertain and which is far from being released let alone made?” The answers are simple. Every political party has something or the other to hide. Without a doubt, there are proverbial skeletons in each one’s closets. But in this case, it is the Congress that has most to lose because it also has, it would seem, more misdeeds to account for than the others. Is this only the outcome of ruling India longer than their rivals or a series of sins of omission and commission attributed to them by the present ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
From live and let live, the new mantra in Indian politics seems to be to go for the jugular of one’s political opponents. Call it the bulldozer mentality or model if you like, but in this phase of India’s culture wars, a “Congress-mukt Bharat” or Congress-free India, does seem a real, even if unlikely possibility. In this, however, the biggest contributor is the Congress itself, losing state after state, being unable to manage its own leadership crisis, and losing grip of the party, its cadres, and its loyal support base. While the Congress flounders, not just the BJP, but Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), is winning the battle for Indian minds and hearts at the hustings, as in Punjab.
If we believe in the national motto “Satyameva Jayate,” truth alone triumphs, why should we be afraid of the truth? It is not that there have been no films or movies on the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre. But the fear is that a filmmaker of Agnihotri’s calibre and knack will knock the lid off closely guarded secrets and coverups. The apprehension in the opposition camp on national TV was over the great damage Agnihotri, with his newly-found narratological prowess and commercial success could inflict on an already weakened and wounded Congress. To put it succinctly, the fear is that what his earlier opus “The Shastri Files” could not do, “The Delhi Files” might.
[To be continued]
The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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