"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Langara event breaks academic silence on Sikh massacre Featured

An event organized at Langara College on November 21 broke academic silence in North America over the worst massacre of the Sikhs in the world’s so-called largest democracy.

Thousands of Sikhs were lynched and burnt alive across India during the first week of November, 1984, following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Led by Gandhi’s self-proclaimed secularist Congress party activists, the mobs targeted Sikh men and raped their women to avenge the murder of the slain Prime Minister. The police remained mute spectators or became complicit in the violence.

Titled as “Commemoration of and Resistance to Historic Atrocity: Sikhs and 1984”, the event was held in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology to commemorate the “Sikh Genocide of 1984”.

This is not the first time that an event concerning repression of Sikhs was organized at Langara. Back in 2006, the college hosted the official opening of Amu - a film based on the 1984 massacre by Shonali Bose, who spoke about censorship and other challenges she faced during the making and release of the film. It was noted that most students and teachers weren’t aware of this bloody episode.

Three scholars - Indira Prahst from Langara College, Prabhsharanbir Singh from University of British Columbia and Amanpreet Kaur from University of Exeter, UK - presented their papers at the event to educate the academia of the massacre that marked the beginning of an era of impunity in India. While the Congress leaders involved in the mayhem remain unpunished, a similar massacre was organized by the currently ruling right wing Hindu nationalist BJP against Muslims in 2002. The pogrom rocked the state of Gujarat where the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister. The denial of justice to the Sikhs gave legitimacy to political parties in coming years to perpetuate bigotry and hate and indulge in majoritarianism.

Indira Prahst shared her work on commemoration and the survivor narratives of the 1984 Sikh Genocide from the Widow Colony in Delhi. She presented harrowing accounts of violence, and explained how in current geopolitical climates, the Indian state continues to employ subtle mechanisms to silence, eclipse and distort this violent history as it builds its nation. She cautioned how power is maintained through state discourses of 1984 and how they have become normalized, altering subjectivities with domesticating effects. Urging far more critical approaches to understanding 1984, she also cautioned against aestheticizing of suffering, arguing that it generalizes suffering.

Prabhsharanbir Singh said that India as a modern nation-state has combined two forms of violence: the very public spectacle of brutal mob violence in which police and other state apparatuses also participate, and the disciplinary violent modern institutions. “For this reason, India has ruthlessly suppressed mass movements”. He also talked about the psychic aspects of violence. The violence targeted at Sikhs can be better understood through the idea of soul-murder. “In desecrating the Gurdwaras and Guru Granth Sahib, the Indian state has tried to rob something that is essential for the Sikh community: their respect for their Gurus and the sacred spaces. The trauma of such psychic violence is playing a decisive role in giving direction to Sikh politics. It also shapes the Sikh subjectivity”. 

Amanpreet Kaur shared memories from her trip to Punjab and how the violence of this history and its impact, inspired her to learn more. She spoke about how Sikh identities have become diluted because of the challenges Sikh youth face with modernity and connecting to Sikhi as they try to find themselves in the chaos of the modern world. She highlighted the role of Spirituality and Gurbani in understanding the resilience of people who endured unspeakable atrocities. She ended with a reminder that most critical signifiers of what a Sikh is connects to their history of oppression and resistance. “The resistance to not forget and to remember to maintain who we are,” she said.

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