November 04, 2009

Unease in the Museum

The edit page of the Hindustan Times today (Nov 4) carries a short essay by me that's about some of what's been discussed in this space before.

The folks at HT sliced and modified it a bit, so I'll append the original below anyway.

Any reactions welcome.


The Golden Temple in Amritsar is one of my favourite places: welcoming, spectacular and peaceful. But tucked away up a steep staircase, in the Central Sikh Museum, are reminders of less peaceful times. On a recent visit, I take the stairs two at a time, then walk through room after room lined with paintings of gruesome incidents from Sikh history, all the way to what is, for me, the heart of the Museum.

On the walls, plenty of portraits of admired men. On my left, a handsome one of Shahid -- note, "Shahid", meaning martyr -- Bhagat Singh in prison shackles, awaiting his fate. In front, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale; this is when I get my first flutters of unease. These images, complete with explanations in English and Punjabi.

To the right of Bhindranwale, an artist's rendition of "Sri Akal Takht after Military Attack, 6 June 1984" -- at the climax of Operation Bluestar, when the Indian Army entered the heart of Sikhdom to defeat armed men holed up here. The painting shows the Akal Takht badly damaged and burned. In fading English below, these lines:

"Under the calculated move of Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, Military troops stormed Golden Temple with tanks. Thousands of Sikhs were massacred. Sri Akal Takht suffered the worst damages. Sikhs rose up in a united protest. Many returned their honours. Sikh soldiers left their barracks."

There's one more sentence: "The Sikhs, however, soon had their vengeance."

The unease, again. It grows as my eyes move further right, to settle on three portraits, all the same size as Bhagat Singh's. These list only names and dates:

"Shahid S Beant Singh Ji, 1949 to 31 Oct 1984."
"Shahid S Satwant Singh Ji, 1967 to 6 Jan 1989."
"Shahid S Kehar Singh Ji, 1940 to 6 Jan 1989

You know those names and dates.

Note, "Shahid" again, all three times, exactly as it is used for Bhagat Singh.

She has plenty to answer for, Indira Gandhi. My feeling is that a vast number of this country's myriad intractable problems can be laid at her door. It's why I have minimal regard for her.

Yet even so: she was, when shot dead by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, India's Prime Minister. To see her killers accorded the same esteem as Bhagat Singh, to see them called "Shahid" like him, is to ask some serious questions about nationhood. About terrorism. About freedom and those who fight for it. About what those words really mean. About India itself.

Then the memory of the days after Indira died. To me, the slaughter of 3000 Indians because they were Sikh remains the greatest act of terrorism in our 62 years. That we have not punished the murderers is, a quarter century later, a national shame.

But this Museum underlines what so many of us find hard to swallow: one man's terrorist is another's … what? Martyr, freedom fighter, hero? On this wall is a revered martyr of our freedom struggle. On this wall too are three other men, also called martyrs. Yet how many would agree with that characterization; how many would instead find it repugnant?

And doesn't that reflect our essential dilemma about terrorism? We agree that the killers of 200 innocent Indians in Mumbai in November of 2008 were terrorists. How many of us agree that the killers of 3000 innocent Indians in Delhi in November of 1984 were terrorists?

Yet what else were they?

The Golden Temple is a favourite spot, yes, despite the unease. Yet perhaps we could all use some unease.


wise donkey said...

those who killed innocent Indians on the streets of delhi in 84 are not terrorists.
they are monsters.

Anonymous said...

I didnt really get an oppty on the last thread to put this across: I've always been more than conflicted abt Shahid Bhagatji.

I lean toward the idea that what he did was *not* a good thing at all. Apologies for any offence to patriotic sentiment.


Anonymous said...

We have been thro this in fine detail....can you bring on something else...suggest the renewal of the fatwa on Vande Mataram

AmOK said...

A very difficult subject, D. Sikhs have always been and will always be an integral part of Indian history and the Indian future. The paroxysms you describe were an aberration that we hope will never be repeated by any party.

Suresh said...

The paroxysms you describe were an aberration that we hope will never be repeated by any party.

After 60 years of independence, the claim that "riots" are an aberration is wearing thin. So are the Gujarat riots also an aberration? How about the recent violence in Orissa? If we continue treating serious violence in this casual way --- effectively dismissing them by calling them an "aberration" --- then I am sorry to say we are condemned to live with such "aberrations" for a long time to come.

Punishing the guilty won't bring back those killed but at least it is an assurance to the victims that we live in a civilized society and that such instances of violence are indeed an aberration. If the guilty remain unpunished after 25 years, then what is the assurance that the terrible violence was indeed an aberration? Just because you say so?

Finally, ask yourself this: If your mother/father/son/daughter/relative/friend was killed in that violence, how would you feel if someone came and told you that what happened was an "aberration"? Wouldn't you look it as a case of adding insult to injury? The next time, perhaps, you'll think before making such thoughtless statements.

Needless to say what I've said applies to all victims of such violence.

AmOK said...

Suresh, if you reject the word aberration your only choice is to accept it as the norm. If the horror is not an aberration, then what? The norm? I empathize with your vehemence but am not willing to accept it as the norm. Not so thoughtless, after all.

Suresh said...

If the horror is not an aberration, then what? The norm?

Yes, unfortunately. What else can we conclude in the face of repeated riots? As far back as 1987, M. J. Akbar had published a book "Riot after Riot" and the title pretty much says it all. More recently, the American political scientist Paul Brass has published a book "The production of Hindu-Muslim violence in Contemporary India" and the use of the word "production" is revealing. The political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in fact, suggests that violence is endogenous, meaning that it is a consequence of the political system that we have chosen to adopt and the nature of our own society.

Violence in pursuit of political aims in contemporary India seems therefore to be a norm rather than an aberration. We need to acknowledge it as such and then begin the hard search for answers. But, hard as it may be, we have to stop suggesting that every incident of political violence is an aberration. After so many such incidents, it just doesn't wash. And for the victims, very few of whom receive any measure of justice, it only adds insult to injury.

Sorry for the aggressive tone of my remarks.

AmOK said...

Suresh - thanks for your notes and references. I agree regarding the H-M riots as well as the violence against Christians, indeed communal violence is a regularly utilised "political formula". Clashes between Sikhs and other communities are, on the other hand, are not as common and I hope this remains true. Perhaps your next comment will continue my education in this area. Indeed the riots are a national shame.

I do not mind the "aggressive" tone of your remarks -- well-intentioned passion is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

>We have been thro this in fine
> detail....can you bring on
>something else...suggest the
>renewal of the fatwa on Vande

Anon above is correct, dcubed. Deciding not to sing a song is much more important than the killing of thousands of Sikh.

Mihir said...

Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in immediately after the execution of Indira Gandhi.

Such a shame that the man began his tenure by trvialising the murder of 3000 Indians, by equating it to the consequence of a 'big tree falling'. What did he mean? His mama - Prime Minister or not - is no more precious than the other 3000 who died.

A life is a life, right?

It's been 25 years. I believe the Gandhi family and the Congress still remembers it all as a mere aftermath of Indira Gandhi's death.

How then, do we expect any justice. And whom do we seek it from?

Anonymous said...

What baffles me is that why Sikhs vote for Congress in Punjab. Is this a vindication of the stand taken by Indira by the way of Operation Bluestar?. Have Sikhs forgiven Congress for the 1984 incidents?. I mean how can a community vote for a party that was behind killing thousands of their own co-religionists, not in antiquity but only 25 years ago. Most of the protagonists on both sides are still alive and still Congress forms governments in Punjab. Stange....

I'm also at a loss to understand why Taliban are bombing Pakistan ...and that too in the name of Islam. I mean what's happening in Pakistan is certainly not class struggle.

Chandru K said...

Paul Brass is a pervert and scumbag who is obsessed with riots and violence in India, to the *exclusion* of just about everything else. Thus, you will never see him uttering any preface or nicety about India such as "India is a wonderful country but.." or "India has to grapple with a lot of poverty and a huge amount of diversity and that too in the context of a pluralistic democracy" or make any favourable comments about India's cultural heritage.
For Indians/persons of Indian origin to be quoting him approvingly shows a degree of either horrendous ignorance or self hatred. Absolutely appalling.

Anonymous said...

dcubed, correct me if i'm wrong, but as far as i know varuns s and chandru k are the same personality, right?? why is he trying to pose as two diffrent persons??

Dilip D'Souza said...

India is a wonderful country but...

Who is or who is not a pervert and a scumbag is a matter of similar opinion that I'm uninterested in.

But give me the guys, any day, who will refrain from the meaningless and hypocritical "prefaces" or "niceties" such as "India is a wonderful country but ...". Give me the guys who simply say what they mean, no sugarcoating.

I don't know Paul Brass, but if that's the kind of guy he is -- one who won't utter the empty preface or nicety -- it only makes me more keen to read him.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Varun, you have a point.

Next time I write on these lines, I will keep what you say in mind and follow advice I got from Gaurav in this comment, quoted below.

[F]rom a lot of these comments, I have now understood what you need to do. Whenever you express dismay over one mindless killing, express dismay over all the other mindless killings committed in the world too. Write about killings from all countries and continents. Don't forget to leave out frostbite deaths from Antarctica. Every morning, you must scour newspapers and police reports and write about them too. While you are at it, throw in sympathy for car accident victims as well. Go through all the obituary pages and include those deceased souls in your post too.

And then, if there is time left, brush your teeth

In fact, following your advice now, I'm planning to go all the way back to Hannibal's attacks on Rome -- or even further than that, to Leonidas's stand against the Persian army, ~480 BC.

Thanks for the suggestion, really. If you can suggest even more ancient conflicts/wars/massacres than these, I'm all ears. In fact, I once heard of one in 7851 BC, can you fill me on on that? Thanks.

Suresh said...

Paul Brass is a pervert and a scumbag

Takes one to recognize one, eh Chandru?

But exactly what has Paul Brass done to deserve this epithet? He's been an academic almost all his life. He has published papers in journals, written books, given presentations at conferences and so on. He has made no secret of his political sympathies. Presumably, in the Hindutvavadi worldview, all this amounts to being a "pervert" and a "scumbag.

For those prepared to look beyond the (stupid and idiotic) charges of "pervert" and "scumbag", Paul Brass has a website which contains links to many of his published papers. He even has a blog updated infrequently. The website is:

Chandru K said...

Because Paul Brass focuses *only* on riots and violence, to the exclusion of *everything* else. So one has to seriously question his motives and mentality. There are writers and commentators on India such as William Dalrymple, Daniel Lak, Mark Tully, Francois Gauthier etc who do see all the good in India, even when they comment on the unpleasant and the bad. They write eloquently and incisively, and they are quite down to earth. Brass has a single point objective, to prove that riots in India are 'planned' or part of the 'structure of violence' or something like that. Good grief, why doesn't he open his mind to the wonder that is India?

Chandru K said...

Tell you what, let's leave out the Peloponnesian and Punic Wars, and look at the last 50-75 years. How many Americans, British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Belgians were ever punished for their terroristic actions in Asia, Africa and Europe? Not a single one! And the numbers are enormously higher than what low-level functionaries of the Congress or vengeful VHP cadres did in Delhi and Gujarat respectively.

Anonymous said...

but are you varun or chandru??


"terroristic actions in Asia, Africa and Europe"


"what low-level functionaries of the Congress or vengeful VHP cadres did in Delhi and Gujarat."

tell you wot, chandru/varun/whoever you are at 8pm ist -- when you can bring ur good self to refer to "what" those functionaries "did in Delhi and Gujarat" as "terroristic actions" too, then you come back and ask your questions. okay??

Suresh said...

Because Paul Brass focuses *only* on riots and violence, to the exclusion of *everything* else. So one has to seriously question his motives and mentality.

No, what is puzzling is your mentality which is apparently so insecure that it seems that anyone criticizing India must first state "India is a wonderful country blah blah." Why don't you ponder about your own insecurity for a change?

At any rate, who the hell are you to tell Paul Brass or anyone else what they should or should not be obsessed with?

*Sigh* Looking forward to more blather from you -- you absolutely have to have the last word, don't you? How tiresome.

Anonymous said...

@Suresh, Paul Brass or whoever should state the truth and the facts without twisting it to suit their ideology and beliefs.

Freedom of speech should operate within this constraint. More often freedom of speech is mistaken to be free for all

Dilip D'Souza said...

Paul Brass or whoever should state the truth and the facts ...

I assume from your note that you believe he does not state the truth and the facts. Would you point out to me, with specific examples, where he does that?

Thank you.

Chandru K said...

Paul Brass is no well wisher of India, who is aghast at the violence that does take place every now and then. He approaches the whole subject with a very cold, hostile demeanor. He even loves to go into details of gore to prove a point, and he selects an incident in Punjab in 1947.

Seriously, why would an Indian or person of Indian origin write approvingly of such an obnoxious, rotten person. Why not also defend scumbags like Winston Churchill and Katherine Mayo? After all, there's going to be a grain of truth in some of their 'criticisms' of India as well. But that's not the point at all.

Anonymous said...

Paul Brass' truth and facts are examples of a perverted mind's obsession with riots, violence, gore, sadism and death. Mark Tully writes about violence in his despatches, but he hints at the violence in such as way as to inform readers without sensationalising the subject. Tully has great fondness for India as well; India is not some object to try out or prove any theories of violence and gore.
Paul Brass in his articles doesn't even show a *trace* of compassion for the people he allegedly feels are the victims of the 'structure of violence'- namely the Moslems. They too are merely objects to prove a pet theory of his. Or do Suresh and Dilip have evidence to the contrary?

Chandru K said...

That last post by Anon was by me- I posted without my name-

Dilip D'Souza said...


Anon 1131 states PB "should state the truth and facts".

Natural assumption from this is that Anon 1131 believes PB actually does not "state the truth and facts".

So I ask (1154), please point out where, with specific examples, PB does not "state the truth and facts".

Naturally, Anon does not answer this question, but asks in return (449) if I "have evidence to the contrary?"

Make a charge without any evidence; when challenged, turn around and say "do you have evidence to the contrary" -- the classic tactic of the guy who has no argument to offer and seeks only to deflect focus from the subject. (Consider what this post was about to begin with).

Suresh said...

The classic (by now) Chandru manouvere...don't answer the questions posed but say something else. I am not going to get sucked into this.

I will end by saying two things. Firstly, anyone interested in Paul Brass can look up his website and see what he has to say. Secondly, Katherine Mayo, is an interesting case. Yes, most Indians (who are aware of her -- a small minority) have dismissed her. But, as Amardeep Singh notes, if her book was all fantasy, it would have been all too easy to dismiss her. The fact that so many found it necessary to address her criticisms - Gandhi, no less - suggests that her book, in effect "drew blood" precisely because it could not be dismissed that way. Amardeep Singh's interesting post on her is here:

Chandru K said...

Suresh hasn't answered any of my remarks about Brass, either. That he has a singular(to the exclusion of everything else) obsession with riots and violence; that he is coldly theoretical, without a trace of compassion or soulfulness; that he doesn't have a high regard or empathy for the people and country that he has chosen to write so much about. You don't have to point me to his websites- the proof of what I'm saying is all there.

Chandru K said...

Where is Suresh's sense of history? Of course Indians back in the 1920's would have been far more sensitive about any 'criticism'( if one can really call it that) about themselves. After all, India was still a colony of Britain at the time. And it was in the midst of an anti-colonial movement. Now along comes some trashy writer trying to discredit the whole movement, its leaders and the people and culture they represent. What do you expect, some parlour conversation about how Miss Mayo's comments are very 'post-modern'? And that perhaps India should call off the whole movement?

Anonymous said...

Dilip I haven't read Paul Brass's account. So am not in a position to critic his work.

I was just trying to set the contours within which freedom of speech should excercised i.e governed by facts and truths. There are some people who abuse this freedom ( mostly unwittingly) in the name of free speech.