1984 through Indian Eyes:
Literary Accounts of Operation Blue Star and the Anti-Sikh Pogroms
By Lori Way
Part I – Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sandhu
As we look back upon the 30th anniversary of the June 1984 attack on the Golden Temple at Amritsar, many Sikhs and non-Sikhs around the world will remember this event and the massacre of Sikhs that followed later that year as some of the most brutal acts of violence within India’s recent history. In addition to often partisan interpretations of the Indian government’s assault on the Golden Temple, numerous notable literary accounts depicting the 1984 events have been produced and circulated that shape the popular imagination. For those who did not live in India during 1984, these literary accounts may be the only way that they form their opinions about the historical facts of the period.
I am honored to have the opportunity to remember the victims of 1984 as a guest writer for American Turban. In this article and those that will follow in this series, I will reflect upon works of literature which focus upon the events of 1984, including Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh pogroms that took place after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. I have chosen works by authors of Indian descent, yet the diverse sampling of writers spans a variety of religious backgrounds, national origin, etc. I have done this in order to examine the following: How do various literary works portray, remember, and reimagine the events of 1984, many details of which remain obscure to this day? Are there parallels or influences from other Indian authors present in the works related to 1984? My writing over the next few months will explore these questions.
For the first installment of this series, I have chosen to take a look at Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour from 2012. Sandhu is a Sikh author; he was born in the city of Rourkela, but he has lived in many areas throughout India. Most of the action in Roll of Honour is set in a military school within the Punjab, yet the book blends autobiographical elements of Sandhu’s life as well. The story begins with an account of Appu, the story’s protagonist, returning to military school shortly after Operation Blue Star has taken place. Appu describes how the siege of the Golden Temple and the death of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale coincided with the abduction and killing of his friend, Joga. Appu states that he is not sure whether the army or the local police had been responsible for Joga’s death, but his confusion and disappointment with his homeland are evident: “I did not understand why the Indian government and the army considered the gurdwaras to be dangerous, priests to be traitors, leaders to be renegades and people with turbans – the Sikhs – to be enemies” (Sandhu 18).
Joga’s body was found by a canal, and it is suggested in the book that it was dumped there by local police. Appu recalls how the corpse was left battered and disgraced, with the boy’s hair shaved off: “Rigor mortis had set in and Joga’s body had bloated. His trousers were torn. His naked back had purple welts. His tormentors had broken his fingers” (Sandhu 20). Sandhu does not spare his readers the graphic details of the scene, and this is perhaps to force them to face the realities of what life was like for Sikhs in the Punjab in 1984.
Sandhu also supports his fiction with factual accounts of events, presenting information about Bhindranwale’s stance in regards to the history of the independence movement. Appu describes how Prem, Joga’s father, played cassette tapes of Bhindranwale’s famous speeches:
Prem uncle played out a part where Bhindranwale had responded to the demand for an independent state for Sikhs. “We don’t oppose Khalistan, nor do we support it. We wish to live in India as equal citizens, not as slaves. It is the central government’s business to decide whether it wants to keep the turbaned people or not.” (Sandhu 121)
As the story moves from Operation Blue Star to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots, the students at the military school attempt to make sense of the events. Appu comes to the realization that he is a member of an oppressed minority, and it causes him to question his place as a Sikh and future soldier of India: “How would I fight for a country when my people were not sure we belonged to it?” (Sandhu 122).
The cadets are also drawn into sadistic struggles for dominance with one another. The disturbing sexual assaults in Sandhu’s story, perpetrated by the senior boys of the military school against the younger students, illustrate how the violence within Indian society as a whole seeped into the everyday lives of its people despite being physically distant from the sites of greatest mob activity. In one of the commentary sections interspersed throughout the novel, Sandhu explains: “I am not writing this story to talk about the mere loss of status from senior to not senior. That is just the cover, the peg. This is really about something else. It is a story about invasion and loss” (78).This metaphor of “invasion and loss” extends to the desecration of the Golden Temple as well.
Sandhu’s story is full of shocking brutality, and definitely not for younger audiences. Unfortunately, so are many of the stories of 1984. For those who are willing to give this book a chance, however, Roll of Honour offers a lesson that readers are not likely to forget.
Sandhu, Amandeep. Roll of Honour. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2012. Print.