Date: 07 Jun 2008


In sharp contrast to India’s projected image of the world’s biggest democracy is India’s human rights record. The Anti-Sikh riots of 1984 are perhaps one of the India’s most appalling moments, and the legacies of those events continue to live within the public consciousness 24 years later. On October 31 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her two bodyguards. The two had taken revenge against her for ordering the army to attack the holiest shrine of Sikhs, the Golden Temple in Amritsar; it was an anti-insurgency operation five months earlier in Punjab, killing many innocent pilgrims.

This was the first time in the young nation’s history that a serving prime minister was killed. The fact that the assassination was attached to the prolonged insurgency in Punjab and that the two assassins of Indira Gandhi were Sikhs created a kind of vehemence that grew like an ominous cloud over Sikhs, a minority community, counting only two percent of India’s total population. 

It led to a devastating crisis that can only be called genocide of the Sikh minority in Delhi and other cities. In the days following the assassination, politically motivated violence was spread across and thousands of Sikhs were massacred by frenzied mobs. In Delhi it continued for at least 72 hours.
The massacre was actively encouraged by Congress leaders and then executed with the complicity of the police, write Manoj Mitta and HS Phoolka in the book. Instead of upholding law and order, the police were hounding the victims, particularly in those areas where the poorest Sikhs lived, say the authors. 

The riots of 1984 were a multifaceted tragedy. The massacre, left widows and orphans to face a society where the vulnerable are preyed upon by the powerful. It also revealed the sad state of India’s professed democracy. High-ranking politicians that masqueraded the mobs as mourners were actually providing justification for the violence that took place. The carnage of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 exposed that while India has one of the world’s finest constitutions and has the military muscles to avert such a catastrophe, it’s leaders were complicit in this mass murder. It is essentially a negation of the concept of the Indian nation.

In When a Tree Shook Delhi, authors Mitta and Phoolka fearlessly expose the reality of the state’s rule of law and supposed commitment to the principles of justice. This book clearly outlines the mechanisms through which a systematic, planned genocide of a minority community took place in the nation’s capital. The authors are voices of authority on the subject, and reveal the patterns that allowed mobs to massacre Sikhs within a climate of impunity. The title of the book comes from the infamous words of Rajiv Gandhi shortly after the riots took place. 

As a justification for the riots, Rajiv Gandhi said, “…when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural for the earth around to shake a little.” Mitta and Phoolka use this justification to set the theme of the book, which is essentially a reality check. The authors also highlight Manmohan Singh’s public apology in 2005, when he claimed that, “We still do not know the truth.” As if this collaboration was a response to Prime Minister Singh’s comments, the authors make uncovering the truth their agenda. In the end, the authors confirm our worst suspicions that such organised killing of Sikhs was indeed preventable. 

This book is relevant as an example of an opposing argument to the rhetoric of democracy and growth that goes with the official image of contemporary India. The public imagination can be neglectful and that makes When a Tree Shook Delhi important for it reminds people what can happen when communalism and disregard for human life takes away better of them. 

This book is divided into two parts: a journalistic account written mainly by Mitta, a senior editor with The Times of India, and a personal account of Phoolka, a lawyer who spearheaded the campaign for justice for the victims of the carnage. The combination of human stories with journalistic-style reporting brings together details that create a lasting impact upon the reader.

For instance, there is a chapter on rape, an integral part of the riots that has been largely ignored because of the social taboos surrounding it. Here, the issue of rape is tackled head on. Phoolka begins with the story of his personal struggle to save not only his own life but also that of his pregnant wife, as he was a visible Sikh in New Delhi during the time of the riots; he then branches off into a chronological account of all of the legal proceedings including the small victories and devastating blows the victims of the riots endured during their fight for justice. Phoolka’s voice is evocative and it gives readers a human connection that makes the legal battles all the more real. 

For instance, Phoolka says, “At a personal level, the unanimous backing in December 1999 for a fresh inquiry into the 1984 carnage came as a vindication of the often lonely and frustrating struggle we had to wage over the years to bring the guilty to book”(191). 

A shortcoming of this book is its lack of further analysis of a compelling argument that the authors themselves raise. Through the testimony of a witness, it is revealed that there was the possibility of the mob being financially compensated for killing Sikhs. That having been said demolishes the argument that the mobs acted out of grief. So rather being an act of mourning, the riots were acts of calculated bloodshed. Moreover, the authors also mention that the sentiments of the mobs did not show signs of grief. The social phenomenon of “mob mentality” could have been employed by the authors to shed some light on how such senseless violence grew out of control. To many, the events that occurred in India’s capital during those three days is still incomprehensible and further development of this argument could have shed some light.

It is important to commend the work of Mitta and Phoolka, but it is also important to question why it has taken almost a quarter of a century for such a dialogue to be brought in public domain through a comprehensive book. This is a single book that has been written on a crime against humanity. The Indian government has largely ignored this blatant violation of human rights and it gives the impression that the only people to be affected were the victims. The rest of society went on with business as usual. How can the rule of law, justice and democracy take roots in a society where such a thing could occur? While it is important to acknowledge the small victories achieved by Phoolka for the victims of the carnage, it is equally important to remember that it has taken a deplorable amount of time for the courts to provide a minimal compensation package to the victims.
It is also important to recognise that the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 was not an isolated incident of politically motivated violence. There have been episodes of violence against other minority communities including Muslims and Christians. 

The failing memory of the Indian collective consciousness is astonishing whilst minority and susceptible communities are persecuted and victimised as a matter of practice rather than exception. Whether it is the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 or the Gujarat riots of 2002, painful memories of India’s contemporary history are tucked away into obscure areas of the public consciousness while history repeats itself. Even during times of peace and in relatively conflict-free zones, there is violence against vulnerable communities such as women and Dalits.

The violence against minority groups and vulnerable communities in India is an insightful commentary on what kind of value and principles lie under the façade of Indian democracy. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formally apologised for the riots, one must question whether the symbolic show of shame and remorse is sufficient. Is it simply enough to verbalise it in a public manner 20 years after the fact? Moreover, it took a Sikh prime minister to do so. There is a large divide between the State’s symbolic displays of respect for human rights principles and the reality that is experienced on the ground. Until that divide is greatly reduced, collective amnesia combined with a climate of lawlessness will continue to afflict and divide.