By Sourodipto Sanyal
Anyone who has grown up in India will have heard a “sardar joke” at some point in their life. Usually featuring a Santa or Banta Singh, these derivative jokes have been an essential component of Indian humour, perpetuating a stereotype that having a turban over one’s head guarantees a lower IQ.
While I grew up bombarded with jokes at the expense of an entire community, Anand Patwardhan’s 1990 documentary In Memory Of Friends made me realise that the alienation and othering of Sikhs reached alarming levels during the ’80s. In the events following the fateful days of November 1984, the atmosphere had grown so vitriolic that many Sikhs declared that they did not owe any allegiance to the tricolour, and that the only path towards salvation could be if a separate Sikh state came into existence.
Though the violence which engulfed Punjab during the ’80s seems to be a thing of the past, the fact that Sikhs continue to be singled out in India today with the same treatment as blonde women in American humour, speaks a thousand words.
Cases related to the mass killings of Sikhs (the official body count crosses 3,000) in 1984 are still being heard in court at present, 35 years after the incidents. It was only yesterday that Sajjan Kumar, a longstanding Congress leader who would go on to become a Member of Parliament in 1991 and 2004, was convicted by the Delhi High Court for his involvement in the murder of five people in the pogrom. Meanwhile, Kamal Nath, another Congress bigwig reported to have played a crucial role in the killings, was just appointed Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh.
Cases related to the mass killings of Sikhs (the official body count crosses 3,000) in 1984 are still being heard in court at present, 35 years after the incidents.
As the old wounds of 1984 are reopened by the blade of memory, watching In Memory Of Friends sheds light on how we’re still feeling the fallout, even today. The hatred of Sikhs gained prominence again when an Akali Dal MLA from Delhi Manjinder Singh Sirsa attacked the men guilty of murdering two Sikh men during the violence, after they allegedly raised slogans promising a repeat of the horrors of 1984.
In Patwardhan’s documentary, young Sikh boys and men see revenge and an independent Khalistan as the only way towards justice and salvation. The ones belonging to radical Khalistani outfits talk about how every Hindu in Punjab is an enemy of the Sikhs, and how very few Hindus helped out Sikh families during the pogrom. On the other hand, radical Hindus belonging to the Shiv Sena refuse to admit that they are the ones responsible for starting any violence, laying the blame squarely on their Sikh counterparts.
The actions of the radical men inebriated by religious extremism is juxtaposed against well-intentioned communist outfits which see the happenings in Punjab as a capitalist ploy to divide society, a blatant attempt at derailing Karl Marx’s vision, where every poor worker is class conscious. They tour villages across the state, singing songs and staging plays about Hindu-Sikh unity, with the hope that good sense will eventually prevail.
The actions of the communist well-wishers in the documentary are similar to the ones who are marching barefoot to Delhi and Mumbai today, with the hope that someone will listen. Far away from and uninspired by the rabid cries of the likes of Yogi Adityanath and Akbaruddin Owaisi, the protesting farmers hope that the Parliament will debate important issues like the farm crisis, and not whether a temple should be built in Ayodhya.
The question of what motivates an individual so drugged by religious identities that he is willing to justify killing innocents is one that remains urgently relevant in today’s India.
Though the actors in this conflict may be divided by faith and philosophy, Bhagat Singh is the one individual who unites them all – from the Khalistani extremist who is willing to kill a fellow Sikh who is caught drinking or smoking, to the communist who continues to wear the turban despite vouching for an ideology which believes religion is nothing but the opiate of the masses. It reminds us that not much is different from today’s India when everyone from the CPI’s Kanhaiya Kumar to the BJP’s Narendra Modi believes that the man who died almost 80 years ago still has something to offer contemporary India.
Patwardhan’s In Memory of Friends gains more import when you realise that Indian cinema hasn’t dealt with what happened in Punjab during the 1980s as much as it probably should have. The films which gained some recognition are Shonali Bose’s Amu (2005) and Gurvinder Singh’s Punjabi feature Chauthi Koot (2015).
The question of what motivates an individual so drugged by religious identities that he is willing to justify killing innocents is one that remains urgently relevant in today’s India. And by giving voice to the stakeholders who are impacted by the violence, In Memory of Friends serves as a cautionary study in understanding how peace can be hijacked in the name of religion in the world’s largest democracy.
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