Now Reading:

The Carnage of 1984: Representations (or lack thereof) in Indian Cinema

The Carnage of 1984: Representations (or lack thereof) in Indian Cinema

By Ritika Popli

There has been a long standing debate among film scholars which revolves around the methodology of directing films on traumatic texts, and whether it should go beyond the cinematic narrative and be a substantial part in the healing process at large. In the context of Indian Cinema, this idea has been more or less completely neglected, especially in the case of the pogrom of the 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi. The first obvious question that comes to one’s mind is, just like in the case of Partition, whether literature has historically proven to be a better guardian. Back in the early 1980’s explaining the ‘Punjab Crisis’ became a spiralling obsession with the academia and the press, and a large volume of literature was generated largely trying to demystify the reasons why the state with the highest per capita income culminated in becoming the seed for a bloody secessionist movement. (Jodhka, 2001)

41u0DmBDh6L._SX260_BO1,204,203,200_Often with the written word, ‘the reader can get involved, but yet be permitted to retain his distance, where he gets the privilege on eavesdropping on history, alone and without interference’. [1] This can be seen by many as conveniently non – confrontational, like in ‘The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation’ by Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haskar, which does indeed capture the intimate detail of the individual lives caught up in events that surpass them, without in any way relinquishing their universal significance. However, cinematic narratives often create the space for the ‘discourse, confrontation, and debate’ which forms the contours and limits of their representations, and can actually ‘mourn’ on behalf of the nation. The manner and form of this negotiation with public memory can be questioned in cinematic narrative, like in the case of Amu[2], which is problematic, but it does become an important film as it preserves this memory.

The Narrative of 1984: Filmic and Historical

Revisiting the past, thirty one years later, still sends shivers down one’s spine. The innumerable rounds of negotiations and discussions between the Centre and the Akali Dal were constantly hitting a dead end, and the raging violence could be easily observed in the statement Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale made publically, “If the Hindus come in search of you, smash their heads with television antennas.” The period also saw constant invocation of the past and analogies being drawn between the Government and the oppressive Mughal rulers. In the last weeks of 1983, Bhindranwale took up residence in the Akal Takht, a building second in importance only to the Golden Temple, and it was here that the agitation and militant guerrilla preparation had started. In May ’84, the fortification of the Golden Temple had started, and ‘the militants began laying sandbags on turrets and occupying high buildings and towers around the temple complex’ (Guha, pp. 566).

The consequent announcement by the Akali Dal about the stopping of the movement of grain from the state led to the implementation of ‘Operation Bluestar’. Although, the ‘intent of the siege was directed at armed rebels, its consequences were not dissimilar from Jallianwala Bagh. It left a collective wound in the psyche of Sikhs, crystallizing a deep suspicion of the Government of India’ (Guha, pp. 569). The episode of events led to the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, as she was shot by two of her security guards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh.

amu_mThe end of the riots is where the narrative of Amu starts. There is no doubt that the portrayal of Konkana Sen Sharma as the protagonist (Amu/Kaju) and Brinda Karat (Keya) as her mother is politically problematic (the highest point for this is the ‘spectaclisation of the slums’), along with the disturbing trope of the return postcolonial protagonist (Kaju) coming back to ‘reconnect’ with her lost roots in a very touristy, classist way. However, her constant struggle with flashbacks and her saying “I don’t want to find out, but I can’t stop myself” about her past build up a strong sense of ‘post memory’[3]. She has flashes of Trilok Puri, the slum where her family was during the carnage, and the railway station becomes a very important site for her to recollect the forgotten events. Through the film, she tries to unravel her real identity and negotiates the repercussions associated with this unravelling.

The political scenario led to possibly the most horrific and violent communal pogrom India had witnessed since the Partition in ’47, and its acceleration caused by its occurrence in the National Capital. Even today, the shock of the massacre arises from the fact that it was organized and state sponsored. Why would it not be, when Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who ‘unanimously’ succeeded her, commented on the riots: “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes”. To the extent that the law and order intentionally came to a complete freeze for the days following the assassination and the city went up in flames. Thousands of Sikhs were methodically slaughtered street-by-street, house-by-house in a city they thought they knew, in a city they had built. In that city they, overnight, became objects of suspicion. The anonymity provided by the group gave the perpetrators the freedom to provoke and drive people towards specific targets (in this case, the Sikhs). The absence of the police or any state machinery enabled these instigators to carry out detailed plans and the political party leaders and members functioned to perpetuate the violence.

The narrative of the film presents to the viewer a concocted jigsaw puzzle feel where Amu and her love interest Kabir (Ankur Khanna) are met with hushed silences and painful glares whenever they decide to talk about the riots. Throughout the film, Kabir relentlessly tries to comprehend the riots, even more so when hints of his own father being involved in some way start to surface. Besides the incomprehensibility of the event, ‘what returns to haunt the victim, is not only the reality of the violent event, but also the reality that its violence has not yet been fully known.’ (Caruth, 1996). In this case, the ambiguous nature of guilt and the general confusion about why the Sikh community had suddenly become ‘victims’ still exists, and that anger and shock still seethes in the community as they never saw it coming and, thus, were unable to act.

riots-mainThe idea of a ‘secondary witness’ is explored through the character of Gobind (Yashpal Sharma), who besides being the ‘guilty Hindu’, is also someone who has transformed from a traumatised victim into a survivor. Throughout Kaju’s search for her identity, as soon as the discussion would steer towards the riots, Gobind would assume the role of the silent spectator or simply walk off. At the same time, his wife, who was not a direct victim or witness to the carnage, would comfortably talk about it as trauma is not locatable in the original event in the individual’s past, but has an unassimilated nature – the way it was precisely not known in the first instance and returns to haunt the survivor later. His repressed memories of unspeakable injuries and abjections coupled with his ‘survivor’s guilt’ often leads him undertaking work and civic responsibilities.

Brinda Karat (Keya) plays the role of a relief worker and the ‘adopted’ mother of Kaju. Her character unconsciously portrays the ‘privilege’ to help out, with the idea of a ‘community’ also changing in such situations. The survivors, primarily women and young children, perceived the sense of loss amidst the ‘community’ of fellow citizens, the ‘neighbours’ and the civil society. Brinda Karat does exactly this. It’s interesting how Veena Das (1990), as one of the champions of the cause, writes in her work on the 1984 riots about this young widow, Shanti, who constantly lamented the loss of her husband and her young son, while completely ignoring the presence of her daughters. Similarly in the film, Kaju’s biological mother, Shanno Kaur, gives up her life after the death of her husband and son, leaving Kaju in the care of Keya who is seen as the ‘prosthetic mother’ and Kaju is left to patch the post memory of the trauma. The film’s end surprisingly does reclaim Amu back into the realm of the nation, because if that would not have happened, it would be a big insult to the Nation – State formation. The diaspora, after de-territorializing the roots once, cannot be allowed to do that again.

Post memory and Healing: Three decades down the lane

Sometimes radically hyperbolic cinematic representations of trauma come as a failing and a take away from the ‘realistic’ aspect. Although, in the defence of melodrama, it captures and expresses extremely volatile and potent situations of violence through its visceral use of action and emotions that immediately makes the situation identifiable.

widow-colony-dvdThere are other representations of the carnage in the realm of documentaries and regional cinema. The Widow Colony (Harpreet Kaur, 2005) talks about the daily sufferings of the settlers of the completely widowed colony of the main site of the massacre, Tilak Vihar, a settlement in West Delhi. My Mother India (Safina Uberoi, 2002) is a moving documentary about how the 1984 riots tore apart a family and it is set against the backdrop of a mixed marriage. The more recent remarkable 20-minute documentary Kush (made by 21-year old film student Shubhashish Bhutiani) was an official entry in the ‘Orizzonti’ section that showcases the new trends in World Cinema in the 2013 Venice Film Festival. However, the problem lies with the access to these films, which just remain in film festivals’ screenings or cinephiles’ blogs. The other side of the spectrum has films like the Punjabi film Des Hoyaa Pardes, (Manjeet Mann, 2004) that are extremely campy representations of the pogrom and they fail to engage with the larger ideological project.

This leads us to the larger question in the debate-‘What is the spectatorship for trauma, and how does it partake in building cultural memory?’ Is it a possibility that the authors of these descriptions failed to find a form – or a style or a voice of a plot – that could accommodate both violence and the civilized narrative? The truth is that the commonest response to violence is one of repugnance, and that a significant number of people everywhere try to oppose it in whatever way they can, and that these effects so rarely appearing in accounts of violence is not surprising: they are too un-dramatic. For those who participate in them, they are often hard to write about because of the ‘belatedness’ caused by the trauma.

There is an urgent need for more legitimate cinematic representations of such incidents, so that the traumatic event doesn’t remain constricted to being a ‘pathological’ event. In any kind of cultural representation, be it art, literature or celluloid, it should always attempt to tell a reality that would otherwise remain unspoken for generations.  Silence as a tool has the potency to wipe out the histories of generations. Moreover, the ludicrous thought regarding which pogrom needs more representation is an outrageous thought to even entertain, because a riot is a riot and an act of violence is an act of violence. 1984 becomes an act of horrific violence in history not only because it was so organised and state sponsored, but also because during the riots it seemed that ‘we had lost our capacity to co-ordinate thought and action.’[4] The idea that the violence was well planned was scary – the method to this madness was chilling. The rumours which broke out spread like wild fire and this was probably one of the major contributing factors to the entire incident.

Ritika has recently completed her Masters in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, where Indian Art History, Theatre and Performative Studies and Film Theory have been her key research areas in the past two years. She can be contacted at [email protected]


Bhaskar, Ira (2014): ‘Trauma, Melodrama and the Production of the Historical Affect: The Partition Memory and the Contemporary Communal Riot in Indian Cinema’ in Film Melodrama Revisited, ed. Dominique Nasta & Muriel Andrin. Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2014

Caruth, Cathy (1996): ‘Introduction: The Wound and the Voice’, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, pp. 4

Chakravarti, Uma (1994): “Victims, ‘Neighbours’, and ‘Watan’: Survivors of Anti-Sikh Carnage of 1984”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 42 (Oct. 15, 1994). Pp. 2722 -2726

Das, Veena (1990), ‘Our Work to Cry: Your Work to Listen’ ed. Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Elsaesser, Thomas (1996): ‘Subject positions, Speaking positions: from Holocaust, Our Hitler and Heimar to Shoah and Schindler’s List,’ in Vivian Sobchak, ed. The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 145 – 183

Ghosh, Amitav (1995): ‘The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi’, The New Yorker, July 17

Guha, Ramchandra (2007): ‘India After Gandhi’, Picador India, Pan Macmillan India, pp. 557 – 574

Jodhka, Surinder (2001): ‘Looking Back at the Khalistan Movement: Some Recent Researches on Its Rise and Decline Sikh Ethnonationalism and the Political Economy of Punjab by Shinder Purewal; Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grassroots Reality by H. K. Puri; P. S. Judge; J. S. Shekhon; Ethnic Conflict in India: A Case-Study of Punjab by Gurharpal Singh; Punjabi Identity in a Global Context by Pritam Singh; Shinder Singh Thandi’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 16 (Apr. 21-27, 2001), pp. 1311-1318

La Capra, Dominick (2001): ‘Conclusion: Writing (about) Trauma’, Writing History, Writing Trauma, Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 181 -219

Ramdas, Lalita (2005): ‘Thought on 1984: A Fragile Democracy’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 40, No. 38 (Sep. 17, 2005). Pp. 4108 – 4111

Rao, Amiya (1984): ‘When Delhi Burnt’, Economic and Political Weekly, (Dec. 8, 1984). Pp. 2066- 2069

Singh, Parvinder (2009); ‘1984 Sikhs’ Kristallnacht’

Srinivasan, Amrit (1987): ‘Ghastly Rites of Passage’, Economic and Political Weekly, (Sept. 5, 1987). Pp. 1543

Thapar, Romesh (1984): ‘The Paralysed State’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 19, No. 45 (Nov. 10, 1984). Pp. 1895

Verma, Arvind (2012): ‘Role of Police in Containing Mob Violence’, Economic and Political Weekly, No. 36 (Sept. 8, 2012). Pp. 65 – 73


[1] Srinivasan, Amrit (1987): ‘Ghastly Rites of Passage’, Economic and Political Weekly, (Sept. 5, 1987). Pp. 1543
[2] Directed by Shonali Bose, based on the program of 1984, it was the first mainstream film that attempted to deal with India’s collective amnesia against the Sikh community in Delhi, it was released in 2005. After much assumed three months of delay and several dialogue cuts later by the Certification Board it finally did release. (Singh, 2009)

[3] Marianne Hirsch uses the term ‘postmemory’ to describe the powerful transmission through the family of the memory of traumatic events that may have taken place before the birth of the members of the second generation who did not live through these events and yet have a strong memory of them. ‘The Generation of Postmemory’ (2008)
[4] Thapar, Romesh (1984): ‘The Paralysed State’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 19, No. 45 (Nov. 10, 1984). Pp. 1895

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Input your search keywords and press Enter.