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HindustanTimes Wed,27 Aug 2014

Tale of two memorials, and an opportunity

Harcharan Bains, Hindustan Times  Chandigarh, June 06, 2014
First Published: 13:13 IST(6/6/2014) | Last Updated: 13:29 IST(6/6/2014)

Dwarfed and divided by a demon that at once divides and unites them, the Hindus and the Sikhs have been engaged for the past 30 years in an unseemly zest for communal righteousness, calling it “an enlightened pursuit of secular peace”. There is something unabashed about the way the two communities have been (ab)using June 6 every year for the past 15 years to push for what can only be described as ‘communal peace’, each party using its hurt as a political and communal barg aining counter rather than a sacred wound which this date actually symbolises.

Come June, and the Sikhs generally begin to swing between two extreme and contradictory emotional positions -- religious trauma and communal pride.

The Hindus have their own parallel peaks: a re-visiting of the phase of innocent killings in Punjab prior to June 1984 on the one hand and a barely concealed sense of relief and even triumph in the army assault on militants at Harmandar Sahib. And now, in a reciprocal bout of passion, a ‘peace’ memorial as a parallel to the “war memorial of the Sikhs”.

‘EDGE OF PRECIPICE’ ABOUT THIS PEACE

True that the tag ‘communal righteousness’ sits more comfortably on religious and political leadership than on the citizen on the street from both the communities. True also that Punjabis, regardless of communities they belong to, are essentially secular in normal or peace times. But normal times and Punjab are historically contradictions in terms. While administrative peace has prevailed in Punjab for the past two decades, there is something psychologically ‘edge of the precipice’ about this peace. All it takes often is just a routine court judgment on the case/s of one or the other of the protagonists of the 1980s or 1990s to send the state and its government into panic mode all over again. Peace that looks so secure and stable suddenly begins to look fragile.

But there al issue is the deliberate moral hypocrisy on what constitutes peace. For the Sikhs, the brutal army assault on Harmandar Sahib, the killing of ‘Sikh youth’ in fake encounters and the tragic massacre of thousands of innocent Sikhs post Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination were the only painful blisters on the peaceful ‘80s and ‘90s. The Hindu script sees the two decades as blood-spattered landscape when thousands of their innocent and defenceless co-religionists perished at the hands of “the Sikh militants”. This exclusivity in division of the harvest of tragedy is utterly irrational.

OF SHARED GUILT AND A FRACTURED VISION

The Sikh version of t his phase presents a confused and self-contradictory narrative, undecided whether the killings of innocent Hindus were the handiwork of the “Centre’s intelligence agencies and their under-cover operations” or the “heroic revenge of the valiant boys”. Then there is the shared guilt: fear of the militants and hatred of t he then gover nment meant that the Sikhs by and large remained less than heroic in condemning such killings. And similarly, hatred of the gun-toting boys and a security driven f al s e af f i nity with the then government meant that the Hindus too did not join their Sikh brethren in condemning police repression and extra-judicial killings.

Like the Sikhs, the Hindus too suffered from a fractured vision, refusing to acknowle dg e that more Sikhs than Hindus fell to “unidentified bullets” and that while Hindus died for being Hindus, a large number of Sikhs chose to die at the hands of the militants rather than condone the killing of their Hindu brethren.

But nothing symbolises Punjab’s fractured psyche, spiritual confusion, collective guilt and explosive moral contradictions with greater violent force than does Operation Bluestar. Popular percep-tion , historical narrative, official versions, moral imaging, political grandstand, religious rhetoric , media profiling – in fact, everything concerning this colossal political blunder and mili-tary misadventure has been undergoing dramatic transfor mations almost every six months. In private, the Sikhs and their Hindu counterparts find the government’s decision to attack the holy shrine disastrous , something for which the Government of India must apologise. There is a need to emphasise this similarity of perceptions between significant sections of the two communities in order to narrow the margins of competitive stupidity on Punjab.

OPPORTUNITY FOR RESOLUTION, CLOSURE

I sense a great opportunity for eventual resolution and closure here. We know that there is a memorial to this great tragedy inside the Golden Temple, a move which had invited considerable flak, largely because of the failure of the two sides to close emotional ranks through deft political management. We also know that there is talk of a peace memorial devoted to the other side of the tragedy, a side never denied by the Sikhs at large. After all, even in that ‘other side of the tragedy’, the Sikhs had suffered in much larger numbers than their Hindu brethren.

There is a great opportunity for statesmanship to come into play here and to invest the two memorials with new ideological hues. What is required is a cautious, careful and discreet de-politicisation and de-communalisation of the two memorials. Patient and sensitive ethical intervention through responsible and widely acceptable statesmen on two sides can ensure that the two memorials stand not as eternal testimonials to competitive stupidity but as complimentary tributes to the secular spirit of the land of the Gurus.

(The writer is media adviser, national affairs, to Punjab chief minister. Views expressed are personal)

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