I was in first year college studying History in Miranda House, Delhi University when it happened. The massacre of thousands of Sikhs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in November 1984. We were locked into the hostel for 3 days while the killing carried on outside. It was surreal as we were sitting on the beautiful green peaceful lawn – in the midst of terrible violence outside. In the common room many girls were glued to the non stop coverage of mourners around Mrs Gandhi’s body. Not a word, not a hint of the brutal carnage taking place. There was one public telephone and a long line of girls snaked around it – and through that one connection with the world stories filtered in. My journalist aunt described the horror she witnessed as a Sikh was being burnt alive and the policeman was standing there doing nothing and would not listen to her.
Rumours also filtered in: the water had been poisoned by the Sikhs – girls came out of the mess and started throwing up. Mass hysteria started to build up that the Khalsa College boys might attack. No understanding as to who the victims and targets were. After 3 days the gates were opened for us and the army was brought into the city – it had been stationed outside all along – to “return order” and stop the “rioting”.
The History Department organized a relief work organization and that was my first exposure to one of the world’s most terrible human tragedies. First I discovered from victims that they were only alive because of their Hindu neighbors - giving lie to the newspaper reports which were now full of communal reporting. There were mohalla defence committees which had formed all over the city. Second I learnt about how organized the killings had been. High ranking Ministers using electoral rolls to mark Sikh houses, the distribution of kerosene, police giving protection to Congress goons who were brought in truckloads shouting khoon ka badla khoon se lenge (blood will be avenged with blood)….story after story of the same pattern of killing – sons, fathers and husbands beaten with sticks, turbans pulled off and then burnt alive. I wrote postcards from wailing women to their relatives in Punjab. I felt helpless at their enormous grief. There was a burning rage within all of us for justice.
In 1987 in my final year of college, due to a personal tragedy, I left India and came to America as a graduate student. There I got involved with an Indian organization – the Indian Progressive Study Group, spearheaded by my future husband, that organized around the issues of the denial of rights. The state terrorism unleashed in 1984 was a subject we particularly felt strongly about and kept alive. Because “1984” was a watershed in the Indian polity. Many years later, after graduating from film school when I was ready to write my first feature film I knew that this was the story I had to write, the film I had to make and show, to a world that didn’t know the suppressed history of that genocide. And Amu was born. It was a Herculean effort because no one was willing to support it and writing it was itself a searing task. But I struggled on empowered by the courage of the fighting widows.
In February 2002 as I was on the 17th draft of the screenplay a new set of widows was created in the carnage that took place in Gujarat. A different community. A different political party. But chillingly the same level of organized violence with misters co ordinating this time with cell phones and police giving active protection. I ended Amu with this tragedy as it most poignantly made the point that the cycle of violence would continue until the question of justice was dealt with. In Delhi 1984, Bombay 1992, Gujarat 2002 and many in between. But 1984 – was the mother of them all.
As I write this piece – twenty one years later – the latest Commission of Enquiry – Nanavati – has come out with yet another whitewashed report letting of the guilty. Justice has been denied to the victims of ’84 yet again – in spite of 9 enquiry commissions and 11 changes of government. Every organ of the state stands indicted in this latest travesty. I am traveling around the country screening Amu and this is the question that members of my audience including myself keep asking: is it not time that we rethink the political mechanisms and system that exist which can create such a carnage and then fail to resolve it? As the cycle of violence continues can we afford to lull ourselves into believing that the system of governance handed down by our imperial rulers can provide security and protection to the people of our country? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists – Kaju and Kabir – with as they walk down a railway track into the future.
This is why I made Amu. So that you will ask the question – why. And take the steps to put an end to it.