Pav Singh: Why I Wrote "1984 India’s Guilty Secret"

The Indian government of the day worked hard on its version of events. Words such as ‘riot’ became the newspeak of an Orwellian cover-up, of a real 1984.

Pav Singh
November 2, 2021 | 4.5 min. read | Book Excerpt

In November 1984, over four days following the assassination of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by two of her Sikh bodyguards, an estimated 8,000 Sikhs, possibly more, would be slaughtered by rampaging mobs in the world’s largest democracy. To put the sheer scale of this destruction into perspective, the figure cited is broadly equivalent to the civilian death tolls of the Northern Ireland conflict, Tiananmen Square and 9/11 combined.

The eminent British lawyer and campaigner Geoffrey Robertson QC rightly calls it ‘India’s guilty secret’ – a phrase that so succinctly sums up the crimes that it lends itself to the title of the book I was compelled to write.

At the time, the authorities projected the violence as a spontaneous reaction to the tragic loss of a much-loved prime minister. But evidence points to a government-orchestrated genocidal massacre unleashed by politicians – with the trail leading to the very heart of the dynastic Gandhi family – and covered up with the help of the police, judiciary and sections of the media.

The Indian government of the day worked hard on its version of events. Words such as ‘riot’ became the newspeak of an Orwellian cover-up, of a real 1984. To protect perpetrators, the most heinous crimes have been obscured from view: evidence destroyed, language distorted and alternative ‘facts’ introduced. The final body count is anyone’s guess. As the celebrated author and essayist Amitav Ghosh, another witness to the scenes in Delhi in 1984, has stated: ‘Nowhere else in the world did the year 1984 fulfil its apocalyptic portents as it did in India’.

And yet what may well go down in history as one of the largest conspiracies of modern times is hardly known of outside of India. At the time, Western governments toed the line of their Indian counterparts and downplayed events – arguably for fear of losing trade contracts worth billions – to the misnomer of ‘communal riots’.

Global reaction to other atrocities such the killings in Chile by the Pinochet regime, China’s Tiananmen Square massacre and the large-scale, post-World War Two genocides of Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and Syria has rightly been firm and unequivocal. Each received considerable global attention and international condemnation from governments, human rights organisations and high-profile campaigners.

By way of comparison consider how the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia recognised the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered, as a genocide. But for the innocents of November 1984, there has been a deafening silence, a lack of comparable international concern or consideration of the nature of the violence which has allowed the guilty to evade justice and crimes to go unrecognised for what they actually were.

After spending a year in India and talking to survivors, I decided that I had to tell the story of how an entire state apparatus was utilised to commit a heinous mass crime and to ensure decades of subsequent cover-up. On my return to Britain, I kept a close eye on the series of court cases in India that exonerated the key politicians accused of complicity in the killings. I tried to raise awareness of November 1984 with human rights groups, political parties and trade unions but faced a wall of bewilderment – nobody was aware of the events I was describing. My frustration began to mount, not only with the apathy of these organisations but also with rabble-rousing Sikh groups, whose blustering made little tangible difference to the status quo.

For the Indian authorities, it was not enough that thousands of innocent people had been killed in 1984 in what have misleadingly been labelled as ‘riots’. They had to be falsely remembered as traitors, having ‘celebrated’ the prime minister’s death or ‘supported’ the secessionist movement in Punjab. The distortions of a true-life Orwellian plot of nightmarish proportions had worked, and for most people it has stuck.

In my book, I have attempted to join a series of obscured and murky dots by making extensive use of often harrowing victim testimonies, official accounts, eyewitness statements and media reports. Collectively they reveal not only the extent of the genocidal massacres and rapes that took place over those four hellish days, but they also lay bare the conspiracy of silence, censorship and impunity offered to the guilty that has persisted for well over three decades. 

The violence described in my book is graphic and I make no apology for that. I owe it to the victims and survivors of the pogroms to give as clear and unflinching an account as possible, in order to help change the narrative, bring about an end to the impunity and to ensure justice for the survivors of India’s guilty secret.

India’s Guilty Secret is published in the UK by Kashi House and in India by Rupa.

It is also available as an eBook from Amazon.

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Pav Singh was born in Leeds, England, the son of Punjabi immigrants. As a member of the Magazine and Books Industrial Council of the National Union of Journalists he has been instrumental in campaigning on the issues surrounding the 1984 massacres.

In 2004, he spent a year in India researching the full extent of the pogroms (from which members of his extended family narrowly escaped) and the subsequent cover-up. He met with survivors and witnessed the political fall-out and protests following the release of the flawed Nanavati Report into the killings. His research led to the pivotal and authoritative report 1984 Sikhs’ Kristallnacht, which was first launched in the UK Parliament in 2005 and substantially expanded in 2009.

In his role as a community advocate at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, London, he curated the exhibition ‘The 1984 Anti-Sikh Pogroms Remembered’ in 2014 with Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gill.


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