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Images: details from "1984" by The Singh Twins [Copyright - www.SinghTwins.co.uk]

Art

1984: A Picture Speaks A Thousand Words

AMRIT & RABINDRA KAUR SINGH

 

 

 

A quarter of a century ago, as we watched reports of Indira Gandhi's assault on The Golden Temple at Amritsar and later came to hear about the organized massacre of Sikhs in Delhi (and elsewhere in India) following her assassination, it seemed to us that Guru Nanak's words in his famous Babur Vaani were being re-lived in the plight of thousands of innocent men, women and children who became victims of the political machinations of Mrs. Gandhi.

The age is like a drawn knife.

Kings have turned butchers

And righteousness has taken wings.

In this dark night of falsehood

No moon of truth is seen to rise.

              [GGS, p 145]

Five hundred years ago, Guru Nanak uttered these immortal words describing the desperate situation of his fellow countrymen - a people downtrodden and demoralized by a climate of political tyranny, religious intolerance and social inequality.

Whilst the suffering of a people subjected to successive waves of foreign invasion in Guru Nanak's time was bad enough, the fact that in 1984, the atrocities in Punjab were not only being perpetrated by the then ruling party of one of the world's largest democracies against its own people, but also against a community which had a proven history of loyalty to and sacrifice for the "homeland,' made the apparent systematic victimization of Sikhs in India even more difficult to comprehend.

After all, this was a religion which practiced the equality of all faiths; whose ninth Guru (having been martyred in the defence of Hindu rights) became respected throughout India as Hind ki Chaddar ("The Nation's Saviour"); whose members played a key role in India's struggle for Independence and who continued to dedicate themselves to the defence and economic development of post-Independence India.

Given this history, we couldn't help but question - what had the Sikhs done to deserve such humiliation and disdain? 

Beyond the feelings of injustice and hurt that intensified with our increasing awareness about the extent of the ongoing hostilities facing Sikhs in Punjab, (the other Government attacks, like Operation Black Thunder, on Sikh shrines; the looting; the staged encounters and illegal abductions; the disappearances and physical torture of men and boys; the extrajudicial detention, and the imprisonment and killings without trial), what frustrated and angered us most as Sikhs living in Britain was the imbalanced, selective reporting and media censorship which effectively resulted in all Sikhs being perceived as terrorists.

Equally exasperating was the relative indifference of other global leaders to the Sikh predicament in Punjab.  We recall thinking at the time that, if the Italian Government had ordered a military attack on the Vatican, it would have provoked the outrage of the International community.

So why the double standards? Was it due to a lack of understanding about the significance of the holiest shrine of the Sikhs and therefore the full implications of Indira Gandhi's actions? Or, was the Sikh community just not important enough in the higher scheme of global economics, politics and individual politician's agendas to be bothered about?

Perhaps, in light of the generalized branding of Sikhs as extremists, militants, anarchists and separatists by the media and political propaganda, the international community felt that the assault on the Golden Temple was justified and that the Sikhs simply didn't warrant their sympathy.

At the time, we were still teenagers and the only Sikhs in a predominantly white British Convent school. So, in many ways, we felt helpless to do little more than try and defend the "Sikh corner" against the overwhelmingly negative perceptions of our white classmates, whose only knowledge of our community stemmed from prevailing media coverage of 1984.

It wasn't until several years later, when we embarked on a career in art, that we discovered a vehicle for responding in a more tangible and permanent way to our own emotions and frustrations about 1984 - particularly following the disturbing stories which began to filter back to the UK through friends in India as well as certain officially documented, eyewitness accounts which appeared in journals like the Sikh Messenger and from Amnesty International.

As artists who believe in the purpose of art to function as a social and political conscience in the world and in its power to communicate and influence individual and collective opinion and ideas, we decided to create a painting that not only attempted to express to the "outside world" something of our experience of Sikh sentiments and responses to the storming of Harmandar Sahib but which, at the same time, also offered a context to understanding the extent of the feelings of, devastation, betrayal, disappointment, anger and loss amongst Sikhs worldwide.

Our ultimate goal was to use the painting (titled Nineteen Eighty-Four) as a tool for raising greater awareness about the reality of Operation Blue Star and its aftermath. In some small way, to give the Sikhs a voice and tell it like it was from the human perspective.

Because, regardless of the various and complex political debates on both sides, we believed there could be no justification for the human tragedy that Operation Blue Star and its ongoing consequences represented to us on so many levels. Not just in terms of the physical and emotional injury, loss of life and mass displacement of families through the destruction of property and livelihoods during the Delhi riots, but also in terms of how general attitudes towards Sikhs altered due to the changing political climate of Punjab.

Having traditionally been respected as peaceful, dependable, loyal citizens of India, it was especially heartbreaking for us to hear from friends in India that - particularly as a result of the inter-communal hatred whipped up by the self-interests of certain political parties, both prior to and following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own bodyguards, who were Sikhs  - all Sikhs were now commonly regarded with suspicion, fear and mistrust and had become the subject of ridicule through popular jokes.

However, whilst wanting to create a piece that was direct in its criticism of what happened, we were conscious not to allow the painting to become an anti-India statement, or to be misconstrued in any way as promoting the cause of the Independent Sikh State of Khalistan.

Because, as horrific as they were, on a personal level, the events of 1984 did not affect the great love and pride we had developed for India since childhood. This remained as strong as ever.

Furthermore, for us, our Sikh identity has always been intrinsically connected with the history and culture of India in all its diversity. As such, we maintain that Sikhs have a right of ownership to the whole of India and should never settle for anything less.  Besides this, India as a nation was no more responsible for what happened in ‘84 than the whole Sikh community was for Indira Gandhi's assassination.

Also, we couldn't ignore that many non-Sikh Indians had spoken out against the atrocities, had sheltered Sikhs during the three days in November 1984 when organized mobs terrorized the streets of Delhi and other Indian cities, and continue to fight the cause of Sikh human rights up to this day.

Sadly, we had also to concede to the fact that a small minority of Sikhs, whether reluctantly or otherwise, were also party to some of the abuses committed. However, whilst our deep-rooted sentiments towards India remained the same, what did change in 1984 was our attitude to Indian politics.

Until then, Mrs. Gandhi had been our idol - not only because, as India's Prime Minister, she broke Western negative stereotypes of the subjugated Indian woman - but because, as naïve teenagers, she (her Congress Party) represented for us a vision of Indian politics being rooted in the principled leadership of a nostalgic, bygone era.

But in 1984, both this vision, along with our admiration for Indira Gandhi, was shattered.

The shocking realization that when it comes to personal ambition, politics and politicians are the same everywhere, became a key message of our new painting. Depicting Indira Gandhi symbolically, as a multi-headed political demon, the painting was given a universal and timeless dimension that went beyond the purely Sikh relevance.

Fortunately, over the years, our growing international profile has provided diverse platforms of exposure for the painting. We insist on it being displayed in a prime position, as a special focus of our touring exhibitions and we make a point of highlighting it whenever possible  - when being interviewed by the media, or, presenting our work to academic and arts forums.

Given our ongoing aim to use the painting as a springboard for raising greater awareness about the untold story of 1984 and the appalling consequences for Sikhs even today, we couldn't help but feel some sense of achievement when, in 2006, it was incorporated into Britain's formal university education system, and when The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. - one of the world' s most prominent museums, requested it on long-term loan for display in the "Legacy of Punjab" Exhibition.

Given that political corruption and human suffering are such universal issues, wherever the painting has been exhibited in the world, it has never failed to attract, generate interest and stir the emotions of visitors from diverse cultural backgrounds. Overall, public response has been overwhelmingly positive.

However, there are some Sikhs who feel that it's time to put the events of 1984 behind us.

So, during a 2004 interview with Mark Tully for a BBC Radio 4 programme about Sikhs' responses to 1984, twenty years on, we were asked why we, as U.K. artists, still felt it was important to promote greater awareness about what happened in 1984, whilst Sikhs in India just wanted to forget the whole terrible saga and move on.

Our reply was that to ask us to forget 1984 would be equivalent to asking the Jews to forget the Jewish Holocaust and that, whilst we could fully understand how many of those directly affected might want to put the harrowing events of 1984 behind them, there are also many - including the thousands of widows and orphans of 1984 - who will never receive the justice and compensation they have been fighting for all these years, unless the international community is made aware of the circumstances of their plight and pressure is put on the Indian Government to bring to account those responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against the Sikhs. 

In addition, we feel that it is important to try and redress in some small way the widespread misperceptions that continue to persist today about the Sikhs in relation to the whole 1984 affair.

Finally, many younger generation Sikhs are completely ignorant about what happened in 1984. We believe that it is a knowledge of one's history, however painful, that makes us who we are. It develops our sense of identity, purpose and pride in a collective heritage and provides us with lessons and role models for the future. In this respect, it is important to remember 1984, just as we do the historical periods of Sikh persecution every time we recite the Ardaas - no less for the fact that in them lies a message of hope and encouragement for our Sikh youth:

That against all odds, the Sikh community has been resilient enough to survive the greatest hardships and find the courage to preserve and protect its values, beliefs and identity.

 

[Text and images: copyright - The Singh Twins   www.SinghTwins.co.uk

Re-published: June 3, 2012

 

Conversation about this article

1: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.), June 04, 2012, 10:09 PM.

Thank you for keeping the memories alive; no one can ever forget 1984. My question is where are the paintings you talked about? Is there only one painting? If not where can we see the rest? If this is the only one, then I did not see the smoke, disfiguring of the sacred buildings and destruction of the sacred property. Where are the impressions of the tanks' wheels that destroyed so much? From your painting it looks as if the attacking armies maintained the cleanliness of the shrine? Actually that was not the case if you see the real photographs.

2: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), June 05, 2012, 8:24 AM.

Truthful, moderate, fearless, without bias, non-emotive and all steel is the spirit of Sikhi. All these aspects come across through the above article. I also feel that the Sikhs have a right to ownership of the whole of India and should not settle for any less. I further feel that Sikhi and the Sikh way of life has a right to ownership of the whole world and the Khalsa should not settle for anything less. There are two clear pointers in this regard: 1) Gurbani addresses the whole of humanity; 2) The spreading of Sikhs all over the globe. History of Sikhs written in a truthful, fearless and non-biased form should be encouraged. The Sikh community on its part should open up the spreading of the gurbani just like the four doors of the Harmandar Sahib.

3: Harpreet Singh (California, U.S.A.), June 05, 2012, 10:51 AM.

Dear Singh Twins: First of all, I would like to commend you for the tremendous artistic seva you have done. You have talent and courage. However, I would like to provide some constructive feedback. You are following the footsteps of old Sikh intellectuals who see 1984 as an aberration in Indian history. Even though Sikhs were the elite of India before 1984, there is plenty of evidence including Government of India secret memos branding Sikhs as a "criminal tribe". From early 20th century, leading up to 1984, there were direct and indirect actions and insults hurled at Sikhs by Hindu leaders. Note that I call them Hindu leaders because that is the social base they represented. Also, the blame for 1984 doesn't solely lie with a power hungry leader, political party (Congress) or the "government". Some Sikhs have blamed political individuals or a party. Others believe that the government was responsible. Yes, indeed, the government was the criminal offender. Legislature, law-enforcement, judiciary and media, all four of them, were complicit in the crimes against Sikhs. But just blaming a party or government is like saying only Hitler or the Nazis were responsible for the genocide of Jews. Who were the Nazis? Whose support did they have? Was the Jewish holocaust an aberration or were there rampant anti-Jewish sentiments in Europe already? We need to answer similar questions in the context of the Indian sub-continent if we are going to be honest about it. This historical introspection is going to be an extremely painful exercise for Sikhs because we have been tied with that land and the people since the beginning. But we must undertake this journey. Once again, please continue the seva and Guru Sahib will continue to bless you with courage to paint/speak the truth.

4: Dr..Karnail Singh (Bidston, Wirral, United Kingdom), June 08, 2012, 8:38 AM.

Dear Bhai Harbans Lal ji: Please google SinghTwins which I hope will answer some of your questions. All best wishes to you and the sikhchic.com team.

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