Communal riots have been a brutal reality in India since the Partition of 1947, and still seem to occur with regularity in various parts of the country. While most of the communal riots in the country have targeted the Muslim minority population, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots targeted the Sikh population.
Assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, Anti-Sikh riots
The Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, was assassinated on October 31st, 1984, by her Sikh bodyguards. The historical events leading up to the assassination are complex, and are detailed very well here. For the next four days, a bloody pogrom was enacted in retaliation against Sikhs, from November 1st - 4th, 1984, and is detailed here.
One of the darkest chapters of Indian history, the anti-Sikh riots in the Sikh neighborhoods in Delhi, Punjab, and Haryana, led to over 17,000 deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, and displacement of over 50,000 Sikhs. Even though official sources under-reported the deaths as 8,000, independent sources claim that over 17,000 lives were lost. In addition, there were tens of thousands of Sikhs who were injured and over 50,000 were displaced.
Also, numerous Sikh girls and women were gang-raped and killed. But the official numbers were never published. The rioters torched Sikh houses and even tracked each Sikh household with voter lists to ensure they had killed every single member of the family. It was utter mayhem, to say the least.
Counter-Memories of 1984
Unfortunately, none of these things have been acknowledged in the official history of 1984. As per the official account, there was a spontaneous eruption of sectarian violence in the aftermath of the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. However, international human rights activists have established that this was a planned and deliberate act by Congress workers and the Hindu right. Therefore, the 1984 anti-Sikh riot has been labeled as a pogrom and genocide.
Memory Leaks: An anti-memorial
To commemorate this tragic incident, I have created an anti-memorial art project, “Memory Leaks”, to help us remember the Sikhs that were massacred in the 1984 riots. The “Memory Leaks” anti-memorial project presents a series of seventeen ritual copper vessels used in Hindu temples for cleansing through water and fire. These are called “dharapatras” (copper pots with a spouted bottom) and “havans” (copper containers used for lighting the holy fire and making offerings to fire).
Each "dharapatra" represents a significant episode of sectarian violence. Each "dharapatra" in the Memory Leaks project has been etched with unending tally marks that signify the unknowable number of deaths in each episode. The official sources under-report the deaths and independent sources usually put the death tally as much higher.
The tally marks on the "dharapatra" titled “Anti-Sikh Pogrom, Delhi, Punjab, 1984” signify the uncounted dead in the anti-Sikh riots that started on November 1st and lasted till November 4th, in 1984.