Amu and Beyond
Amu and Beyond
Amu (2005), directed by Shonali Bose, recently screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival and is currently screening at various festival venues across North America. The film follows a young Indian-American named Kaju (Konkona Sensharma) who, while visiting her family in Delhi, begins to trace her biological parents. During this process she inadvertently uncovers Delhiâ€™s shame around the 1984 bloodbath of Sikhs after Indira Gandhiâ€™s assassination on October 31st. The filmâ€™s narrative is at first framed through her camera lens â€“ it negotiates the relationship between her position as a returning Indian-American and the nation she has long since been distant from. As she learns the deep connection between her history and 1984, the camera becomes less visible and her relationship to the events becomes more intimate. Women dominate the landscape of the film, and it is their narratives that unravel the lived experiences of 1984.
Despite the fact that the conventional political history of India emphasized its communal and factional nature, the relationship between the Sikh and Hindu communities remains largely unattended. Often communalism in Indian history is referred as the tension between Hindu and Muslim communities alone. Inevitably, this convention ignored the complex relationships between different communities in India, while also obscuring the similarities between religious discord and conflict along other social divides. The silencing of 1984 follows this tradition. Amu opens up avenues to reexamine this history and suggests that the 1984 carnage was not merely a communal event. Though the Punjab crisis has its roots before Indiaâ€™s partition in 1947, this event added to the conditions that would eventually lead to the events of 1984. As a consequence of partition, Sikhs who were before scattered across what is now Pakistani and Indian Punjab were unwillingly forced to migrate into the eastern third of historic Punjab. During the years that followed, the government failed to meet the demands of Punjab to have more autonomous control over its resources. This is related to problems in how the Indian Constitution organizes the relationship between individual provinces and the central government through federalism. On November 1 1966, as a result of the Punjabi Subah movement, a separate state for Punjabi speaking people was created.
This movement was led by the Akali Dal, a regional Punjabi political party. Due to growing unease around State control of Punjabi resources, and desires for greater Sikh visibility within the context of growing Hindu influence over Indian political culture, the non-violent militant Akali Dal movement formulated the 1973 Anandpur Sahib Resolution that demanded such things as greater allocation of water for irrigation, recognition of Amritsar as a holy city, release of political prisoners who were thought to be terrorists, and generally more provincial control of resources.
In January 1980, national parliamentary elections brought Indira Gandhi back into power. In February 1980, Presidentâ€™s Rule was declared by Gandhi in Punjab and eight other states, which dissolved these statesâ€™ legislatures and forced new elections. This led to increased politicization of segments of Punjabi society and increased interest in re-emphasizing the demands made by the Akali Dal in the 1970â€™s. In 1981, the Akali Dal submitted a list of 45 grievances and demands to the Indian government. Indira Gandhiâ€™s Congress party was threatened by the popularity of the Akali Dal and initiated strategic alliances with the more radical and militant Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bindhranwale. This relationship fell apart when Bindranwaleâ€™s faction became increasingly militant in their demands. The Bhindranwale supporters became known for their demands for a Khalistan, a separate Sikh state.
On June 5th, 1984, the Indian army began an extensive military invasion in Punjab centred around the Golden Temple. The stated rationale for this action was an attempt to specifically capture Bhindranwale and his supporters who were residing inside at that time. Simultaneous actions were taken throughout Punjab, including the military occupation of various gurdwaras, extensive curfews and a total censorship of the press. Due to this censorship, casualties are difficult to estimate though numbers range from one thousand to eight thousand deaths in the Golden Temple complex alone. This operation was not an isolated event but continued to impact daily life for Punjabis afterwards through daily dawn-to-dusk curfews, censorship and dissolution of Punjabi state legislative authority. On October 31st, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards.
Violence, that was clearly supported and facilitated by state officialsâ€™ action and inaction, broke out in Delhi immediately thereafter. The media decontextualized Gandhiâ€™s assassination, constructing it as a communal event - a Hindu prime minister being brutally murdered by Sikh fanatics. Though its irresponsible actions influenced the violence, the media did not orchestrate the carnage. National and local government administrators and elected officials were either directly involved or implicated in the violence. For example, Congress administrators recruited hoodlums from villages outside of Delhi to carry out systematic looting, killing and raping of Sikh residents. Congress officials and police were seen supervising the atrocities, providing kerosene to the perpetrators and identifying Sikh homes and shops. For three days, the government did nothing to stop the bloodbath. Estimates of the killings range from three thousand to more than twenty thousand.
These events were merely not statistical additions to add to the numbers killed by communal violence in Indian history. Beyond numbers, the lived experiences of 1984 - the effects of which continue to this day - are silenced. Womenâ€™s narratives are specifically and systematically excluded from the public discourse on1984. In February of 2005, one of us traveled to Amritsar on a pilgrimage. A family member told Kamal of a female friend who had been living in a gurdwara and urged her to visit the woman. Kamal knew little about her and did not have an exact address or telephone number. After asking many temple volunteers, Kamal and her friend finally located her home. The woman was very welcoming and for the next hour discussed her experiences of 1984. Her husband was killed years ago during a government incursion, and they had no children. During Operation Blue Star, she was falsely accused of insurgency, arrested and sent to jail for six months. She has been living in the temple for the past twenty years and continues to do community work in the temple as well as with local children. Womenâ€™s lives, thus, continue to be affected by 1984 and women continue to enact strategies of struggle and to speak out. Hearing her speak influenced Kamalâ€™s own identity and personal relationship with the genocide.
Amuâ€™s highlighting of womenâ€™s narratives, similar to the one experienced above, surrounding the events â€“ and its aftermath â€“ disrupt dominant historiography. As the story progresses and Kajuâ€™s search for answers around her familyâ€™s relationship to 1984 evolves, we learn how the main character, Kaju, is intricately tied to the carnage through multiple layers. Firstly, the events of 1984 are revealed through Kajuâ€™s adopted motherâ€™s narration about her work in relief camps for Sikhs affected by the bloodshed. This exemplifies how women were active in addressing the human costs of violence. Secondly, Kaju herself searches for the silenced narratives of 1984. Through her rigorous and steadfast search for truth, the audience becomes responsible witnesses for, and of, the events. Thirdly, Kajuâ€™s birth-mother directly engages in resistance as she confronts members of the Indian administration and their lack of action. These narratives, then, do not construct women as mere victims of violence but highlight that though peopleâ€™s lives are greatly affected, women never cease to struggle and enact strategies of resistance.
On another level, Amuâ€™s characters illustrate how carnage is not limited to the violence of killing but that other forms of violence sprung up from the events of 1984 â€“ the long-lasting and intergenerational scars of losing parents, children, and community. The circumstances that lead to Kajuâ€™s adoption, for example, are a glaring example of this. It is revealed that the orchestrated killings shattered her familyâ€™s existence and fractured her sense of self and location. Moreover, Kajuâ€™s narration reveals how violence, though effecting everyone, clearly impacts the lives of women in ways not experienced by men. It is aspects of these gendered experiences that are usually silenced in the historiography of violence.
These narratives, then, disrupt how 1984 is usually understood; that is, through the analysis of â€˜communal violenceâ€™ and discussions on â€˜electoral gainsâ€™ that emphasize statistics on casualties, property costs and the particulars of policy, rather than how the events affected the people who experienced the violence â€“ their stories remain largely undocumented. Communalism, which itself is a colonial construct, has become a way of understanding South Asian history, specifically producing certain types of religious subjectivities, then constructing them as naturally conflictual. Moreover, communalism only identifies religious difference as sources for strife and subsequently obscures other structural inequalities such as gender and uneven political economics. The women speaking in Amu disrupt this trend by problematizing the notion of coherent communal subjects. Indeed Kajuâ€™s adopted family is Hindu-Bengali, her birth-parents are Sikh-Punjabi and her love interest is Hindi-speaking Hindu; furthermore, these positions are shown as fractured along class and gender lines. The result is a representation of characters whose ethnic and religious subjectivites are fluid â€“ indeed by the end of the movie, Kaju puts on a kara, a symbol of Sikh identity. This further complicates the simplistic binary notion of factional â€˜communalâ€™ relationships.
Ultimately then, the film, through approaching the complexities of the classed and gendered experiences of 1984, facilitates a new understanding of violence â€“ violence as lived experience rather than mere statistics, violence as affecting all aspects of existence including identity, and how these narratives of 1984 continue on in the experiences of Sikh women today.