In the U.S., Sikh men are visible, but rarely understood as members of a traumatized diaspora community. Sebh, Flickr CC

A Haunted Generation Remembers

Manbeena is a 29-year-old physician who moved to the U.S. with her family as an infant and has lived there since. There is a lilting quality to Manbeena’s powerful voice; her expressive face lights up as she speaks, even when she talks of difficult issues. Manbeena’s father is a direct survivor of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984.

In June 1984, following political tension and under the pretext of “apprehending a handful of militants,” the Indian army, under state leadership, invaded the “theo-political center” of Sikhs, the Golden Temple, in the North Indian state of Punjab. Thousands of pilgrims were killed. Following closely on the heels of this attack, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. The assassination precipitated the organized, state-backed massacre of Sikhs in India’s capital city, New Delhi, and other parts of North India. The initial wave of killing lasted from the evening of October 31 through November 4, with more than 3,000 Sikhs murdered, yet the events of 1984 initiated at least a decade of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings, disappearances, atrocities, and torture in Punjab. “1984” became shorthand, symbolizing the violence of June and October-November but also tensions between the Sikh community and state, which assumed “Hindu” identity, drawing a simplistic association between the majority Hindu community as the “rightful proprietors” of India. In the following, I use 1984 in this broader sense.

Manbeena did not learn about the events at home, nor did she know that 1984 had motivated her family’s migration. Instead, like most of the other second-generation Sikhs I spoke to, she first learned about the events at a Sikh summer camp in the late 1990s or early 2000s. After this serendipitous discovery, Manbeena recalls, she returned home and discussed 1984 with her family, learning of her own intimate connection with this tragic past.

Manbeena’s story is echoed by other second-generation Sikhs in North America, both children of 1984 survivors and children whose parents did not suffer the violence directly. Manbeena and her generational cohort are “haunted,” in sociologist Avery Gordon’s words, living with ever-present traces of the violent events of the past. But they are also engaged in making sense of a “difficult past” by doing “memory work.” Memory work entails a search for fragments of painful pasts, then piecing them together to re-interpret and re-present past experiences and events while weaving them into public narratives. I first became aware of these hauntings and memory work while conducting research for a separate project on Sikh identity. As I attended gurdwara, or the Sikh temple, in New Jersey periodically and started speaking with people, I discovered that 1984 was a critical temporal event with deep meaning and significance for diasporic Sikh identity.

Second-generation Sikhs carry “postmemories” of 1984—literary scholar Marianne Hirsch’s term for describing the experiences of descendants of trauma who “remember” only by means of stories, often fragmented and half-told, as well as the images and behaviors with which they grew up. Postmemory’s connection to the past is mediated not by recall but also by imagination, projection, and creation. It assumes the shape of memory because of its “affective force.” How do young diasporic Sikhs, removed in time and space from 1984, form these postmemories? Who are Sikh “memory workers,” and how do their biographies reveal the larger social process of evolution from private memories to public memory work?

In exploring these questions, I found that the second-generation’s simultaneous physical and temporal distance from the events combined with “ghosts” of racial and religious marginalization in the North American context and quest for genealogy and “roots” in the diaspora lead them to engage with 1984 more directly and publicly than the first-generation. Importantly, intergenerational trauma and postmemories shape life stories for even those second-generation Sikhs who are not direct descendants of 1984 survivors. Sikhs’ collectivist orientation and cultural traditions, combined with their diasporic location, have created more complex and diffuse postmemories.

Pre-partition India The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Oxford University Press, 1909. Public Domain.

Sikhs and their Diaspora

The Sikh community traces its genealogy to the Gurus, or teachers, extending from Guru Nanak (1469-1539) to the tenth and last embodied human Guru, Gobind Singh (1675-1798) in the Indian state of Punjab (See map above). Before his death, Guru Gobind Singh ended the line of living Gurus and established that the Guru was present in the sacred scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the Panth (community). The Sikh collective body embodies the Gurus’ teachings in various ways, including in the community of saint-soldiers or sant-sipahi, combining spirituality with temporality that evolved as part of the Khalsa tradition (from Khalis meaning pure). Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa in 1699, for the purpose of developing a coherent body of Sikhs, devoted to the faith and visibly identifiable, to fight persecution. Among the injunctions informing membership in the Khalsa are the Five Ks: kes (long hair, tied in the pagh or turban, and beard), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword/dagger), kara (steel bangle), and kacch (a pair of breeches). These reinforce the visibility of devotion.

The Sikh diaspora is an essential, rather than coincidental, part of the development of the community and its identity. Even though Sikhs constitute a minority, both experientially and numerically (less than 2%) in Hindu-majority India, they comprise one of the largest sections of Indians overseas. Between 1904 and 1907, roughly 5,000 Sikh migrants, mostly men, arrived on the West Coast of Canada. About the same number arrived on the West Coast of the U.S. between 1902 and 1910 as unskilled labor in the lumber industry, in saw mills, laying railroads, and on farms.

The early phases of Sikh migration were also a time when intensely racialized and exclusionary legal and administrative measures, including the denial of entry and citizenship, emerged in North America. In Canada, discrimination was exemplified by the Komagata Maru episode. The Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship chartered by a wealthy Sikh contractor to challenge a policy prohibiting non-White, non-European immigrants who had not come on a “continuous voyage” from their homeland from entering Canada. The ship sailed to Canada in April 1914 with 376 potential immigrants from non-Indian shores. On arrival, Canada’s racist immigration policy caused the ship to remain anchored for two months in the Vancouver harbor, during which time the passengers were treated like prisoners and denied easy access to food and water. On July 23, the Komagata Maru was forced to leave as Canada threatened to deploy its navy.

After World War II, another shift in U.S. and Canadian immigration policies gave preference to highly skilled immigrants (both men and women), and the events of 1984 would precipitate the final wave of Sikh migration to North America. Because of political persecution, both low-income refugees and educated professionals consciously left India. Figures from the 2011 census suggest that there are 455,000 Sikhs in Canada. Depending on the source, U.S. estimates of Sikhs vary from 250,000 to over 500,000. Despite differences between Canada and the U.S., I focus on the importance of a “transnational congruence of identities” based on racial, religious, and ethnic marginalization.

Studying Traumatic Memory

To study intergenerational trauma and memory work among Sikhs, I combined various research methods. Based on information gleaned from preliminary interviews, I identified digital archives on 1984, studying a sample of eight websites culled from a larger pool of approximately 20 websites (accessed November 2014) found using a combination of search words such as “Sikhs” and “1984, memories” on Google. The eight websites I chose from this pool is purposive, with two main criteria in mind: inclusivity, or a wide range of perspectives and feelings, and depth, or websites comprised of more than five pages. All but one of the websites were produced by Sikhs in the diaspora, mainly activist-scholars or lawyers. Studying these digital representations of 1984 provided one way to understand the direct and indirect experiences of community members.

To supplement my narrative analysis of websites, I interviewed Sikh survivors, witnesses, and their descendants in Canada and the U.S. from 2012 to 2013. Of the 27 total interviews I conducted, 16 were with second-generation Sikhs either born in North America (mostly the U.S.) or who had migrated from India between infancy and the age of five. They ranged in age from 25 to 40 years, with an equal number of women and men. To understand the process by which individual memories become part of enduring collective memory, I examined second-generation Sikhs’ trajectories into memory work, the ways their biographies intersect to create a culture of memory work.

Memories, especially traumatic memories, are fraught and ridden with gaps. In keeping with Grace Cho and other trauma memory scholars, I gave precedence to “narrative truth” over attempts to fill the gaps or challenge the historical accuracy of my informants’ stories. In Norman Denzin’s words, narratives “create the very events they reflect upon.” I paid attention not only to what respondents said, but also how they said it—when did they pick up the pace of speech, when did they slow down, when did they become silent, what emotions were they conveying—and what emotions did it produce in me?

Ghosts of 1984

Experiences of loss and suffering are felt keenly among diasporic citizens. Young Vietnamese Americans born and/or raised in the U.S. are haunted by “memories” of the Vietnam War, and the Korean diaspora in the U.S. lives with the ghosts of the Korean War. Sikh Americans are making sense of the specters of 1984. The dominant narrative constructed by the state and supported by the mass media of the time rationalized and undermined the violence. In India, socially engendered fear and shame were effective and invisible mechanisms to preclude the Sikh story of 1984 from becoming public. In the diaspora, first-generation Sikhs—direct survivors and witnesses—started sharing their traumatic experiences over a period of time, but it is the second-generation, growing up in different contexts and with different interpretations of 1984, that is re-narrating 1984 and doing memory work.

Of the second-generation, it is not just direct descendants of 1984 survivors who “remember” experiences through fragments, traces, half-told stories, and silences within the family. Survivors’ non-kin also assume the “burden of memory.” Sikhs who are not direct descendants of survivors learned about the events in community spaces such as gurdwaras or Sikh temples and Sikh summer camps. These spaces have played an important role in socializing young Sikhs into values, histories, and memories of Sikhism in general and 1984 in particular.

Harjot told me his story. Harjot recalls that even though his family, along with a handful of others, constituted a small congregation of Sikh worshippers in his neighborhood in Texas, he grew up in a Sikh context doing paath (reading from the Sikh Holy Scripture) and kirtan (hymns). Yet, according to Harjot, it was the knowledge of 1984 that led him into a journey of emotional connection to the Sikh faith. In addition to seeing the pictures of the Golden Temple, desacralized and wounded, Harjot recalled, the grim and grotesque pictures of Sikh bodies left an indelible imprint on his memory: “What stuck with me was the bodies, the corpses, the real savagery of everything….” Simply recalling the images, Harjot was overwhelmed. His voice drifted off. He stayed silent for a couple of minutes before talking again. He remembered crying when he first saw such images, but also how it had been a “very strong bonding experience… in the sense that we found out that you know, we all know about this and now let’s do something together….”

Persecution, Then and Now, “Here” and “There”

Memories of the past continue to resonate into the present and future because difficult pasts never really assume the shape of a well-defined past or time that can be neatly boxed away in the temporal back regions of the psyche. As Nicolas Argenti and Katharina Schramm write, “remembering is oriented not to the past, but to coming to terms with the past in the present that is continuously troubled by it.” For second-generation memory workers, 1984 became a rite of passage, initiating them into the collective memory of their community. As several of my respondents explained, the stigmatization and marginalization that they experienced in the American context, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, created an impetus to draw closer to Sikh history and culture, including embracing the complex memories of 1984.

Sikh identity was manufactured as the “other” in India in the 1980s, and in the North American context Sikhs faced a hostile racialized environment from their very first arrival, including violent attacks on Sikhs and the Komagata Maru episode. On the one hand, racism against Sikhs has become less blatant since the years of early migration, at least in and through legal inclusion as citizens, but xenophobia has also intensified as religious identities have become racialized. Hate attacks on Sikhs after 9/11 and the August 2012 murder of Sikhs in Wisconsin did not simply follow from phenotypical difference and visibility, but also the conspicuous religious signifiers of Sikhs: the turban, beard, and distinct places of worship. As scholar and activist Jaideep Singh explains, “apparently Muslim,” although not officially recognized, has emerged as a new categorical identity and basis of inequality in the U.S. Ethnic, religious, cultural, and national groups associated with this identity are “both racially and religiously marked as ‘other’ in the post-9/11 world.”

Second-generation Sikhs identify memory work on 1984 as a pathway to understand their community’s long history of persecution and alienation in both national and diasporic contexts. Kirat is a second generation Sikh male. His mother is representative of the few families that instill a conscious awareness of 1984 in their children from an early age. Building on these postmemories, Kirat has developed a sense of responsibility for carrying the stories of 1984 forward: he needed to share his “mom’s burden.” This personal connection with 1984 was strengthened by his immersion in Sikh cultural traditions, including the ideas of shahidi (martyrdom) and seva (altruistic service). Kirat attributes his connection with Sikh identity and the “sense of purpose” younger cohorts find in this identity to experiences of being the “other” in the diaspora.

The Sikh diaspora is placed between “here” and “there,” in an ambivalent both/and position. Diasporic memory work that lies in the interstices of the past and present is constructing a more differentiated, nuanced, and diffuse set of memories of 1984 than dominant representations.

The Diasporic-Digital Story of 1984

Sikhs in the diaspora, at the initiative of the second-generation, are creating spaces on the internet, articulating new interpretations of the events. The story of 1984, as it unfolds digitally, is multi-layered, complex, and critically informed, a response to simplistic, lop-sided hegemonic representations. Websites around 1984 are united in challenging the state and mass media’s language of rationalization and spontaneity in describing the violence. Both the June and October-November violence are recast as “orchestrated cataclysms.” In several accounts of the June invasion, columnists question the state’s labels of “terrorists” and “militants,” applied appallingly to the slain victims, and bring attention to poignant stories of civilian deaths. Sikhs contest the discourse around the November “riots,” even more vociferously and emphatically than the June attacks. Together, they are bringing out the gravity of the crime, aided and abetted by the state and its functionaries, and renaming the violence “carnage,” “genocide,” or “pogrom.” The digital story of 1984 includes documentation of the reverberations beyond that year. For example, in a report entitled “Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India,” the authors examine the state’s role in the “disappearance” of young Sikh men.

The combination of several forms of expression through mixed modality is integral to the complex, emotive nature of the story of 1984 constructed in and through digital media. Imagery, both photographs and videos, provides visual, visceral testimony to represent the wounds and scars etched on the Sikh body. Digital platforms are re-presenting 1984 to make sense of the senselessness of the attack on the Sikh collective body.

Connecting Postmemories

In constructing digital memories, Sikh memory workers are making connections with traumatic experiences of other religious minorities. They are situating 1984 as both a specifically Sikh and a generalized experience, shared by other disenfranchised communities. In particular, they evoke language and imagery from the Jewish Holocaust to translate their experiences into a more widely understood framework. While expressing solidarity with experiences of another religious minority is a way to form an effective and powerful coalition, there are, of course, limitations to this translation. Each traumatic history is unique and context-specific. In this instance, comparing 1984 to the Holocaust highlights the tyranny of the Indian state, but also runs the risk of overstating the Sikh case.

Even though Sikh Americans are yet to draw explicit parallels with traumatic memories of other marginalized groups in the North American context—racial, sexual, and gender minorities—I can offer some preliminary thoughts. It is especially relevant to juxtapose various Asian American groups—is there a shared story to be told? To the extent silences and erasures within Sikh Americans families are shared by second-generation Korean and Vietnamese Americans, in the absence of parents’ storytelling and a public discourse about the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, there is a connection. Similarly, cultural values mediate intergenerational transmission of traumatic memory not just among Sikhs. Third-generation Sansei Japanese Americans did not receive explicit instruction in cultural values, but have internalized cultural scripts like haji or shame about Japanese American incarceration/internment from second-generation Nisei parents. Yet, like second-generation Sikh memory workers, young Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese Sansei artists, activists, scholars and lawyers are also doing the work of memory.

Sikh Americans share a “genealogy of racialization” and “gendering” with other Asian Americans. Still there are differences within Asian American communities with respect to traumatic memory, perhaps most importantly stemming from the part the U.S. played in producing their respective violent histories. The very presence of Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipino, Hmong, Cambodians, and Laotians in the U.S. owes to U.S. imperialism and militarism. The U.S. is thus implicated in haunting these groups from the very beginning. Again, the trauma of mass incarceration inflicted upon Japanese Americans during World War II resulted from government orders motivated by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Among such ethnic groups, descendants of war and incarceration are struggling to piece together a narrative of their past in the very context/nation that seeks to forget. For Sikhs, the U.S. is emerging as a mostly fertile context for memory, both because events of 1984 unfolded in India and their status as perpetual “foreigners within.” Racial violence produced multiple hauntings, compelling second-generation Sikhs to search the past to find a place for themselves and their community in the present time and space.

As second-generation Sikhs stepped into adulthood, they began a process of interrogating and understanding their language, heritage, and culture. In looking back, second-generation Sikhs are embarking on a journey to carve out a self-identity and find an emotional anchor amidst the ambivalences of diasporic belonging. One way to work through these ambivalences is to search for roots; 1984 constitutes an important missing link. Not just direct descendants of survivors but also young Sikhs whose parents were not directly affected by the violence carry postmemories of 1984, a manifestation of the community’s collectivist ethos. By connecting postmemories of various groups, I do not deny their specificities. Rather, in Marianne Hirsch’s words, connecting disparate pasts is a way of “discovering shared aesthetic and political strategies, affects, and effects.”

Recommended Readings

Grace Cho. 2008. Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. A skillfully crafted book about the unexplored stories of Korean women sex workers during the Korean War and secrets that haunt their diasporic families.

Michael Hawley (ed). 2013. Sikh Diaspora: Theory, Agency, and Experience. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV. Offers a cross-disciplinary lens through which to reflect on Sikh “diaspora-making,” ranging from theoretically rich essays to personal micro-histories.

Gunisha Kaur. 2009. Lost in History: 1984 Reconstructed. San Antonio, TX: Sikh Spirit Foundation. A pithy yet comprehensive account of the events of 1984 written by a second generation Sikh “memory worker.”

Joseph T. O’Connell et al. (eds). 1990. Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century. New Delhi, India: Manohar. An important collection of essays reflecting on the evolution of the faith, culture, and diaspora in North America and Britain.

Arlene Stein. 2014. Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press. An engaging and lucid story (that is also part-memoir) of second-generation Jews’ critical role in building a Holocaust memorial culture.


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