American Sociological Association

A Haunted Generation Remembers


Sebh, Flickr CC
December 17, 2018

by Shruti Devgan

Second-generation Sikhs grew up with fragments and half-told stories of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, but it is not just direct descendants of survivors who “remember” traumatic experiences. Sikhs’ collectivist orientation, cultural traditions and diasporic location offer new insights into understanding intergenerational trauma and memory work.

Manbeena is a 29-year-old physician who moved to the United States 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.

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