It was January 2010. I was visiting Calcutta for the first time. It’s a big Indian city located in the state of West Bengal. I always wanted to see Comrade Jyoti Basu—the former chief minister of the state who was, at the time of my visit, battling for his life at a hospital.
The 96-year-old Basu was the towering leader of India’s Marxist Communist Party and had led the West Bengal state for many years before he retired. Though he was despised by the Indian bourgeois for his land reforms, he was equally disliked by revolutionary communists, who parted ways with him to launch an armed resistance that came to be known as the Naxalite movement. The Naxals often accused Basu of not doing enough for the poor and marginalized, and suppressing rebels and voices of dissent.
But there is one aspect of Basu that makes him a real hero for the minority Sikh community in that region. In fact, during my visit to Calcutta I stayed with Sohan Singh Aitiana, a Sikh political activist associated with Basu’s party. He has been a staunch supporter of Basu, like many other Sikhs in Calcutta.
That's in part because Basu played a significant role during November 1984 when the country witnessed an anti-Sikh massacre engineered by the Indian state. This followed the assassination of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards in New Delhi.
Gandhi was murdered in retaliation for the military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine in the city of Amritsar, in June that year. The army invasion was ordered by Gandhi to flush out religious extremists led by a fiery Sikh preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had fortified the place of worship with weapons.
Bhindranwale was accused of running death squads from inside the temple. His supporters were behind many political murders, including killings of Communists opposed to religious fanaticism.
The army operation left many innocent pilgrims dead and several important buildings inside the complex destroyed. Bhindranwale also died fighting against the army during the attack.
These events enraged the Sikh community and under those circumstances, Gandhi was murdered inside her official residence. The slain leader’s Congress party, which claims to be secular, organized mass violence against innocent Sikhs all over India.
Sensing danger in West Bengal, Basu displayed exceptional leadership in his territory. He ordered the deployment of the army and asked his party volunteers to come out in the open and protect the Sikh community. While other cities burned, leaving thousands of Sikhs dead, West Bengal remained largely peaceful with very few deaths. Since then the Sikhs in West Bengal have always seen Basu as their saviour.
From Aitiana, I learned how the Sikh community of his generation felt indebted to Basu. He ensured that Sikhs remained safe in his jurisdiction whereas the they were hounded aggressively in the Congress-ruled states where police either sided with the mobs or looked the other way. Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, succeeded her as prime minister and drew maximum mileage from the bloodshed, using the slogan of "National Unity" to win the next election with a brute majority.
Riding on the anti-Sikh wave, famous Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan also got elected as a Congress MP. Bachchan was close to the Gandhi family and remained with Rajiv Gandhi throughout the funeral of his mother.
While in Calcutta I kept trying to meet Basu at the hospital with the help of Aitiana but never succeeded. Nobody was allowed inside the intensive care unit except close family members.
The local Sikh community kept visiting the hospital and prayed for the speedy recovery of their beloved leader. Then one evening when we stopped by at the hospital, we saw a heavy deployment of police and a huge crowd outside the building. We were told that Bachchan was visiting the ailing leader.
After some time when Bachchan appeared, there was a big cheer from the crowd that I realized had gathered not for Basu but to have a glimpse of the Bollywood star. Many were eager to take his picture on their mobile phones. That was the first time I saw Bachchan in person as he walked past.
There was a time when I too was a big fan of Big B, a term frequently used for Bachchan by media commentators. As a teenager I never missed a chance to watch his latest films.
Supremo, a comic series based on him, was my favourite. I kept checking with the bookstalls for it every month to get the newest edition. I even sent a letter to Bachchan asking for his autograph on the mailing address I found either in Supremo or elsewhere. After some time when I got a postcard picture of him addressed to me with his autograph in the mail, I felt on top of the world.
I loved to mimic his dialogues and sing his songs for my classmates and family. Collecting his posters also became my hobby. In 1982, when he got injured doing a stunt during a shooting of film Coolie I too prayed for his long life. When he finally recovered I also thanked the almighty. I remember that when Coolie was released the Bachchan fans rushed to theatres to watch the particular scene that led to his injury. I still remember watching the caption appearing on the screen during that scene, which announced it was here that Bachchan got injured.
All this however changed in 1984 after the massacre of Sikhs. Though I became an atheist as I grew older, being born in a Sikh family, I was carried away by the repression of my community at the age of 14. I was religious at that time and could not bear the loss of my compatriots.
Although my family did not suffer during anti-Sikh violence as we lived in Punjab, we were very shaken by what happened to the people of our community in other states. I somehow started getting disinterested in the Bollywood party because of a growing sense of alienation within the Sikh community.
When I learned from someone that Bachchan was among those Congress supporters who had incited the mobs, I couldn’t believe my ears. However, I do remember seeing him standing next to the body of Indira Gandhi lying in state on TV. During this time I remember, having heard myself, people chanting slogans, “Khoon ka badla khoon se lenge (we will avenge blood with blood)” on TV. But I was not sure if Bachchan was present at that particular moment or if he also joined the chorus.
There are some who claim that he did raise the slogan. U.S.-based Sikhs For Justice tried to get him summoned for inciting the anti-Sikh massacre. Bachchan clarified to the Sikh clergy that he wasn’t involved in the violence. He continues to insist that he is proud of his partial Sikh heritage, as his mother was a Sikh.
However, that does not help. Bachchan never uttered a word against the massacre and those who organized it. He rather enjoyed the privilege of getting elected as a Congress party MP. There is no doubt that the entire Congress machinery was involved in the massacre and for that reason, Bachchan will always be seen by history as complicit in the crime. By remaining silent to the massacre of the Sikhs he did a great disservice to humanity.
The image of Bachchan being “an angry young man” who could fight single-handedly against goons on the silver screen gradually began receding in my memory. His actions on-screen rather than his acting skills had influenced me at an impressionable age.
Even as I kept watching some of his films during later years mainly due to peer pressure, I was left with no particular liking for him. The memories of 1984 kept coming back in waves whenever I used to see his image. I once thought of mailing back to him his autographed picture that I previously cherished so much, along with a protest letter. Nevertheless, I never bothered about it and if I vaguely remember, I threw it away in the garbage.
A few months ago, I tried to confront him on Facebook when he was doing live posting, but he never answered my questions and kept responding to the greetings by those who joined.
The year 2002 became another watershed year for me. The state of Gujarat under Chief Minister Narendra Modi witnessed well organized massacre of Muslims. Those involved were the supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bharitya Janata Party (BJP). The violence followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Over 50 passengers had died in the incident that was blamed on Muslim fundamentalists by the Modi government. The BJP supporters used similar techniques to target Muslims that were applied against Sikhs by the Congress in 1984. Following into the footsteps of Rajiv Gandhi, Modi too emerged victorious in the assembly election held after the violence.
Notably, Bachchan acted in Dev, a powerful film based on the Gujarat massacre. He played a police officer determined to punish the guilty involved in the killings of Muslims. Yet he chose to ignore all this in real life when he agreed to become brand ambassador for the state of Gujarat state at the request of the former chief minister, Narendra Modi. So much so, Bachchan tried to project Modi in a positive light before 2014. That's when Modi became prime minister of India with a brute majority in the national election held that year.
Much like Bachchan's deafening silence over the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, his quietness over the Gujarat massacre was very disheartening. This is despite the fact that he frequently tries to make statements on social issues. How can he therefore be so indifferent to such violent crimes against minorities in India?
His track record leaves little doubt that he isn’t the real hero we should be looking at with some hope. For one, being an elected politician in the past, he cannot claim to be politically naïve or neutral to distance himself from such episodes. Also, being a character of films like Dev, he cannot plead ignorance over such inconvenient truths.
If I have to choose between Bachchan and Basu, I would pick the later as real hero. It was Basu who walked against the current by taking a strong position opposing violence against a minority community, while Bachchan was a beneficiary. Bachchan has established beyond doubt that he lacks courage to stand up against majoritarianism in relation to the violence both in 1984 and 2002.
I don’t even recall if he ever took any position against similar violent incidents that happened in between 1984 and 2002 or later. When many actors and cultural activists have come out against recent attacks on minorities under the Modi government, Bachchan has remained mum. On the contrary, Basu took great political risk for Sikhs who merely form two percent of the Indian population. Basu also acknowledged in his memoir that his party lost heavily in the general election that followed the 1984 carnage, whereas the Congress gained by polarizing the Hindu majority against the Sikhs by using Gandhi’s murder as a political weapon to get the sympathy vote.
Basu also pointed out that BJP supporters also participated in the anti-Sikh violence of 1984. This isn’t surprising as Congress supporters, too, engaged in anti-Muslim violence as foot soldiers in Gujarat in 2002.
Both parties have indulged in majoritarianism. The difference lies only in the brands. The BJP is an outright sectarian party that wants to transform India into a Hindu state; Congress, on the other hand, tries to the please Hindu majority under the garb of secularism. As opposed to Basu, Bachchan failed to challenge both parties.
Basu was not a perfect politician and he may have many limitations. But when he passed away on January 17, 2010, after I left without seeing him even once, he left behind a legacy of real secularism. This is the reason why the Sikhs in particular and minorities in general will always remember him as a statesman who continued to denounce religious intolerance.
One striking thing I noticed during my trip to Calcutta was that a Sikh man who drove me around had a big sticker of Bhindranwale on the rear window of his car. In spite of his liking for Bhindranwale, whose followers continue to hate Communists for being agnostic, this man said that he always voted for Basu and his party and would continue to do so.
I felt pity for those ordinary people who had gathered at the hospital where Basu was admitted, and seeing Bachchan without realizing that the actual hero was fighting for life inside and not the one they saw in action on celluloid.
Today when minorities feel insecure under the Modi government and the opposition lacks a strong leadership, Basu is more relevant than ever.