When They Came for Us

Review of  ‘1984 – When they came for Sikhs’  by Gurpreet Singh

1984 when they came for the sikhs

The Books Want to Say Something

Of the ages gone by

Of the World, Of the People


Will you not listen to

What they want to say

– Safdar Hashmi

( Excerpts of a Poem ‘Kitabein Karti Hain Baatein’ – english translation)


Writing for children is one of the toughest jobs in the world.

Safdar puts it very beautifully in his classic poem when he describes how they have ‘their own world‘ and how they ‘encompass whole knowledge‘ and how ‘they want to live / stay with you‘ and ‘talk to you

If one misses the various nuances in penning down a book for children then, they can easily slip into becoming sermons for them or present a drab, dry monochromatic view of the world – which can easily deter them from further enjoying / exploring it.

Gurupreet Singh, author and journalist, based in British Columbia, Canada , who has also published six books earlier : Terrorism – Punjab’s Recurring Nightmare, Fighting Hatred with Love : Voices of the Air India Victim’s Families ; Defenders of Secularism and Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson ? and ‘Nazneen to Naina’  He who is also director of an online journal ‘Radical Desi’  intends to usher children into rarely explored territory. A world not only of flowers and people, not the ‘secrets of rocket’, not of ‘today or tomorrow” but that territory when humans have turned against humans, when they have eliminated each other in the name of race, religion and ethnicity and how during such periods also individuals have not succumbed to such frenzy and continued to champion universal principles of love, compassion and solidarity with fellow human beings. Instead of ‘hate towards others engulfing them they have continued to spread love towards others and at a great cost to themselves.


The book ‘1984 – When they came for Sikhs’ begins with a ‘curiosity to know about holocaust’ and author’s visit to the legendary pastor and poet Martin Niemollr’s house which has been turned into a museum and his inability to see it as it was closed for some construction.

He tells the readers then about Martin Niemollr, the same individual who was a Christian Pastor and who initially supported Hitler in his anti-human policies and later turned against it when Hitler started Nazification of churches and had to spend eight years ( 1937-1945)  behind bars insid a concentration camp.

Niemollr is best known for his post war statement, worth quoting here in full :

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

(Martin Niemöller(“https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/martin-niemoeller-first-they-came-for-the-socialists..” )

As per author, today, Martin Niemoller, is “an icon of human right defenders’ across the world and his call for the urgent need to stick together, against heavy odds still reverberates.

Martin Niemollr died in 1984, ‘a watershed year for Sikhs in India’ ( Page 7)


In the next section the focus of the book shifts to Punjab of 80s n and a period of tremendous churning – accompanied by violence. People in this part of the world still remember the emergence of Sikh Separatist movement, demand for Khalistan and the bloody aftermath or the way the then ruling party played a very dirty politics, to marginalise moderate Akali politics

Authors contention is that ‘privileged majority then remained indifferent’ to the repression and how ‘liberals looked the other way’ regarding grievances of the community.

The focus of the third section is 2002 when Gujarat witnessed carnage when religious minorities came under attack. As per the author there were ‘similarities in violence’ in 1984 and 2002 ( Page 21). It further discusses the ‘divisive politics’ pursued by it later – wherein even Christian minorities also came under attack ( Page 23). Here he also mentions how dalits and adivasis ‘become Christian by choice’ to avoid ‘caste based persecution within the Hindu society’ ( -do) It also discusses the impunity with which social and religious minorities are coming under attack with ascent of Modi at the helm of affairs or how dissenting voices are intimidated or jailed for daring to speak truth to power.

The book also underlines – how despite a long period of Nazism and the participation and complicity of the German population in the ethnic cleansing and pogroms against the Jews, Germans have turned a new leaf in their lives. One cannot even see ‘a residue of the Nazi era’ ( Page 25) being celebrated and how ‘India has gone backwards in spite of tall claims about diversity’.

A notable aspect of this book for children is that it is bilingual ( English and Punjabi translation by Boota Singh) which is illustrated by Jarnail Singh.


E H Carr tells us that ‘History is a dialogue of the past with the present’

No doubt in an age when no such serious attempts are underway and history is being substituted with mythology and added to that where there are reports of reduction of attention span of children ( as well as adults) such an attempt to introduce children to troubled parts of our own history should be welcomed.

Perhaps they need to be told that ‘pride’ in one’s own history should not overshadow learning from its dark spots as well. Children need to be told that there were periods in human history – which everyone would like to forget – when they turned against each other leaving their own humanity but when such frezy died down, they consciously tried to turn a new leaf, perhaps the way in which Germans have been attempting to do. Closer home they need to be told that during partition of the subcontinent million and half people were killed on both sides but when the frenzy died down, Independent India under the leadership of great icons of freedom struggle engaged in building a new India on grounds of solidarity with each other as equal human beings.

A ruthless examination of our own history can be a better teacher.

Appreciating the intention behind writing this monograph and underlining that there should be more such attempts, it needs to be mentioned that execution of this idea leaves much to be desired.

Firstly, the author has not been able to decide on the age group of Children which he wanted to address and therefore this book for children – sounds like it has been written for adolescents

Secondly, his take on 1984 or 2002 riots looks unsatisfactory. The issue of ‘Sikh grievances’ is raised but not a single word on the dangerous mix of religion and politics and its aftermath finds mention, which witnessed killings of innnocents from different communities in Punjab itself. This attempt to exteriorise the responsibility of the bloody period merely to the then ruling dispensation etc or no serious attempt to introspection seems to be a lacunae in the whole presentation.

To conclude, what is important to remember that today one needs to learn from Niemollr’s legacy . “If there is any takeaway from that, it is the lesson of uniting and fighting for everyone and not leaving others in harm’s way before it is too late.” ( Page 31)

Subhash Gatade is a left  activist associated with New Socialist Initiative

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