‘Burning Sikh Man’ as an Icon: Analysing Representations of the Anti-Sikh Violence of 1984 – Harleen Kaur


Remediation uncovers conformity as well as contestation. The paper analyses the remediation of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984 and decodes several medial representations to underscore their convergence in representing the image of a burning Sikh man. It investigates a novel, a poem, a web article, a painting, a film, and a commission report to substantiate the arguments. The paper questions whether the icon aids in the solidification of the cultural memory of the carnage or not. Is the image evocative enough to invoke the varied meanings of the violence, and establish it as a powerful site of memory? In addition, the paper analyses the gendered nature of the violence and the causes of the perpetrators in targeting a particular gender of the community. 

Keywords: remediation, burning, sikh, represented, man

Cultural memory ( Halbwachs, 1925) is the social memory of communities that are formed, contained in, and moulded by cultural artefacts. It comprises the numerous attempts of a community for remembering the past through varied media including novels, films, paintings, testimonial, poetry, factual reports, etc. Although the media utilise different symbolic systems and techniques for representing the past, they leave an indelible mark on the memory they create. Such media are united by content as well as by audience, and their inter-medial relations coalesce them into the media of cultural memory. When a particular event is represented through numerous media, the phenomenon is termed “remediation” (McLuhan, 1965). Such representations find similarities in this co-existing repository of images, texts, sounds among other artefacts. As Astrid Erll discusses in Cultural Memory Studies:

What is known about a war, a revolution, or any other event which has been turned into a site of memory, therefore, seems to refer not so much to what one might cautiously call the “actual events,” but instead to a canon of existent medial constructions, to the narratives and images circulating in a media culture. (Erll and Nunning, 2008, 392)

In addition, such constructions tend to solidify cultural memory by generating “icons, narratives, media products and technologies” (Erll and Nunning, 2008, 393-4). The said transmedial event becomes a “lieux de memoire” (trans. site of memory) ( Nora, 1989). There is an urgent need to understand such events for the medial constructions they indulge in, in order to recognise the impact of icons on cultural memory. One such event is the Anti-Sikh violence of 1984.

The centre-state conflict between Delhi and Punjab reached its horrifying climax in the year 1984. In the 1970s, Punjab government demanded autonomy through political and religious issues by adopting the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. In order to benumb the government and its rightful demands, the centre introduced a politico-religious figure Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. However, the central government could not bear his disagreement with their vested interests, and eliminated him through the illegitimate bombardment of Sri Harmandir Sahib under Operation Bluestar (1984). This fracture of psyche was avenged by the Sikh community through the assassination of the then Prime Minister of India Mrs. Indira Gandhi on 31st October, 1984. The assassination was followed by unprecedented and targeted killing of Sikhs throughout the country leaving thousands dead, and wounded with insurmountable loss of property.This violence has been represented through a multitude of media like film, novel, poetry, newspaper reports, poetry, testimonial, painting, etc. In  spite of their differences of form, the representations have many commonalities which have further led to the construction of icons that are independently reminiscent of the event. The different medial representations evoke similar images which are then endowed with the context as well as extent of the event. One such image is that of the ‘burning Sikh man’ which finds an indispensable place in the depictions so much so that it has become synonymous with the authenticity of a specific representation. The selected works; ‘Kultar’s Mime’ a poem by Sarbpreet Singh, a web article, a novel Helium (2014) by Jaspreet Singh, a painting, an inquiry commission report, and a film Jogi (2022) have been studied to understand the image of a burning Sikh man in these narratives. 

The ‘burning Sikh man’ surfaces in Sarbpreet Singh’s poem ‘Kultar’s Mime’ which is the story of four Sikh children (namely Kultar, Ranoo, Sukhi, and Biloo) engulfed by the violence targeted at Sikhs in Tilakvihar, Delhi. One of these children is the pleasant and affectionate Sukhi who turns into a pale and withered child due to the perilous atrocities done unto her family, particularly her father. She witnesses her father being mercilessly beaten with kicks, and sticks only to forcibly find her way inside the “scene from hell”. Holding his hand, she notices gasoline being poured over her father to burn him alive. 

A deluge of gasoline covers the man

The terrified child, her father’s pet

Sobs turn to screams pitched even higher

As they light a match, set him on fire. (Singh, 2020, 219)

She holds her father so firmly and tightly that numerous and repeated attempts at pulling her away fail miserably. The mob doesn’t douse the fire amid the incessant and hollow claims that they don’t kill babies. They try to separate the father-daughter duo by kicking her hard but she wouldn’t relent. The duo burn together and scream with pain. The daughter returns from this ‘game’ with a charred face, hair, and hands. The father dies a terrible death groaning with unbearable pain, and Sukhi threatens the mob with haunting nightmares of the brutal crimes they have been committing so nonchalantly.

An article on a website, Sikhsiyasat, dated 3rd November 2016 narrates the gruesome story of Gurcharan Singh Rishi who witnessed the burning of his brother by the mob. He too was thrown into a burning truck to die, but he survived due to the intervention of his wife and neighbours after the mob had left. The incident left him half-burnt, paralysed and bedridden for life. He was not given proper medical treatment, and his wounds never healed. He filed a case against an ex-Member of the Parliament but the accused was not held guilty for lack of sufficient evidence. Rishi was an eye-witness of the MP instigating a mob and exclaiming that these Sikhs must be punished. Unfortunately, he died on 17th February 2009 awaiting justice. His family has not been given any compensation in spite of the order of Punjab and Haryana High Court.

The icon is again depicted in Jaspreet Singh’s Helium (2014). This textual narrative presents the story of Raj who was left terribly disturbed by the murder of his professor in November 1984. He tries to relieve his anxiety by migrating to America and later returns back to India for solace. Professor Singh is killed in front of his students at the railway station. When the students return from a trip, a frenzied mob at the railway station asks the students to hand over the encircled professor to them. The mob finds the perfect opportunity of seizing the teacher when a journalist applies sudden, screeching brakes to prevent hitting the group. After rummaging through the professor’s suitcase for valuables and discovering a wristwatch, they:

Spray gasoline from the journalist’s scooter on our teacher, slip a rubber tyre around his neck. ‘Let me go. What have I done?’ I can hear Professor Singh shout…At this point the chief lumpen laughs and spits in Professor Singh’s face, douses the tyrewith  more hydrocarbons and strikes a match. (Singh, 2013, 30)

The students witness the brazen collusion of government, police, and mob when their repeated attempts at saving their teacher fall on deaf ears. Raj couldn’t help but be a mere spectator aching to save Professor Singh from the blood-thirsty mob. The pitiable picture of a charred body along with this text accentuates the impact of a burnt body on the human psyche. Raj feels dejected and attempts to desperately extinguish the flames somehow but he fails. The remnants are a shoe, a few bones, and a steel bracelet i.e. a karha (silver bangle) which is a Sikh religious symbol. 

Fig. 1. The painting of a burning man by Devender Singh (Singh, n.d.)


The painting of a burning Sikh man (Fig. 1) by Devender Singh aptly presents the ghoulish scene. An aged turbaned Sikh man clad in white has a tyre around his neck. He appears affectionate and kind towards all. The man is on fire and his hands are rendered immobile by the tyre. He seems to be crying for help and trying to make his way out of the circle of the hellish mob. His feet are desperately attempting to advance in a direction away from the mob but he is surrounded by rejoicing and revengeful people. The man appears trapped and bound until his death. The painting visualises the Sikh, the only victim surrounded by an endless group of illogical men mad after the blood of their ‘enemies’ in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi assasination.    

To give bureaucratic evidence, the ‘Justice Nanavati: Commission of Inquiry’ report contains countless mentions of the burning of Sikhs by the mob. The report includes eyewitness accounts of burning Sikh men alive in the National Capital Territory of Delhi on 31st October 1984. It details the sequence of events and provides sufficient details of victims as well as perpetrators. It also examines the failure of police to act in time for aversion to criminal violence. All the accounts have been substantiated with affidavits by the victims. In the Parliament Street area, the mob attacked a gurudwara and was humbly requested by an elderly gentleman with folded hands to refrain from perpetrating violence. “He was however dragged out of the Gurudwara premises and badly beaten. After he had fallen down, someone from the mob had thrown some white powder on him as a result of which body of that man started burning” (Government, 2005, 20). A similar fate awaited Kartar Singh Virdi (Government, 2005, 30), Sardar Thakur Singh (Government, 2005, 45), Capt. Nazar Singh Mangat (Government, 2005, 61), Sarup Singh, Pratap Singh, Dhiru Singh, Giru Singh, Kakum Singh, Arjun Singh and Jagat Singh (Government, 2005, 87) of Block No. 32 of Trilokpuri, etc. In all these accounts, the men were dragged out of their houses, mercilessly beaten, doused in kerosene or other inflammable substances like petrol, struck with a lit matchstick, and burnt alive. In some cases, their houses, shops, factories, and vehicles were burnt too. Their homes were looted, women assaulted, and children made to run amock in utter confusion and desperation. It appears the mobs knew the houses and the people to be targeted. They had adequate supplies of destruction and courage to kill their own brothers just because they belonged to a different community. This report is a documentary and legal proof of such incidents. 

The Netflix film Jogi (2022) is another glaring reminder of the image of Sikhs set aflame as part of the violence. The plot of the cinematic narrative revolves around the titular character Jogi who witnesses the carnage with petrified eyes, understands the need to shear off his hair for saving his community, and safely evacuates many Sikhs to Punjab. Jogi is portrayed as just another young Sikh man residing with his family in Delhi in the 1980s. His normal daily routine is interrupted by the sudden and unwarranted killings of his brethren. When he realizes the gravity of the situation, he is compelled to cut his hair for safe passage from Delhi to Punjab. He is able to take numerous Sikh men, women, and children from Trilokpuri to Mohali. In the massacre, his brother-in-law Tejinder, who owns a general store, is burnt alive along with his shop. Tejinder reaches his shop and pays reverence to the picture of Guru Nanak Dev. Suddenly, a group of the masked mob carrying sticks and kerosene enter his shop and start sprinkling kerosene everywhere including Tejinder’s body. When he tries to reason with them, they beat him, and pull the shutter down to trap him inside. Then, they light a match and throw it towards the shutter which catches fire instantly. (Zafar, 2022, 00:06:40-07:08) Tejinder is heard screaming for help from inside the shop. Later, when Jogi along with his father is running for safety and shelter, he comes across a benumbing scene of a Sikh man burning in front of his eyes (Fig. 2). (Zafar, 2022, 00:08:03-30) The man is dwindling with pain and screaming for help. Jogi however stands paralysed by the traumatic sight for a while unable to comprehend his predicament and silently witnesses the act. He witnesses the man falling on the floor groaning with pain, utterly helpless. Jogi unable to stay any longer to help the burning man moves to save his father.

Fig.2. The image of a burning man in the film Jogi.

In conclusion, it can be observed that the image of a burning Sikh man finds a place in all the selected medial representations devoid of the nature of the media representing it and the time at which they were produced. This emphasizes the significance of the icon in the construction, propagation, and moulding of cultural memory and the later imagination of the event. The image is invested with the meaning of communal brutality, collusion, and victimization. The icon emerges as a powerful memorial of atrocities borne by the men of the Sikh community and establishes the gendered nature of the violence. The deep-rooted motives of killing men hint at eliminating the financial and moral stature of such families. It confirms the evil intentions and compliance of the larger society and government in rendering a community helpless, hopeless, and morose in the generations to come. The icon of a burning man is a cruel reminder of the fatal consequences of the acts of the instigated public and mob violence and acts as a site of memory. of the anti-Sikh Violence of 1984. 


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Author Bionote

Dr Harleen Kaur is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Multani Mal Modi College, Patiala, Punjab. She has an M.A. in English, UGC-NET, and PhD in English. She has several research papers to her credit. Her research interests include Memory Studies, Film Studies, and Gender Studies. She is a voracious reader and a compulsive writer. In addition to research papers, she also writes articles for popular magazines.