Book Review: 1984: India’s Guilty Secret by Pav Singh

By Nilesh Mondal

1984 India's Guilty Secret


Title: 1984: India’s Guilty Secret
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (2017)
Pages: 295


1984: India’s Guilty Secret does something most books in its genre can’t – it keeps its promise. It’s a scathing and almost brutal journalistic read rich with data and mention of instances that have become a permanent fixture in the memories of one of the largest communities of our country, unfortunately. While most books in the genre of journalism either manage to alienate their readers by the use of jargon or disappoint by eventually turning out to be shallow fluff pieces lacking anything of relevance, this book by Pav Singh fulfils on both counts. It manages to pull in the reader by the sheer honesty that leaps out of every page, and keeps them firmly invested by a streamlined account of facts and discussions which affirm the need to learn more about our history in order to understand the present scenario in our country.

In the foreword, the author apologises for and justifies the use of gory and violent details, and it is an apology made for a reason – this book contains distinct and often detailed descriptions of the atrocities committed against the Sikh community in the wake of the infamous 1984 riots. However, the real horror of the incidents discussed in this book, does not come from the details but rather from the calm way in which the author chooses to talk about them. Pav Singh plays both roles to perfection here, as a narrator who isn’t divorced from the trials and tribulations of the Sikh community as a whole, at the same time, as a journalist, focussing more on facts to support his arguments, relying on the readers’ understanding of the truth and not just their sympathy. At recurring intervals the author reminds us that it’d be a grave error on our part to call the chaos that unfolded in those four days, a riot. Riot is spontaneous, he reminds us, but what happened in 1984 was something that had been planned well in advance, against a community which had no idea what violence awaits it and was thus unable to either fight back or even defend itself; massive propaganda and media blackouts were used by the forces in power to make sure there was no escape from the death and destruction that’d follow, making it in essence, something much closer to the genocide initiated by Hitler during WW II. Indeed, stories from the Nazi camps and inhuman circumstances that had plagued Germany are used at many instances, as a method of drawing parallels between these two occurrences separated by time and space but brought together by intent and its fallout.

This book is also important because it takes time and patience to go back into history and trace the factors that had made the Sikh community a growing concern of the government at the centre, and in doing so it completely shatters the falsification of history undertaken by those in power which has somehow still managed to elude the subsequent generations. The author has made the courageous decision to not only name those in power who had been responsible for the massacre, but also tracks their subsequent career trajectories, implicating the collaboration of people in all ranks and positions to make this massacre a horrific reality. What is most noticeable here, however, is how the same Hindutva propaganda used back then, about how the Sikh community poses an inherent threat to our country’s integrity, how they would slowly take over our lands and country, how the hatred in common citizens’ hearts were stoked and fanned into a fire which chose to devour an approximation of more than 35 thousand Sikhs, seems all too similar to our times. That is this book’s biggest strength and achievement.

Pav Singh’s book might have its own share of flaws – some chapters of the book are ill-paced, and the author does give in to his sentiments in a couple of instances, resorting to speculation rather than evidence. But these errors are few and don’t divert from the fact that this book is a necessary read in today’s times. It is a book everyone should read, understand and most importantly, keep in their collective memory, as will the Sikh community and this country in its entirety.



Nilesh Mondal, 24, is an engineer by choice and poet by chance. He is a writer for Terribly Tiny Tales and Thought Catalog, and has interned with Youth Ki Awaaz, Inklette and Moledro Magazine. His works have been published in magazines and journals like Cafe Dissensus, The Bombay Literary Review, Inklette, Coldnoon, Muse India, Eunoia Review and many more, and his first book of poetry, ‘Degrees of Separation’ came out in 2017 and debuted at #2 on the Amazon Bestseller List.