‘Innocents Lost in 1984’ is a fictionalised audio drama of the trauma caused by Operation Bluestar – the codename for the June 1984 Indian Army invasion of the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. Created by Akaal Publishers, this radio play (or audio drama, in more current parlance) is a first-person narrative with key moments of the drama performed by contributing actors, all in the English language. Having premiered in recent days, it is now set to be aired to a wider audience in different UK cities and abroad, as well as being made available to listen to online.
Telling the inside story of ordinary men, women and children who found themselves living through one of the sub-continent’s darkest days, the story focuses on Satwant Kaur who has travelled on pilgrimage to the Darbar Sahib with her family. There, caught in the week-long invasion, she witnesses the deaths of loved ones, and suffers for years to come as a result of the trauma that came with being a civilian trapped in the complex.
The foundation of the dramatised account came from author Harjinder Singh of Akaal Publishers who created the story a number of years ago. Following development and a successful Indiegogo campaign earlier this year, promising drama student Eshmit Kaur took on the reigns of production and brought the play to life which has premiered at two well-attended UK dates in London and Birmingham respectively. Eshmit is a second year student at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA), and is also a spoken word artist. Harjinder Singh is the well-known author of two books pertaining to the events that this work is concerned with – ‘Game of Love‘ and ‘Reflections on 1984‘.
Eshmit Kaur narrated ‘Innocents Lost in 1984’ with aplomb, and was joined in performing the moments of dramatisation by a highly able cast from ALRA. The production level of vocals was crisp, animated by the authentic sound effects that were exceptional throughout. The building tension from 1 June is palpable, for a Sikh or non-Sikh alike, and does not drop away even as the closing monologue concludes. The edit we heard in London lasted a little over 35 minutes long, in which the opening scenes provided a little too much colourful information; it is a difficult task in these types of work to set a scene for the non-native to picture whilst also introducing the lead characters as personalities in their own right, so this is forgiveable, but there is a question mark here as to whether the fairweather listener would stay tuned in. The amount of information given in the opening five minutes is reflected by the narration which appears to race, but the reward for continuing to listen is undeniable, and moreover this production has introduced a highly talented individual to the Sikh community in Eshmit Kaur.
‘Innocents Lost in 1984’ is perfectly made for ‘middle England’ and one would hope that this is the type of play that finds its way onto a medium for that audience. On occasion, the cultural depiction of people and places is over-elaborated for my taste, but it is no doubt the right balance for a European audience. However, listening attentively in the London airing alongside a room full of mostly Sikhs, I was convinced that this was certainly a story told for a non-Punjabi audience, only to learn that there were many who were touched by the drama and who enthused about it afterwards. This is perhaps due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, and it did make me wonder therefore, if this audio drama might serve the dual purpose of introducing the audio drama as an art form to a community that is not often exposed to it. In any case, I cannot now find myself saying that this is a work predominantly for a non-Punjabi audience and particularly considering the open invitation to listen to it (it’s free folks) I would urge every reader to explore how you can do so through the dedicated Facebook page.
The most important point to note from this production is that Harjinder Singh and Eshmit Kaur have gone a long way to reclaim the Sikh perspective of what took place in June 1984, for an English language audience at least. Unlike other modes of transmitting how we see the invasion of Darbar Sahib, art affords creative license and the capacity to incorporate associated happenings that occured before and after the event, providing much-needed context. As well as tackling the news media’s go-to myth that the invasion was intended to “flush out extremists”, they invite the listener to consider how this major event impacted migration out of the Punjab, led to an increase in human rights abuses, and traumatised individuals who continue to suffer from those experiences to this day. Naturally, there are elements of the script that won’t be welcomed by every Sikh researcher, amateur or professional – but this is art, not documentary, and so it is the intentions and messages depicted that should be focused on, at least by the Sikh community at large.
Beyond some of the more obvious issues that are raised, this work should also instigate a dialogue on a number of issues exclusively within Sikh intelligentsia, including how we view and label the varying parties that were in the Darbar Sahib in June of 1984. The title for example lends itself to the question of whom we term ‘innocents’; this is not to suggest that the producers have marked out such a distinction, on the contrary they make clear that this audio drama hopes to raise awareness about the human tragedy of the attack in which up to 5000 pilgrims died, specifically avoiding the political rights and wrongs of the invasion. Building on that very notion though, I would contend that a more thorough conversation is still needed at an academic level to clarify the guilt that should be applied to the ‘Sikh’ political party, the Shiromani Akali Dal and their cohorts in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) who allegedly conspired with the State to orchestrate the invasion, establish it’s date of action, and ensure the aim to inflict maximum damage was achieved. Perhaps one day we will see a similar audio drama produced from that perspective; and if we do, it will owe a great deal of thanks to this production for opening the door.