Challenging misinformation about 1984 Sikh massacre with simple facts

sikh pogrom 1984

In one of the worst massacres in the history of India, the world’s so called largest secular democracy, thousands of innocent Sikhs were lynched and burnt alive, while their women were raped during the first week of November, 1984.

The Sikh community, which makes up just two percent of the Indian population, was targeted by mobs all across the country following the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence in New Delhi.
The two assassins wanted to avenge the military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar in June that year. The army attack was ordered to flush out a handful of religious extremists who had fortified the place of worship and were involved in violence directed against political rivals, Hindus and moderate Sikh civilians.

The ill-conceived military operation left many worshippers dead and destroyed the building of Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh faith. The whole preventable episode enraged the Sikh community all over the world, and in a fit of rage the two Sikh bodyguards of Gandhi killed her at close range on the morning of October 31,1984.
Despite many testimonies available to suggest that activists belonging to the slain leader’s Congress party were complicit in the carnage that was carried out with the connivance of the police; no senior political leader has been convicted, even as the victims’ families continue to await justice and closure. The rape victims continue to live silently with shame and humiliation. Barring a few convictions of foot soldiers of the violence, no one from the top echelons of bureaucracy and politics has been brought to justice.
Years have passed, but the issue has not been resolved with honesty. The victims’ families have only received meagre monetary compensation, while those in the pursuit of truth have been repeatedly told to forgive and forget and move on. In order to cover up this whole act of state sponsored violence, misinformation is being spread both inside and outside India. Those seeking justice are frequently branded as Sikh separatists to weaken the cause and public support.

Even many liberal democrats who oppose the current right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government, under which the attacks on religious minorities have grown, conveniently ignore the crimes of the Congress party, which they see as a secular alternative to the BJP. They don’t realize that the BJP is not a cause, but only a symptom of the disease which is called majoritarianism, of which the Congress took advantage in 1984 and started an era of impunity.

Here are some simple facts that need public attention to challenge this misinformation campaign and calculated attempt to silence any conversation on 1984. Although the list of questions that are repeatedly asked either out of ignorance or to silence the activists seeking justice is long, here are a few which can be and should be countered with following arguments:

Q: Why do we keep talking about 1984? It happened long time back. Isn’t it time to move on? 

Answer: In that case, shouldn’t we also stop commemorating the death anniversary of Indira Gandhi? Why do our leaders keep paying tributes to her every year on October 31? Why was her official residence turned into a museum? What is the point of bringing busloads of tourists to her house-turned-museum? Why is the exact spot where she was assassinated still maintained as a memorial site? If a nation cannot get over the murder of just one leader, how can it expect people to forgive and forget the murders of so many of their loved ones?

Q: Wasn’t it a natural reaction to the killing of a Prime Minister? People were genuinely angry against the Sikhs for the assassination of a towering leader. So how can you claim that it was a well-organized massacre? 


Answer: Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, was also murdered in 1948 by a Maharashtrian Hindu. Why didn’t such brutal violence happen then against Maharashtrian Hindus? Mahatma Gandhi was far more popular than Indira, so why was the intensity of violence that followed her murder missing in 1948? Notably, Indira’s son Rajeev Gandhi who succeeded her as the next Prime Minister, justified the violence against the Sikhs by saying that when a big tree falls the earth around it shakes a little. That didn’t happen when he himself was murdered by Tamil separatists in 1991. There was no such violence against the Tamil community. Why then was the entire Sikh community punished? It is hard to believe anything else except a well thought-out conspiracy.

Q: But Rajeev Gandhi said that out of emotion. He didn’t mean that. No?

Answer: His statement was nothing but an attempt to cover up. He tried to suggest that it was a reaction to shield those involved and also to polarize the Hindu majority in the impending general election. The metaphor of the falling tree was cunningly used to indicate that the Sikhs have been taught a lesson. The video footage of his speech clearly shows that his statement was received with big applause. That the carnage paid him dividends in the election is well documented.

Q: How can you really say that this was well planned? India has a history of communal riots. This might have been the handiwork of anti-social elements who took advantage of the situation. Whatever happened in 1984 wasn’t something unusual.

Answer: Why then did such incidents not happen in states that were governed by non-Congress governments? A case in point is West Bengal, ruled by the Marxists who ensured safety and security of the Sikhs. They promptly controlled the spontaneous violence started by Congress supporters in Calcutta, a big city with no dearth of anti-social elements, while the Sikhs got killed in large numbers in the states ruled by the Congress.
Apart from that, this can never be termed as a riot which always involve two parties. Here, the Sikhs were at the receiving end and the violence was totally one-sided, directed at one minority group by the mobs. Those involved used electoral rolls to find Sikh homes and killed most Sikh men in Delhi by necklacing, using burning tyres that were systematically tied around their necks. The police either remained mute spectators or were seen helping the mobs. This suggests a thorough planning at the highest level of the government.

Q: This may actually be the handiwork of the BJP that took advantage of the anti-Sikh wave because of the killings of Hindus in Punjab by the militants who had taken shelter inside the Golden Temple complex. The violence was the result of an anger that had been accumulating for months. 

Answer: That is what the Congress party has always claimed to defend itself. The BJP people might have been involved as foot soldiers, but the Congress was in power. It was the duty of the Congress to protect the people. If the Congress is really innocent, why weren’t the BJP leaders arrested? Following the massacre, the Congress won the general election with a brute majority on the plank of “national unity” with the help of the BJP supporters.

Q: Weren’t Sikh extremists responsible for creating animosity against their brethren outside Punjab? 

Answer: The Sikh extremists were dealt with heavily by the Indian army. Those involved in the killings of Hindus were often arrested and killed through extra judicial means by the police and security forces. But why weren’t those involved in the massacre of Sikhs dealt with in the same manner? Why wasn’t the Indian army pressed into service to stop mob violence against the Sikhs? The army that was used to liquidate militants holed up inside the Golden Temple Complex could also have been used to prevent Sikh carnage, but it appears that there are two set of rules for two different communities in India.

Q; How about those Sikhs who rejoiced at the murder of Indira Gandhi and distributed sweets? Instead of condemning the assassination they celebrated it. Don’t you think they got what they deserved?


Answer: First of all, the Sikh clergy and the Sikh activists based in New Delhi did condemn the murder of Indira Gandhi. If the media did not give enough space to their statements, it wasn’t their fault. Secondly, how can one assume that the massacre happened because the Sikhs either remained silent or they celebrated it? The Hindus in Punjab also celebrated when the Golden Temple Complex was attacked. But there was no such violence against them in Punjab. Are we trying to say that it is justified to kill people because of expression of joy or anger by a small fraction of any community?

Q: But isn’t the Congress known for its secular principles. It appointed the country’s first Sikh Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. How can the party therefore be held responsible for the massacre of the Sikh community? 

Answer: The massacre happened right under the nose of the first Sikh President, Zail Singh, who too was appointed by the Congress. He simply failed to protect his people and remained helpless. So much so, his official car was attacked by the mobs. These are just tokenistic appointments. For the record, the BJP government appointed a Muslim President after the massacre of Muslims in the BJP ruled Gujarat in 2002. Does that vindicate the BJP from its complicity in the anti-Muslim massacre?

Q: But didn’t Manmohan Singh apologize to the nation for 1984? 


Answer: That was hardly an apology. It was another gimmick. He did apologize for the incidents of 1984, but gave a clean chit to his party and some of his colleagues known to be complicit in the massacre in his statement. So what was the point making an apology? What matters is an honest acknowledgment that never came from the Congress. Even Rajeev Gandhi’s son and the current Congress leader Rahul has continuously denied the involvement of his party.

Q: Aren’t we benefiting the BJP by repeatedly raising the issue of 1984 to embarrass Congress, when we need to rid the country of an outright right-wing government by taking together all secular forces? 


Answer: You cannot understand what is happening today unless you analyze what happened in 1984. A single minority community was picked as a target to whip up majoritarian emotions. Today, almost all the minority communities are being targeted. The state sponsored violence of 1984 began an era of impunity which benefited the BJP in coming years. We reap what we sow. The BJP’s ascendance to power was made easier by the Congress through its sectarian politics. The Sikhs were frequently demonized in the media by the Indian leaders during the period preceding the 1984 massacre. Some right wing Hindu groups often branded them as traitors for the actions of a small militant group in Punjab, and every now and then rumours were spread about the Sikhs to incite mob attacks. Isn’t that what is happening now against Muslims, Christians and Dalits under the BJP government? Rumour is frequently used as a weapon to demonize them. They are repeatedly accused of slaughtering cows, consuming beef or indulging in religious conversions. One must also keep in mind that Rajeev Gandhi also openly pandered to the BJP lobby during that time period. To outdo the BJP, he also played the religious card to favour the Hindu majority, which ultimately helped BJP more than the Congress.

Q: Don’t you see that the Congress has already paid the price? 

Answer: It never did actually. On the contrary, those who were involved in the massacre were rewarded with ministerial posts. The Congress won the election with a brute majority.

Q: But aren’t those who are raking up this issue again and again Sikh separatists, mostly settled outside India? 

Answer: Those who have been fighting for justice for 1984 also include leftists and secular grassroots level activists. In fact, they started working on this issue shortly after the ugly events of 1984. So, one cannot paint everyone with the same brush. Asking for justice for 1984 isn’t like asking for a separate Sikh state. Even if for the sake of argument we believe that those who are canvassing for the issue are Sikh separatists, who have an agenda, who is responsible for this? The Indian state has failed to protect the Sikhs and deliver justice. The blame must lie at their doorstep. The Sikh separatists are only trying to take advantage of the situation created by the Indian establishment. By refusing to give justice, the Indian government itself is strengthening the hands of the separatist forces and giving legitimacy to their cause.

Q: Why is it being called genocide when it wasn’t? 


Answer: Genocide is a political term. You may accept it or reject it. But the fact remains it was a state sponsored violence directed against one particular community whose leaders have every right to use whatever opportunity comes their way to get justice when the Indian government has failed them. Rather than questioning the intent of those who are fighting for justice, why not make the Indian state accountable? If the Congress can use the analogy of what happened to Jews under Nazis to attack the BJP for its mistreatment of Muslims, why can’t Sikh activists call 1984 violence genocide?

Q: Why blame the Indian state for what happened in 1984? Why not just blame the Congress? 

Answer: When the police refuse to do its job or the judiciary fails to deliver justice, who should take the blame? The police should have acted independently, while the Judiciary could have intervened to stop injustice. That never happened. This only shows that the tools of a secular and democratic state failed to do the right thing under political pressure. Even the subsequent non-Congress governments, including the current BJP led government, which is supported by Akali Dal (the party that claims to be the only custodian of Sikh interests and have always tried to embarrass Congress on 1984) failed to settle this issue. The Indian state therefore, irrespective of who is in power, must take the blame.

Q: But what can be done by the Congress party to bring closure? Whatever happened cannot be changed. We have to move on to rid the country of the BJP that is bent upon turning India into Hindu theocracy. 

Answer: It is certainly important to save India from becoming a Hindu state, but the Congress has to prove itself as a true secular alternative. Without addressing the truth of 1984, it cannot move forward. First of all, it will have to acknowledge that it was involved in the massacre and make an appearance before the community leaders, especially those representing the victims’ families to seek pardon. Secondly, the leaders who were directly involved must be expelled from the party permanently. The Congress leaders who know the truth need to testify against their own colleagues so that justice could be served. It must admit that the history of religious violence in India remains incomplete without taking into consideration the 1984 Sikh carnage. If Congress wants the people of India to remember the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, or the crimes against humanity committed by the BJP, it must make sure that the party also remembers the crimes committed by them in the past so that the history is not repeated. The Congress never forgets to commemorate the death anniversary of Indira Gandhi; it must also observe memorial services for the Sikhs killed by its goons following her assassination. A memorial dedicated to the anti-Sikh massacre should be constructed inside the former official residence of Indira Gandhi or the Congress party headquarters to assuage the feelings of the Sikhs and send a strong message against communalism. Blaming the BJP alone for vitiating the political and social environment of the country won’t do, the Congress has to come clean on this issue. The Sikhs too are concerned over attempts to transform India into Hindu theocracy. They won’t appreciate India becoming a Hindu nation, where the Sikhs would also become second class citizens and culturally assimilated, since the BJP doesn’t see them as a separate religious identity and often try to bring them into the Hindu fold. Sikhs are a progressive community which has a history of forgiving the past, provided those seeking forgiveness are honest. By vilifying those seeking justice and refusing to admit the wrong doings, the Indian state in general and the Congress party in particular cannot expect them to move on.

Gurpreet Singh is a Canada- based journalist who publishes Radical Desi- a monthly magazine that covers alternative politics.

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