Impunity For 1984 Sikh Genocide Set Precedent For India Today

The Modi regime’s modern calls for genocide were preceded by his opposition’s perpetration of genocide

Pieter Friedrich

This past week, India’s General Election results shocked most people who follow political trends in that country.

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party first won a majority in 2014. They returned in 2019 with a far larger majority. After a decade in power, and years of autocratization leading to virtual criminalization of dissent (even threatening to jail the top leader of the Indian National Congress, the foremost opposition party), expectations were that the BJP would not only once again win a majority but do it with an absolute landslide. The BJP failed, miserably, and lost its majority so badly that, as the New York Times puts it, “It now finds itself at the mercy of its coalition partners…. [Not all of whom] share [its] Hindu nationalist ideology.

As the United States draws India closer — unconditionally closer — into its embrace, this unexpected election outcome is particularly important considering the rabidly authoritarian direction in which the BJP has rapidly taken India.

Any amateur student of Indian politics could have predicted the BJP’s destination. As the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary, the BJP shares the RSS’s goal of destroying the the country’s officially pluralistic and secular ethos and officially turning it into an ethno-nationalist state. Into a Hindu nation of, for, and only for Hindus. Since the RSS’s origin a hundred years ago, its founding ideologues explicitly detailed their hatred of non-Hindus living in the Indian subcontinent and their desire to exterminate them. Their goals, social outlook, and nationalistic ideals mirrored those of the original European fascists in Italy and Germany, which is not surprising considering that the RSS was directly inspired by — and directly interacted with — those original European fascists.

The religious minorities which the RSS ideologues hated the most were — and are — Indian Christians and Muslims. But they also despised — and despise — followers of Sikhi, a religion and social movement indigenous to the subcontinent. In particular, the RSS hated how Sikhs asserted their separate and unique identity, and how the Sikhs propagated doctrines about the universal equality, dignity, and self-worth of all people.

Well, one outcome of India’s recent election is that, as the opposition coalition won seats in parliament on par with the BJP and not too far from parity with the BJP’s coalition, dissenting voices may now have a strong voice at the national political table in India. Dissent may become safer. Moreover, while prominent BJP supporters have repeatedly, publicly issued calls for genocide of minorities, particularly Muslims, and international experts have repeatedly warned that Indian religious minorities are on the verge of suffering a genocide, it’s quite possible the impending threat of such will, for now, become far less dire.

The reality of genocide at the hands of the BJP is very real considering its bloody history.

Modi, of course, is case in point. In 2002, when he was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, the RSS and the BJP staged a three-day massacre of Muslims, slaughtering approximately 2,000 or more Muslim men, women, and children. Modi was implicated in a myriad of different ways as variously allowing or even orchestrating the pogrom. He was banned from entering the US for a decade due to his involvement.

That ban was never actually lifted. The ban on Modi entering the US was never lifted, he was just able to circumvent it because he got diplomatic immunity after becoming prime minister.

Of course, 2002 was far from the only major incident of anti-minority violence perpetrated by the RSS/BJP. There was 1992, when they destroyed the historic Babri Mosque and slaughtered 2,000 or so Muslims across northern India. There was 2008, when they torched churches, raped nuns, and killed around 100 Christians in Kandhamal District of Odisha state in eastern India. And a host of other incidents, both small and large-scale.

There has been, essentially, zero justice meted out for any of these atrocities. In essence, the perpetrators have received total impunity.

Yet, as the BJP loses its majority in this recent election, and the opposition coalition — with the Indian National Congress as the leading partner — surges, it’s worth remembering what happened in 1984.

You see, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, as they put it 15 years ago in 2009: “The failure to provide justice to religious minorities targeted in violent riots in India is not a new development and has helped foster a climate of impunity.” USCIRF traces this “climate of impunity” back to the November 1984 Sikh Genocide when, with the lead of Indian National Congress officials, 3,000 Sikhs — according to official numbers — were slaughtered over three days in Delhi.

The 40th anniversary of the Sikh Genocide falls this year.

Impunity for the Sikh Genocide set the precedent for impunity for the RSS/BJP’s killing of Muslims in 1992 in the Bombay riots, its killing of Muslims in 2002, and its killing of Christians in 2008 — as well as for impunity for its supporters’ current and ongoing calls for genocide of Indian minorities.

That was a crime committed not only under the watch of the Indian National Congress but even under its direction. For those concerned about human rights in India, it should serve as a reminder that state-sponsored atrocities against innocent Indian citizens are not a fresh phenomenon.

The BJP, yes, has an ideologically fascistic framework. Yet the Indian National Congress also has blood on its hands. Whether under Congress or the BJP, the Indian government has, with impunity, perpetrated a host of atrocities for decades.

Torture. Arbitrary arrests. Shutting down newspapers. Extrajudicial executions. Mass graves. Killing of human rights defenders. Blanket suspension of democracy — that happened under the Indian National Congress. The subjugation of Kashmir and of many other regions of the country, including Punjab.

As USCIRF — the US Commission on International Religious Freedom — has noted, impunity for the 1984 Sikh Genocide set the precedent for impunity for future massacres committed by the RSS/BJP. Yet the November 1984 killings were not the first act but rather the final act of that 1984 Sikh Genocide. No, that first act, that began in Punjab in June 1984 with “Operation Bluestar” when the Indian government launched full-scale military invasion of Darbar Sahib (otherwise known as the Golden Temple), the beating heart of the Sikh religion.

The attack coincided, “coincidentally,” with one of the most important Sikh holidays: the commemoration of their Guru, Arjan, who, in 1606, was himself martyred by a government that perceived him as a sociopolitical threat to its power because he was standing up for the human rights and dignity of all people.

The hundreds of thousands of Sikhs who flocked to the festival in 1984 were caught in the crosshairs of the Indian Army and thousands — several, several thousands — died during that attack, which was not solely confined to Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, Punjab.

The massacre in June 1984 was followed by the massacre in November 1984. This was followed by ten years of a broad — and deeply bigoted — crackdown on Sikhs which targeted basically any Sikh man wearing a turban. The crackdown included a program of systematically disappearing, killing, and illegally cremating thousands. When this program was exposed by human rights defender Jaswant Singh Khalra, he was disappeared, killed, and his body was dumped in a canal.

In total, Sikh leaders estimate that up to 250,000 — a quarter of a million — Sikhs were murdered over the last 40 years, since the genocide began in 1984.

Now here in America, since 2018, multiple states including California, Connecticut, and New Jersey have recognized the 1984 Sikh Genocide. Recognized it as genocide.” That is a great start.

It did take decades, but we should look to the example of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, which it took the US Congress over a century to recognize. We should also learn from that example and not wait a century: it’s long past time for the US Congress to recognize the 1984 Sikh Genocide.

It’s also time for the US to look to 1984 — and other incidents of mass violence — to learn, especially by listening to the warnings of Indians, about the true state of democracy in India. While the BJP has autocratized India so deeply that it has pushed Indian democracy almost to the brink of extinction, the democratic ethos there has been under threat for decades. In the words, for instance, of Indian author Arundhati Roy:

“There has not been a single day since Independence in 1947 when the Indian Army and other security forces have not been deployed within India’s borders against what are meant to be their ‘own’ people — in Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Junagadh, Hyderabad, Goa, Punjab, Telangana, West Bengal…. Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand…. If you take a hard look at the list of places within India’s current borders in which its security forces have been deployed, an extraordinary fact emerges — the populations in those places are mostly Muslim, Christian, Adivasi [that is, tribal], Sikh, and Dalit.”

Now, fsor the longest time, whether it be BJP or Indian National Congress, the Indian government has been incessantly at war with its own citizens — and typically with its own citizens who are religious minorities or historically marginalized people.

From a US foreign policy perspective, however, there used to be a difference before the BJP came to power in 2014. Before the US started choosing to turn totally blind eyes after the rise of the BJP, dozens of members of US Congress — for 20 or 30 years, since the 1980s — were willing to routinely call out the reality of the human rights situation in India.

They were doing it left and right. Speaking on the House floor, floating resolutions calling for US-India dialogues to foreground human rights and religious freedom issues, even proposing bills to slash foreign aid to India in response to its culture of impunity towards perpetrators of atrocities. That was all thanks, in large part, to the tireless advocacy by American Sikhs launched after 1984 — advocacy which encouraged the US Congress to speak not just for Sikhs but for the human rights of ALL Indians equally.

Well, that all changed after 2014. We got, and we mostly still have, a deafening silence from Congress. But beyond that, we got bipartisan embrace of Modi, a man whom our government formerly banned from this country.

Across the spectrum, our leaders reached out to shake Modi’s blood-soaked hands. Last year, Republican Mike Waltz and Democrat Ro Khanna invited him to a joint session address. Trump did his little dance of love with Modi, but Biden also rolled out the red carpet for him.

For the past decade, while Modi did have a stranglehold on political power in India, our congressional leaders here have bowed, scraped, flattered, and jumped over each other to be the first one to grab a selfie with the man.

Of course, to be a cynic (or rather, a realist), we all know that the political tendency everywhere is, generally, to put profits over people and give deference to power rather than principles. That’s the name of the game in politics.

Well, this week the power dynamics have radically shifted in India.

Modi’s still in power, but he took a major blow that weakened him rather severely. For anyone who’s only interested in putting profits over people, the news flash is that the BJP’s profitability is dwindling.

Something else also changed in the past year.

You see, when challenged on human rights, the BJP’s constant fallback phrase is “this is our internal matter and you have no right to talk about it.” Well, India’s “internal matters” are now spilling into our North American front yard.

First, the Modi regime assassinated a Canadian citizen. Then they plotted to murder an American citizen and got caught red-handed. India has now jumped the shark, crossed the red line, and embraced transnational repression of its critics abroad — even of citizens right here in the US.

Even before that, they were going after Modi’s critics abroad in many other ways. I’ve experienced this personally when, as the Washington Post exposed, Indian intelligence ran a disinformation campaign against me because of my vocal criticism of Hindu nationalism, the RSS, and the BJP, in particular.

The Modi regime has been threatening the democratic rights of Indian citizens within India, but now — thanks to being coddled by the US government for a decade — it feels emboldened to even go after us here in America. Yet with the Modi regime overplaying its hand so ineptly, and now that it’s weakened after the current recent election, there has never been a better time for the US Congress to start actually saying something about human rights and religious freedom in India.

As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Sikh Genocide, it is imperative that we recognize just how completely worthless “remembrance” is if we don’t translate into action. Tears and hollow “never agains” are worth as much as dirt if our emotions don’t catalyze proactive efforts.

We didn’t stop the Sikh Genocide, or the Gujarat Genocide, or the ethnic cleansing in Manipur. But if our “never agains” mean anything, we could still stop the next genocide of India’s religious minorities. You know, that very same genocide that BJP associates have spent the past two years openly telling the world, on camera, that they want to commit.

In honor of the Sikhs who died in 1984 and after, a real remembrance looks like Congress formally recognizing the Sikh Genocide; finding, trying, and convicting those responsible for targeting and killing Sikhs in North America in the past year; and also censuring the Indian government for even daring to think about trying to murder a US citizen on US soil.

In honor of the Sikhs who died in 1984, truly meaning “never again” means, today, being brave enough to make even the smallest peep against the genocide the RSS/BJP still wants to commit.

From a pragmatic perspective, the time is ripe to do that. From a humanitarian perspective, the time to do that was every day over the past decade.

Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in analysis of South Asian affairs. He is the author of Sikh Caucus: Siege in Delhi, Surrender in Washington and Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers as well as co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent. Discover more by him at

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