COMMENT: 1984 — carnage of Sikhs —Ishtiaq Ahmed

Date: 8/16/2005


COMMENT: 1984 — carnage of Sikhs —Ishtiaq Ahmed/// A democracy must draw a line between the interests of the ruling political party and those of the state. As prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh must demonstrate clearly that his government respects the rule of law and is not party to the conflict 21 years ago/// Indian democracy has been put to a major test that will establish whether the rule of law applies to culprits whose party is in power or only to common criminals and political adversaries. /// Justice Nanavati’s report on the carnage of Sikhs in Delhi in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984 has been released. Although it stops short of categorically implicating Congress stalwarts, it states that the massacres were not spontaneous revenge killings, but were organised and executed under a chain of command. /// Lest we forget, the carnage continued for three days. The police remained passive and ineffective. Harrowing scenes of savagery were enacted in the Indian capital and in other parts of India. The report, however, is confined to evidence gathered in Delhi. The official figure of those killed is 2,800 but it is widely believed that at least 4,000 Sikhs lost their lives. /// The present Congress-led government initially tried to wriggle out of the responsibility for holding accountable some party stalwarts and ministers by saying that their was no firm proof of their complicity in the massacres. Other political parties condemned that almost universally. Not only have the main adversaries, BJP and its allies in the NDA, demanded that action be taken, Congress’ own allies such as the CPM and the CPI have also forcefully demanded that the criminals should be brought to justice. Sikh demands for justice and compensation for the victims were raised in the parliament and all over East Punjab. Zee Television’s Punjabi Alpha news channel showed Sikh protests all over Punjab and even Haryana, UP and Bihar. /// On August 10, 2005 Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh promised in the Lok Sabha that proceedings would be initiated against alleged culprits. This is reassuring because a democracy, more than any other system of government, must draw a line between the interests of the ruling political party and those of the state. As prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh must demonstrate clearly that his government respects the rule of law and is not party to the conflict 21 years ago. /// Having said that, the fact remains that the 1980s was a troubled decade for India. The Hindu community felt beleaguered by rebellions among non-Hindus. In addition to the insurgencies in the Christian and Buddhist north-east, the Khalistan movement emerged in Punjab. Later, Muslims in the Indian Kashmir also started a movement for independence. The roots of the problem in Punjab went back to the previous decade. /// Upon her defeat in 1977 following the imposition of the Emergency in 1975, Mrs Gandhi had begun to look for an ally who could be used against her main adversaries in the Punjab, the Akali Sikhs. She set her eyes on a charismatic Sikh priest, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale. He could capture the fancy of many a Sikh youth with his grand recital of the militant struggle of Sikh gurus and heroes against powerful oppressors such as the Mughals and even Hindu rajas. Thousands flocked to his sermons. This focus on Sikh identity would soon transform into a secessionist movement. /// Bhindranwale was greatly emboldened by the response he got and decided to go further than just attacking the Akalis for being bad and cowardly Sikhs. He started accusing the Indian state of being against the Sikh religion and community. Of course, he could not explain why Punjab was the most prosperous state in the Indian union and the Sikhs the most well-off community in India. /// It was perhaps the very prosperity of Punjab that had induced a less religious lifestyle as young Sikh men began to cut their hair and women took to jeans and athletics, which incensed the fundamentalist Bhindrawale./// In 1980, Mrs Gandhi was back in power. Now she looked upon Bhindranwale’s growing popularity as a threat to her power and to the unity of India. By 1982 the Golden Temple complex at Amritsar had become the headquarters of a quasi-government presided over by Bhindrawale, ordering assassinations of Hindus and moderate and secular-minded Sikhs. This caused jitters in the corridors of power at Delhi and Hindus in general began to fear another partition. /// Mrs Gandhi then committed a fatal blunder. In flagrant disregard of advice given by sincere Indians, both Hindus and Sikhs, such as former prime minister IK Gujral and Khushwant Singh, she ordered the Indian military to storm the Golden Temple to flush out the Sikh militants. The army launched an attack on the night of June 5-6, 1984. Operation Blue Star killed several hundred Sikhs, including not only the militants who put up fierce resistance but also many innocents who were attending a festival. The attack on the holiest Sikh shrine in the country led to protests by Sikhs all over India and abroad. /// Extremists vowed revenge and acts of terror were carried out both by the Sikh militants and functionaries of the Indian state. Things came to a head with the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. Immediately afterwards, hordes of angry lumpen elements poured out on the streets in Delhi and a spree of Sikh blood-letting began. As always, the story was not one of all Hindus turning upon Sikhs. Hindu friends and neighbours protected many Sikhs, but in those few days being a Sikh meant being a target for barbaric assault. A Sikh friend of mine who was a senior diplomat had to hide for several days. /// Khushwant Singh, the eminent writer, saved his life by taking refuge in the Swedish embassy. He has written that when the crowd was pursuing him he felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany. A more telling condemnation of mob terrorism linked to a chain of command cannot be imagined./// Indian democracy must do everything to bring the culprits to the book and adequate compensation should be paid to the Sikh victims and their families. Democracies do not allow collective punishment of whole communities. That is what happened in Delhi in 1984./// The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is ............................000000000