State terrorism

Remembering the massacre India wants the world to forget

The mass killing of Sikhs in 1984 is still downplayed or denied by government authorities
Photo: Harpreet Dhillon

This month marks the 33rd anniversary of a tragedy arguably worse than the infamous 9/11 terror attack on the United States both in terms of intensity and motivation, yet it does not arouse much curiosity among the big powers of the world.

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This month marks the 33rd anniversary of a tragedy arguably worse than the infamous 9/11 terror attack on the United States both in terms of intensity and motivation, yet it does not arouse much curiosity among the big powers of the world.

Thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered across India in the first week of November 1984, following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Massacre and cover-up

Gandhi was assassinated in retaliation for the military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, in June of that year. She had ordered the army operation to flush out religious extremists who had stockpiled weapons inside the place of worship. All over the world Sikhs had protested against the deaths of pilgrims and the destruction of the buildings inside the temple premises during the fight between the militants and the army.

While the Sikh community was still grieving over the assault on their Vatican, the leaders of Gandhi's so-called secular Congress Party organized the massacre of ordinary Sikhs in New Delhi and other major cities of India. The police remained indifferent to the murders of Sikh men and rapes of Sikh women by the violent mobs led by Congress Party activists.

Had justice been done for the Sikhs, the 2002 attacks on Muslims might not have happened.

Indira’s son, Rajeev Gandhi, followed her as the next prime minister of India. In an obvious attempt to cover up the complicity of the state machinery in the bloodshed, he justified the anti-Sikh pogrom by suggesting in a public speech that it was a natural reaction of the people offended by the killing of a towering leader. Since then many governments have come and gone, but the Sikhs were never given justice by the Indian establishment, not even when India was led by a Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who belonged to the Congress Party. None of the senior party leaders involved in the mass murder were ever convicted.

The repression of Sikhs paid dividends to the Congress, which used it to polarize the Hindu majority and bag a maximum number of seats in the parliamentary elections that followed Gandhi's murder. Rajeev Gandhi’s strong majority win decimated the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party, which is currently in power in India.

The BJP repeated the 1984 experiment, this time against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, enabling it to come back to power in the assembly election that followed the massacre. Narendra Modi, then Gujarat’s chief minister, is now the prime minister of India.

Had justice been done for the Sikhs, the 2002 attacks on Muslims might not have happened. But instead, the Congress leaders involved in the violence were awarded with ministerial positions. The failed justice system prompted Sikh activists abroad to use their power to internationalize the issue and expose the real face of India, which is otherwise known as the world’s largest democracy. Rather than coming clean, the Indian authorities continue to brush aside their grievances as anti-India propaganda.

State terrorism and double standards

In extreme situations Indian officials have branded those seeking justice for 1984 as Sikh separatists. The organization Sikh Nation, which for nearly two decades has organized an annual blood drive in Canada in memory of 1984, was once targeted by the officials. Two Indo Canadian politicians have had to bear the brunt of the Indian state’s displeasure for raising this issue in the recent years. Both Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh have been denied Indian visas. Dhaliwal will neither admit nor refute this, but Singh has acknowledged the refusal.

If the West is really bothered about the growing threat of terror, it has to give up its selectivity over violence.

Like it or not, what Sikhs had to face in 1984 was state terrorism and violence. It’s a shame that they have to fight for justice outside India only because the Indian nation remains stubborn and refuses to do justice.

The Western powers, too enamoured with India’s sham democracy and business opportunities, have also failed to intervene. It is because of this that minorities continue to suffer in India, where bigotry has grown under Modi. Muslims in particular have been increasingly targeted all over India by Hindu extremists ever since Modi became prime minister in 2014.

If the West is really bothered about the growing threat of terror, it has to give up its selectivity over violence. The terrorism of the state needs to be dealt with forcefully, as it breeds more alienation and insecurity that further leads to armed resistance and terrorism by non-state actors. It is a well-established fact that the anti-Sikh carnage turned many angry Sikhs into militants who joined the insurgency for a separate homeland.

Instead of focusing on terrorism that is conveniently blamed on minority groups already under threat in majoritarian democracies, international bodies, including the UN, need to make India accountable for the state repression of its own people.

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