By describing the 1984 Sikh Massacre as terrorism, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has opened a can of worms in the midst of a decisive election this month.
His comments, made in an interview with Times Now, were intended to deflect criticisms of his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). But they raise questions about his own criminality as India embarks on a general election that will determine if Modi survives for a second term in office.
In the first week of November 1984, thousands of Sikhs were lynched all over India following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the prime minister at the time, by her Sikh bodyguards. Gandhi had ordered the military invasion of the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith, in June. The ill-conceived operation was aimed at dealing with a handful of religious militants who had stockpiled weapons inside, but it left many innocent worshipers dead and important historical buildings heavily damaged. The militant agitation had started after the government virtually refused to listen to the grievances of the country’s moderate Sikh leadership.
The army’s actions, carried out to scapegoat Sikhs in the eyes of the country’s Hindu majority in advance of a general election, outraged and alienated Sikhs across the world. Shortly after Gandhi’s assassination, supporters of her so-called secular Congress party organized mass murders of Sikhs with the active help of police and state administrators. This remains one of the darkest chapters in the history of India, which is often touted as the world’s largest secular democracy.
The BJP and violence
In the interview, Modi was reacting to a critical question about the nomination of a controversial candidate by the BJP.
Pragya Singh Thakur, also known as Sadhvi Pragya, was involved in a 2008 bombing that left six people dead and a hundred injured. The blast took place in a Muslim-dominated area and was planned and executed by Hindu extremists who wanted to transform India into a Hindu theocracy.
A firebrand ascetic, Thakur was arrested after a thorough investigation. She is currently on bail but continues to face trial. Despite that, she was nominated as the BJP candidate for Bhopal. Modi’s strategy for the upcoming election seems to be based on polarization of the country’s Hindu majority.
In the interview, Modi refused to accept that he and the BJP were condoning terrorism, and he went on to blame the previous Congress government for indulging in terrorism against Sikhs.
While it is true that the Sikh massacre is a case of state-sponsored terrorism, Modi has no moral standing on which to castigate others. Under his regime, Hindu extremists have increasingly attacked religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians. Simply pointing fingers at the Congress party won’t vindicate him.
Nominating Thakur as an election candidate amounts to supporting and abetting terror. Modi has been advocating not just for Thakur but also another Hindu ascetic, Swami Aseemanand, who was arrested in connection with the bombing of a special train connecting India and Pakistan in 2007. That explosion killed 68 people, mostly Pakistani Muslims returning home after seeing relatives in India. Aseemanand was recently acquitted by an Indian court, mainly because the prosecution did not present corroborative evidence, but we don’t need rocket science to understand the influence of the Modi administration on the prosecutors. Modi has insisted since day one that Hindus are not involved in terrorism and that those arrested were implicated as part of a design to give Hinduism a bad name.
Last but not least, Modi repeated the violence of 1984 when in 2002 he was the chief minister of Gujarat. Mobs led by the BJP lynched Muslims in Gujarat after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing more than 50 passengers aboard. Modi blamed the incident on Islamic fundamentalists, even though one commission of enquiry found it was an accident. Like today, Modi wanted to consolidate the Hindu vote bank by targeting others. While he was never charged, survivors of the violence and human rights activists continue to say he was complicit.
During his interview with Times Now, Modi brought up the Congress party’s recent appointment of Kamal Nath as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. Nath too was involved in the 1984 massacre but was never convicted. Nath’s appointment was widely criticized by Sikhs, but Congress went ahead with its decision.
Following Modi’s line of thought, if the events of 1984 were terrorism, and if Nath, despite not being convicted, was responsible, then Modi himself should be rightfully seen as a terrorist who managed to escape conviction. Notably, countries such as the U.S. denied him a visa for a number of years because of his involvement in the 2002 carnage. He was able to travel worldwide only after being elected as prime minister in 2014.
It is high time that the world recognize what is going on in India and acknowledge both the 1984 and 2002 massacres as state-sponsored acts of terrorism, treating the instigators of those acts of violence as perpetrators of crimes against humanity.
As justice continues to elude the victims due to the influence that Congress and the BJP have on India’s prosecution agencies, the world needs to step in. Had the guilty of the 1984 violence been punished, the 2002 massacre would not have happened. The cycle of violence goes on only because of the culture of impunity encouraged by both parties.