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India’s Anti-Sikh Riots, 30 Years On

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The Pulse

India’s Anti-Sikh Riots, 30 Years On

30 years ago, India was gripped by a terrible surge of violence against Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

India’s Anti-Sikh Riots, 30 Years On

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the largest pogrom in independent India’s history. Between October 31 and November 3, 1984, over 8,000 Sikhs were murdered in riots organized and supported by numerous members of India’s then-ruling Congress Party after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her.

1984 was a year of great violence in Punjab state, the homeland of India’s Sikhs. In June 1984, Indira Gandhi sent the Indian Army to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, which is the holiest shrine in Sikhism. There, it conducted Operation Blue Star in order to flush out militants, led by one Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had established themselves there. Bhindranwale was killed in the operation. The militants had taken to arms mostly to demand the implementation of policies that would protect the religious, linguistic, and economic rights of Punjab and Sikhs. Most armed Sikh factions did not call for the independence of a separate Sikh state, known as Khalistan, despite heavy propaganda at the time that Punjab was gripped by a separatist insurgency backed by Pakistan. However, the presence of Sikh militias throughout Punjab during this time certainly did contribute to growing insecurity within the state, as rival factions fought each other.

The attack on the holiest Sikh shrine was widely criticized by both Sikhs and other parties in India. Many Sikhs believed the attack amounted to desecration, even if they supported the removal of militants from the shrine. Many other Indians meanwhile felt that Operation Blue Star was a disproportionate response to a fringe group numbering around 200 militants. Certainly, from a tactical perspective, the operation to remove militants from the Golden Temple could have been handled better. In addition to the death of the militants, hundreds if not thousands of civilians were killed. Indira Gandhi’s own cynical calculations played a major role in fostering militancy in Punjab. In her attempt to weaken a local political party opposed to her, the Shiromani Akali Dal, she initially encouraged Bhindranwale’s popularity with the populace of Punjab.

All these events led up to the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. She was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, one of whom she had known for years and who was previously unaffiliated with any of the Sikh militants. This lead to widespread attacks against Sikhs in India, especially in Delhi. These attacks targeted innocent members of a widely respected minority that was considered fully part of the mainstream and whose members especially renowned for their bravery during India’s wars against Pakistan. However, it should also be noted that many ordinary Indian citizens hid and sheltered Sikhs during these times. The pogroms lasted until November 3, 1984 when the police and army units suppressed the riots. There is significant evidence that the riots were aided and abetted by members of India’s government and the Congress Party. For example, the Delhi city police were said to have looked on passively as rioters murdered and raped Sikhs. Rioters somehow acquired voting records that enabled them to identify and mark the houses of Sikhs with large X signs. Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s son, who became the next Prime Minister, was reported to have said nonchalantly that “when a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an Indian investigative police agency, concluded that the riots were part of a well-executed conspiracy.

Despite the massive casualties and witnesses, very few people were persecuted for their role in the riots, expect for a few low-level Congress Party members and policemen. The riots actually increased support in Punjab for militancy, which raged throughout the 1980s before subsiding. Today, most Sikhs have reconciled with the Indian government, especially after Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, became Prime Minister in 2004. However, Singh’s Congress Government did very little to compensate riot victims or bring perpetrators to justice due to the influence of Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party and daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. Justice for the victims is moving extremely slowly though the Indian court system as well.

In the past thirty years, the majority of Sikhs have pursued their political goals through peaceful means. The main Sikh party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, has lead the state government in Punjab for much of this period and is allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on both the state and national level. The BJP itself, long critical of the policies of Indira Gandhi, has been more helpful and sympathetic towards Sikhs and victims of the 1984 riots than the Congress Party. Recently, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Sikh riots, the BJP-led government announced compensation of approximately $12,000 to each relative of the 3,325 Sikh victims who died in Delhi during the riots.

In a welcome move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also moved to deemphasize the cult around the Nehru-Gandhi family. This cult involves several holidays centering on the family as well as numerous buildings being named after its members, while neglecting the roles of other Indians. October 31, which was previously commemorated as the anniversary Indira Gandhi’s death, will no longer be so commemorated. Instead, it will be recast as Rashtriya Ekta Diwas or National Unity Day, a day that celebrates the unity of India as a single, indivisible nation with many diverse components. National Unity Day also falls on the anniversary of the birth of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Home Minister and colleague and rival of Jawaharlal Nehru. Patel was instrumental in ensuring the creation of a unified India as he successfully integrated the hundreds of princely states that punctured India’s territory into the newly formed Republic of India.

India should appreciate its unity and remember incidents such as the Sikh riots that hurt its unity. India’s propensity towards mindless riots between different ethnic and religious communities reflects a dark side that ought to be banished to the history books forever. If October 31, the first day of the Sikh riots and Indira Gandhi’s assassination, is to now be commemorated as a day supporting national integration, then Indians must remember national integration means living peacefully with everyone in India — a lesson for both would-be militants and rioters.