by Arandeep Singh
The Punjab, ‘the land of five rivers’, occupies a special place in the hearts of Sikhs all over the world. It is the cradle of their religion, the birthplace of their ancestors, and it has known more than its fair share of sorrow. This ancient land has weathered brutality for centuries. It was the blood-spattered gateway which every marauder or conqueror who ever set foot in the Indian subcontinent – save for the British – had to force themselves through on their way to plunder or enslave the inhabitants of the wealthier and more populous heartlands. And in 1947 , with the Partition of India, it witnessed violence once again on a colossal scale – one of the largest human disasters in history, a massacre in which all communities, including the Sikhs, indulged in an orgy of bloodletting against people who had once been their neighbours. Over a million people died. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that the partition line carved right through the Punjab. The dissection of the Sikhs’ historical homeland stranded half their number in hostile territory, and a mad rush ensued as they fled in their hundreds of thousands from what is now Pakistan, leaving behind their property, historical shrines, and in some instances their relatives, usually elderly people whose roots had sunk too deep into the land for them to ever consider moving. Most who remained were slaughtered like animals, the survivors fled across the border to join their brethren in the Indian half of the Punjab.
Despite the deep wounds inflicted upon their collective psyche by partition, the Sikhs worked hard for themselves and their newly independent nation, doing everything they could to make India strong and prosperous. Before independence 85% of those who had been executed by the British for fighting in the name of Indian liberation had come from the Sikh community, which constituted just 1% of the overall population. The Sikh’s disproportionate contributions to the nation would continue after independence. Through their industry and hard-work they transformed the Punjab into India’s breadbasket, the source of nearly a quarter of its grain. They also proved themselves a mainstay of the Indian army, furnishing it with 15% of its infantry ranks and a quarter of its officers. And yet despite their successes, the Sikhs still had cause for grievance.
The Punjab, the only state in India in which Sikhs retained a majority or even a significant presence, was forced to share its capital city with its neighbouring state, Haryana. It was also the only state in the whole of India which was required to allot a share of its river waters to states through which these rivers did not even flow. The arid southern half of the Punjab suffered from this the most, as rates of suicides amongst her hopeless farmers began to rise ominously. The land itself, as with her people, had to pay a disproportionate price to help build the Indian nation. The Sikhs paid it without grumbling, until the late seventies.
Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. The daughter of India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, she had transformed his Indian National Congress Party from a party of mass mobilisation and democracy into an echo chamber for her right-wing dictatorship – she had razed slums to the ground to displace their poor inhabitants, whom she considered obstacles to development and modernity. Thousands of them were subjected to forced sterilization. This drama also unfolded in an atmosphere of widespread political and electoral corruption. When she eventually declared martial law in order to preserve her moribund government, the nation rose against her, and the Sikhs joined the rest of India in calling for true democracy. Their chief political party, the Akali Dal (Immortal Army), staged protests in the capital city, as a result of which thousands of them were detained as political prisoners. They also drafted the Anandpur Sahib Resolution – a document which demanded concessions for the Punjab and for Sikhs, but also a recasting of the Indian constitution along truly federal democratic principles, which had been the promise at the outset of the great Indian experiment in democracy and nationhood. The Prime Minister, however, viewed it as a secessionist document. Whenever the Sikhs have tried to exercise their rights since, their efforts have been slapped down with accusations of secession and treason.
In this atmosphere of despair and disillusionment with the government, Sikhs increasingly began to mobilize around the figure of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a fiery rural preacher who headed a centuries old Sikh monastery, and whose passionate sermons carried the sentiment that Sikhs were second-class citizens in India. Indira’s government attempted to court him at first, intending to use him as a stick with which to beat her enemies in the Akali Dal. Through the state-controlled media, Bhindranwale was, without his own consent or knowledge, built up as an alternative political authority to the Akalis and projected as the leader of all Sikhs. Indira quickly realised her error after Bhindranwale demonstrated his independence and unwillingness to tow her line, but by then it was too late. Thereafter he began to be portrayed in the Indian media as a terrorist and a secessionist, even though he never advocated secession nor did he incite Sikhs to violence against any community or religious group. But most Indians, having no access to his speeches, nor any familiarity with the Punjabi language in which they were given, knew nothing of this – all they knew about Bhindranwale,they glimpsed through the lens of the state-controlled media. Government propaganda helped to stoke the fear and paranoia of the Punjabi Hindus, who began to view their Sikh neighbours with fear and suspicion. Many launched pre-emptive strikes against the Sikh onslaught which the media assured them was on its way, and the Sikhs responded in kind. In one particularly harrowing incident, a bus was stopped, and the Hindu passengers segregated and gunned down in cold blood by Sikh thugs. Bhindranwale’s name was linked to such violence by the media, although no actual evidence was ever found to substantiate this claim.
Paranoia and fear prevailed on all sides. Everyone was waiting for something to happen. Bhindranwale himself, now based at the Golden Temple – the most sacred shrine of the Sikh faith – was convinced that a government assault on the Temple complex was imminent. He and his followers began stockpiling weapons and fortifying the area in anticipation of battle. The Indian government gave it to them on the night of June 5th 1984. The operation was codenamed ‘Operation Bluestar’. Before the assault was due to take place a state-wide curfew and media blackout was enforced – foreign journalists were escorted out of the whole state of Punjab, because of an attack planned on an area the size of Buckingham Palace. International aid workers were denied entry into Punjab, and trains running into and out of the state were ground to a halt. All radio and television stations except those controlled by the government went as silent as a crypt. All this to ensure that one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the Indian Republic would also remain one of its least understood. The attack coincided with a festival celebrating the martyrdom of the fifth Sikh Guru. Thousands of pilgrims had flocked to the Golden Temple to commemorate this holy day, and yet a curfew was ordered by the Indian army which prevented them from leaving. In spite of government insistence that the pilgrims were told to leave over loudspeaker, the survivors of the massacre which would soon follow insist to this day that they heard nothing. The operation had ostensibly been carried out with the sole purpose of dislodging Bhindranwale and his followers. And yet the Sikh reference library, containing thousands of ancient historical manuscripts, as well as the Toshakhana, the treasure house which housed artefacts dating back to the glory days of the Sikh Empire, were both plundered many days after the operation succeeded and Bhindranwale’s body had already been hastily cremated.
All of this seems to confirm the assertion of the anthropologist Joyce Pettigrew “The Army went into Darbar Sahib [the Golden Temple] not to eliminate a political figure or a political movement but to suppress the culture of a people, to attack their heart, to strike a blow at their spirit and self-confidence.”
By the end of the operation, Bhindranwale and most of his followers lay dead, and large swathes of the temple precincts lay in ruins. According to official Indian government figures, 83 soldiers had died, as well as 500 ‘terrorists’/civilians. The lumping together of civilian and militant casualties represents a grotesque insight into the mindset of the perpetrators of the attack, and their ethos of collective punishment. In any event unofficial figures assert that casualties on both sides were much higher, with human rights groups claiming that thousands of civilians met their demise in the assault. Sikhs all over the world felt devastated, betrayed and alienated by the events of Operation Bluestar. Many months later on October 31st, two of Indira Gandhi’s disillusioned Sikh bodyguards assassinated the Prime Minister by gunning her down at point blank range in retaliation for her role in ordering the desecration of the Sikh Vatican. From this event followed the saddest episode in this sad story. Upon hearing that Indira Gandhi had been murdered by two Sikhs, murderous mobs of Hindus rampaged through the streets of India’s capital, Delhi, baying for Sikh blood. 8000 Sikh lives were snuffed out in three days as carnage began to unfold on an unprecedented scale– one method of killing which proved especially popular among the mobs was to place tires around the necks of Sikh men and douse them with kerosene, setting them alight and jeering in a circle as the unfortunate human torch convulsed and flailed in a hopeless attempt to put out the flames. It bears mentioning that this punishment was exclusively meted out to Sikh men and boys. Women were kept alive, usually so that they could be gang-raped. This sometimes took place in full view of the charred corpses of their husbands and children. To this day there exists in Delhi an entire colony of Sikh widows, forgotten by the government, denied justice and denied a voice.
Although individual Hindus often sheltered and hid their Sikh friends and neighbours from the mob, there was no concerted effort by any group or body to protect the Sikhs of Delhi from butchery. In fact a lot of evidence exists which suggests that the Congress Government of India, headed by Indira Gandhi’s son after her assassination, was complicit in the massacre of Sikhs. Policemen were given orders by Rajiv Gandhi, now PM, not to interfere with the mob violence. A country with one of the biggest militaries in the world proved incapable and unwilling to stop a massacre within its own capital city across three days. Perhaps most shockingly of all, Congress politicians were often the leaders of these mobs. They went out into the streets armed with electoral registers listing the names and addresses of Sikhs. This represents one of the most sinister ironies of the whole episode – the world’s largest democracy used electoral registers to murder its own voters.
After the state-sponsored murder of Sikhs in Delhi, several armed uprisings flared up across the Punjab countryside, as Sikhs embarked upon a guerrilla war against the Indian government. Now the object was not political autonomy or greater democracy, but a separate Sikh homeland, ‘Khalistan’. Innocent Hindus and Sikhs fell victim to the gun, as Sikh militants began robbing banks, exploding bombs and assassinating policemen and politicians, and the Indian Army and Police discharged the same collective punishment which had been used against Sikhs of Delhi against the Sikhs of the Punjab. It was not uncommon for Indian military personnel to target entire villages if one resident was known to be a militant – friends, family and neighbours were tortured, imprisoned or raped to force militants out of hiding. 12,000 Sikh civilians died in the conflict, overwhelmingly at the hands of the government forces who were supposed to be their protectors. Those who spoke out against government brutality often simply vanished one day, only to reappear years later at the bottom of a stinking mass grave.
The Sikh militants and the armed proponents of Khalistan were eventually defeated by the government after a decade of fighting. This was inevitable given the overwhelming disproportionality in numbers, weaponry and media influence between the two sides. Today peace has returned to the Punjab and the call for Khalistan is no longer a mainstream force in politics. But the issues which first led to the tensions between the Indian government and the Sikhs remain unresolved – Punjab still doesn’t have full ownership of its own capital or its own rivers. To this list of older grievances have been added the grievances of the eighties and nineties. 20,000 Sikhs were wiped out of existence, a further 180,000 were subjected to tortures, rapes and humiliations which will haunt them for the remainder of their lives, and not one person has been punished by the Indian Government for their complicity in this genocide. There has been no justice for the Sikhs in the world’s largest democracy. Not a single rapist policeman, not one Congress politician. In fact many of these people retain their positions and political influence to this day. Furthermore, any attempt to confront the issues of the Sikh genocide, both within India and without, are consistently slapped down and shut down with accusations of separatism, extremism and terrorism. This has conspired to make most Sikhs ashamed to acknowledge or talk about the wrong done to their people, particularly in India, where to do so is made to seem equivalent to treason. Sikh children grow up without ever knowing what happened only three decades ago. As for the Sikhs living abroad, it is difficult to talk candidly about the genocide without running the risk of being put on an Indian government blacklist and never seeing the Punjab again. Successive governments of India since 1984 have shown a determination to scrape this episode from the pages of their country’s history – movies and books dealing with the events of the Sikh genocide are still censored or banned altogether. But No Sikh and no lover of democracy can let the story of the Sikh genocide slip away into the gaping maw of history to be forgotten forever, not while its survivors are still walking this earth covered in their scars – their mangled bodies an undeniable witness to the truth of what happened to my people. If the last survivor of the Sikh genocide dies without seeing justice from the Indian Government, then the conscience of the Sikh people will die along with them. We must do more.