The pall of gloom hanging over the Sikhs of India for the last four decades may, slowly, be lifting. The community has been agonizing over the national dementia about the need to deliver justice to the victims of the 1984 genocide of Sikhs, in the wake of prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two Sikh security guards. Thousands of Sikh men and boys were done to death in what was made to look like reprisal killings but, in fact, was an organized and state-sponsored carnage of Sikhs under the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government. The memory of watching the lynching, burning alive and bludgeoning to death of Sikh men and children by the Congress government-backed mobs, lies embalmed in the heads of most witnesses. The psychological scarring of Sikhs, caused by the naked dance of death in the streets of India, most of all in Delhi, cannot even be imagined by the ordinary Indians.
The multiple commissions of enquiry that investigated the mass murders have yielded nothing. The Sikh political leaders, who could have done a lot to heal the victims’ families through political, legal, moral and financial support, looked the other way from the start. They alone had the capability to mobilize mass support and to pressurize the government into booking the masterminds behind the carnage–the political leaders and the police officials– but the Sikh political leadership did nothing. Till date, they continue to pay only lip service to the cause. The only time they open their mouths about the issue is when they have to settle political scores with the Congress party. This is particularly true of the leaders of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
The long passage of time since the mass killings and the death of most of the immediate, adult family members of the victims have complicated the legal side of the story; hundreds of survivors were also witnesses to the murders. Of course, the biggest bottleneck in the way of justice is that there is no police record of most of the killings and, in legal terms, the victims are missing, not dead. If there is no dead body, there is no murder. Nobody knows this dictum better than cops. That is why they picked up the dead by the hundreds, loaded them in trucks, took them to the outskirts of Delhi, dug pits, poured kerosene oil over the bodies and ‘cremated’ them. Nothing else is needed to prove that the police officials of the day were partners in the crimes. Before that, the police systematically disarmed the Sikhs of the handy weapons of defence in their homes, like sticks and rods; and did not come out of the police stations at all to dispel the mobs.
In the face of these facts, it would be a tall order to deliver justice to the families of the victims. Still, it is possible, provided the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government shows the political will for it. Some of the top cops who presided over these killings may be dead, but not all. Were the retired and the serving cops from the top to the bottom to be booked and nailed, it would make history, not to mention what it would do for the victims’ families and for the wounded Sikh spirit in general. Most of all, it would lend a new and positive dimension to what the prime minister, along with the Sikh religious leaders, has been trying to do for the community for about a year.
Together with the former chief of Delhi Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (DGPC) Manjinder Singh Sirsa, Modi has been consciously attempting to win back the community’s confidence in his government that was seriously hit during the year-long farmers’ agitation in 2020-21. The confused and nasty reaction of the central government to the agitation, equating the farmers with Khalistanis, led to bitterness between the government and the Sikhs, who were the main force behind sustaining the agitation against three proposed farm laws. Modi’s apology and withdrawal of the farm bills was a case of too little, too late. The fanatics had already gained massive ground and the pro-Khalistan/separate Sikh state propaganda had become very loud. Aware of the damage done and keen to contain the situation, the prime minister came up with some novel ideas.
The first was the hosting of Sikh social and religious leaders from all over India at his official residence in February 2022, followed by the hosting of prominent Sikhs from all over the world; the second was the three-day-long function at Lal Qila last April, marking the 400th birth anniversary of Guru Teg Bahadar, and the third was the commemoration of the martyrdom day of Baba Fateh Singh and Baba Zorawar Singh, the children of Guru Gobind Singh, as Baal Veer Divas at the National Stadium opposite India Gate.
The two religious events, which evoke intense piety among the Sikhs, were partnered by the government, and were like none other in free India’s history. Sirsa, who is a former BJP MLA from Delhi and close to the prime minister, is reported to have played a major role in organizing them. In their conception and execution, the grand events were a marvelous boost to the Sikh psyche. Not a single Sikh religious or political leader ever came up with anything even vaguely comparable to them. Although Lutyen’s Delhi is no stranger to the grandeur of a march past, on Baal Veer Divas on December 26, exactly a month ahead of the Republic Day, the march past touched a soul-stirring dimension.
Three thousand children of the branches of Delhi’s Guru Harkrishan Public School marched past the stage, shared by Modi and Sirsa. Carrying both the Indian Tricolor and the Sikh religious flag, the ‘Nishan Sahib’, the children were a picture of excitement. The Sikh Regiment of the Indian army was also part of the parade. The prime minister waved constantly at each ‘regiment’ and stayed till the end of the function. Before that, Sikh girls and boys, dressed in the insignia blue and yellow colors of the religion, sang hymns from the Guru Granth. Modi, who was the chief guest at both the functions, made reverential speeches, recalling the great sacrifices of the gurus in the lineage of Nanak, right up to those of the children of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, who established the Sikh religion. The symbolic significance of these venues, synonymous with India’s Independence Day and Republic Day, was not lost on anyone, neither was that of the Khalsa flag held aloft at the events, underlining and honoring both the religious and national identity of Sikhs.
The days chosen by the Modi government to send a positive message to the Sikh community were too sacred for its critics to risk striking a discordant note or to play politics over them. The prime minister did steal the thunder of the Sikh extremists through these events. The worst they could say was that Modi was putting up a front of supporting Sikhs. But the scores of young Sikhs I spoke to in Punjab, in the weeks after the march past by Sikh children at India Gate, dismissed such remarks as a reflection of the critics’ frustration.
Beginning with the fifth guru in the lineage of Nanak, Guru Arjan Dev, who was tortured to death under the rule of Mughal king Jahangir in 1606, followed by the beheading of ninth guru, Guru Teg Bahadar, in 1675, then the bricking alive of his grandsons (sons of Guru Gobind Singh) at Fatehgarh Sahib in 1705, both under Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, and the martyrdom of Banda Bahadar, Sikhs have played the most vital role in the defence of Hinduism. The community has heard enough about the glory of the gurus from their own spiritual and political leaders. It is high time for the rest of India to recognize the unmatchable contribution of the gurus and followers to the defence of the Hindu religion and that of the country over the last four centuries. That is precisely what the government-backed events in the 75th year of Independence were aimed at, and going by the response of the ordinary Sikhs, the government did succeed in its aim.
The Sikhs I interviewed for this article were very happy with the “unique” and “unparalleled” show of “solidarity with Sikhs” that these events signified. They did not connect even remotely to the critical view of a section of the Sikh intelligentsia about the Modi government’s “inherent bias against religious minorities”. While the healing of the November 1984 victims’ immediate families is still a far cry, the rest of the Sikhs, who have endured terrible insults and injuries over the last 40 years, may be on the road to recovery. The terrorist killings carried out by extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala’s followers maligned the community as a whole and brought it social hostility. The Indian army’s military exercise in June 1984, Operation Bluestar, to clear the Golden Temple at Amritsar of terrorists, was a mental blow to the faithful because of the sanctity of the temple, and the killings of pilgrims who got trapped in it during the operation. Finally, the November 1984 mass murders of ordinary Sikhs, who had nothing to do with the extremists responsible for the assassination of prime minister Gandhi, and successive governments’ cruel disregard of the need for justice, were the deadliest physical and mental assault on the community.
Four decades after such suffering, any positive gestures made towards the community by the government would make a difference, what to talk of the grand ones that were made last year: to be sitting at Lal Qila and India Gate and listening to reverential words for the gurus from the prime minister; to be reminded of the original identity of Sikhs as a valiant and righteous force; to hear anew about the pious roots of Sikhism from the political establishment; to know that the central government organized exhibitions and essay competitions in 14 lakh schools about the lives of the children martyrs, Baba Fateh Singh and Baba Zorawar Singh; to watch the live telecast of these functions by Doordarshan (and that of the Guru Gobind Singh’s 358th birth anniversary from Patna Sahib the following day), and to know that they, as a people, were being honored and celebrated on the national stage, signified a dimensional leap in the community’s confidence in itself and in India.
These events also raised hopes of justice for the victims of November 1984. Of course, a strong political will and radical legal steps are needed to meet such hopes, and it is tempting to ask if the Modi government would take those steps. Affirmative action in that direction would bring the government eternal gratitude, not just of Sikhs, but that of millions of people, who believe in the rule of law and who wish to rid India of the shame and guilt associated with those crimes. Most of all, it would be a master stroke in neutralizing the extremists.
(The author is a Delhi-based journalist)
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