When many people in the Western world think of India, it seems they think of two
extremes; the poverty stricken slums and overfilled orphanages where there is a dearth of food or the vibrant cultural place you go to immerse yourself and come back anew after ‘finding yourself’ and learning yoga. The darker side of India is seldom talked about. The partition of India which the British had a huge role in is not even taught in schools, and any subsequent massacres have largely been ignored. This haphazard partition created new and exacerbated old religious divides so that they were frayed and bloodier than ever before.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah (the creator of Pakistan) predicted that the hasty, almost random partition of Punjab and Bengal “will be sowing the seeds of future serious trouble”. Punjab soon became an epicentre of violence and mass migration, as Hindu’s and Sikhs on the Pakistani side scrambled to get to the Indian side and Muslims on the Indian side migrated to the Pakistani side of Punjab. People on the ‘wrong’ side were met with such a huge level of violence and unrest that Punjab had descended into a graveyard. Hindu-Muslim tensions are well known, but this mad mass migration and chaotic partition left Sikhs caught, literally and figuratively, in the middle.
Punjab is the historic homeland for Sikhs, but after the forced migrations in 1947, there was an influx of Hindu’s to the state, with Sikhs spreading out into the nearby states of Haryana and Delhi. This as well as complex socio-political and economic issues that need their own post, caused rising tensions between the two groups. There was no unified Sikh state, which some Sikh’s wanted prior to the creation of this new independent India, and this became increasingly significant as Hindu statutes appeared to sideline religious minorities as the secular government became increasingly Hindu nationalist and centralized instead of federalized more power, resulting in conflict.
Before Operation Blue Star
Indira Gandhi’s (India’s then prime minister) senseless initiation of Operation BlueStar at the beginning of June 1984 is often cited as the start of the Sikh Genocide. This was a large military operation ordered by India’s then PM to kill Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He was a Sikh preacher that led the Sikh independence movement, therefore he was known as a militant extremist to some and a freedom fighter turned martyr to others after his death. In reality, he began by preaching egalitarian, progressive morals, and contributed a great deal to the Sikh identity and to Sikh people, before preaching orthodoxy and later descended into elements of extremism. His cause to obtain freedom for Sikhs in India was just, but his approach was not.
Bhindranwale and his militants had been expecting an attack so they had snuck insufficient food rations and armoury, ready for battle. He had made the complex within the Golden Temple in Amritsar his headquarters for extremist activity in the years prior. Bhindranwale’s people had been inciting violence on Hindu’s and dissenting Sikh leaders who were against his ideas of Khalistan and Sikhism, at an alarming rate, in an attempt to drive them away from the state of Punjab. The establishment of Khalistan also appeared imminent in May 1984 with Pakistan’s support, which would have risked the Pakistan army going into Indians Punjab to guarantee its security.
Operation Blue Star
A complete electricity supply, media censorship, communication and travel blackout was imposed on 3 rd June. Troops were deployed all around the state of Punjab and all exit points had been secured around the Golden Temple by evening. Pilgrims within the temple were asked to leave on the 4th and 5th of June, however, it was at peak capacity as many Sikhs were there to celebrate the martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev. Shelling began on the 5th by the army with many civilians still inside.
Gandhi wanted Bhindranwale dead by any means necessary though to crush the Khalistan (Sikh separationist) movement, even if it meant innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire. She ordered this attack on the famous Golden Temple – without ensuring the temple and surrounding area was properly evacuated – and succeeded on 7th June when the army found Bhindranwale’s dead body. The operation was complete on 10th June as the Army fought more Sikhs within the complex. His death came at the cost of many lives, as the civilian death toll was high, which was in part attributed to the pilgrims being used as human shields by the militants.
Many Sikhs viewed this military operation as an attack on the Sikh faith and its followers due to the timing of it coinciding with a religious Sikh day, meaning many civilians would be impacted. The blackout implied they wanted to conduct the attack to be away from the eyes of any media. It also clearly violated human rights laws which protect civilians and places of worship. It subsequently cited aggression and further violence between Hindu and Sikh populations.
Many Sikhs left the military and government positions after this attack, if they hadn’t already been arrested in Operation Woodrose, which was an (illegal) attempt by the government to prevent widespread public protest after Blue Star, between June and September. Whilst it may have controlled any insurgency, it yet again violated basic human rights as thousands of Sikh men had disappeared. These draconian measures resulted in over 12,000 civilian deaths, and 100,000 Sikhs being takin into custody on no real basis within the first 4-6 weeks of the operation. Many were not heard of again. This treatment of Sikhs triggered Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her two Sikh bodyguards as revenge on 31 st October.
The response to this assassination was an abhorrent genocide on Sikhs, organised by members of the Indian National Congress. The lives lost have been placed anywhere between 3350 (India’s official figure) to 17,000 (independent figures), with many others having been brutally raped, assaulted, looted, and displaced. If you hadn’t had acid thrown on you or burned alive, you were still scarred for life with one of these horrific attacks. Riots were rampant predominantly across Delhi but also took place nationally and the effects of this genocide are felt to this day, as many people were unable to rebuild their lives after their towns, homes, and livelihoods were destroyed.
Even the police force who are meant to protect and serve civilians were aiding the rioters. Police preferring people over a superficial characteristic like religion and colour seem to be running themes in society even today that must be stamped out. It was reported by Jagmohan Singh Khurmi, The Tribune, the Delhi police released many criminals from jail for 3 days to ‘teach the Sikhs a lesson’. This was a clearly planned attack, government-aided, on the Sikh’s and they were helpless.
Has there been any justice?
In 2011, India had still not prosecuted anyone that was responsible for this grave violation of human rights. Mass graves were discovered in Haryana that year filled with more civilian Sikh bodies, which served as a stark reminder of what had happened and the lack of justice received. As of August 2015, just 143 families had been paid compensation for this heinous crime against humanity. This was paid for by the state of Delhi and nothing had been given from the central government. An estimated 2500 families were still awaiting payments at this stage– and these are just the families counted in this article.
Numerous commissioned investigations and enquires had been appointed post-1984 to investigate the riots, but the majority of these never led to any high profile convictions as the accused would usually be acquitted or not formally charged out of political patronage and the Indian governments increasing desecularization which favours Hindu’s. This changed after a long, gruelling 34 years when Sajjan Kumar, an MP at the time who incited crowds to kill Sikhs, was convicted.
A number of rioters have also gone to jail since, thus providing some solace and delayed justice to the Sikh community. However, with this being the most done decades later, this type of justice is simply unfulfilling, when numerous other MP’s have evaded charges.
Recognition of Genocide
To this day, the Indian government at large refers to the violence the Sikh population faced as ‘anti-Sikh riots’ diminishing the violence that occurred. ‘Riots’ are associated with mass looting and destruction, but not the heinous murder and immolation that occurred. No one wants to take accountability, even though this was incited by a far right Hindu nationalist government. Until India acknowledges its dark past, the rest of the world that wants to continue to do business with the country, will choose to remain silent on the matter.
Ontario and California did take the courageous step of recognizing it as Genocide – unlike India itself that is still in denial. There is a monument called ‘Wall of Truth’ in Delhi, in remembrance to 3000 of those identified who lost their lives tragically. Heads have hung in shame as solemn apologies have been offered from some political figures, but these may seem empty for the numerous families who are awaiting more tangible recognition of what happened.
What can be done now?
Some people who try to speak out have been illegally detained by the Indian state like Jagtar Singh. He went to his wedding in India, from the UK and was reported to be tortured in prison after being implicated in a murder case from spurious claims saying so. Even social media blocked the #Sikh tag by ‘accident’ for months during a time which overlapped with the remembrance of 36 years after Operation Blue Star. Many believed this was an attempt to silence followers of the Sikh faith as they shared information regarding this event, whilst others believe this is an inherent bias that could befall multiple minority groups, as no accident could have gone unnoticed for almost three months by the genius’s working at Facebook and Instagram.
That being said, it is more important than ever to use your voice (or your fingers on your touchscreen/keyboard) so you can raise awareness of these events. The more people know of the crimes against humanity in 1984 against Sikhs, the more pressure can be applied on the Indian government to serve justice to families that were affected.
Humanitarian organizations like Ensaaf and Yourseva provide economic relief to the Sikhs who were displaced and affected by the violence, and you can donate your money, or if you live in India, your time to these charities. However, the government should ultimately take responsibility for their wellbeing, as they have repeatedly promised of compensation to victims, and failed at delivering.