By Danny Chahel
October 31, 2009 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the
assassination of India’s former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. In
every state throughout India, tributes were paid to Gandhi and Indians
of all faiths reflected on her service to India. Nearly every major
newspaper in India carried a headline story detailing Gandhi’s fifteen
years as India’s Prime Minister. What received far less attention was
another grim anniversary: the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in the
1984 anti-Sikh riots, also referred to as the anti-Sikh pogroms, which
took place immediately following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
A brief history of the events leading to Gandhi’s assassination and
the anti-Sikh riots is necessary. On June 3, 1984, Indira Gandhi
launched Operation Blue Star. The purpose of this four-day military
operation was to remove separatists who were amassing in the Golden
Temple, the holiest Sikh religious shrine. The justification for the
Operation, which was responsible for between 500 and 1000 Sikh
civilian deaths, was questioned by many and vehemently denounced by
the entire Sikh community. First, many questioned the timing of the
Operation, which coincided with a Sikh holy day commemorating the
martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev Ji, Sikhism’s fifth Guru who founded the
Golden Temple in the late sixteenth century. At the time of the
attack, thousands of Sikhs were visiting the Golden Temple to pray.
Second, many disagreed with Indira Gandhi’s view that military force
was her only remaining option to effectively deal with the
separatists. Third, many criticized the government for imposing a
media blackout in Punjab, the State in which the Golden Temple is
located, prior to the attack. Fourth, many took issue with the fact
that a large portion of the immense Golden Temple complex was damaged
and that hundreds of pieces of priceless Sikh art and artifacts were
stolen or destroyed. Finally, many argued that the Indian Army
committed human rights violations during the Operation, including
executing individuals whose hands were bounded and inappropriately
disposing of bodies to reduce the official death toll.
Although many Sikhs felt that Indira Gandhi was ultimately responsible
for the civilian casualties at the Golden Temple and that she should
be held accountable, a majority of Sikhs felt that more violence was
not the answer and instead chose to engage in peaceful protest.
Unfortunately, as retaliation for Operation Blue Star, two of Gandhi’s
Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indira Gandhi at her home in India on
October 31, 2009. One of the assassins was shot and killed at the
time of the assassination and the other assassin was arrested.
Additionally, the uncle of one of the assassin’s was also arrested as
a conspirator in the assassination. There was no evidence whatsoever
to suggest that other Sikhs were involved in the assassination.
Unfortunately, some Indians felt the entire Sikh community was
responsible for Gandhi’s death.
As soon as news of her assassination was released to the public, armed
groups began prowling the streets and targeting innocent Sikhs. Shops
and factories owned by Sikhs were set ablaze and predominantly Sikh
localities were raided. By nightfall the mobs became better organized
and Sikhs, including women and children, were forced to hide in the
homes of compassionate friends and neighbors. In and around Delhi,
some mobs stopped buses and trains, pulling out Sikh passengers to be
lynched or doused with kerosene and burnt. To quote Khushwant Singh,
a prominent Indian novelist and journalist, “I felt like a refugee in
my [own] country.” The violence lasted for three days and in total
over 3,000 Sikhs were killed. Additionally, thousands of Sikh-owned
homes, businesses, and vehicles were destroyed.
The government, which was at the time led by the Indian National
Congress political party, has been widely criticized for doing very
little to stop the riots. For example, the Indian Army was nowhere to
be found during the three days of violence. Similarly, a large
majority of the local police stations did nothing to stop the violence
and some police officials allegedly organized and led the mobs.
Furthermore, there is strong evidence indicating that certain
Congressmen were directly responsible for instigating the mobs to
violence. Even more troubling is the fact that voting lists were used
to identify Sikh families during the riots.
Twenty-five years after the tragic events, justice has not been served
and truth has been suppressed. Since 1984, the Government has set up
eight committees and two commissions to ascertain what exactly
happened during the riots and identify the culprits. Unfortunately,
these committees and commissions are mostly just for the sake of
appearances and the only purpose they serve is a political one. For
example, one of the commissions identified three Congressmen involved
in the anti-Sikh riots yet all three remain free to this day.
Although there have been a few inconsequential convictions, not a
single politician or senior police official has been reprimanded in
any way. Furthermore, a majority of the convictions have led to
acquittal. The guilty individuals behind the worst riots since
India’s Partition are yet to be punished for their crimes.
Relations between the Indian National Congress political party and the
Sikh community have improved in recent years. This is due in large
part to an apology issued to the Sikh community in 1998 by Sonia
Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress and
daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. In terms of monetary compensation,
India’s cabinet created a rehabilitation package for victims, which
provides for a payment of about $2500 in US dollars to each victim.
Unfortunately, many of the victims and their families have been unable
to obtain compensation for what many consider to be trivial reasons.
For example, in the State of Punjab, 22,000 individuals have been
identified as eligible for compensation, but only 12,000 have thus far
Perhaps more importantly, there are those who feel that monetary
compensation is not the answer. These individuals believe that a
truth commission, similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, is necessary to heal the wounds. The previous commissions
have been shrouded in secrecy and the victims and their families
played only a small role in the inquiries and investigations. For the
victims to find peace, they must be given an opportunity to share
their story in a public setting.
Additionally, many argue that the government should provide a wide
range of services to the victims and their families, including
physical and mental health services, and acknowledgment of the
killings in the form of museums, official government literature, and
convictions. As one widow stated, “apologizing doesn’t amount to much
for family members unless [India] is going to acknowledge its role in
the massacres and then take serious steps for accountability.”
As the largest democracy, what message does India send to the world if
it continues to largely ignore the physical and emotional harm caused
by the anti-Sikh riots? To fully restore faith in its judicial
system, India must take immediate steps to address the suffering of
the victims and their families by providing monetary compensation and
physical and mental health services. Additionally, India should
establish a truth commission for the purposes of determining what
exactly happened during the riots, providing an opportunity for
victims to share their stories, and identifying and convicting those
who are responsible.