Fighting Fatalism, 35 Years After the Anti-Sikh Pogroms

As Sikhs live through their collective trauma, we have entered a phase where silence around violence against minorities is sanctioned.

“My father sat praying, meditating through the night. I was in the room with my parents and two younger brothers. They were three and five. My father stood up at 4 am and said, ‘This day, you’ll remember forever’!”

Thirty-five years after this father of five went down fighting for his life in the anti-Sikh pogrom that engulfed India, survivors’ memories are still met without acknowledgement of the mass crimes and with an increasingly clear message: those deemed less should swallow injustice and call it fate.

The blueprint of 1984 was and is followed by politicians vying for hero status as the vanquishers of terror and external interference (of next-door Pakistan) by terrorising internal “enemies.”

In 1984, Sikhs were fodder for the machinery of the next election, won by those at the forefront of the anti-Sikh pogroms. Now, the first state assembly elections since the Kashmir Valley was locked down by the Indian Army (after the change of Kashmir’s historic constitutional status by forceful fiat), represent further popular support for those at the forefront of this humanitarian crisis.

The “K2 plan” rhetoric used to justify the decision on Kashmir; the institutionalised punishing of dissent; and the insultingly absent or slow legal processes that routinely excuse perpetrators—shamelessly, in the name of humanity as was done in Punjab last week;  all prove how 1984’s unaddressed unpunished crimes taught all the wrong lessons, now being employed in corrosive majoritarian electoral politics.

Indira Gandhi, whose assassination set off the pogroms. Photo: Public.Resource.Org/Flickr CC BY 2.

On October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. In contravention of their usual practice of not revealing information that might incite communal violence, All India Radio quickly noted that the prime minister had been gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards.

Images of her corpse were re-run on state-run television, cementing Sikhs as violent ‘others’ in the Indian imagination, even as armed gangs marched to deliver death on Sikhs. The Sikh community was then still reeling from the physical and psychological assault of the Indian Army across Punjab (the only Sikh majority state) by Indira Gandhi earlier that year.

The Indian Army’s attack in June 1984, epicentred at the heart of Sikhs, the Darbar Sahib, the “Golden Temple”— akin to the Vatican, Mecca, or the Temple of David — had elicited a visceral reaction from religious, irreligious, and non-religious Sikhs alike, and indeed many non-Sikhs.

An estimated 10,000 never returned to claim their shoes, slipped off at gurdwara entrances across Punjab in June. But the armed Sikh fighters in the gold-domed complex in Amritsar, totaling about 400, largely consumed Indian discourse: focus was retained on the actions or inactions of the victimised minority community.

The following months saw a surge in the popularity of Indira Gandhi as India’s “saviour” who had resisted the Sikh threat head-on. Then external affairs minister Narasimha Rao gave statements about the “foreign hand” that had threatened the country and said that “if the government had not initiated the Army action against the terrorists in Punjab, the security of the country would have been in peril” (June 28, The Tribune).

British documents, declassified under a 30-year rule, have now revealed letters between Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, deliberating over British Special Air Service (SAS) support for an attack on Amritsar. These communications are dated February 1984, four months before the reportedly exigent and unavoidable Bluestar.

The attacks’ political benefit to Gandhi’s next election was openly discussed at the time.

“Elections in October?” ran a headline in The Tribune on June 27, 1984.

Gandhi was shot dead on October 31, 1984. After Army operations code-named Bluestar and Woodrose had seared through its countryside, Punjab was eerily uneventful in November 1984, while an anti-Sikh pogrom unfolded everywhere outside the Sikh heartland, starting with New Delhi.

File image of protesters in Amritsar demand justice for the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. Photo: PTI

“On three successive occasions in 1984, Sikhs as a people were attacked. On each of those three occasions, their social class, their family background, their service to and positions in the structures of the state signified nothing. The fact that they were Sikh removed their status and their rights from them,” writes anthropologist Joyce Pettigrew.

Every Sikh was a target in November 1984. “He had not even for a second entertained the neighbours’ suggestions of cutting his hair. He knew what was about to come. My father was proud and he was committed. He told me, ‘Take your brothers, open their topknots, make plaits, and dress them in some frocks from the neighbours.’ I did as I was told,” says the child who saw her father die fighting his murderers in 1984.

The attempts at survival were valorous and varied.

Sikh parents tried to protect young boys from the genocidal violence by disguising them as girls, trying to decrease the immediate risk to their lives. Then they realised their girls had also been marked prey.

Other parents painfully cut their children’s lovingly grown and groomed hair, hoping the orders to kill were limited to identifiable Sikhs. The turban tan-lines gave many away nevertheless.

And no group of Sikhs was protected when the armed men came. They came with lists and information about Sikh households and killed without discriminating between the less and more adherent.

When the “mob” descended on her family’s home, the daughter remembers witnessing the fight put up by her father: “Our next door neighbors, they were very nice…They hid my father. But then another neighbour reported, ‘The sardar is hiding here’.”

“So the mob tightened around the room my father was hiding in. My father was young, agile, knew gatka [Sikh martial art]… and jumped out with a large stick. At this, the stunned mob retreated. He jumped over the wall, on to the roof. And then, they came back. And started raining stones on him. As more hit him, he fell down. He kept fighting them, with just one stick. And then from behind, someone struck him hard. And more and more gathered on top and beat him… my little sister and my mother were trying to intervene. My sister was hit and her head split open. Lots happened. He was killed.”

She blinks.

The torture inflicted on her father’s body pre- and post-death is quietly detailed by her husband only later. With the resolve she developed as a child, she continues, “And 10-15 days later, I went to school. It was important for me to go to school. I had exams. And some of the girls there said, ‘So your Papa was killed too?’ And I just burst out crying. Some of these girls told me, ‘If this happens with us Balvinder, you please save us, okay?’ From these conversations I realised that their families were the ones used, were involved…and they were now thinking that there may be retaliation.”

The rumours of impending Sikh violence had spread afar immediately after Gandhi’s assassination, providing further instigation:

‘Sikh boys from Khalsa College are coming to rape our girls!’

‘The Sikhs have poisoned the Delhi municipal water supply!’

‘Trains are returning from Punjab with bodies of butchered Hindus!’

Meanwhile, eyewitnesses remember the foot soldiers of the carnage: otherwise impoverished and vulnerable people were suddenly given power to loot, rape, pillage, kill, and exhibit power on the new national enemy. Those orchestrating the crimes kept their hands milky clean, greeting world leaders for a somber state funeral.

Indira Gandhi’s funeral was belatedly held on November 3. An orgy of violence had been unleashed by then: politicians met mercenaries met opportunists met religious bigots.

Also read: Photo Essay: Thirty-Three Years on, Wounds of the Anti-Sikh Massacre Are Still Fresh

“Certain images had to be burned into the psyche,” reported journalist Ivan Fera. “How else to explain the fact that the men were not merely killed but tortured to death—limb severed from limb, eyes gouged out, burnt while they were still alive—in instance after instance, all over the city, in the very presence of their children and their wives? The killings were ritualistic: in several cases the hair of the victim were shorn off, and their beards set on fire before they were killed.”

Sikh women were ferociously targeted, often in front of their families, including through individual and gang rape, in some cases lasting over multiple days.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee, who had found himself quitting a corporate job to return to his home state of Punjab in 1984 to begin pursuing human rights work (that continues till date), said, “Civil rights groups in Delhi wrote reports almost immediately.”

The November pogroms had taken place right under the noses of the crème de la crème of modern India’s intellectuals, lawyers, artists. It could not be ignored, despite the government’s best efforts. But the grisly Delhi reports captured only a fraction of the destruction.

“On trains all over India, especially those coming through Haryana, or coming into Delhi, Sikh passengers were sitting ducks,” said Jaijee.

Jaijee began demanding answers from the government. “They had logs, they had the manifests from which it could easily be assessed which passengers never arrived at their ticketed destination…And when we got a meeting with the Railway Minister at that time he said, ‘Sorry, government has told us we can’t release list of Sikh passengers… only Rajiv Gandhi can.’ After three-four trips that I made to his office, he did say around 700 or so were killed. So easily, I thought, at least 2,000-3,000 [would have been killed]. … a real death census is sorely needed!”

Not only trains headed to the murderous capital, but Sikhs at home in various states in India faced deathly violence. In Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, story after story reiterated how Congress workers had given free rein to local criminals, strongmen, and anyone with a score to settle against any Sikh. Tellingly, wherever individual civil servants or police officers defied the general orders, civilian deaths were quickly curtailed. But the overwhelming sentiment, including of the non-Congress leaders and workers, was to allow bloodletting.

An indeterminate number of Sikhs were killed across India; at least three thousand perished in New Delhi alone.

A girl and her father pray at the 1984 martyrs museum in Tilak Vihar, New Delhi. Photo: Shome Basu

This was a spontaneous eruption of outrage, ran the official narrative, since the masses were blinded by their anguish at the assassination of the prime minister.

Meanwhile, the murderers came meticulously armed with lists, weaponry, and a standard operating procedure. “Often, the earlier mob limited itself to beating up the Sikhs till they fainted or died; the second mob burnt their bodies to destroy the evidence of murder,” write Manoj Mitta and Phoolka in their book When a Tree Shook Delhi.

“[F]ar from being spontaneous expressions of “madness” and of “grief and anger” at Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, as made out by the authorities,[they] were the outcome of a well-­organised plan marked by acts of both deliberate commission and omission by important politicians of the Congress and by authorities in the administration,” noted The People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the People’s Union of Democratic Rights.

Overwhelmingly, the violence was condoned as appropriately employed against a reportedly treacherous community that had forgotten its place. Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar, who were part of the relief efforts and extensively interviewed citizens immediately after the pogroms, noted “The most typical statement of Hindu assertion throughout the months following November were, ‘It’ll teach them a lesson;’ ‘Now they have been effectively cowed down.’”

The political currency of the November 1984 carnage won Gandhi’s Congress a landslide victory in the next month’s general elections. Rajiv Gandhi took his oath on December 31, 1984; his thumping election victory remains unparalleled in India. 

Union minister H.K.L. Bhagat, who eyewitnesses reported on the scene of many massacres, and whose constituency saw widespread decimation of Sikhs, won with the second greatest margin of votes throughout India. The Sikh genocide had received electoral applause. 

The first and only significant Congress party leader was convicted last year, 34 years later: Congress MP from the Outer Delhi constituency in 1984, Sajjan Kumar, was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Delhi high court identified the killings between November 1 and November 4, 1984 as “crimes against humanity.” Kumar appealed and the Supreme Court is hearing his case: summer 2020 was declared as the next hearing date, confirmed one of the prosecutors last week.

Also read: A Journey to a Past that Will Not Pass

Meanwhile, even as the current anti-Congress BJP government continues to make promises to investigate 1984, actual processes remain farcical. In September, the Special Investigating Team constituted in February 2019 to investigate the pogrom deaths in Kanpur, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, reported the files had all mysteriously disappeared.

Thirty-five years after some of the terrified survivors had dared to register cases. Those who continue to dare do so amidst the generally required resignation: that one party will gain from violence against an entire community during its tenure, and then the alternate party will come in and do the same while mildly chastising the first party, till the first party swings back into power.

Still, the dual party system is not killing India. Parties don’t kill people. People in power do.

India has increasingly been perfecting its default: fatalism. Silence around violence against the less powerful is sanctioned. Glee around the plight of demonised populations, under lockdown in their own state and own homes, has been expressed unchecked.

Whether around the violence against women in their own homes, or around the silent majority of India (the Dalits, so-called “untouchables”) considered doomed by divine caste, or around many areas of active internal armed conflict, like Kashmir or Chhattisgarh, or around regions that are still reeling from devious abnormality, like Punjab, but presented, at all costs, as returned to “normalcy.”

But the child survivor left fatherless in a decimated low-income colony still speaks about truth and justice: her voice, the only succour to the victims of 1984, refuses to be silenced.

Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer, and teaches at UC Berkeley School of Law. Her forthcoming book on human rights defenders, Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper, is being published by Palgrave Macmillan.