RATTAN’S RUMBLE: The Sikh massacre of 1984

 

(October 31 marks the 33rd anniversary of the assassination of the then-prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. This piece has appeared before in The VOICE.)

 

Anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi in 1984 organized by the then-ruling Congress Party.

THE massacre of Sikhs in Delhi following Indira Gandhi’s assassination is indeed one of the most shameful chapters in modern Indian history.

The worst part of the whole affair was the silence of the Indian media in New Delhi – spineless editors and publishers brazenly censored reports, including mine, on the specious pretext that these would only end up making the situation worse. Even weeks and months and years after the riots they were not willing to face up to the reality.

The fear that gripped everyone in New Delhi was just unbelievable and in that atmosphere normally sane, balanced people spewed out the worst communal venom against one another. I found it impossible to reason with either Hindus or Sikhs or even Christians and Muslims (being a Christian myself) – it was an explosive mix of fear, hatred and revenge. Many of them later admitted their fear at the time and said: “I am ashamed of what I said then. I am ashamed of how I reacted then.”

Even police and administrative officials feared that the country would fall apart and the fear of a full-scale revolt by Sikh soldiers in the Indian Army sent shivers down everyone’s spine. There were a few incidents of Sikh soldiers mutinying upon learning of the massacre of thousands of innocent Sikh men and male children and the sexual assault of Sikh women in the Capital itself.

It was this horrendous massacre that set the stage for the 1985 Air India bombing – which could have been avoided, of course, if the Canadian government had paid heed to the Indian government’s warnings about such a possible plot at the time.

 

SO how did things get so out of control?

After Gandhi lost her younger son Sanjay Gandhi in an aircraft accident, she seemed to be emotionally shattered – it showed on her face. I think she never really got over Sanjay’s death.

Her other son, Rajiv Gandhi, was a complete misfit in politics (after all he was dragged from his carefree Westernized lifestyle as a pilot married to an Italian into the horrible Machiavellian politics of India of which he knew precious little). He allowed himself to be manipulated by other devious advisors and just couldn’t fathom Punjab state politics – Darbara Singh (Punjab’s Congress boss) versus Giani Zail Singh (Punjab’s former chief minister and the then Indian President), and the different Akali Party factions that were constantly changing their positions on the Khalistan movement in trying to be one up on each other and on the Congress Party.

After the Indian Army attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar (June 4-6, 1984) – the massive media censorship on that operation only led to more confusion thanks to all sorts of rumours, thus exacerbating an already tense situation – it was widely anticipated that there would be some sort of assassination attempt on Indira Gandhi.

There was also resentment among the Sikhs and others that the person who took over the Golden Temple and turned it into a heavily armed fortress – Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala – had actually been actively encouraged by Rajiv Gandhi himself who once welcomed him and his illegally armed bodyguards to New Delhi even as police officers were told not to take any action against them. The Congress Party wanted to use him against the Akalis. But he proved to be nobody’s puppet and the Indian intelligence feared that he was going to declare an independent Khalistan from the Golden Temple and thus give Pakistani troops an excuse to attack India just as India had attacked former East Pakistan and established an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

But nobody could have imagined that Indira Gandhi’s assassination (October 31, 1984) would be carried out by a trusted member of her own inner security – a Sikh inspector, Beant Singh, who was actually quite close to the Gandhi family – right in the compound of her own official residence. Beant Singh was aided by another Sikh member of her security, Constable Satwant Singh. The fact that she was killed by the very people who were supposed to defend her caused great shock, anger and resentment.

 

TAKING advantage of this, Congress goons (goondas) – residing in the so-called resettlement colonies (which were constructed in the outlying areas of Delhi to forcibly move poor squatters in the posh areas of the Capital during the Emergency Rule of 1975-77) – who were firm supporters of their patrons HKL Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar in particular unleashed a reign of terror against the Sikhs. Bhagat and his goons evidently thought they would show their misguided loyalty to the new boss – Rajiv Gandhi.

In the poorer colonies, the Sikhs didn’t stand a chance. Mobs grabbed Sikh male kids from the hands of their terrified mothers, cut off their hair and murdered them brutally. Days after the riots, when I was finally allowed by my newspaper to visit some of the resettlement colonies, I could still see pieces of burned hair laying here and there, although the police and other authorities tried their very best to clean up and destroy as much evidence as they could.

In the posh colonies, Sikh homes and their thriving businesses – shops, factories, gas stations, etc. – were raided and / or burned down. Even smaller gurdwaras were vandalized. My report on one of them was completely censored by my paper.

An estimated 3,000 Sikhs, almost all males, were brutally murdered even as the police stood by, the media messed up their pants and Congress bosses seemed paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. The new prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, seemed to be too busy making funeral arrangements for his mother.

According to reports, soldiers of the Indian Army from a nearby city were called to take control of the deteriorating situation but the authorities suddenly realized that most of them were Sikhs and if they saw how their fellow Sikhs had been murdered, they could react very negatively. So they were ordered back and other troops were called from a more distant city.

I have never seen such fear in the Capital – the streets were deserted for days. As I zoomed around on my motorcycle in the New Delhi area, I never bothered to stop at a red light at day or night. The only vehicles I occasionally came across were those of the cops.

But the riots were really not a Hindus versus Sikhs affair.

It was a Congress Party-backed goons versus innocent, helpless Sikhs affair plain and simple.

And even most Congress Party people were aghast at what transpired. There were numerous cases of Hindus, Muslims and Christians giving shelter to Sikhs at the risk of their own lives. But what could people do in the face of goon attacks backed by the people in power?

Everybody knew who the main players were – HKL Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar.

But who would have the guts to give evidence against them? And the way the Congress government continued to handle the whole affair gave any potential witness no reason for confidence.

Other prominent names mentioned were those of Jagdish Tytler and Lalit Maken. The latter was assassinated along with his wife by Sikh terrorists at their Delhi residence itself.

In fact, people, once they recovered from the initial shock of the assassination and the riots, openly cheered the assassination of anyone believed to be connected with the riots by saying: “One more goon (goonda) is dead!” They hoped that all the suspects would be killed.

 

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