When a big tree falls, the ground shakes
October 31, 1984 is a shameful day in Indian history. On this day in the national capital of Delhi, then Prime Minister and one-time dictator Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The carnage that followed took 2,733 lives, almost all of them Sikhs. Given that the perpetrators have still not been brought to justice, some shameful details deserve mention.
Two respected civil rights organizations — People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) — investigated the circumstances surrounding the carnage in detail and came up with very disturbing findings. Their report, Who are the Guilty? traces the public’s acquiescence in the carnage to two insidious rumors.
First, that train-loads of hundreds of Hindu dead bodies had arrived at Delhi from Punjab, a Sikh majority province. Second, that Sikhs had poisoned drinking water in Delhi. While both the rumors were absolutely false, PUCL and PUDR researchers report that during the carnage they came across policemen spreading these rumors.
To understand how anyone could believe such malicious rumors, one needs to look back at the prevailing unrest in Punjab. Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister was an unmitigated disaster, nowhere more so than in Punjab. Concerned primarily with the electoral performance of the Congress party (which she headed), she often ignored the Sikhs’ legitimate demands and rescinded on her promises to them. Furthermore, to counter political opposition from the Sikhs, she played them against each other and propped up fanatics who later proved to be her nemesis.
In June 1984, Ms. Gandhi ordered a disastrous military assault on a Sikh holy site that left hundreds of civilians and militants dead. Reporting on the army action was prohibited, but later reconstructions of the events and testimonies of survivors revealed large scale human rights violations by the army. Despite this, the lasting imagery was that of violence unleashed by the Sikh militants. In such a scenario, it is not surprising that the anti-Sikh cabal used Ms. Gandhi’s assassination to stereotype and victimize the Sikh community.
Even as rumors were being spread, armed thugs were transported to Sikh localities in Delhi. Young Sikhs were the primary victims of the pogrom. They were dragged out, beaten up and burnt alive. Old men, women and children were usually (but not always) allowed to escape, their houses cleaned of valuables and then set on fire. Some women were also gang raped.
Despite the mayhem, some courageous Hindus and Muslims risked their lives to shelter their Sikh neighbors. In stark contrast, the state’s response ranged from apathy to collusion and active participation. PUCL and PUDR concluded that in the areas most affected, the mobs were led by local Congress party politicians and hoodlums of that locality. Prominent among the Congress thugs were three members of the Indian Parliament — Sajjan Kumar, HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler — and Lalit Makan, a local bigwig who was killed for his crimes a year later. While Makan’s killer has been punished, only six people are serving sentence for the massacre of Sikhs. The Congress bigwigs continue to plead innocence and stay free.
Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to dismiss the pogrom saying, When a big tree falls, the ground shakes. P V Narasimha Rao, then Home Minister who later became Prime Minister, was equally inhuman. On August 15 (Indian independence day) this year, some survivors of the pogrom who had testified against the criminals at great personal risk displayed black flags in protest. “Independence Day is not for us … It is for the killers of our husbands who are roaming free on the streets,” said Darshan Kaur, whose husband had been killed at the instigation of HKL Bhagat.
In a democracy, who can the people turn to if the state turns killer?
[Written for the Daily Illini in November 2003]