The reality India confronts is of a terrorist threat that has climbed to an entirely new dimension.
Scenes of horrific violence, conducted with cruel and deliberate premeditation, elicit anger and indignation. Mumbai’s continuing (at the time of writing on 28 November) ordeal of terror, covered in real time by the country’s numerous news channels, unleashed spasms of rage across the country. The fury is only likely to intensify when security operations are concluded and a true measure obtained of the horror that was let loose on Mumbai that fateful night of 26 November.
More than all the serial bombings that India has seen, the siege of Mumbai poses, in terms of its continuing ramifications, a clear danger to every value on which the country rests: openness, diversity and tolerance. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his first address to the nation after the crisis began, seemingly sounded the retreat from his party’s long-standing insistence that it would not countenance any fresh abridgement of civil rights to combat terrorism. Several media commentators have joined in with calls for extraordinary legislative measures and the empowerment of the security agencies.
An alternative mode of seeing is illustrated in the life and death of Hemant Karkare. The chief of the Anti-Terrorism Squad in the Maharashtra Police, the highest ranking Indian official to fall to terrorism in many years, was among the first to engage the armed desperadoes as they began to cut a swathe of destruction through Mumbai. He was cut down, along with trusted colleagues, by the lethal firepower that the terror-ring managed to smuggle onto Indian shores. He leaves as an abiding legacy the sterling sense of duty he displayed in his final hours.
The last month of his life, Karkare was engaged in the high profile investigation of a network involving a supposed sadhvi, the self-proclaimed head of a religious foundation, a serving army officer and sundry others, which had allegedly carried out a string of bomb attacks in various parts of the country. He had earned the bitter ire of the principal national opposition party and its allies, which accused him of leading a politically motivated investigation and inflicting thoroughly unconscionable indignities on persons of the true faith.
There was grim irony then, in seeing the same political dignitaries jostling to offer tribute to the fallen officer, in a cynical effort to leverage his death for maximum advantage. Narendra Modi, the champion of Hindutva, was not one to let pass the opportunity to bask in the public limelight, turning up at one of the scenes of a gunbattle on November 28, to criticise Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s response and announce a cash award for the families of police officers killed in Mumbai. He had, in the preceding days, heaped vituperation on the same policemen while on the election campaign trail in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. Such brazen political cynicism is clearly something the country can do without in these trying times.
Once the shock and horror subside, the reality the nation confronts is of a terrorist threat that has climbed to an entirely new dimension: from stealth attacks carried out by faceless protagonists, to frontal operations carried out by individuals who do not hesitate to show themselves in full public view. Reflexively, the security and intelligence community in India has held out the dire warning to Pakistan, that it would be expected in the days ahead, to prove its innocence, or risk a painful retribution. This threatens the faltering and tenuous Pakistani state which is evidently losing control of the many fanatical groupings that have flourished on its territory under a variety of patrons, including the superpower that is today sworn to their destruction. To challenge the Pakistani state to mortal combat would risk destroying the last potential buffer that stands between the entire South Asian region and a descent into anarchy.
At the same time, there is much that India needs to address in the fundamentals of its approach to terrorism. Late October, the Hyderabad police released four Muslim youth who had been held in custody, tortured and humiliated, for suspected complicity in the bombing of the Mecca masjid in the city in May 2007. They had been arrested, it turned out, merely on a whim.
Around the same time, an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation established that officers of the Special Cell in the Delhi Police had conspired with the Intelligence Bureau, to implicate two Kashmiri youths in a terrorism plot. The two had, in fact, been police informers who had fallen out of favour after an internal power struggle in the police force. Again, the two were held in custody for a needlessly long period of time and tortured, after incriminating evidence was planted on them.
The bare fact is that since terrorism became a consuming concern all over the world, India has consistently failed the test of evolving an approach that is even remotely likely to command the allegiance of the larger public. Where a broad public consensus is a vital component of a successful engagement, India’s approach has stigmatised one community, undermined social solidarity and created new wellsprings of resentment from which terrorism gains nourishment.
At the same time, a discourse that is patently antithetical to democratic policy dialogue has been promoted on the ground that combating terrorism trumps all other concerns. Whatever may be the culpability of agencies and non-state actors based in Pakistan, India needs to ensure that domestic concord holds. That cannot be achieved by shutting off all critical voices in civil society and insulating the security and intelligence agencies from scrutiny. To suppress the democratic debate at home is to hand victory by default to alien forces of terrorism.
Analyses of the ghastly attacks
- Terror: The Aftermath (Anand Patwardhan)
- In Outcry Over Siege, Two Indias Emerge (Emily Wax)
- The Mumbai tragedy and the English language news media (Mukul Kesavan)
- When ‘nationalism’ trumps responsible reporting (Beena Sarwar)
- In the aftermath of Mumbai (People’s Democracy)
- Seven Questions (Neelabh Mishra)
- Mumbai’s Horror (EPW Editorial)
- After the Attack on Mumbai (Bernard D’Mello)
- Mr. Friedman’s Demagoguery (Saadia Toor and Balmurli Natrajan)
- The Triumph of Terror: What is the rationale of Mumbai terrorist attack? (Patrick Buchanan)
- Lies Of The Lashkar (Yoginder Sikand)
- India’s 9/11? Not Exactly (Amitav Ghosh)
- The Meaning of Mumbai (Justin Raimondo)
- Mumbai massacre: War threats will only fuel terror (Anindya Bhattacharyya)
- Asian Human Rights Commission on the Mumbai attacks
- India Doesn’t Need New Antiterror Laws (Salil Tripathi)
- Democracy Now! roundtable discussion featuring Vijay Prashad, Biju Mathew, Tariq Ali and Teesta Setalvad.
- As the Fires Die: The Terror of the Aftermath (Biju Mathew)
- The fires in South Asia (Vijay Prashad)
- The assault on Mumbai (Tariq Ali)
- On the nature of the attacks (Joaquin Bustelo)
- Blood in Mumbai (Dileep Padgaonkar)
- Hotel Taj : icon of whose India? (Gnani Sankaran)
- The Mumbai Attacks (Justin Podur)
Calls to Action
- In Support of Peace, Harmony, Justice, and Prosperity (San Francisco)
- Peace and Unity Vigil Marking the Mumbai Attacks (South Asia Solidarity Initiative, New York City)
- Say No to Terror and War! Say No to Violence! (Mumbai for Peace)
- Indo-Pak condemnation of Mumbai bloodbath
- We will not be divided (Avaaz.org)
[To sign on to this statement opposing censorship and intimidation of Arun Gandhi, see the directions here]
On January 7, 2008, Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the founder/director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, wrote two paragraphs on the Washington Post blog, On Faith, titled “Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence.” Within three weeks, Gandhi was forced to resign as Director after a storm of criticism that he was anti-Semitic by pro-Israel groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee, and by pressure from the President of the University of Rochester, Joel Seligman. Why did these two paragraphs cause the resignation of Gandhi, a respected and renowned public figure who has worked for years to promote non-violence and inter-faith understanding, study racism and prejudice, and who grew up with the daily abuses of the apartheid regime in South Africa?
The title of Gandhi’s post, in itself, seems like a reasonable statement to make, one which would be true of any group. No group’s identity can depend on violence. In the article, which was quickly painted as “shameful” by Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Gandhi recognized the horror of the Holocaust but observed that legitimate sympathy for this past tragedy cannot mean blindness or justification for violence inflicted on another group in the present. This too, seems like a logical point, and one that has been made innumerable times by Jewish Americans and Israelis alike, including the children of Holocaust survivors, such as Dr. Norman Finkelstein. However, Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, also paid the price for his critical scholarship and was recently denied tenure for challenging pro-Israel propaganda and campaigns headed by Foxman and the ADL. Furthermore, many have also noted that the Palestinians who were dispossessed and exiled with the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, after World War II, were paying the price for a European tragedy that was not of their own making, what Gandhi called “a German burden.”
In the article, Gandhi advised those concerned about Jewish identity and the future of Israel to make genuine efforts toward peace and non-violence, rather than acquiring “weapons and bombs.” Israel is the only state with nuclear weapons in the Middle East, a little known fact that causes no hysteria about WMDs in the US, let alone sanctions or invasions. Gandhi noted that when he visited Israel in 2004, he observed their “superior weapons and armaments” that make it the most powerful and advanced military power in the region. His advice was simply to point out that it would be better for Israel to “share its technological advancement” with its poorer neighbors and build friendships, rather than live in a heavily armed fortress surrounded by a wall that has imprisoned Palestinians and expropriated their land. On the same trip to Israel-Palestine, Gandhi had urged Palestinians to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. Another, little known fact is that Palestinians do countless acts of non-violent resistance, and have for a long time, but they face Israeli tanks, U.S.-supplied F-16s and Apache helicopters. Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer that drove over her while she was trying to protect a Palestinian house from being destroyed.
Gandhi actually posted an apology for what he called his “poorly worded” comments and wrote:
I do not believe and should not have implied that the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people. Indeed, many are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes, by Israel and many other governments. I do believe that when a people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness and the loss of support from those who would be friends. But as I have noted in previous writings, the suffering of the Jewish people, particularly in the Holocaust, was historic in its proportions. While we must strive for a future of peace that rejects violence, it is also important not to forget the past, lest we fail to learn from it. Having learned from it, we can then find the path to peace and rejection of violence through forgiveness.
Yet President Seligman described the apology as “inadequate,” rather than supporting Gandhi’s freedom of speech. It was not enough for University of Rochester that he had been pressured to apologize. Gandhi’s resignation makes it clear that he was the latest casualty of the powerful and highly organized pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. that immediately deems any and all criticism of Israel’s policies as anti-Semitic. The irony is that in his post, Gandhi was actually noting the very phenomenon of a community overplaying its historic experience that was enacted in the vitriolic response of powerful and well-funded organizations created to silence and intimidate critics of Israel. Foxman is one of the staunchest apologists for Israel’s inhuman treatment of the Palestinians, about whom a Wall Street Journal editor once quipped: “he has become drunk with power…knowing he can label anyone who challenges him an anti-Semitic bigot.” One only needs to look at the hundreds of responses to Gandhi’s posting on the blog to realize that there were, in fact, countless letters supporting Gandhi and decrying the bullying tactics and censorship of the Israel lobby. Stephen Walt (Harvard) and John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago), authors of the much-publicized book, The Israel Lobby, know a thing or two about this repression. So does Jimmy Carter who was slammed as an anti-Semite after he published Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid.
It is shameful that groups such as the Hindu American Foundation who claim to promote “tolerance and understanding” would support such blatant censorship of Gandhi’s grandson. Perhaps they choose to ignore Mahatma Gandhi’s statement in 1946 that Jewish settlers “have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism … Why should they resort to terrorism to make good their forcible landing in Palestine?” The HAF has chosen instead to ally itself with groups such as the ADL and to participate in the dishonest and cowardly silencing of any one who dares to criticize the racism and violence directed against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. Hindu, Indian, South Asian groups that profess to support dialogue and mutual respect should respect the rights of individuals to freely express their views without fear of losing their jobs and being publicly defamed. Such actions are insulting to the memory of courageous leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi who risked their lives for national self-determination and an end to colonialism and racism. Like his grandfather, Arun Gandhi has paid a price for the larger principle of speaking out in support of justice and freedom.
We (the undersigned) read with growing dismay the statement signed by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and others advising those opposing the CPI(M)’s pro-capitalist policies in West Bengal not to “split the Left” in the face of American imperialism. We believe that for some of the signatories, their distance from events in India has resulted in their falling prey to a CPI(M) public relations coup and that they may have signed the statement without fully realising the import of it and what it means here in India, not just in Bengal.
We cannot believe that many of the signatories whom we know personally, and whose work we respect, share the values of the CPI(M) – to “share similar values” with the party today is to stand for unbridled capitalist development, nuclear energy at the cost of both ecological concerns and mass displacement of people (the planned nuclear plant at Haripur, West Bengal), and the Stalinist arrogance that the party knows what “the people” need better than the people themselves. Moreover, the violence that has been perpetrated by CPI(M) cadres to browbeat the peasants into submission, including time-tested weapons like rape, demonstrate that this “Left” shares little with the Left ideals that we cherish.
Over the last decade, the policies of the Left Front government in West Bengal have become virtually indistinguishable from those of other parties committed to the neoliberal agenda. Indeed, “the important experiments undertaken in the State” – the land reforms referred to in the statement – are being rapidly reversed. According to figures provided by the West Bengal state secretary for land reforms, over the past five years there has been a massive increase of landless peasants in the state due to government acquisition of land cheaply for handing over to corporations and developing posh upper class neighbourhoods.
We urge our friends to take very seriously the fact that all over the country, democratic rights groups, activists and intellectuals of impeccable democratic credentials have come out in full support of the Nandigram struggle.
The statement reiterates the CPI(M)’s claim that “there will be no chemical hub” in Nandigram, but this assurance is itself deliberately misleading. This is the explanation repeatedly offered by CPI(M) for the first round of resistance in Nandigram – that people reacted to a baseless rumour that there would be land acquisitions in the area. In fact, as the Chief Minister himself conceded in the State Assembly, it was no rumour but a notification issued by the Haldia Development Authority on January 2, 2007 indicating the approximate size and location of the projected SEZ, which triggered the turmoil.
The major factor shaping popular reaction to the notification was Singur.
Singur was the chronicle of the fate foretold for Nandigram. There, land was acquired in most cases without the consent of peasant-owners and at gun-point (terrorizing people is one way of obtaining their consent), under the colonial Land Acquisition Act (1894). That land is now under the control of the industrial house of the Tatas, cordoned off and policed by the state police of West Bengal. The dispossessed villagers are lost to history. A fortunate few among them will become wage slaves of the Tatas on the land on which they were once owners.
While the CPM-led West Bengal government has announced that it will not go ahead with the chemical hub without the consent of the people of Nandigram, it has not announced any plans of withdrawing its commitment to the neo-liberal development model. It has not announced the shelving of plans to create Special Economic Zones. It has not withdrawn its invitation to Dow Chemicals (formerly known as Union Carbide, the corporation responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Bhopal) to invest in West Bengal. In other words, there are many more Nandigrams waiting to happen.
In any case, the reason for the recently renewed violence in Nandigram has been widely established to have nothing to do with the rumour or otherwise of a chemical hub. Print and visual media, independent reports, the governor of West Bengal (Gopal Gandhi) and the State Home Secretary’s police intelligence all establish that this round of violence was initiated by the CPI(M) to re-establish its control in the area. We all have seen TV coverage of unarmed villagers barricaded behind walls of rubble, while policemen train their guns on them.
With the plans it has for the future, regaining control over Nandigram is vital for the CPI(M) to reassure its corporate partners that it is in complete control of the situation and that any kind of resistance will be comprehensively crushed. The euphemism for this in the free marketplace is ‘creating a good investment climate’.
The anti-Taslima Nasreen angle that has recently been linked to the Nandigram struggle against land acquisition is disturbing to all of us. However, we should remember that it is largely Muslim peasants who are being dispossessed by land acquisitions all over the state. There is a general crisis of confidence of the Muslim community vis-à-vis the Left Front government, inaugurated by the current Chief Minister’s aggressive campaign to “clean up” madarsas, followed by the revelation of the Sachar Committee that Muslim employment in government jobs in West Bengal is among the lowest in the country. While we condemn the attempts to utilize this discontent and channelize it in sectarian ways, we feel very strongly that it would be unfortunate if the entire anger of the community were to be mobilized by communal and sectarian tendencies within it. Such a situation would be inevitable if all Left forces were seen to be backing the CPI(M).
This is why at this critical juncture it is crucial to articulate a Left position that is simultaneously against forcible land acquisition in Nandigram and for the right of Tasleema Nasreen to live, write and speak freely in India.
History has shown us that internal dissent is invariably silenced by dominant forces claiming that a bigger enemy is at the gate. Iraq and Iran are not the only targets of that bigger enemy. The struggle against SEZ’s and corporate globalization is an intrinsic part of the struggle against US imperialism.
We urge our fellow travellers among the signatories to that statement, not to treat the “Left” as homogeneous, for there are many different tendencies which claim that mantle, as indeed you will recognize if you look at the names on your own statement.
Taslima has once again been forced to go into hiding! However, the latest furor against her has a larger context as Diptosh Majumdar explains:
The burning issue of Nandigram was stoking the fires in Kolkata. The Muslims have been viewing explicit footage of how their community members had been at the receiving end in secular West Bengal’s Nandigram. Television channels and newspapers have been discussing gang-rape and other inhuman tales of atrocities perpetrated by the omnipotent CPI(M) cadre.
Nasreen may have been the trigger, the catalyst; but the fury has been building up after Nandigram. The Muslim sub-conscious has also not forgiven Kolkata Police for its alleged involvement in the mysterious death of Rizwanur Rahman, a young graphics designer with a bright future. The senior IPS officers had no business to intercede on behalf of an affluent Marwari family and get the couple separated.
As if to recompense for the Nandigram violence and buttress his secular credentials, Biman Bose suggested that Taslima should leave Kolkota if her stay creates a problem for peace. He also sought to blame Taslima’s presence in Kolkota on the Center. “I don’t want to speak elaborately on the role played by the Centre on Taslima Nasreen’s stay in West Bengal”, he added cryptically.
Hindustan Times quotes an unnamed Left Front leader admitting the role played by electoral concerns:
“Taslima’s presence has endangered not just common citizens. After Nandigram, Left parties run the risk of losing minority votes. Most Left Front leaders have realised that fundamentalist thoughts have made inroads into Muslim society, which had followed the Left’s secular ideology for decades,” said a senior Front leader. “But we cannot admit that in public.”
All India Forward Bloc leader Hafiz Ali Sairani also pinned the blame on Taslima!
“Our secular image is intact. But people should remember that while expressing personal views, one can’t hurt the feelings of millions. Two pages from Taslima’s novel Dwikhondito led to this crisis. It’s sad the anger of the people was directed at the state and not the Centre, who issued the visa to Taslima.”
Fellow FB leader Devrajan also suggested that Taslima should leave the country for the time being if her presence was creating a problem, but party general secretary Debabrata Biswas restored sanity albeit with a rider that Taslima understand that “her use of pen and tongue should not hurt sentiments of a section of people in the country”! The RSP came out strongly in support of Taslima, calling her forcible removal from Kolkota another black spot (an unfortunate, though common usage of black as a negative color) on the face of Left Front after Nandigram. Meanwhile, CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta strongly disagreed with Bose, apologise[d] for what has happened, offerred her protection in Kolkota and called for granting her Indian citizenship if she so desired.
Perhaps stung by the flak from the Left, Bimen Bose has since retracted his comments, and sought to put the onus on the Center:
The state government does not have the authority to grant or cancel visa and only the Centre can do this and let the Union government take an appropriate decision on the issue.
The highly opinionated Sitaram Yechury also resorted to the Center-knows-best mantra:
The visa to a foreign citizen is given by the Central government, which also decides where one can stay in the country….No state government has any role in such matters.
To the best of my knowledge, foreign affairs is also the prerogative of the Central Government though the CPI(M) has never been shy (and rightly so) about asserting its opinions here. Having antagonized large segments of the Left, looks like the comrades from CPI(M) don’t have the stomach for another fight (even if this would mean succumbing to the dictates of Islamic fundamentalists)!
We have not mixed up issues as has been reported. We were not agitating against the violence in Nandigram, we were only protesting against the visa extension of Ms Taslima Nasreen as we strongly believe that she has no right to stay in this state.
Syed Md Murur Rahman Barkati, one of his co-conspirators and Imam of the Tippu Sultan mosque seemed unrepentant and asserted: What has happened is because she is being able to stay on in the city. Much like in Hyderabad earlier this year, when those in power are reluctant to take on the fundamentalists, the latter naturally take on a more strident tone. Idris Ali and Barkati are most likely beyond reason, but pressure must be brought to bear on the Left Front to not give in to fundamentalists. Now would also be a good time to demand the un-banning of Taslima’s books in West Bengal.
Meanwhile, Taslima, who has never made secret of her love for Kolkota, has said she has left my heart behind in Kolkata. The Bengali intelligentsia has come to her support, with Mahasweta Devi (among others) strongly criticizing the Left Front:
I saw on television that she was taken away from her residence to the airport by the police. It clearly hints at state government’s influence behind the move. Actually, it is the follow-up of the comment made by Left Front chairman Biman Bose.
Now is the time for a strong push toward pressuring the Indian government to grant citizenship to Taslima and ensure protection to her (and other apostates) who often end up incurring the wrath of thin-skinned fundamentalists. For now, I’ll end with a gem from Taslima:
I [described] the Quran, the Vedas, and the Bible and all such religious texts determining the lives of their followers as out of place and out of time. We crossed that social historical context in which these were written and therefore we should not be guided by their precepts; the question of revising [these texts] thoroughly or otherwise is irrelevant. We have to move beyond these ancient texts if we want to progress. In order to respond to our spiritual needs let humanism be our new faith.
[India has been called a land of a million mutinies, million pogroms would have been more apt. Here are some updates on the 23rd anniversary of the anti-Sikh pogroms in New Delhi]
Hindustan Times: Victims of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 staged a demonstration in the capital on Wednesday seeking the arrest of those still at large despite committing heinous acts of crime against their community.
A large number of victims and their family members, including women and children, assembled at the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat and marched towards the Supreme Court to air their grievances.
They shouted slogans against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Congress leaders Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar.
According to the protestors, around 10,000 of those accused in various cases of rioting and worse are still roaming freely in Delhi and no action has been taken against them.
The spokesperson of the All India Sikh Conference, Gurcharan Singh Babbar, said: We want the Supreme Court to answer for its failure in taking any action in the case of the perpetrators of the violence of 1984.
“If the Supreme Court can take cognisance of issues like the spread of dengue in Delhi, sealing of commercial enterprises being run from residential premises, the fodder scam of Bihar and pollution in the Yamuna, isn’t the matter of Sikhs important enough for it to take action?”
Babbar said that 5,327 members of the Sikh community were killed in Delhi in the violence that followed the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi on Oct 31, 1984.
The protestors carried placards with slogans like “Is sealing more important than 10,000 killers”, “How will Indian judiciary prove its credibility about 1984 carnage” and “We have lost faith in the judicial system”.
The protestors demanded that all the accused in the 1984 riots cases who are still roaming free be booked and action taken against them. They wanted the government to be made a party in the case in order to ensure its accountability.
Babbar said: “We want that all the affidavits filed before various commissions set up to look into the matter and the reports of these commissions be put before the Supreme Court so that it may take up the matter in a proper manner.”
When asked about the Rs 75 billion package announced by the government last year for the victims of the 1984 violence, Babbar said: “The question today is not of relief. We are not talking of relief. We are talking of justice. We want it soon.”
He claimed that the victims are facing lots of problems in claiming economic relief on account of bureaucratic procedures.
A delegation of the protestors submitted a petition enlisting their problems to the registrar of the Supreme Court.
Times of India: A new book on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in the Capital claims that the Ranganath Misra Commission which probed the carnage presented a diluted version of events and also blames the police for the mass killings.
When a Tree Shook Delhi, written by senior editor Manoj Mitta and advocate for many of the victims’ families, H S Phoolka, claims to give an uncensored insight into the events.
It details incidents, particularly in East Delhi, which show complicity of the police in the rioting that broke out after the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984.
Beginning with the attack on the then President Giani Zail Singh’s cavalcade in front of AIIMS, the book traces the genesis of the violence through eyewitness accounts and the investigations by Phoolka as counsel for the victims.
“Far from booking aggressors, the police cracked down on the victims — the Sikhs who had been exercising the right of self defence at home,” it says.
“The essence of all the findings on the Block 11 events in Kalyanpuri is unmistakable: that the police colluded with a mob to kill members of a minority community,” says the book.
On the Ranganath Misra Commission constituted to probe the violence, it says “given the circumstances in which it was appointed, the Misra Commission faced a credibility crisis from its very birth. For almost six months, the government had blatantly stone-walled all demands for an inquiry into the carnage”.
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]