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1984: Perspective & 25th Anniversary Wrap-Up




This is the final, wrap-up piece in's "1984 & I' series which was presented to you through the 12 months of 2009 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the crimes of Indira Gandhi, the Indian Government and its representatives in 1984.  



The events of 1984 are etched in our bones.  I won't dwell on them in any detail. 

To put them in perspective, in January 2009 started a whole series of remembrances, personal anecdotes, experiences and reflections, opinions and analyses, even on how to move forward, by a variety of Sikhs and non-Sikhs. 

But it became much more than that; readers across the globe posted 93 contributions over the year. The pieces covered the gamut - from what happened, the failure of India's governmental institutions, the lamentable state of justice and the absence of meaningful compensation and redress.

It is time to wrap up this phase at this time but not to end it. I am sure every June and November readers will continue to exhume and revisit the events of 1984, and that's as it should be. There are lessons in it that are not to be ignored.

For over half a millennium, the history of Punjab has been inseparably intertwined with that of Sikhs.  One defines the other.

Twentieth century Punjab has witnessed, shaped and lived three momentous, even defining, times; their larger impact has redefined the nation that is India and its sense of self.

First was the reform movement in the 1920's that freed the gurdwaras from British control - a struggle in which many, many were martyred or spent time in jail.  This titanic struggle shook the British Empire to its core, but remained a model of non-violence to the end.  It taught a lesson or two on the meaning of non-violence even to Mahatma Gandhi who later became the apostle of such a model of resistance to tyranny. This influenced and shaped India's struggle for independence from the British. For Sikhs, it also gave birth to the Singh Sabha Movement, the leader of reform in Sikh society, and the Shiromini Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee that held promise of self governance. 

The year 1947 saw the emergence of two free nations out of the subcontinent - India and Pakistan. But the birth wasn't painless.  There was a massive transfer of populations across a line drawn in the sand that divided real people, families and communities.  It created more refugees than in Europe after the Second World War. The numbers massacred during those days - estimated in millions - remain uncounted and undocumented even today, 60 years later.

Then there were the years of, what are euphemistically dubbed, the troubled days and decade of the 1980's in Punjab. 

In the 1980's, as many astute observers of the scene have documented, mostly governmental intransigence transformed a manageable politico-economic dispute between Punjab and the Indian government into a virtual civil war that brought India to the brink of fragmentation. 

Twenty-five years ago in June 1984, the Indian government launched a full scale army attack against the premier Sikh place of worship (The Golden Temple, Amritsar) and 40 other gurdwaras across Punjab.  The date was the Martyrdom Day of Guru Arjan and all gurdwaras in India, particularly the Harmandar at Amritsar were teeming with devotees. Punjab was hermetically sealed by the government.  Rumors abounded but no news filtered out on the number killed or maimed. In a dramatic feat of propaganda, Sikhs were painted as terrorists across the globe. 

Those days of infamy have never been carefully and completely documented or explored.

Less than five months later, within hours of the killing of Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister, mobs of looters and killers descended all over Delhi and simultaneously at many cities across India.  They carried lists of Sikh owned houses and businesses, guns and weapons to kill and kerosene to burn. 

Remember that these were pre-Google days; addresses and lists could not be instantly downloaded; weapons and ammunition required licenses and kerosene was rationed. Thousands were killed within three days; the army was not deployed, the police stayed on the sides or even abetted the mayhem. Credible witnesses have attested that some leaders of the ruling political party led these mobs. Three days later violence across India stopped as suddenly as it had begun as if at the command of an unseen Commander.

Ten Inquiry Commissions and 25 years later, five people have been convicted.  It is as if thousands of Sikhs mysteriously self-destructed. It was not a riot but a murderous spree - a pogrom and attempted genocide against the Sikhs.

Last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, standing in India's parliament, took a bold and most heartening step.  He apologized to the nation for this carnage. The apology, though long delayed, is indeed welcome. But apologies don't come easy to governments. It reminds me that during the Second World War the United States, uncertain of the loyalty of its citizens of Japanese ancestry, interned over 120,000 of them in camps.  The U.S. government recognized its failings against its own citizens ...  but only 60 years later. 

T.S. Eliot comes to mind:

"After such knowledge what forgiveness?"  Think now

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors

And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions.

Guides us by vanities."  

In India, atonement and justice still wait.  Many victims - families of those who were massacred - of the carnage of the 1980's survive.  Neither the Indian government has owned up to its responsibility for them, nor have the many Sikh charitable organizations stepped up to the plate in full measure. The institutions of justice have only brought shame to their own moniker.

We need to see the issue as one of many gruesome injustices that have dotted recent human history.  Admittedly, some were on a much larger scale than the killing and demonizing of Sikhs in India 25 years ago that continued for a decade:  the Holocaust that occurred during the Second World War and became a cause of the international community; like the genocide of the Armenians at the beginning of the last century; just like apartheid that once defined a regime in South Africa; and like the killings in Rwanda in the 1990's. And so on ...

Governments must not treat their own citizens thus or else it places in question their right to govern. The quarter century neglect has made it a cause that every Indian - nay, every person from across the globe - must embrace.

Justice should no longer remain the cause of the Sikhs alone and need not remain an isolated endeavor.  I acknowledge here some of the many non-Sikh voices - Ram Narayan Kumar, Justice Tarkunde, Manushi magazine and its editors, Amnesty International, and many others, that have joined our cause for justice.

Think of the survivors of the 1984 carnage.  These are the ones with courage.  Words must fail; that is why there are so many words here today, including mine.  A song wildly popular in the Sikh diaspora goes: "Many speak of courage, speaking cannot give it; Stand as the Khalsa, strong as steel ...."

I salute them.  We must not fail them.

A Latin proverb reminds us that "Hidden valour is as bad as cowardice."   I am confident that from an unbiased, open and honest inquiry neither the Indian government not the Sikh leadership of the time will emerge unscathed or smelling like a rose.  Today, courage demands openness, transparency, honesty and accountability.

Although I have been away from India for almost half a century and am no longer its citizen, I think of Thomas Jefferson who said, "I weep for my country when I reflect that God is just."

Of our duty, Guru Granth reminds us, "Purza purza kutt maray kabhoo na chhaday khayt." 

That tells us: "Never let the story die."

December 31, 2009 

Conversation about this article

1: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, U.S.A.), December 31, 2009, 7:46 AM.

Well done, I J Singh! More power to your writing in the New Year and the years to come!

2: Inni Kaur (Fairfield, CT, U.S.A.), December 31, 2009, 8:19 AM.

Says the sage Kashyap in the Mahabharat: "When honest persons fail in their duty to speak up, they 'wound' dharma." I wonder, if the silent majority thinks of its silence in this light. Thanks for the wrap-up, Inder.

3: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), December 31, 2009, 9:22 AM.

Thank you for recapping and reminding us that much work remains to be done and even greater vigilance to be exercised. Tanks and arms are very visible and crude ways of demonstrating State terrorism. But ideas are more subversive and undermine from within, and if supported by political machinery, can be potentially lethal. Sikhs need to continue their fight for justice, but should not take their eye off the thugs who are sabotaging us from within. I mean our Machiavellian politicians who are destroying our already dysfunctional institutions and turning off Sikhs. There lies the bigger danger.

4: Sarbdeep Singh Sadana (Hayward, California, U.S.A.), January 02, 2010, 11:52 PM.

Thank you very much for reminding us of what cruelty our family members and other Sikh brothers and sisters, and their families have faced! We must never forget the year 1984, the year of cruelty and hatred towards all Sikhs. The memories are engraved in the very bones of the survivors and their families, which they must pass on. All I will be able to pass on to my children and grandchildren is the memories and stories that my parents and grandparents have told me due to my age, as I was not born till 11 years after this horrible massacre! Indira Gandhi, what a traitor?! Why must we suffer all this cruelty and hatred? Is it because of the teachings we believe in? Blessed are those who were martyred, and those who stuck with their Sikhi!

5: Sarbdeep Singh (Hayward, California, U.S.A.), January 03, 2010, 12:02 AM.

First,it was the Mughals in our Gurus' times. Then the British, then 1947 and 1984!. Now, even though this is off topic, what Sikhs go through today (mostly us men with patkas and pugghs) is nothing compared to what our Gurus and ancestors ancestors went through. But, it is still a big thing. Every time I'm flying on a plane, I get stopped through T.S.A. Sure enough, it is because of my patka/ turban. Will this ever stop? Even if the machine doesn't beep, I get stopped! They say it is for security, but they pull us over regardless of anything beeping just because of our turbans. Think about it this way, 100% 'RANDOMLY' searched! Searching every person with a turban, for the stupidity of some Mid-Eastern terrorists, is just like searching every African-American male for guns or drugs! Or, checking every Mexican if they have a green card! Now, I am not here to offend anyone, so I am trying not to be racist. I am just trying to get my point across, so please don't feel offended by any of this. The fight for us Sikhs, whether it is to be who we are, keep our beliefs, or anything else, has been going on too long, and we must put an end to it!

6: Devinder Pal Singh (Delhi, India), January 07, 2010, 9:26 AM.

Sardar I J Singh's wrap up of the 1984 narratives and views is good. He has drawn the numerous treacheries that human kind has inflicted on itself in various forms. While we understand and wish that the world community must participate and progress together, which is expressed in our daily Ardaas - "Sarbat da bhallaa" - at its conclusion, I wonder if this is even taken by the majority in our country as our collective desire for each of us in the universe. Sikhs have sacrificed historically and are continuing to do so, but what I wish to point to I.J. is the fact that the governmental apology came from the mouth of a Sikh Prime Minister and permit me to say it does not solidly represent any genuine feelings of remorse in the ruling party. Perhaps it is a follow-up and after-thought for damage control following Jarnail Singh's shoe throwing message. I would therefore put it in this way: we should not forget what we suffered and therefore continue to strive to uplift our brethren, reduce our dependency on others through economic uplift and social practices which should become exemplary for all. Dr. Manmohan Singh suggested the Sikhs forget the past and continue forward, but my apologies to the learned and respected Sardar Sahib, perhaps in his on secure circle he probably did not have time to think of the numerous wounds and tragedies faced by his less fortunate and common fellow Sikhs. Hence, reference to the apology rendered by Dr. Manmohan Singh is superficial because his fellow parliamentarians both in the opposition and ruling parties did mention and highlighted their forceful stance in escalating extreme action against innocent Sikhs. Voicing himself amongst them does not carry a long distance. It must be understood by the Sikh Diaspora that their own internal conflicts and divisions are exploited internally by their own leaders, political and social. Hence we must work towards the economic and social uplift of the Sikh masses to attain our lost glory.

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