Kids Corner


It's The Cruel Month of June Again


This article is the first of a month-long series of postings to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Indian government's criminal assault of the Darbar Sahib complex and scores of other historical gurdwaras across the length and breadth of India in June 1984.


It’s the time of the year again that I wish I could forget.  I wish someone would cancel the month of June - just erase it out of memory and existence.  (Someone would then also have to wipe out a couple of decades, or longer, of modern India’s history.)

I know there are things one should never forget but, for once, I would love to forget that June ever existed but it comes around every year, and it’s overbearing.  Life surely is full of rude awakenings.

In my mind, as for many Sikhs worldwide, June will always be connected to 1984.  But it isn’t love and marriage; it isn’t horse and carriage.  It’s a connection of a very different kind.

I am not going to provide the historical narrative, not even an abbreviated clinical report on what happened in June 1984,  who did what to whom, and how.  Enough of that already!  Everyone knows the story; everyone knows where the truths lie buried and where the half-truths hide and rule.  Right on this site, you can access the history of that period in horrendous detail.

It’s been 27 years now since the attack on the Harmandar Sahib by India’s army, the world’s third largest, followed by a clearly criminal conspiracy - the attempted genocide of its own people by a government.

In human history this is, of course, neither the first nor the last mass killing of unarmed, innocent civilians either. Hitler and Stalin have etched an unforgettable place in our memories; in 1984, Indira Gandhi joined that infamous duo, or shall I call it a pantheon of dubious and evil repute. And there are many others, like Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Muammar Qaddafi that belong in similar company. Then there are the mass murderers like the late unlamented Osama-bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.  Where to start and where to end, that is the question.  It’s perhaps best to leave them all - unsung, unlamented and nameless.

It’s been over 60 years since the Holocaust.  Just two weeks ago, a German court found John Demjanjuk guilty of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder, one for each of the Jews exterminated during the six months that he worked as a guard in the Sobibor death camp in Poland.

After the war Demjanjuk spent over 30 years in the United States working as an auto mechanic in Ohio. He is now 91 years old, in precarious health and confined to a wheel chair.  Was there a point to the time, energy and money spent on a new trial?   

In 1986 Demjanjuk was extradited to Israel, tried and sentenced to death. But he was set free because of a prosecutorial error.  He returned to the United States and resisted legal procedures to deport him to Germany, for 16 long years. Finally the law caught up with him and now this was his second trial.

“Guilty!” said the German court only two weeks ago. 

But Demjanjuk is 91 years old and in failing health. His lawyers will surely appeal any sentence. The process will take time as it always does. The wheels of justice, even as they turn, turn painfully slowly. The chances are Demjanjuk will die in his own bed having cost the United States, Israel, and Germany, additional bundles of resources for the investigative and legal process.

Is it justice or is it farce, you could ask. Will his trial and conviction offer some closure? Likely not. Then why do this? Does any punishment matter after so many years when most of the prime actors in the drama are long gone, and the perpetrator stands before us with one foot in the grave? 

To me, there is really only one answer: A resounding ...Yes!

Such a trial is important because a civil society with participatory self-governance, transparency and accountability at its core needs to face some questions that admit no easy answers. And any answers that emerge today may not always remain as if etched in stone forever and for every case.

Values are crucial to a society; these are its fundamentals. 

How should society respond to a defense that the lowly placed guard or a soldier as in Nazi Germany, or a poor starving man hired for pennies that he badly needs, as perhaps in the India of Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, had little or no choice.  It was as if a gun was being held to his head, the accused claims. After all, the first instinct of any human being is self-preservation, is it not? 

The Nuremberg Trials held that, as important as this rationale is, it is not an adequate justification or defense. True, that if the man refuses to kill he would not get a reward but it is unlikely that he would materially suffer or be physically abused because he opts to not carry out an immoral and illegal directive.

In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Hannah Arendt argued that even the small cog in a machine is crucially important; it can just as easily bring the whole operation to a grinding halt. Just because the planning was done at a different or higher bureaucratic level does not absolve the lowly gunman for loading the gun and pulling the trigger.  And the most powerful bureaucrat must not remain immune to prosecution; he is not above the law. (Adolph Eichmann was a mid-level Nazi during WWII who was abducted by Israeli agents, tried in Israel for similar crimes as Demjanjuk’s, found guilty and hanged.)

So, why should anyone want to try this sick old man is not so complicated to understand or answer. A civil society needs to refine and fine tune its procedures and their underlying rationale. A society needs to be clear what values drive its foundational existence.  We must clearly define our expectations of ourselves and our own people. What causes and values do we live and die for?  That’s the eternal question.

That is the question that every society must answer for itself - whether it is German, American, and Israeli or, heaven help us, Pakistani or Indian.

The United States, for instance, defines itself as a society of laws. I wonder what, if any, is the vision of Indian society about its essential self.

That’s why, though sixty-five years too late, the fate of Demjanjuk grabbed my attention. I would feel no differently about the movers and shakers in India, even though some have already gone to their rewards in the nether-world.  And these exactly are my thoughts about the many, like Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and Kamal Nath in India.

So, should we let go of 1984? 

Never, I hope. 

The trial of a 91 year old sick man, 65 years after his crimes gives me hope.  And hope, as we all know, is eternal.

June 1, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: An Indian Citizen (India), June 01, 2011, 8:00 AM.

I am saddened by the injustices prevailing in our nation ... those responsible in 1984 must be prosecuted to the limits for the atrocities they have committed. May be this will lessen the pain (however less it may be) of grief-stricken loved ones of those who have been murdered ... but I guess there is no justice in this country. I only pray that all the families get the justice fast and appropriately.

2: M.K.S. (New York, U.S.A.), June 01, 2011, 9:57 AM.

Dear Dr. I.J. Singh ji: you put to paper what I had in mind. Thank you for a wonderfully articulated essay. Dear 'Indian Citizen': Thank you for sharing in our torment. Sikhs have faith in Waheguru's bhaana and will overcome this as we've overcome other adversities in the past. But this is a blot on India's soul and until India accepts responsibility and demonstrates remorse, this will always haunt India. Remember the sins of the fathers always come to haunt the sons. What hurts is not the stone cast by 'enemies' but the silence of 'friends. To make India a better place, this essay should be published by all newspapers and be mandatory reading in all high schools in India.

3: N. Singh (Canada), June 01, 2011, 11:03 AM.

To this day the common Indian is guilty for, as they say, 'to be silent is to be complicit'. To this day the atrocities continue ... witness the pending execution of Dr. Davinderpal Singh Bhullar. He is on death-row for no other reason than being a Sikh ... the death tolls rises.

4: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, U.S.A.), June 01, 2011, 7:22 PM.

Through the Zafarnama, Guru Gobind Singh tells us that in spite of his several sufferings, he had won a moral victory over the then Emperor. In my personal opinion, we must always remember the month of June. We must ensure that no one cancels this month, even if one gets such an authority. In fact, I would even recommend that Sikhs must celebrate this month as this continues to remind us about the supreme sacrifice of Guru Arjan and, more recently, about the valour displayed by a handful of Sikhs (with ordinary weapons) against the mighty tanks of the third largest standing army of the world. Can you quote a better example of "aava Laakh se ek larraao(n)"?

5: G.C. Singh (U.S.A.), June 02, 2011, 10:34 AM.

It looks like a pipe dream to expect that any of India's Demjanjuks will ever be prosecuted for their crimes against humanity. Mass murderers and genocidal maniacs like K.P.S. Gill, Narender Modi, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, Arun Nehru, Kamal Nath, are national mascots and are protected and rewarded by the Indian Government for their misdeeds. Powerful Jewish leaders worked with western nations in the establishment of the Nuremburg Courts for the trial of Nazi criminals. Because of the Machiavellian tactics of the Hindu establishment, we are unfortunately stuck with incompetent, shameless, cowardly, corrupt collaborators and petty minions as our leaders who are willing to sell the brave Sikh nation in return for a few crumbs from their masters.

6: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), June 08, 2011, 11:52 AM.

Forgetting our history will only condemn us to repeat it. Quite apart from seeking justice (which we must obviously continue to press for), Sikhs need to reflect. I would suggest that rather than cancelling out the month of June, that we declare it a month of introspection and prayer. As a reader has pointed out, June also brings memories of Guru Arjan. What lessons can be drawn from his martyrdom and from the events of 1984? Both were political events; the first, in 1606, changed the course of our history. 1984 has done the same. But so far, I see little evidence of having learned much from 1984 - we seem to go back to sleep after June.

7: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), June 08, 2011, 3:15 PM.

"Cancelling" the month of June is absolutely not my recommendation - now or ever. Please don't miss the irony inherent in the expression used here to start the column.

8: Sartaj  (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 29, 2011, 2:10 PM.

Read Eli Mann's "Night of the Widows" and Grace Kaur's "All Indian Justice Committee" - two very different works of art/protest, but both extremely potent. Especially Grace Kaur's farce. You'll laugh at how she treats the committees and congressmen but you'll also cry because the absurdity is the truth. Highly recommended.

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