Making sense of Sikh Genocide of 1984


The author will be attending the World Sikh Parliament, Genocide Remembrance, Youth Conference 2020, UK organised by the Singh Sabha Derby 1st Nov 2020.


By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |

On June 1st, 1984, the then Prime Minister of India and leader of the Congress Party, Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency in Panjab. The reason given was that that ‘Pakistani sponsored Sikh terrorists led by Baba Jarnail Singh Bhindrawala’, were ‘allegedly threatening the peace and integrity of the nation’. All democratic rights and freedoms were suspended, the borders of the Panjab were sealed, and a full military assault was ordered on the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs, the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar.

Code named Operation Blue Star, for the next 9 days the Indian Army pounded the complex, turning many of the historic buildings, most notably the Akaal Takht, the supreme seat of Sikh sovereignty, into rubble! Having secured the Darbar Sahib and murdered 1000’s of men women and children, phase two, code named Operation Woodrose, was commenced. For the next 3 months, as the Indian Army began to ‘sweep the state’, allegedly looking for terrorists, many prominent Sikh political leaders were killed or arrested, numerous Gurdwaras were raided and thousands of mostly Amritdhari young men, were detained, tortured and killed. Indeed, as the BBC journalists Mark Tully and Satish Jacob in their book, Amritsar, Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle (1985), record, an Indian Army circular was issued containing the following words:

‘Any knowledge of the ‘Amritdharis’ (baptised Sikhs) who are dangerous people and pledged to commit murders, arson and acts of terrorism should immediately be brought to the notice of the authorities. These people may appear harmless from outside, but they are basically committed to terrorism. In the interest of all of us their identity and whereabouts must always be disclosed.’

During a national broadcast on Doordarshan TV, Indira Gandhi sought to justify what was in effect an act of war, by claiming that ‘the integrity of India was being threatened by Pakistani sponsored Khalistani terrorists’ and that under such circumstances she had no option but to send in the army. But in truth, this was far from the case and in reality, a complete misrepresentation of the Sikh struggle and modest demands. In reality, the Akali led struggle, know as the ‘dharam yudh morcha’, led by Baba Jarnail Singh and Bhai Harchand Singh Longowal, had much deeper roots.  Feeling a sense of betrayal in the dismemberment of Panjab in 1947 and then also in 1966, the Panjabi Sikhs were seeking implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Mata (Resolution). Rather than seeking separation, the demands of the Akalis were for greater autonomy for Panjab and other states of the Indian Union, protection of  river waters, the right to determine their own economic policies, preservation of Panjabi Language and culture, and the promotion of the egalitarian and universal teachings of Sikhi.

Fast forward to Oct 31, 1984. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, Bhai Beant Singh, who was martyred on the spot and Bhai Satwant Singh, who, along with Bhai Kehar Singh was executed 4 years later in Tihar Jail.  The assassination of Indira Gandhi led to the what is now referred to as the 3rd great Sikh Genocide (Ghalughara). Though estimates of those who perished vary from 3000 to 30,000, what we do know is that for the ensuing 5 days we saw organised state sponsored pogroms against innocent Sikhs. Though centred mainly on Delhi and Kanpur, the violence spread to other parts of India with significant Sikh populations. Revealingly, most of the carnage was in areas where the Congress party backed up by RSS foot soldiers has significant influence! It is common knowledge that the violence was orchestrated and sanctioned by top Congress leaders, most notably, Sajan Kumar, Jagdeesh Tytler, Kamal Nath. But perhaps the most devastating intervention was  from the western educated technocrat turned tyrant, the prodigal son of Indira, Rajiv Gandhi, who by stating on national TV that, “when a large tree falls, the earth shakes”, actually fanned the flames of hatred, leading to so much death and destruction.

With a police force that had been ordered not to intervene to prevent the violence, and in places incentivised to actively facilitate the so called ‘rioters’, Sikhs did what they could to defend themselves, but were mostly outnumbered. Voter lists were used to target Sikh homes and the few that managed to escape did so either by disguising themselves and/or due to the help of their Hindu neighbours. The most astonishing and revealing fact was that calls for the army to intervene fell on deaf ears! And, this despite the fact that the Indian Army headquarters, based in Delhi Cantonment were never too far from the violence.  After full 3 days of carnage, the Army came did eventually come out and almost instantly quelled the violence as if a water tap had been turned off!

The Indian media sought to characterise this shameful episode in Indian history as ‘dangay’ or ‘communal riots’. But if one looks at the Nanavati Commission held in 2005, it is clearly documented that what took place during those days following Indira Gandhi’s assassination was a systematic and well organised targeting and killing of members of one community, namely the Sikhs. Though many commissions have been held since, there has been little justice for the victims and Sikhs continue to be persecuted to this very day.  There is a saying that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. To date only one of the main congress leaders, namely, Sajjan Kumar, has been tried and found guilty of murder and incitement; he is currently serving a life sentence, though this was after 32 years of campaigning!


Human beings are capable of doing wonderful things, such as profound kindness, love, compassion and charity. Indeed, during the COVID 19 global pandemic we have seen this positive side of humanity in abundance across the world, where Sikhs and non-Sikhs have been helping to feed the needy. But, tragically, as our own painful history shows, both recent and old, ‘human beings’ can behave in deplorable and tyrannical ways and cause much pain and suffering.

We often associate this kind of inhumane behaviour with madness and the actions of ‘evil’ tyrants and dictators. This is true, history has thrown up many tyrants, but we must also ask the question, how do those tyrants manage to gain so much influence over people and attract followers and willing collaborators? Indeed, if genocide against one community is simply a tribal affair, then how was it that in Panjab during the 1980’s and 90’s, as much as 100,000 Sikhs, mostly youth, were murdered by Panjabi/Sikh politicians and Panjabi/Sikh police officers, most notably, Chief Minister Beant Singh, Director General of Police K.P.S Gill and his right hand man and successor, Sumdh Singh Saini, who is currently subject to charges of murder and abduction?

To answer this question, the work of German Jewish political and moral philosopher Hanna Arendt is very illuminating. Arendt is known for her work on totalitarianism in the 20th Century, focussing specifically on Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, where some 30 million people were killed, and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, where over 6 million people, mostly Jews, perished.  She is interested in what might be termed the DNA of state genocide. That is, how do those in power co-opt ‘ordinary’ people into committing all kinds of horrors, and what are the consequences for individuals and society as a whole when this happens?

Hanna Arendt first entered the scene during the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann in 1961/2. A holocaust survivor herself, she was a reporter for the New Yorker. Eichmann had been captured by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in Argentina on 11 May 1960 and taken back to Israel. Following his much-publicised trial, he was found guilty of war crimes and executed by hanging in 1962.

Though Arendt had considerable standing both in the Jewish community, her analysis of the trial created a great deal of anger amongst the Zionists of Israel. Rather than painting Eichmaan as a monster, which was the popular narrative, she remarked on his ‘somewhat ordinary personality’. She later wrote a best-selling book entitled ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.’(1971) in which she developed her observation of Eichmaan’s thinking process. She deployed the world ‘banality’ meaning ‘unoriginal’ or ‘unremarkable’, to characterise Eithmaan’s reasoning for his actions. In doing so, she was not suggesting that evil is normal, but that those who participate in it often commit evil acts without thinking that they are doing anything wrong. They behave like unthinking cogs in a well-oiled wheel and for Arendt, that is a key element for making systematic genocide possible. That is because such large-scale killings simply cannot be be committed by a few mad men alone, it requires a collective and organised mechanism. In the case of the Nazi holocaust, the extermination of Jews was done on an industrial level. In Delhi in 1984, there is now doubt that without the organisation resources and organisation of the Congress party and Indian state, the scale and speed of violence against Sikhs would not have been possible.

Key to her analysis of genocide, which applies equally to the Sikh genocide of 1984 as it does to the Nazi holocaust, is that these events are not only an infringement of the basic human rights of the victims and their families but they are in themselves crimes against humanity. In this regard, those rulers who deploy systematic genocidal violence as an instrument to rule, ultimately end up losing their own legitimacy, humanity and often sanity!

When we stop seeing our humanity reflected in ‘the other’ we enter the slippery slope towards dehumanisation. It is a condition where one loses a sense of feeling or compassion (daya) for ‘the other’ or is very selective and discriminatory about who to be kind towards. Indeed, it is this very ‘daya’ that lays behind the assertion in Gurbani that the divine entity, popularly known as ‘God’ ,resides in all. “Sabhey ghat raam boley, rama boley, raam bina ko boley ray” or “The divine resonates in the heart of all, there is no resonance without the divine”

In a follow-up book entitled ‘The Life of the Mind’ Hanna Arendt explores more deeply the psychological dimensions of genocide and observes that people are more likely to participate in genocidal behaviours where there is a deficit of ‘critical thoughtfulness’. This is closely related to the concept of “budh/bibeik” or “critical discerning thinking” which Sikhs invoke in their daily prayers. As Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor and writer famously noted, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

And so, as we remember the victims of the Sikh Genocide of 1984, we commit ourselves to fighting for justice and human rights wherever we are. And as Sikhs of the Guru we can never justify or participate in any kind of mindless hate driven violence, for to do so would indeed result in loss of the most precious thing we have, and that is our humanity. The truth is that under conditions of terror, most people will comply with tyrants, but thankfully some people will not. For true Sikhs there can only be one option, to oppose tyrants and tyranny, even if this means losings one’s life or liberty! As the Sikh Anthem attributed to the writings of Guru Gobind Singh Ji invokes:

ਦੇਹ ਸਿਵਾ ਬਰੁ ਮੋਹਿ ਇਹੈ ਸੁਭ ਕਰਮਨ ਤੇ ਕਬਹੂੰ ਨ ਟਰੋਂ ॥ਨ ਡਰੋਂ ਅਰਿ ਸੋ ਜਬ ਜਾਇ ਲਰੋਂ ਨਿਸਚੈ ਕਰਿ ਅਪੁਨੀ ਜੀਤ ਕਰੋਂ ॥

ਅਰੁ ਸਿਖ ਹੋਂ ਆਪਨੇ ਹੀ ਮਨ ਕੌ ਇਹ ਲਾਲਚ ਹਉ ਗੁਨ ਤਉ ਉਚਰੋਂ ॥ਜਬ ਆਵ ਕੀ ਅਉਧ ਨਿਦਾਨ ਬਨੈ ਅਤਿ ਹੀ ਰਨ ਮੈ ਤਬ ਜੂਝ ਮਰੋਂ ॥੨੩੧॥ [

O Power of Akaal, give me this boon. May I never ever shirk from doing good deeds

That I shall not fear when I go into combat. And with determination I will be victorious.

That I may teach myself this creed alone, to speak only of Thy (almighty lord Waheguru) praises. And when the last days of my life come, I may die in the might of the battlefield.||231||

And so, in the final analysis, the tyrants responsible for genocides, such as Aurangzeb, will be cursed for eternity, whilst the defenders of human rights, like Guru Tegh Bhadur ji, will forever be celebrated the world over. As for justice, yes, we should continue to pursue whatever legal avenues remain open, but as Gurbani says, “ultimately, truth will always prevail”, and in this regard, though many of the culprits responsible for the Sikh Genocide of 1984 may have evaded prosecution, I am in no doubt that in their minds and troubled hearts they will not only be suffering for their sins in this life, but for many lives to come.


[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.



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