June 1984 Sikh Genocide: Why it happened and what is to be done now?

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By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

After a lull for two years, due to the Covid19 virus restrictions, this year once again we are seeing powerful public commemorations and demonstrations against the Indian Army assault on the Akaal Takht and Darbar Sahib in Amritsar in June 1984, the seats of Sikh political and spiritual sovereignty. 38 years have passed since that tragic and extremely bloody event where in effect the Indian State declared war on its ‘own’ people.

For Sikhs, the reason for the attack was simple, to destroy the spirit of Sikhs and their demand to exercise religious, economic, and political sovereignty as set out in the Anandpur Resolution. The Sikh narrative suggests the attack was the culmination of strained relations with the Indian State going back to the partition of Punjab in 1947 and a betrayal of Sikhs ever since within the post-partition newly formed increasingly centralised Union of Indian States.

The justifications given by the Indian State were that a small group of ‘armed terrorists’, led by a religious fanatic Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, had taken over the Gurdwara and it was their duty to eject them to maintain law and order and to the pilgrims entering the Gurdwara Complex. If that was the case, why was there a need to deploy tanks, rocket-propelled grenades and 10,000’s infantry?

Another version that many commentators have given is that the attack on the Darbar Sahib was an act of revenge by the then PM of India, Indira Gandhi, for the role that Sikhs played in opposing her during the infamous ‘emergency’ which lasted from 25 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977. It’s worth recalling that under the emergency democratic norms were suspended, most of Indira Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned, and the press was censored. Several other human rights violations were reported from the time, including a mass forced sterilization campaign spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi, the Prime Minister’s son.

Amongst various groups, Sikhs were amongst the most active opponents of the emergency, labelling the actions of Indira Gandhi and her Congress party as ‘fascistic’ and dictatorial. In an ironic twist, it’s worth noting that many national political leaders, including the current BJP PM of India, Narendra Modi, took refuge in the Darbar Sahib to escape arrest. In keeping with their traditions of fighting tyrannical rule, less than 2 weeks into the emergency on the 9th of July 1975, Sikhs launched the first mass of many mass protests from the Darbar Sahib Amritsar. The upshot of her action and the public reaction was that Indira Gandhi was displaced as PM and arrested in December 1975 and charged with “planning the killing of all opposition leaders in jail during the Emergency.”

Angered by this the Congress Party supporters demanded her immediate release. They even hijacked an Air India flight in protest of their leader’s arrest. In the face of such national unrest, Gandhi was freed from prison after spending one week in detention for breach of privilege and contempt of the Indian Parliament.

Though the ‘official’ line is that Indira Gandhi sent in the Army to ‘flush out militants, who were being supported by anti-national foreign elements’ in reality there were two ulterior reasons. The first was that she had not forgotten the role that Akali Sikhs played during the emergency and her subsequent embarrassment of losing power in 1977 and imprisonment. And secondly, as Harjinder Singh Dilgeer has argued, she attacked the Darbar Sahib to present herself as a great national hero to win the general elections planned towards the end of 1984 and the rest is history.

Perhaps unaware of Sikh history, the Indian State wrongly thought that through time, bribery and propaganda, Sikhs would quickly forget what happened in 1984 and things would return to normal. The truth is, as the years have passed by, if anything, the June 1984 attack is gaining in prominence, with news books, films and documentaries appearing as each year passes. Moreover, since social media was still in the realm of science fiction in 1984, the Indian State could not have envisaged how its capacity to control the narrative would be undermined with the advent of the internet. A simple google search of ‘Operation Blue Star’, the name that was given to the Army Operation, reveals over 200,000 hits.

The reality is that, though the Indian State probably won the armed conflict in that most of the so-called insurgents were either killed, captured, or exiled, in terms of the propaganda war, this is not the case. Indeed, in the context of the rise of Mr Narendra Modi and his dangerous Hindutva Nationalist project, along with the decline of the Congress Party brand, and the rise of a new and highly educated generation of Sikh activists that are adept at using social media, if anything they are winning the propaganda war. Indeed, the recent victory of the Punjabi Farmers to get the Central BJP Government to repeal the farm laws has raised the spirit of Sikhs that together, despite being a minority community within India, can still wield political power.

Though supporters of the Government deny it has no axe to grind with Sikhs. Indeed, if anything, it claims they are pro Sikh, as has been demonstrated in its support for various festivals commemorating, for example, the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, and more recently the huge celebration of the 400th birth anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur in the Red Ford in Delhi. For some support for festivals is as best superficial, and at worst a cynical attempt to co-opt Sikhs into the Hindutva project. But whatever one’s perspective, the truth is that the sense of alienation felt by successive generations of Sikhs is such that many commentators are expressing concerns about a marked deterioration in the law and order situated in Panjab, especially in the context of the suspicious deaths of two famous Sikh Punjabi celebrities with similar-sounding names, Sandeep Singh Sidhu, aka Deep Sidhu, and Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, aka Sidhu Moose Wala.

As for a solution, I am not sure there is one since the damage has been done and is irreversible and history has been cast in stone. Those collective memories of 1984 are deeply etched onto the Sikh psyche and will never be forgotten. However, given that 95% of Sikhs live within the Indian State, there is a need to find a negotiated settlement to normalise relations with the Indian State.

This is not an easy task given that Sikhs themselves are fragmented and, even though we have the SGPC and Akaal Takht, because of political patronage and corruption, there is no credibility in their capacity to represent the collective Sikh voice. Moreover, given the increasing influence that diaspora Sikhs have on the Sikh struggle, any settlement must incorporate them as well. So, only when some representative body representing the common interests of the global Sikh diaspora is established, can there be any prospect of meaningful dialogue. Given the sorry state of Sikh political groups, this itself will be a momentous task, though a quick SGPC election and the election of an inclusive unified untainted leadership may make things easier.

Whilst it is important that any table talk that is planned comes with no preconditions, I think a list of demands, if for no other reason than to unite Sikhs with a common minimum platform, will be necessary, in advance of any talks. Whilst not wanting to pre-empt what those might be, I would like to suggest 5 key demands that could form the basis of a negotiated settlement to normalise relationships between Sikhs and the Indian State.

1: Unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners, with full compensation for their financial losses.

2: A public official state-level apology for Operation Blue Star and reparations for the damage and losses, both for individuals, institutions and the State of Punjab.

3: Official state-level recognition that the systematic killing of Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in Nov 1984 and a full UN-led investigation with the possibility of prosecutions of crimes against humanity.

4: A declaration that the Indian constitution Sec 25 will be amended to clearly reflect the distinctive separate Sikh religious and ethnic/quomi identity.

5: A commission is established to consult on the possibility of a Punjab referendum to determine the future relationship between Punjab and India.

It is highly unlikely that the Indian state will concede to any of these demands and therefore I fear for generations to come Sikh/Indian relations will at best be strained.



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 Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk

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



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