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The mayhem after the assassination

By Payal Singh Mohanka
Last updated on: November 02, 2005 12:38 IST
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Part I: That horror 21 years ago


In the aftermath of Mrs Gandhi's assassination there was mayhem; Sikh homes were systematically singled out for brutal destruction. Sikhs were hounded, tyres were put around their neck, petrol doused on their faces and set ablaze.

More than 3,000 were either burnt or butchered in Delhi itself. Two hundred gurudwaras (Sikh places of worship) were burnt in Delhi, hundreds of shops looted. A baffled, helpless community was embittered: "And this is the nation we made so many sacrifices for! Why?"

The situation worsened when Rajiv Gandhi was quoted as saying, "When a big tree falls, the ground beneath is sure to rumble." This gave those who were wreaking havoc a boost. For Sikhs the trauma of 1947 was being replayed.

The Partition of India had robbed them of everything. They had worked tirelessly to rebuild their lives and an amalgamation of karam (hard work) and nadar (blessings) had helped the community to jump back economically. The community had displayed strength and resilience.

Subsequent events proved Sikhs to be loyal, compassionate and courageous. They did not carry a grudge too far. Hindus and Sikhs had been like a nail to a finger. Language, customs, eating habits were similar. They had coexisted peacefully. Suddenly Sikhs felt they had become strangers in their own land. The entire community, with its traditions of honour and chivalry, paid the price for the actions of a few on its extreme fringes.

Mrs Gandhi's assailants were avenging Operation Bluestar. In June 1984 Mrs Gandhi wanted to flush out terrorists, led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who were seeking refuge in the precincts of the Golden Temple.

Operation Bluestar, 20 years on

For most Sikhs the assault on the Golden Temple was unacceptable. After all, they reasoned, wasn't the military required to combat foreign attacks? Paramilitary forces were sufficient to guard internal security. They were not appeased by the words of General K S Brar, who led the Operation at 4 am on 4 June 1984: "We went to the holy precincts with prayers on our lips."

Sikhs were observing the martyrdom of their fifth Guru Arjun Dev (1563-1606), the builder of the Golden Temple, who fought against the tyranny of the Mughals. Historically Sikh gurus had sacrificed their lives for the country. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, had raised his voice to protest against Babar's atrocities against the Hindus in the 16th century. Guru Tegh Bahadur sacrificed his life for Kashmiri Pandits (members of the Brahmin caste of Hindus who were/are learned in the religious scriptures).

In proportion to their numbers, a mere 50 million in India and abroad, Sikhs have made huge sacrifices for India and have firm roots here. Operation Bluestar went against all they had stood for. The Golden Temple was their most sacred shrine. Says Saran Singh, a retired bureaucrat and a distinguished member of the community, "It was sacrilege to send troops inside, open fire and in the process kill innocent devotees gathered to observe the martyrdom."

The community felt that a political issue needed a political solution, not military action. Sikh youths taunted the elders: "What an award for all your sacrifices!" The Government of India had its own justification.

In its White paper it stated:

The essence of the problem in Punjab was not the demands put forward by the Alkali Dal but the maturing of a secessionist and anti-national movement. The Akali Dal [a predominantly Sikh regional political party] leadership allowed the initiative and control over the agitation to pass out of their hands to the secessionists and terrorists.

The terrorists escalated their violence. With each passing day the situation worsened. The subversive activists of groups inside the Golden Temple had assumed menacing proportions in the context of India's security. The influence of external forces, with deep rooted interest in the disintegration of India was becoming evident. The government was convinced that this challenge to the security, unity and integrity of the country could not be met by the normal law and order agencies at the disposal of the state. It was in these circumstances that the army was called in.

From June to September 1984 most members of the Sikh community nursed a festering wound. It was this wound that affected the young men who were Mrs Gandhi 's security guards and who murdered her.


It was against this background that some political elements raised their hopes of Khalistan or Sikhistan -- a cry for a separate country, spearheaded by self-proclaimed leaders of the community. An attempt was being made to create a sense of alienation.

For a decade after Mrs Gandhi's assassination Sikh youths were killed in Punjab and Rajasthan on charges of terrorism. The demand for a Sikhistan or Khalistan was not new. From the late 19th century large settlements of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were established in West Punjab. These had tremendous social impact.

The Arya Samaj was among the first of the reform movements within Hinduism to seek to woo back Sikhs to its fold. This led to a reaction from the Sikhs, and the Singh Sabha Movement (1880s), which wanted an independent Sikh identity to be preserved, was launched. Strangely the Sikh gurudwaras were managed by Hindu priests -- an Akali movement was initiated to take back control and the Singh Sabha's project in a manner of speaking merged into the Akali effort.

Finally in 1925 the Gurudwara Act was passed, recognising the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) as the legal authority to manage and control Sikh gurudwaras and the Akali Dal as the political wing of the SGPC.

Religion and Politics

According to a senior journalist, B S Saral, where the Sikh community is concerned religion and politics go together.

In fact Guru Gobind, the tenth guru, felt that it was not possible to protect the faith without control of the political process. The basic idea is that an individual who is truly religious, who is dedicated to the Almighty, who does fear God, will always be conscious of his actions and the result of those actions. Such a person will not do anything wrong. If such a person comes to power, he will not do any injustice to his subordinates or his people. If politics is checked by religion, then politics will move in a better way to serve humanity.

The demand for Sikhistan was raised in 1944 during the Gandhi-Jinnah talks. On August 20, 1944, at a meeting in Amritsar, it was Master Tara Singh, the most powerful Akali politician during the Partition period, who asked for an independent country for Sikhs.

The Akali Dal favoured an undivided India with constitutional guarantees and electoral weightage for the Sikhs, but if Pakistan was conceded then it demanded an independent Sikh state.

However, the arguments for Sikhistan were undermined by the absence of any contiguous area where the Sikhs formed a distinct majority. In 1947 Sikhs comprised 1 per cent of the population of India and 14 per cent of undivided Punjab. There was no Sikh majority area in Punjab. Partition changed Punjab's ethnic mix, with Muslims now comprising just 2 per cent of the population in Indian Punjab, whereas the Sikhs now comprised 35 per cent -- up from 15 per cent.

In 1951 the first Hindu-Sikh riots occurred in Punjab over a census study on whether an individual's mother tongue was Hindi or Punjabi. A separate Punjabi Subba (State) was sought.

It was only on March 10, 1966 that Mrs Gandhi granted the Akalis a state with Punjabi as the state language, after they had proved their loyalty during the 1965 war with Pakistan.

Punjab 's social structure has always been unconducive to terrorism. Sikhs have always been spread all over the country, even in the far flung northeastern states. Well established and enterprising, they have pursued their businesses with zeal. Sikhs and Hindus have been close. The Sikh was the militant, protective arm of the Hindus. Traditionally, each Hindu family in Punjab would make one of their sons a Sikh.

It is felt by some that the Khalistan issue was raised by Akalis when they were not in power in a bid to secure a mass base. When they became a ruling party, better sense prevailed. The majority of the Sikh community finds little logic in the demand for Khalistan, seeing it as instigated by interested political groups and neighbouring countries.

The origins of the movement in recent times came with the passing of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution by the Akalis on October 16, 1973. The major demands were seemingly innocuous:

  • Limit the power of the central/federal government to defence, foreign affairs, currency and communications;
  •     2. Integrate Punjabi speaking areas into Punjab;

        3. Provide central assistance for power generation projects;

        4. Institute agricultural reform, particularly in financing of farmers;

        5. Provide a solution to water sharing with neighbouring states.

    Over a period of time the non-fulfillment of these demands became the cornerstone on which the secessionists attempted to capture popular sentiment.

    Next: The clock has turned full circle

    Payal Singh Mohanka is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. This article first appeared in the Round Table Journal of Commonwealth Affairs.

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    Payal Singh Mohanka