38 Years Without Justice - The Sikh Genocide 1984
The 31st of October is a solemn day of remembrance. It marks the beginning of a 4-day government incited, targeted assault on the Sikh community residing in India. A calculated assault which carved a path of devastation and sorrow in its wake.
Written language does not have the power to truly capture the events that occurred between the 31st of October and the 3rd of November 1984. They amount to much more than ‘violence’, ‘discriminate slaughter’, ‘massacre’. Death toll numbers and other forms of statistics, not least for their inaccuracy, fail to encapsulate the magnitude of devastation. Therefore, as this article is limited by language, it is important to realise that the experiences of the Sikh community extend far further than the words used here to describe them. Words can however bring awareness and voice to those who are still healing from sorrow. They can act as a call to the need for accountability to bring justice to the lives that were lost and recognition of the relevance that this state imposed atrocity has for present day life.
On the morning of Wednesday the 31st of October, Prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards (Sikhs for justice, 2019). The Sikh identity of the bodyguards was heavily emphasised and the incident framed as a Sikh attack on the integrity of India. The anger felt towards the Sikh community by the general public was fueled by the Indian government leading to pure abhorrence towards Sikh people. That afternoon the sound of “Khoon ka badla khoon sae laenge - blood is blood for revenge” was broadcasted throughout India. By the Thursday morning acts of immolation and rape were widespread across India, including Delhi, Panjab, Kerala and Rajasthan. It is clear that both the police force and congressman were complicit in and directly incited this violence. It is terrifying to think that many of these people are still in positions of power today and continue to advise the government how to handle counter insurgencies (Human Rights Watch, 2014).
“Khoon ka badla khoon sae laenge”
It is difficult to imagine the gravity of the violence which ensued alongside the calls of “Khoon ka badla khoon sae laenge”. Organisations such as Ensaaf (Ensaaf, n.d.), are working tirelessly to bring the perpetrators of Operation Blue Star to justice, and have documented thousands of first hand accounts. Whilst difficult to do so, reading these accounts amplifies the voices of the survivors of this inconceivable violence and helps put into perspective the necessity for justice and accountability.
“We were on our way to Mumbai from Panjab. At a station right outside Dehli, a mob gathered around the train screaming ‘The Sikhs have killed the nation’s mother’. They hit my husband on the head with an iron rod and dragged him out of the train. I screamed as I watched them burn him alive." Mohinder Kaur (Dutta, 2017)
“Unbeknown to us, mobs had been collected by senior members of the ruling Congress party. Electoral lists were distributed so Sikh households could be identified. The mobs, already suffused with anger, were plied with alcohol, paid a thousand rupees each, and given canisters of kerosene. The mob would surround a Sikh house and shout for all the males to step outside. The men would then have their legs broken before being doused with kerosene and set on fire, as the women and children watched. There was rape, there was looting but the primary aim of the mob was bloodlust: “Khoon ka badla khoon”. Swaran Singh (Dutta, 2017)
“In the morning, we came out and saw that there were heaps of dead bodies everywhere. There was hardly any room to walk. Outside our door, inside our house, everywhere there were so many corpses.” Darshan Kaur. 12 of her family members were murdered. The Widow Colony (Sach Productions, 2005), Director: Harpreet Kaur, http://www.thewidowcolony.com.
The events leading up to the 31st of October arguably began with Operation Blue Star; a military assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Panjab. However, a clear pathway from the British colonial rule of India can be identified. During their colonisation, the British exasperated religious differences through their ‘divide and conquer’ regime which entwined religion with politics and power. People identified by the British as Sikh were recruited into the British army and often tasked with suppressing Hindu uprisings, further increasing religious divides. In a final act of divide and conquer, 1947 saw the British Raj of India divided along religious lines, curating the Hindu majority nation of India and the Muslim majority nation of Pakistan. The region of Panjab, rich in diverse religious identities, lay at the periphery of this British made division. As was the case with many peripheral regions, the decision was made to carve the nation's borders through Panjab, dividing its land and people in two, apathetically allocating the people of Panjab a national identity. A national identity greatly determined by its government's religiosity.
Born out of discontent with the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, the Khalistan movement was conceived in the 1940s (Weiss, 2002). This movement, calling for an independent Sikh state - Khalistan - gained more traction in the 1970s and was viewed by the Indian government as a threat. A number of violent clashes between the Khalistan movement and the Indian government ensued in the lead up to 1984. Operation Blue Star, put in place by Indira Gandhi, aimed to utilise a military attack on the Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple) to eliminate the leader of the Khalistan movement and thus the threat of Sikh separatism. To date, the use of the word Khalistan and anyone who suggests they support such a movement has generally been branded as secessionists by the State.
It is abundantly clear that this massacre should be recognised as genocide. That this was a targeted, discriminate attempt to inflict as much pain and destruction as possible on the Sikh community (Singh, 2014). A near 96 hours of bloody, life-stealing, genocidal actions. Whilst it is true that the word ‘genocide’ cannot capture the devastation of the actions described above, recognising the actions as ‘genocide’ offers a form of justice for the lives that were lost. It brings with it the declarations of ‘Never Again’ and ‘Lest we Forget’, carving into history the memory of the brutality and the recognition of the immense sorrow it caused.
Why is it then that the events described here are so often referred to as ‘The 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots’? That when you search ‘October 1984’ it is the assassination of Indira Gandhi which appears, not the subsequent genocide of the Sikh people? Why is it that information on the Sikh genocide is not readily available?
As members of the so-called ‘international community’, we cannot fall silent as we bear witness to the Indian government persistently inciting discriminate violence. If we do not take the time to listen, to educate ourselves, speak out and take action, the number of solemn remembrance days will rise and the fathomless pain felt by those affected by this tragedy will be felt by countless more.
Ensaaf. (n.d.). Mission & Theory of Change. Ensaaf. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from https://ensaaf.org/mission/
Human Rights Watch. (2014, October 29). India: No Justice for 1984 Anti-Sikh Bloodshed. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/10/29/india-no-justice-1984-anti-sikh-bloodshed
Sikhs for justice. (2019, May 29). Know the Facts of 1984 Sikh Genocide. Know the Facts of 1984 Sikh Genocide | SikhPA. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from https://www.sikhpa.com/know-the-facts-of-1984-sikh-genocide/
Singh, J. (2014, October 31). It's Time India Accept Responsiblity for its 1984 Sikh Genocide | Time. TIME. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from https://time.com/3545867/india-1984-sikh-genocide-anniversary/
Weiss, M. (2002, June 25). The Khalistan Movement In Punjab - Gateway To Sikhism. All About Sikhs. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from https://www.allaboutsikhs.com/sikh-history/operation-bluestar/the-khalistan-movement-in-punjab/