1984 REVISITED June comes around every year with uncomfortable regularity. In 1984, on Guru Arjan’s martyrdom day —June 5 — the Indian army launched a full-scale invasion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and of 40 other gurdwaras across Punjab. Thousands were massacred; there was no accounting of the number of Sikh men, women and children killed or injured or of those incarcerated for years without trial. We estimate and remember how many disappeared or were killed by the thousands of unclaimed shoes that they left behind. (Upon entering a Sikh place of worship, pilgrims remove their shoes and cover their heads.) June 1984 set into motion events that are too horrendous to contemplate and recount. Young Sikh men were indiscriminately arrested and held without trial indefinitely. (Now, 19 years later, some still languish in jails without trials.) All constitutional provisions and civil liberties were suspended. The state of Punjab became a virtual prison for its inhabitants. Villages were emptied of Sikh men. Punjab now appears to be at peace, but the quiet is really only the silence of mausoleums and cemeteries. The cease-fire is an uncomfortable one. Peace remains both illusive and elusive. Sikhs worldwide remember the dead and the maimed in protests and futile demands for investigation and justice. These have become yearly rituals. The Indian government has ignored them for 19 years and will surely do so again. One Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated for her role. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her to the office, repeatedly denied that any human rights violations had taken place in India, while human rights groups, including Amnesty International, just as repeatedly documented governmental abuses. As I write this I recognize that yet another government inquiry commission is currently in place, but it has a very narrow mandate. Much of the evidence has disappeared or been tainted. Now cynical, people expect little justice. The events of 1984 and the following years remain important to thinking people everywhere and cannot be but wrenching realities to Sikhs throughout the world. How we perceive these events and how we deal with them through the rearview mirror of history will define our humanity. When we dismiss them as matters of little concern, we diminish ourselves. I wonder, then, why is it that these events have rarely been discussed from a rational, scholarly and historical perspective. Over the years, Sikhs have established at North American universities six chairs dedicated to Sikh studies. The sole activity of these programs is to teach and to conduct research in all areas pertinent to the life, beliefs and history of Sikhs. In other words, Sikh existence in all its facets — historical and contemporary — is the reason these programs exist. Why is it, then, that no North American Sikh studies program has even once in all these years explored, away from the slogans, protests and polemics, the events of 1984 that continue to affect the thinking of most, if not all, Sikhs even today? I recognize that such a conference has not yet been held in India either, but political realities may be entirely different in that country. In arguing for such a conference or symposium, I do not write as an apologist for Sikh militants, extremists or any so-called separatists, nor do I write as an enemy of India or its government. I write this because the issue will not go away, nor should it. Four reasons for this academic neglect come to mind. The first reason is that the events are too recent and the emotions too raw for an objective look. The second reason, the paucity of honest and objective Sikh or non-Sikh scholars in the area, may be cited to explain why the existing Sikh studies programs have held no academic conference. The third reason sometimes suggested is that these events occurred in India; they are far removed from the existence and concerns of Sikhs in the diaspora and, therefore, perhaps are not an important priority for them. A fourth argument sometimes put forth posits that non-Sikhs around the world would not be interested in what might have happened to this small minority of Sikhs 10,000 miles away in India. I think all four arguments are largely specious, but they deserve some exploration. In the 1960s, I watched with horror as the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War unfolded and with fascination as the movement that powerfully protested it grew in this country. I also saw the impact of the struggle against racial discrimination and the times of charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King, as well as the shameful role of the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Then there was the growing national awareness of and the continuing moral crises — hardly over yet — concerning women’s rights and gender issues. Certainly on all these matters emotions ran high and continue to do so even today. These matters divided the nation as no other issue had in memory or history, except perhaps the Civil War. A spate of academic literature is written and university conferences occur on each issue, and such activity continues unabated. No one could have been more involved in the policies that shaped the Vietnam War than Robert McNamara. His 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, may be flawed, even biased, but it continues to be discussed in college courses and at academic conferences. As an informed citizen I am expected to be able to discuss the story of apartheid in South Africa. As an American I remain interested and deeply concerned about the genocide in Rwanda and the plight of women in Afghanistan. Why, then, should I hold my tongue or suspend my judgment when it comes to the apparently genocidal policies of an Indian government against its own people? The Israeli-Arab struggle never fails to make news. For more than 50 years it has baffled policy makers and peace brokers of the world and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Commentators on it never had the luxury of calm, distance and time, but academic discussions do not cease; they are not held in deep freeze. One can probably find a new book or a new academic conference on the Middle East any day of the week. Are they guaranteed to be unbiased, scholarly and objective? Hardly. In matters of strongly conflicting viewpoints such as the Punjab tragedy or the Arab-Israeli imbroglio, there is no guarantee that participants can ever be largely objective. Of course, there is no such thing as total objectivity; at best it remains a direction, like a star to a sailor. But time can and will play tricks. There is also no assurance that evidence will last or that it will not be tarnished in time. If some objectivity can come with time, so can memories be lost and prejudice harden. This is the strongest argument against neglect. There are respectable scholars with impeccable academic credentials and sufficiently provocative but unimpeachable data that merit academic discussion and debate, even scholarly disagreement. I point to the works of Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, Brian Keith Axel, Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, Justice Tarkunde and Ram Narayan Kumar; not all of them are Sikhs or even Indians. Numerous reports by Amnesty International also exist, along with records of other judicial and non-judicial commissions and investigative reporters. There are insightful, even controversial, reports by journalists — Eastern and Western, Indian and non-Indian, biased and unbiased. There are documents from the government of India, and from other countries — both India’s allies and those unfriendly to it. The argument that posits that events in India are of no import to Sikhs in the diaspora or to other people in the world is also false. I think that of all the reasons for neglecting the events of 1984, this is the least tenable. Immediately in the aftermath of the attack on the Golden Temple by the Indian Army in June 1984, massive protests were mounted by Sikhs in the diaspora all over the world — in London, Toronto, Los Angeles, Vancouver and New York, for example. Even today, many of my non-Sikh friends continue to display the greatest curiosity and anguish about those dark and ugly days and their repercussions on the present. Respectable authors such as Khushwant Singh and Patwant Singh, who have no truck with Sikh separatists, have labeled the killings of Sikhs in India as government inspired and organized, akin to the Nazi pogroms against the Jews. Tell the Jews worldwide that what happened to them in Nazi Germany is of no concern outside the borders of Germany. Tell the world that what happens in the Middle East today is irrelevant to the *** or Arab living in America. In the global village that we now occupy, Bosnia is important to us, as is Guatemala; terrorism in Munich is not less significant than terrorism in Omaha or at the World Trade Center; genocide in Rwanda, Chechnya, Punjab or Gujarat affect our lives even though we are remote from those places. I should add parenthetically that at one recent conference at Hofstra University, a young Sikh scholar from the United Kingdom did make a presentation on the sorry state of human rights in India. Three years ago, and again last year, a day-long conference at Columbia University in New York explored human rights violations in India, but the conference was unconnected to any of the existing programs on Sikh studies at that university or elsewhere. A few years ago Sikhs in Canada were in the midst of a struggle to be allowed to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and serve while wearing a turban and long hair. Professor Spellman, an academician, argued that the turban and long hair were perhaps not articles of faith in Sikhism and may not be necessary to Sikh belief. This undermined three centuries of unbroken Sikh tradition, but none of the Sikh scholars holding community-funded university chairs in Sikh studies touched the issue publicly; their silence was indeed deafening and spoke volumes. I would think that a matter of such grave consequence to the survival of Sikhs in the diaspora deserved the support and commitment of these scholars, or at least their engagement and analysis. I add here that the one academician who supported the Sikh position as an extremely effective expert witness turned out to be the much-maligned Hew McLeod. In all that I have said, one question still remains: why have Sikh academic programs shied away from contemporary issues that affect Sikhs and Sikhism, particularly in the diaspora? A possible explanation of why current aspects of Sikh existence appear to claim so little attention by our formally trained scholars may lie in the fact that most Sikh studies programs are housed in the discipline and methodology of history, South Asian studies or social sciences. Historically, “social studies” have served to fence off non-Western modes of existence as if they were museum specimens of irrelevant civilizations, now fit only for intellectual exercise and analysis and perhaps a doctoral thesis or two. In fact, these communities and their religions need to be explored as living societies. For this piece of insight I am indebted to Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair. I believe that Sikhs who occupy Sikh chairs at universities do not want to abandon their own people, nor are they unfeeling at a personal level. But abandon their own people is what they have effectively done; consequently, they have undercut their own support in the Sikh community. I believe that these scholars who occupy such positions just need to feel secure enough so that they can turn their attention to such controversial matters as the events of 1984; no matter what stance they take, they will attract unwelcome, even undeserved, criticism. I know that most of the holders of such positions have endured an uneasy relationship with the Sikh community. In this they have my sympathy, but their experience does not absolve them from their academic responsibility to address issues that are important to us all. One cannot always run away from controversy or censure. Yes, early Sikh history and Sikh scripture, which these scholars often study and write about, are important but so are events that affect and influence us here and now. Early Sikh tradition speaks of monumental courage against overwhelming odds. I would ask our Sikh scholars to take courage from that early history and from Sikh tradition. Years from now historians will reconstruct history from what we said and did today. If the title of this essay seems Orwellian, there is a reason.