1984 Anti-Sikh Pogrom Horrific Analysis: 1984 Massacre: Still Waiting For Justice


Jun 1, 2004
by Rumbold on 1st November, 2009 at 1:10 pm

In India, a government-controlled radio station broadcast slogans like “khoon ka badla khoon” (”blood for blood”). Sikhs contacting the police were told that they would “have to pay for your deeds.”

Twenty five years ago around 4,000 Sikhs were murdered in Delhi after the death of Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India. The prime minister had been assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards in revenge for the dispatch of troops into the Harminder Sahib (Golden Temple), the holiest site in Sikhism. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of that conflict, what followed was quite simply a massacre. Mobs began to roam the streets in morning after the assassination looking for Sikhs, who were all too readily identifiable.

In some ways, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots followed a depressingly similar pattern to other, older religious riots. While the exact extent of state control is unclear, the killers were enacting out what Natalie Zemon Davis called ‘The Rites of Violence’ (pdf). Professor Davis, taking the sixteenth century St. Bartholomew’s massacres as her example (and writing in the 1970s), argued that many religious riots were not characterised by random acts of violence, but rather followed certain patterns in which the violence is “aimed at defined targets and selected from a repertory of traditional punishment and forms of destruction.” Under Professor Davis’ formulation, the rioters, while not officially authorised, thought that they were acting for the good of the country, and had some supporters/leaders in a government.

Religious massacres were often triggered by a fear that if they (the rioters) didn’t take action, they themselves would be attacked by ‘the other side’. Thus the Catholic killers on St. Bartholomew’s Day expected the Protestant troops outside Paris to attack them. In Delhi rumours began to spread that the Sikhs were poisoning the water supply and that trains full of dead Hindus were coming into Delhi from the Punjab (where Indian troops were battling Sikh separatists). Neither rumour was true, and the rumour about Sikhs celebrating Mrs. Gandhi’s death was never substantiated, but under those conditions rumour became fact, especially as police drove round the city advising residents not to drink the water and telling them about the trains.

Another feature of the religious riot is the idea that the participants are somehow cleansing the world of heresy and sedition. This was often achieved by humiliating their victims using their own religious symbols. We can see this very clearly in the way Sikhs were killed and the way the mob behaved. Guru Granth Sahibs (the holiest book in Sikhism which is held to be the 11th Guru) were destroyed, something that would be unlikely to happen in an orgy of mindless violence. Male Sikhs who were being killed had their hair and beards cut, a deliberate insult, while burning seemed to be the favourite method of execution. A horrific death, but also a symbolic mode of execution as the fire is a purifying one (so the world was cleansed of Sikhs). Women were often raped, sometimes in front of their family. The other main method was hanging, an imitation of the way that the state executed its prisoners. Again, it would have been far easier to stab or slit people’s throats, but that wouldn’t have had the same value as a ritual. Men were killed more often than women, again suggesting reprisal for the Hindu troops killed in the Punjab.

Like in France, popular speakers enraged the mob. In France, Catholic preachers called for the Protestants to be exterminated. In India, a government-controlled radio station broadcast slogans like “khoon ka badla khoon” (”blood for blood”). Sikhs contacting the police were told that they would “have to pay for your deeds.” As the example of France showed, a massacre didn’t have to be officially ordered, just so long as officials either assisted the rioters or stayed out of their way.

Thousands of people were involved in the killings of Sikhs. It is comforting to think of an all-controlling power directing the mindless people, but sadly that was not the case. Many of the ordinary rioters will never be brought to justice (though a few have). But there is a still an opportunity to bring those who helped organised the massacres to justice. The killers had access to voter records, and it is almost certain that Congress politicians aided them. Yet twenty five years and ten commissions later and too few have been brought to justice. Too many of the important people involved in the massacres still have friends in high places. Whilst some of the victims’ families undoubtedly want revenge, for many more it is a simple question of justice. There are people still enjoying the fruits of high office while many of their victims’ families live in poverty. The want to see people be held accountable for their crimes, and only the Indian government and courts can do that.

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