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1984 Anti-Sikh Pogrom How Mrs. G. Got It Wrong (TEHELKA)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Christophe Jaffrelot says Indira Gandhi’s soft hindutva didn’t work in the long run

The first reign of Indira Gandhi (1966-1977) was marked by a personalisation of power (remember the Indira Hatao versus the Garibi Hatao slogan), a deinstitutionnalisation of the Congress (no internal election took place in the Congress after 1972) and a form of authoritarianism which culminated in the Emergency (1975-77). Her second reign was to be marked by new forms of centralisation of power, which had one thing in common: the promotion of her political interests at the expense of the political diversity of India.

Mrs Gandhi has been keener than any other Prime Minister to resort to the provision of the President’s Rule, most of the time not for the reasons the Constituent Assembly had invented this emergency provision for, but to regain power in a state conquered by opposition parties. In toto, she implemented Article 356 41 times. While she used it during her first reign, her last term was an even clearer case in point.

In February 1980, she got the President’s Rule imposed in nine states whose assemblies were dominated by the opposition, which include Punjab, Assam, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. The state elections – which should not have taken place before one to two years – were organised quickly, which allowed the Congress (I) to recover majority in these states, except in Punjab and Tamil Nadu. She would try to resort to the President’s Rule again in 1983, against the government of NT Rama Rao, the head of the Telugu Desam Party and Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, while he had a majority in the state assembly. This move reflected her will to cut to size her opponents, especially those who relied on regional identities that they also tried to counter by diluting for the first time her secular credentials

In the early 1980s, Indira Gandhi's politics was coloured by a certain promotion of the Hindu culture. If the tragedy of Sanjay Gandhi’s death led her more than ever to search for solace from spiritual guides, she also displayed a new religiosity in an ostentatious manner even before Sanjay's demise. As pointed out by Kuldip Nayar and Khushwant Singh in The Tragedy of the Punjab: Operation Bluestar and After, she visited a dozen Hindu temples across India within the first six weeks of her coming to power, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-supported Bharat Mata Mandir in Haridwar.

From 1982 onwards, she became fond of claiming a Hindu identity for several reasons. First, she had worn thin the populist repertoire and was looking for a new theme for mobilisation. Second, it was also a way to marginalise the parties claiming militant Hinduism, like the Bharatiya Janata Party. Scholar James Manor notes in India’s Democracy:“ By becoming the main mouthpiece for Hindu communalism, she was protecting India from the dangers of it.” And thirdly, for her, it was the support of the community that was by far the most numerous that would help reinforce national unity whenever it was threatened. Separatist tensions did indeed increase in India at the beginning of the 1980s, but these emerged also in part due to her own political tactics.

In Punjab, where the Sikh separatists took arms in 1983, one of their leaders, Sant Bhindranwale, openly benefited from the protection of New Delhi as the Congress was looking to discredit the Sikh demands to weaken the Akali Dal, its main rival in the state, as Manor has observed in his essay.

The same Congress desire to not let go of any bit of power could be seen at work in Assam, where the successive waves of immigrants, coming from West Bengal and Bangladesh, had sparked off a defensive reaction among the native Assamese. From 1979 onwards, their spokespersons from the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Assam Gasom Students’ Party (AGSP) (Assamese People’s Students’ Party) started demanding the deletion of “foreigners” from electoral lists. These immigrants, afraid of being expelled, gave their support to the Congress, which hesitated to sacrifice this “vote-bank”. During the elections which took place in 1983, the native Assamese called for a boycott of the elections and organised themselves to dissuade the “foreigners” from voting, if necessary, by force. The government stood by its electoral calendar and deployed para-military forces, which did not prevent the massacre of thousands of Bengali immigrants. The Congress found itself with a solid majority (91 seats out of 109) in the Assamese assembly despite a pathetic turnout, thanks to the votes of the immigrants. Sanjib Baruah has noted in India against itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality that these developments comforted the Assamese separatists in their militancy.

In Punjab the situation went out of Indira Gandhi’s control as well. At the beginning of 1984, the troops of Sant Bhindranwale occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most prestigious of the Sikh shrines. The Central authorities then ordered the storming of this sacred site, which aroused huge emotions in the Sikh community. On 31 October in the same year, Indira Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The Indian capital then became a theatre of retaliations, more or less openly orchestrated by workers of the Congress. The violence lasted several days and led to thousands of victims amongst the Sikhs.

The irony of Mrs Gandhi’s modus operandi – which stood in stark contrast with her father’s – laid in its counterproductive results. While she aimed at retaining power in the state and at maintaining the national unity by imposing her political control over them, she fostered centrifugal forces and precipitated the crystallisation of regional identities. Hence, it led to the development of state parties and they became more entrenched in their new bastions. Paradoxically, the 1980s marked the beginning of the rise of regional forces at the expense of the Congress.

Rajiv Gandhi resigned itself to the regionalisation of politics in India and was in a position to defuse some separatist trend, like in Punjab with the 1985 deal he initiated with Sant Longowal. No further attempt at over-centralising India politically has been made since Indira Gandhi and any endeavour in this direction is today precluded by the era of coalitions in which India has entered, since in the United Progressive Alliance as ell as in the National Democratic Alliance, the state parties play a major role.

Christophe Jaffrelot’s major works are on Hindu nationalism and caste politics in Uttar Pradesh.



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