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1984 Anti-Sikh Pogrom The Axis Year - When India Was Closest To Being A Non-Functioning Anarchy

Mai Harinder Kaur

Oct 5, 2006
British Columbia, Canada
In the aftermath of the Second World War, a writer born in the Bihar town of Motihari published a dystopian novel predicting the victory of totalitarianism in the West. This envisaged an all-powerful state that would take over all aspects of a citizen’s life, regulating what he (or she) could—and could not—think, eat, speak, etc. The book’s title simply inverted the last two numbers of the year in which it was written.

When 1984 finally did arrive, it was not an especially bad year for the countries that George Orwell had in mind. The economy of his own homeland, England, was on the mend, while victory in the Falklands War had given rise to a renewed sense of national pride. As for the two superpowers, the United States was not, in 1984, involved in a major war, this a rather exceptional occurrence in its conflict-ridden history. Meanwhile, with the death of the ogre Leonid Brezhnev, the USSR had finally begun to allow its citizens to breathe. The stage was being set for the ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policies of perestroika and glasnost. Thus, contrary to Orwell’s forecast, in 1984, the Western democracies were as robust as ever, while the totalitarian Soviet Union was for the first time acquiring a democratic veneer.

In the country of Orwell’s birth, however, the year made famous by the title of his novel was anything but placid or even-paced. Marked by instability and conflict, by assassination and mass murder, it was in 1984 that the Republic of India came closest to being, as it were, a non-functioning anarchy.

In the early months of 1984, there was disquiet in the Kashmir Valley and in Nagaland. These were old trouble spots; far more worrying was the growth of separatist sentiments in the Punjab. The Sikhs had long been considered to be an integral part of the Indian nation. They played a key role in the agrarian economy and in the armed forces. They were well represented in the professions, and in sports—there were more Sikh Olympians than from all other communities combined.

That a section of the Sikhs would now want to carve out a future distinct from that of India was a surprise. That they would seek to do so with the help of Pakistan was a shock. For the Sikhs had been the main victims of Partition; following which they were thrown out of the canal colonies they had built, and kept away from their sacred shrines, which were now (with one striking exception) on the wrong side of the border. Indeed, in 1946 and 1947, the Punjabi Muslim and the Punjabi Sikh had been at each other’s throats. Three-and-a-half decades later, they had become unlikely allies, as the wily ruler of Pakistan, Zia-ul-Haq, began aiding the Khalistani militants with money, arms, and not least, safe havens. (A waggish friend of mine joked that once Zia saw the putative map of Khalistan the support would stop—for this included a corridor to Karachi, as the new nation would not be secure without access to the sea.)

The rise of Sikh separatism was the product of several factors—among them the cynicism of the Congress, which had initially propped up the extremists as a counterweight to their old rivals, the Akalis; the pusillanimity of the Akalis themselves, who allowed their flock to be captured by bigots; and the messianic leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who thought that with God on their side the Khalistanis would certainly vanquish the Indian state.

As the Khalistan movement grew, and as it manifested itself in periodic killings of Hindus or ‘renegade’ Sikhs, the prime minister of India increasingly recast herself as the defender of the faith of the majority. Reared in a robustly secular, not to say irreligious, household, in the years 1983 and 1984, Indira Gandhi began to be seen quite frequently in the vicinity of temples. Perhaps the behaviour was a product merely of Anno Domini—after all, even atheists are known to get spiritual as they enter their sixties. More likely, it was a move dictated by political expediency—namely, the need to secure the prospects of the Congress party in the next general elections. For what Mrs Gandhi feared above all was a repeat of 1977, when she lost her prime ministership, and even her seat in Parliament, at the hands of a combined Opposition.

Sensing the vulnerability of the ruling party, Opposition leaders were once more seeking to present a united front at the next elections. Guiding the process of coalition-building was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, the former film star N.T. Rama Rao. A famous (or at least well-paid) astrologer had predicted that the next ruler of India would be an ardhanareeshwari, half-man, half-woman. The rumour gained ground that NTR had taken to draping himself in a saffron sari at night.

The Janata coalition of 1977-80 was remembered by the Indian public as notoriously weak and fractious. Judging that before the elections the voter would like to see an authoritative alternative, Mrs Gandhi chose finally to act against the Khalistani separatists. In the first week of June 1984, the Indian army was sent into the Golden Temple, where it was met with determined resistance by Bhindranwale’s men. It took the better part of two days for the army to prevail. Estimates of deaths in the battle varied from 600 to upwards of 5,000. More damaging than the lives lost was the destruction of the Akal Takht, the venerable old building that had traditionally represented the seat of Sikh temporal power.

The most telling comment on Operation Bluestar came from a highly decorated Sikh general, J.S. Aurora, the hero of the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971: “The army was used to finish a problem created by the government.” In truth, the problem had not been finished, but merely displaced. Sikh radicals now identified the prime minister as the chief architect of the attack on their temple. They got to work on members of her security staff, two of whom, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, gunned down Indira Gandhi as she walked from her home to her office on the morning of October 31, 1984.

When Mahatma Gandhi was murdered in the year Orwell wrote his novel, he was a private citizen. Since then, three heads of government in South Asia had been assassinated—Pakistan’s Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951, Ceylon’s S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959, and Bangladesh’s Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. It is no disrespect to these leaders to say that Mrs Gandhi’s murder was the most shocking of all—because India was reckoned to be a more stable (or perhaps less unstable) nation, because it was by far the largest country in the region, and because, for good or for ill, Mrs Gandhi’s place in the history of the world was more weighty than that of those other prime ministers.

The impact of the assassination was magnified many times by the directed pogrom that followed. For two whole days, mobs led by Congressmen ran riot in the Sikh colonies of Delhi, burning, looting, raping, murdering. Sikhs in other towns and cities of northern India were also targeted. The home minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was paralysed by inaction, giving us a foretaste of how he was to behave when the Babri Masjid was demolished eight years later. Meanwhile, the new prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, merely commented that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes.

Were this a whole book rather than a mere article, it would have dealt at some length with that year’s other good and bad things. It was in 1984, for instance, that a Bollywood star first successfully contested a Lok Sabha election, and it was also in 1984 that India’s greatest all-rounder was dropped from the Test team for reasons that had nothing to do with cricket. But it is not merely for reasons of space that I have chosen to focus mostly on politics. At the time, as well as in retrospect, the year 1984 was defined by four traumatic events. Three were directly connected to the conflict in Punjab—namely, the storming of the Golden Temple, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the attacks on innocent Sikhs. The final event in this melancholy quartet took place on the night of December 2-3, 1984, when a gas leak in a factory owned by Union Carbide in Bhopal killed more than 2,000 people and maimed many thousand others.

In that horrible year, there were very many villains, but also one authentic hero. This was the chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu. In the city of Calcutta, there dwelt some 50,000 turban-wearing Sikhs, many of them driving taxis. Their dress and their profession made them deeply vulnerable, yet the state administration made sure that practically none was harmed. The lead was taken by the chief minister, who, as a young politician and first-time MLA, had marvelled at how Mahatma Gandhi had brought peace between Hindus and Muslims in the even darker days of 1947. In acting as he did, this life-long Marxist was being authentically Gandhian—more so than the Congressmen in New Delhi who swore by Gandhi, far more so than the chief minister of Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat in 2002, who, faced with a comparable situation, allowed the police to look on as mobs massacred innocents.

The twelvemonth ended as it had begun: dreadfully. And 1985 was an altogether better year. The tasteless remark following his mother’s death behind him, the young prime minister embarked on a series of bold initiatives. One peace accord was forged with the Sikhs; another with the Assam students, who were campaigning against the illegal immigration into their province of job-seekers from Bangladesh. Meanwhile, in a stirring speech at the centenary celebrations of the Indian National Congress, Rajiv Gandhi promised to rid the party of sycophants, time-servers and power-brokers.

However—as is not unusual in the politics of our country—this proved to be a false dawn. In 1986, the passing of the Muslim Women’s Bill put paid to the chances of progressive reform among India’s largest minority. And 1987 was marked by the Bofors scandal, 1988 by a deepening fiscal crisis, 1989 by the sharpening of the Hindu-Muslim divide through the Ayodhya movement. Those were bad years, but still not as bad as 1984, which might very well have been the worst year in the history of the Indian Republic.

Twenty-five years after the anti-Sikh riots, the perpetrators have not yet been punished. Twenty-five years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, the victims and their families have still not been adequately compensated. In these and other respects, the events and personalities of 1984 continue to cast a baleful shadow over the politics and culture of contemporary India.


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