As I hit young adulthood, many of my friends were Sikhs. Most of them were much more into the issues of religious identity and politics than the Hindus I knew, and it was spending time with my Sikh friends that I was first made aware of the deep tensions that existed between the various religious communities of the world.
While most Sikhs I knew generally talked of Hindus and Sikhs as having a close historical kinship, there were many bones of contention which were often brought up. The most common of these gripes was the treatment of Sikhs by the Indian government (which were often blamed on Hindus at large) in the year 1984. Coupled with this was the subject of “Khalistan” – the ambition held by some Sikhs for an independent country from India, carved out of the Indian state of Punjab (along the same kind of lines as Pakistan is for Muslims).
Primarily an overseas Sikh issue
It is worth mentioning that in India itself, the idea of a separate Sikh country has a relatively lesser support amongst Sikhs. I was once at a Sikh friend’s house (in London), and his cousin from India was present. My friend started a discussion about “Khalistan”. Straight away his cousin from India spoke up and said: “You should shut up, you don’t even live in Punjab. Sikhs in India are not interested in these fantasies of yours.”
It is somewhat ironic that the idea of a separate Sikh country carved out of India is kept alive primarily by Sikhs who live outside of India – and only a few of them at that – rather than Sikhs who live in India. Sikhs opposed to Khalistan have pointed out that Punjab has a large Hindu population, and neighbouring Indian states have large Sikh populations and a large concentration of Sikh shrines. Even places as far from Punjab as Bihar and even Tamil Nadu have Sikh populations and important historical Sikh shrines. Hence, many Sikhs feel that historically and culturally they are very much part of India.
Many Hindus growing up in the UK will have these subjects brought up in discussion against them by their Sikh friends, or even face hostility from total strangers, at one time or the other. So it is handy to have some awareness about events of 1984 – which is what this article aims to provide. At the least it will provide an overview of one of the most controversial issues in modern Indian history.
1984: Temple siege in Amritsar
In 1984, the then Indian PM Indira Gandhi decided to send in the Army to lay siege and eventually storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most sacred Sikh shrine in the world. The purpose of the army action (named “Operation Blue Star”) was to flush out a large band of heavily armed separatists who had forcibly occupied and fortified the temple premises, led by Jarnail Singh Bhrindanwale.
The Operation began on June 3rd and continued until June 6th. There was a large toll on human life with more than 1,000 casualties and several thousand injured. Furthermore, large parts of the temple were destroyed, including invaluable Sikh scriptural material.
What led to the problem in the first place?
This is a complex issue, with many factors to discuss. To summarise however, in the post-Independence era, tensions grew between Hindus and Sikhs in Indian-Punjab, two traditionally very close communities. At the root of the problem was the feeling, real or imagined, in certain sections of the Sikh population that they would lose their religion and identity in a democratic country full of Hindus, as they would become assimilated into the mainstream and cease to exist as a separate religion.
This led to political demands to strengthen the position of the Sikh population in Punjab, for example by carving a state where Sikhs were a demographic majority (a goal realized in 1969 with the partition of East Punjab into several smaller states). The separatist demands eventually stemmed into armed separatism and terrorism. In the late 1970s and early 1980s an increasingly well armed and vocal group of Sikhs were demanding an altogether separate country.
Assassination of Indira Gandhi & Delhi massacres
Sikh public opinion was mixed on Operation Blue Star. On one hand there was a feeling that something had to be done about Bhindranwale & Co. who had made Punjab into a lawless place and had forcibly taken over the Golden Temple, formerly a democratically run institution. But the way in which Blue Star took place, with the accompanying desecration of the Golden Temple also caused outrage against the Indian government. It was with this reason that Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards of hers’, on 31 October 1984. Ironically, Indira Gandhi had been warned by her advisors to remove any Sikh bodyguards in her vicinity, but she dismissed the threat as exaggerated!
What happened next is the event that has coloured the Sikh psyche and has caused the differences which we witness today. Mobs, led by activists of the ruling Congress Party roved the streets of Delhi massacring Sikhs. Delhi has roughly a 9% population of Sikhs, and at least 3,000 were slain in the carnage that followed. The police did very little if anything to intervene and protect Sikhs, although some Hindus did protect their Sikh neighbours. For example later Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee personally intervened to save a Sikh cabbie, according to Sikh writer Khushwant Singh.
The biggest disgrace is that many leading figures in the Congress Party who hold power today were actively involved in inciting mob violence. Understandably, Sikhs by and large were outraged at what happened in Delhi, and Sikh separatists manipulated it to bolster their argument that a separate Sikh country (Khalistan) was a necessity. Rather than blaming the Congress Party, they portrayed the event as an example of Hindus persecuting Sikhs. However, the reality is somewhat different. The Congress in Delhi is by no means a Hindu-only organisation, and furthermore is not ideologically Hindu. Most politically aware Hindus also have felt let down and manipulated by the Congress Party continuously since Independence.
Terrorism in Punjab and throughout India
For revenge, and as part of a prolonged separatist campaign, Sikh militant groups mushroomed and carried out large terrorist attacks throughout India; mainly in Punjab , Haryana and Delhi . They were armed and given refuge by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, who supported Sikh separatism as a way to destabilize India.
Hundreds of attacks took place. Most of the attacks were targeted against Hindus, for example, on buses and at Hindu mandirs. One example that shows the overall carnage of these attacks caused is as follows:
“At about 9:30 P.M. on June 15, 1991 , gunmen opened fire inside two passenger trains stopped outside Ludhiana , killing at least 75 passengers. The attacks reportedly were coordinated, as both trains were stopped about a mile from the station by having their emergency cords pulled. Survivors stated that on one of the trains, Hindu passengers were identified before being shot. On the second train, the firing was indiscriminate, and many Sikhs as well as Hindus were killed. Although no group claimed responsibility for the attacks, they were believed to have been carried out by groups opposed to the elections scheduled for June 22.” (Source: Human Rights Watch)
Many Sikhs were also victims of Sikh extremist violence. Any Sikhs who spoke out against the indiscriminate militancy were quickly “silenced” (i.e. killed). Furthermore, the extremists used extortion and rape as routine tools of their trade, which were more often than not targeted against other Sikhs rather than Hindus. This gradually meant that most Sikhs came to detest the terrorists, so the separatist movement lost popular support amongst Sikhs.
It was finally a Sikh-led police force, that were instrumental in coordinating the defeat of terrorism in Punjab. In 1991 they resolved to implement a zero-tolerance policy on terrorists. Before the police implemented these measured, the average man who joined a terrorist outfit like the Babbar Khalsa or Khalistan Liberation Force would usually live for over four years before being slain. In the face of increasingly brutal counter-insurgency measures they were lucky to live for even six months. No doubt this hugely deterred young unemployed men from being recruited into such outfits. By 1992-1993, Sikh separatism in India had all but perished.
Today and into the future
Despite all the events of the past decades, there still persists a close relationship between Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab. For example, if one visits a major Sikh shrine, there will be many Hindus present there, and at many Hindu temples and during festivals like Dasshera, many if not most of the congregation may be Sikhs.
There are still people out there who would like to re-ignite the militancy of the 1980s, Just like any other political extremist groups, all they are doing is playing on people’s ignorance. Nowadays when I come across people like these, I equate them with the ISIS, Al-Quaeda and British National Party. Ultimately, we will only be able to prevent their ideologies from spreading by being aware of the history, and opposing one-sided extreme propaganda when we encounter it.
Furthermore, certain Hindus need to accept that if Sikhs see themselves as a separate religion, there is nothing wrong with that, and trying to convince them otherwise is both counterproductive and plain pointless. Certain clumsy Hindu groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have fallen into this trap. Both Hindus and Sikhs will be better off deciding their own destinies within the democratic framework, while the RSS should stick to ironing their khaki-shorts.