33 years on, the ghosts of 1984 anti-Sikh riots refuse to disappear

Jaspal Sidhu
Jaspal SidhuOct 28, 2017 | 21:38

33 years on, the ghosts of 1984 anti-Sikh riots refuse to disappear

My return to India begins the moment I leave the doors of Indira Gandhi International Airport. It almost always involves finding the railway station, where I commence my journey towards Punjab. Like many Indian cities, Delhi is known for its poverty, pollution and overcrowding. It is for the most part quite a surreal experience for a Londoner like myself to awaken to, especially after a really long flight.


After boarding the train and taking the window seat, I stare out at the platform. The khaki uniformed police officers stand out very clearly amid the congestion.

It suddenly dawns on me that had I been seated here, on November 1, 1984, it would have been quite likely that I would have been dragged out of this carriage by a mob. Kerosene would have been poured over my flesh. Before being ignited, I would have seen a woman being gang-raped and heard the cries of dying children. The officers of the station might have intervened, but only against me - to halt my retaliation. The rioters would have lynched young boys and men who donned turbans and caught girls and women wearing steel bracelets. They would have attacked anyone easily identifiable as a Sikh.

Image: Reuters file photo

Over 3,000 Sikhs were slaughtered on the streets of India’s capital over the next three days. Much distinguishes this pogrom from other communal riots which have happened of late. The violence which erupted was not initiated by the average Delhiite, who was bitter at Sikhs for sharing the same faith as Indira Gandhi’s assassins. Rather, it was instigated by members of the Congress party’s establishment itself.


Many Congress officials were complicit in pinpointing the whereabouts of Sikh property. These were found using the voter registration lists which had been disseminated widely. Before the assailants gathered momentum and advanced towards the Sikh enclaves of the city, Sikh properties had been graffitied on and were marked with the letter “S”. Congress party members had also arranged for the distribution of weapons and other incendiary items. This disaster could have been prevented had the city’s police force acted promptly. According to a CBI report, some officers even ordered men in gurdwaras to disarm and surrender their weapons, hours before the crowds had arrived to mount their attack.

Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, was later sworn in as the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. It soon became apparent that he showed little concern for the plight of his fellow countrymen being butchered, so close to where he lived. When he was asked about the riots, he dismissed the violence by declaring that “when a big tree falls, the earth shakes”.

The subcontinent has seen centuries of religious violence and bloodshed. Delhi was a sanctuary for Sikh refugees, who fled their villages in Pakistan at the time of the Partition. They found safety in a metropolis where so many of their co-religionists were already living. It is a great tragedy that these refugees and their children would live to face another round of ethnic cleansing 37 years later.


Several attempts have been made to document and investigate the pogrom. At least 10 commissions have been set up since November 1984. Despite this, many of the offenders are still being allowed to walk freely on the same streets where they committed their acts three decades ago. As of late, less than 1 per cent of the admitted murderers have been convicted.

The riots took place four months after Operation Blue Star, a controversial attack on the Golden Temple complex, by the Indian Armed Forces. The sense of betrayal and injustice felt by many Sikhs, propelled the growth of the Khalistani separatist movement, and set the stage for a brutal decade-long insurgency to commence, which transformed Punjab into a garrison state. In attempts to neutralise the militants, the government further compromised its respect for human rights. Enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, mass cremations, widespread torture and prolonged detentions without a trial were all very common in the years of the curfew.

The Indian National Congress is not the only mainstream political party in India which has conspired against its minorities. The rise of nationalism as recently as 2013, saw the formation of a BJP government in the Lok Sabha. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time of the 2002 riots in the state, was accused by some of having a role in facilitating the killings of Muslims in his home state.

The British Sikh community remains greatly polarised on the issue of Indian patriotism and identity. Modi made a state visit to the UK two years ago, where he addressed 90,000 NRIs at Wembley Stadium - streets away from my house. I am used to seeing supporters of rival football clubs jeer and taunt each other as they approach the stadium's entrance, but I was quite bemused to find my fellow Sikhs behaving in a similar way. Loud arguments broke out between Sikhs draped in Indian colours and those who came to protest.

India has much to be proud of. It is a historic melting pot, home to hundreds of languages, religions and cultures. With a fast-growing economy and a 1.3 billion strong population, it is destined to become a superpower by the end of the century. As we approach the 33rd anniversary of the pogroms, India must take a moment to reflect on its human rights record.

The republic must do more to uphold BR Ambedkar’s egalitarian vision of a liberal and just democracy.

Whilst the nation sends rockets to space and sets its eyes on the stars, the widows of Delhi still hang the portraits of their murdered husbands on the walls of their homes.

They remain depressed in a state of anxiety and do not expect to see justice being served in the twilight years of their lives.

Last updated: October 28, 2017 | 21:38
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