Why Sikhs rushed to the aid of Rohingya Muslim refugees

Salik Shah
Salik ShahSep 15, 2017 | 17:29

Why Sikhs rushed to the aid of Rohingya Muslim refugees

Photo: Khalsa Aid

This week, the photograph of a turban-clad Khalsa Aid volunteer providing mineral water to a little refugee girl got me thinking: Why were the Sikhs among the first Indian volunteers and aid workers to reach Teknaf in Bangladesh to provide langar - food and water - to around 3,70,000 Rohingya Muslim families fleeing persecution and violence in Myanmar? The answer is a difficult one to admit; it makes people uncomfortable.


The Sikh community hasn't forgotten what happens when a religious majority, which is in power, turns against its minorities. The current Rohingya crisis in Myanmar bears an eerie resemblance to the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in India.

In 1984, members of the then ruling Congress party allegedly planned and carried out a pogrom targeting the Sikh community following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Her killing was the case of individuals taking law into their own hands to punish those responsible for insulting their religious sentiments and sanctioning the massacre of their people. The government's role in Operation Bluestar, the murder of around 3,000-8,000 ordinary citizens and the overnight displacement of thousands from the Sikh community was outrageous and unpardonable, to say the least.

History doesn't remember much of what Rajiv Gandhi said, except his notorious response following the carnage: "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes."

The Sikh community paid a heavy price for the armed separatist movement led by Khalistan, which sought independence. The wounds inflicted by the military and the mob persecution that resulted in the genocide of Sikhs are yet to be addressed and healed.


According to a Human Rights Watch report, the government of India is "yet to prosecute those responsible for the mass killings".

Without justice, there is no relief or closure for the victims of the pogrom or their children. The news of Sikh volunteers arriving at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border to help a religious minority facing persecution in their home country is, therefore significant, and hard to miss. It is probably the most humane and potent demonstration of the Sikh community's attempt to come to terms with the painful experiences of assimilation in an increasingly sectarian Hindu country.

Rakhine carnage

In Myanmar, the story of the persecution of Rohingyas is an old one, and their armed rebellion its inevitable consequence. However, Burmese General Min Aung Hlaing's heavy-handed response to Rohingya insurgents' attacks is heinous and unwarranted.

The military campaign to eliminate all Rohingya population from Rakhine state is reminiscent of the Hindu pogrom to displace thousands of Sikhs during the 1984 riots, or the Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Illustration by Anju Shah.

Following recent bursts of attacks by members of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), Myanmar is making a loud political statement - a warning - which echoes the sentiment behind the genocide of Sikhs: "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes."


The ARSA is a newly-formed rebel group said to be run by fighters trained in or from Pakistan, and funded by Rohingyas in the UAE and the Middle East.

Whether by intent or gross political miscalculation and failure of imagination, the ARSA rebels have given the radical Buddhist nation of blood-thirsty monks and its power-hungry junta the perfect excuse to carry out a well-thought out plan of ethnic cleansing.

In what could be only described as one of the worst humanitarian crisis that our millennial generation has seen in the region, hundreds of Rohingyas have perished since August when the violence escalated. Lakhs of Rohingyas are taking shelter in makeshift refugees camps in Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

The Burmese people gained independence from the British in 1948, and soon a turn of events led to a military regime that remains in control of the police and security apparatus of the country.

Myanmar's nascent experiment with democracy is in danger as the junta is known to have an adverse response to any internal or external opposition or interference in Myanmar's "internal affairs."

The Rohingya crisis raises the same old questions that we've had to deal with every time systematic oppression and following conflict escalates to mass killings and suffering. Can a government or state punish a whole population for the crimes of a few? Can a ruling majority act with "opportunism" and "hatred" against its minority with impunity? Unfortunately, the answer is yes they can, because they have.

The wounds inflicted by the military and the mob persecution that resulted in the genocide of Sikhs are yet to be addressed and healed. Photo: AP

We have entered a new millennium, and we need powerful international laws and bodies that can prevent and punish politicians who lead their people into wars and genocides for vote-bank politics. We should apply criminal laws to heads of nation-states, and the governments as well, not just rogue individuals - citizens or not.

Since Narendra Modi became the prime minister, nobody talks about the 2002 Gujarat riots, which happened when he was the chief minister of the state. It's a well-documented case study of sectarian violence and systematic injustice, also abuse and misuse of power for vote-bank politics.

The Congress leaders responsible for the 1984 pogrom haven't been brought to justice either. The tradition of guaranteeing political or diplomatic protection and immunity, and not going after (former) head of states - whether to investigate and to expose their lies, crimes or wrong dealings - is a global malaise.

The lies of United States' president George W Bush led to millions of deaths, and the world cannot but worry about the terrible consequences of electing the biggest-liar-in-chief to the White House. It is worth remembering that the hatred and violence against Rohingyas were fuelled in part by lies and venom posted by radical monks like Ashin Wirathu - the Buddhist Bin Laden - through social media accounts. RSS-Hindutva zealots employ the same online tactics in India to spread hatred and lies. Surely, we're living in dangerous times when people who speak truth are silenced by bullets, and people who lie become ministers and presidents.

Today, people are shocked and disappointed to find out that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won't speak up for the Rohingyas. Every political commentator is baffled and infuriated by her denial of what is happening in her country even when her reasons for doing so are quite understandable. Politicians will never speak against the popular narrative. Take Shashi Tharoor for example. He is a media celebrity in his own right as much as Aung San Suu Kyi was before her current fall from grace. When you watch Tharoor's Al Jazeera interview with Mehdi Hassan, his cautious take on Kashmir reveals a lot about the political compromises and cost one has to bear to serve the people, including misleading them.

When you compare Tharoor's watered-down, everything-is-normal version of what's happening in Kashmir with Aung San Suu Kyi's reluctance to speak up for the rights of Rohingyas, or appeal to the junta to stop any excesses or atrocities, you see an uncanny resemblance between the Indian state and the Burmese. One understands how it would be political suicide for Tharoor to go out and defend Kashmiris, or articulate their demand for autonomy or independence.

A writer like Arundhati Roy, who has no political ambition, can say or write as she pleases, but Tharoor is a writer and a politician. The political stakes are always higher; he is aware of the terrible consequences of free speech in our mobocracy, obviously.

When you compare Shashi Tharoor's version of what's happening in Kashmir with Aung San Suu Kyi's reluctance to save Rohingyas, you see an uncanny resemblance between the Indian state and the Burmese. Photo: Reuters

The popular image of Aung San Suu Kyi as a symbol of defiance and democratic struggle is already out of date now that she is in the government, and complicit in the ongoing violence and persecution of Rohingyas through her silence and unwillingness to resign or protest. According to The Australian, Aung San Suu Kyi is even using Facebook to fuel hatred towards the Rohingyas. 

The RSS-led BJP government's tacit support of Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta's campaign against a Muslim minority is a political calculation that may or may not prevent Myanmar from getting in bed with China, or improve the BJP's chances of retaining seats and returning to power. What is clear for now is that the BJP is following in the footsteps of the Congress during the Sikh riots by standing mute in the face of the ongoing violence in Myanmar.

The Sikh volunteers' arrival in the Rohingya refugee camps on Myanmar-Bangladesh border should serve as a wake up call for the BJP leaders and Indian ministers. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi ever felt any pang of guilt or shame for his failure to prevent the death and destruction in Gujarat during his watch, the changing tides of time have given him the rare opportunity to cleanse his soul by preventing the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.

A statement of concern from the external affairs ministry simply won't do. The world is watching India and PM Modi, and if there ever was a time for him to be the real hero for a new generation, and remove stains of blood from his conscience, it is now.

Last updated: September 18, 2017 | 12:02
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