“It was a tragedy, it was a painful experience. You say that Congress party was involved in that, I don’t agree with that. Certainly there was violence, certainly there was tragedy,” said Rahul Gandhi, on August 24th, 2018, while talking about the 1984 anti-sikh ‘riots’. The statement has unleashed a new set of uproars within the nation, as well as outside.
The Congress president was in conversation with UK-based parliamentarians in London as part of his five day Europe tour. Linking the incident with his own brushes with violence, Gandhi said he strongly condemned the event, and 100% supported punishment for those who were guilty. At the same time, however, he cleared his own party from all the allegations.
1984 has been marked in the history of Modern India as perhaps its darkest year. The genocide of Sikhs throughout the country, following the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi by her two bodyguards, both Sikh, continues to haunt many lives even as decades go by. The official records put the death toll at about 3000, while several unofficial enquiries, also backed by popular opinion, claim a number at least as high as 8000. Of these, about 3000 are said to have been centered in Delhi.
The assassination of Indira Gandhi and Operation Blue Star
Shortly after 9 AM on the morning of 31st October, 1984, Indira Gandhi was on her way to an interview with the British actor, Peter Ustinov. Walking through the garden of Prime Minister’s residence, it was there that she was shot down by her two bodyguards – Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. While Beant Singh was captured and killed on the spot, Satwant Singh was arrested and consequently hanged in 1989, along with another accomplice Kehar Singh. Her killing is linked to Operation Blue Star – an event that many consider was entirely avoidable.
Between June 1 and June 8, 1984, on the instructions of PM Indira Gandhi, the military carried out the operation in an effort to drive out Sikh militants from Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, Punjab. The operation ended with the army securing entry inside the Golden Temple, and with the killing of the extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, along with at least 410 people, according to official data. Of those killed in the turmoil, many were civilians, militants, people from the army. Operation Blue Star was criticised by many, deeply hurting the sentiments of the Sikh Community. In protest, many Sikh soldiers deserted their respective units, several resigned from their posts, and others returned awards and recognitions given by the government. Notably, the entire Operation Blue Star was to capture Bhindranwale, a figure that had only risen to power with the help of Congress. The seize of Harmandir Sahib is considered to be among the most grave errors by Indira Gandhi, one that ultimately led to her assassination.
The 1984 Genocide and Congress
About 10 hours past the attack on Gandhi, Doordarshan first made the announcement that was unofficially in the air already- the third full-term Prime Minister of the country, Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. What followed next, from the eve of 31st October to at least 3rd November, 1984 – were a series of drastic events, to be forever put down in our history with red ink.
The press secretary of the then President, Giani Zail Singh recalls that the first outbreak of riots took place sometime in the evening near INA market. According to Tarlochan Singh, the attacks were “orchestrated and sponsored”, contrary to the claims made by the Congress party till date. He also said that post the assassination, the soon to be sworn in Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi did not take the President’s several calls, who wanted to discuss the situation with him. Singh claims that although the Army was available in the cantonments within the periphery of Delhi, they were called in from Meerut. Their orders were not to shoot, but merely march.
Trilokpuri, a constituency in East Delhi, stood witness to a large number of Sikh killings. Over 350 Sikhs were pulled out of their homes, brutally killed, set on fire in Block 32 of Trilokpuri. The police, however, did nothing to stop the attacks and arrived at the scene well after 24 hours. On the morning of November 1, several witnesses placed Congress MP Sajjan Kumar addressing rallies in Kiran Gardens, Palam Colony, Sultanpuri. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has since then accused Sajjan Kumar of enticing the mob to kill Sikhs. Moti Singh, a Sikh who was himself a Congress party member for 20 years, reported that he had heard Kumar making a speech where he talked about giving “1000 rupees each” for any Sikh killed.
The people from Sikh community- men, women, children were tracked down and killed mercilessly, many were thrown acid at. Their shops and homes were destroyed, women were reportedly gang-raped. In 2014, while giving a testimony in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHRC), the victims said that they saw Congress leaders carrying voter lists, locating the addresses and names of Sikh families. Other witnesses bear similar accounts, mentioning that members of the mob had voter lists in their hands, tracking down every Sikh household. Such easy access to official documents clearly hints at a political connection.
The 2nd November attack on Rakab Ganj Sahib is said to have been led by Kamal Nath, another Congress party leader. Several Gurudwaras were burnt down, attacked, sacred texts were torn down. The livelihood of tens of thousands were cut off from the roots. When speaking about the happenings, Rajiv Gandhi notably said “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes”. The statement was clearly directed towards the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the following genocide of the Sikh Community.
Can the blame be forgotten?
In 2005, the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh made a public apology to the Sikh community, as well as the country for the 1984 killings. Although no direct confessions were made, it was as close to acceptance as the party had come. In the years to follow, several Congress leaders have quoted the former PM’s words when asked about their stand on the incident.
Interestingly, in 2014, Rahul Gandhi himself made a reference to Manmohan Singh‘s public apology when questioned about 1984. His recent “u-turn” statement certainly comes as a shock, as well as a jibe in these circumstances. The Shiromani Akali Dal president, Sukhbir Singh Badal has accused Gandhi of rubbing salt on the wounds of the Sikh community- and understandably so.
Yes, Rahul Gandhi was merely a school child in 1984 and cannot be held accountable for the events that unfolded. But that still does not allow him to turn away from all the sufferings the Sikh community had to face. Till date, families try to recover from the terror that engulfed them, many still in the grabs of poverty and slow decline. Hundreds of families lost their loved ones, and a statement like his is bound to mock their misery. His father, Rajiv Gandhi’s stand is not unknown to any in the country, with his remarks on the “big tree”. How fair is it then, to acknowledge the victims, but not the perpetrators; especially by somebody who soon hopes to lead the country?