Riot and Wrong

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As the Jarnail Singh incident reminds us, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots still rankle. This essay from Khushwant Singh’s Why I Supported the Emergency explains why
Why I Supported the Emergency: Essays and Profiles | Penguin | 296 pages | Rs 450

The 1984 anti-Sikh riots still rankle. Khushwant Singh’s Why I Supported the Emergency explains why

There are two anniversaries so deeply etched in my mind that every year when they come around, I recollect with pain what happened on those days. One is 31 October 1984, when Mrs Gandhi was gunned down by her two Sikh security guards. The other is the following day, when the ‘aftermath’ consummated itself: frenzied Hindu mobs, driven by hate and revenge, killed nearly 10,000 innocent Sikhs across north India all the way down to Karnataka. In 1989, Mrs Gandhi’s assassin, Satwant Singh, and Kehar Singh, a conspirator, paid the penalty for their crime by being hanged to death in Tihar jail. Twenty-four years later, the killers of 10,000 Sikhs remain unpunished. The conclusion is clear: in secular India there is one law for the Hindu majority, another for Muslims, Christians and Sikhs who are in minority.

31 October 1984: The sequence of events remains as vivid as ever. Around 11 am, I heard of Mrs Gandhi being shot in her house and taken to hospital. By the afternoon, I heard on the BBC that she was dead. For a couple of hours, life in Delhi came to a standstill. Then hell broke loose—mobs yelling ‘khoon ka badla khoon se lenge’ (we’ll avenge blood with blood) roamed the streets. Ordinary Sikhs going about their life were waylaid and roughed up. In the evening, I saw a cloud of black smoke billowing up from Connaught Circus: Sikh-owned shops had been set on fire. An hour later, mobs were smashing taxis owned by Sikhs right opposite my apartment. Sikh-owned shops in Khan Market were being looted. Over 100 policemen armed with lathis who lined the road did nothing. At midnight, truckloads of men armed with cans of petrol attacked the gurudwara behind my back garden, beat up the granthi and set fire to the shrine. I was bewildered and did not know what to do...

...Around mid-morning, a Swedish diplomat came and took my wife and me to his home in the diplomatic enclave. My aged mother had been taken by Romesh Thapar to his home. Our family lawyer, Anant Bir Singh, who lived close to my mother, had his long hair cut and beard shaved to avoid being recognised as a Sikh. I watched Mrs Gandhi’s cremation on TV in the home of my Swedish protector. I felt like a Jew must have in Nazi Germany. I was a refugee in my own homeland because I was a Sikh.

What I found most distressing was the attitude of many of my Hindu friends. Only two couples made it a point to call on me after I returned home. They were Sri S Mulgaonkar and his wife, and Arun Shourie and his wife, Anita. As for the others, the less said the better. Girilal Jain, editor of The Times of India, rationalised the violence: the Hindu cup of patience, he wrote, had become full to the brim. NC Menon, who succeeded me as the editor of Hindustan Times, wrote of how Sikhs had ‘clawed their way to prosperity’ and well nigh had it coming to them.

Some spread gossip of how Sikhs had poisoned Delhi’s drinking water, how they had attacked trains and slaughtered Hindu passengers. At the Gymkhana Club where I played tennis every morning, one man said I had no right to complain after what the Sikhs had done to the Hindus in Punjab. At a party, another gloated, ‘Khoob mazaa chakhaya—we gave them a taste of their own medicine.’ Word had gone around: ‘Teach the Sikhs a lesson’.

Did the Sikhs deserve to be taught a lesson? I pondered over the matter for many days and many hours and reluctantly admitted that Hindus had some justification for their anger against Sikhs. The starting point was the emergence of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a leader. He used vituperative language against the Hindus. He exhorted every Sikh to kill 32 Hindus to solve the Hindu-Sikh problem. Anyone who opposed him was put on his hit list and some eliminated. His hoodlums murdered Lala Jagat Narain, the founder of the Hind Samachar group of papers. They killed hawkers who sold their papers.

The list of Bhindranwale’s victims, which included both Hindus and Sikhs, was a long one. More depressing to me was that no one spoke out openly against him. He had a wily patron in Giani Zail Singh, who had him released when he was charged as an accomplice in the murder of Jagat Narain. Akali leaders supported him... Bhindranwale, with the tacit connivance of Akali leaders like Gurcharan Singh Tohra, turned the Golden Temple into an armed fortress of Sikh defiance.

He provided the Indian government the excuse to send the army into the temple complex. I warned the government in Parliament, and through my articles, against using the army to get hold of Bhindranwale and his followers as the consequences would be grave. And so they were. Operation Bluestar was a blunder of Himalayan proportions. Bhindranwale was killed but hailed as a martyr.

Over 5,000 men and women lost their lives in the exchange of fire. The Akal Takht was wrecked.
Symbolic protests did not take long coming. I was a part of it; I surrendered the Padma Bhushan awarded to me. Among the people who condemned my action was Vinod Mehta, then the editor of the Observer. He wrote that when it came to choosing between being an Indian and a Sikh, I had chosen to be a Sikh. I stopped contributing to his paper. I had never believed that I had to be one or the other. I was both an Indian and a Sikh and proud of being so. I might well have asked Mehta in return, ‘Are you a Hindu or an Indian?’ Hindus do not have to prove their nationality; only Muslims, Christians and Sikhs are required to give evidence of their patriotism...

Anti-Sikh violence gave a boost to the demand for a separate Sikh state and Khalistan-inspired terrorism in Punjab and abroad... The killings went on unabated for almost 10 years. It is estimated that in those 10 years, over 25,000 were killed. Midway, the Golden Temple had again become a sanctuary for criminals. This time, the Punjab police led by KPS Gill was able to get the better of them with the loss of only two lives in what came to be known as Operation Black Thunder (12-18 May 1988).

The terrorist movement petered out as the terrorists turned gangsters and took to extortion and robbery. The peasantry turned its back on them. About the last action of the Khalistani terrorists was the murder of Chief Minister Beant Singh, who was blown up along with 12 others by a suicide bomber on 31 August 1995, in Chandigarh.

It is not surprising that with this legacy of ill-will and bloodshed, a sense of alienation grew among the Sikhs. It was reinforced by the reluctance of successive governments at the Centre to bring to book the perpetrators of the anti-Sikh pogrom of 31 October and 1 November 1984. A growing number of non-Sikhs have also come to the conclusion that grave injustice has been done to the Sikhs.

Several non-official commissions of inquiry—including one headed by retired Supreme Court chief Justice SM Sikri, comprising retired ambassadors and senior civil servants—have categorically named the guilty. However, all that the government has done is to appoint one commission of inquiry after another to look into charges of minor relevance to the issue without taking any action. The Nanavati Commission has been at it for quite some time: I rendered evidence before it in 2002. It has asked for a further extension of time, which has been granted till the end of 2005. The only word I can think of using for such official procrastination is ‘disgraceful’...

...The dark months of alienation are over; the new dawn promises blue skies and sunshine for the minorities with only one black cloud remaining to be blown away—a fair deal to the families of the victims of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984. It was the most horrendous crime committed on a mass scale since we became an independent nation. Its perpetrators must be punished because crimes unpunished generate more criminals.