A prognosis of the shape of things to come was revealed in the speech delivered by the Prime Minister at New Delhi’s Boat Club rally, officially organized to observe the birth anniversary of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Since the 15 minute address was relayed live over radio and TV there is no room for ambiguity.
The politics of revenge
“We have to take reVen ) Mra Rajiv Gandhi said and, after a telling pause, proceeded to qualify the nature of revenge, while the audience seized upon the calculated interregnum to burst into applause and a chorus of khoon ka badla khoon se lenge. What the Prime Minister did not say was more ominous. He did not condemn the death and destruction inflicted on hundreds of innocent Sikhs following the appalling tragedy of Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination. Instead, he sought to explain away the horrendous holocaust with a metaphorical analogy of earth tremors caused by the fall of a mighty tree. A bizarre requiem for the dead! This astonishingly callous utterance is so much out of character with Mr. Gandhi’s initial appeal for a return to peace and sanity that one shudders at the impact his words must have made on the volatile audience scarcely capable of fine distinctions and most probably comprising some of the “Jumpen”’ elements who had indulged in the orgy. They must have lapped up Mr. Gandhi’s vow to “act ruthlessly’ to “‘eliminate from India all secessionists Tor them enough exhortation to pick on any turbaned Sikh, as instantly demonstrated in the ignominious hooting down of Delhi’s Sikh Mayor, his lifelong Congressman ship notwithstanding. The first public address of the Prime Minister brings to mind the sombre lines of the American poet, Robert Frost: “And nothing to look backward to with pride; And nothing to look forward to with hope.”’
Paeans of Praise
At a time when the mass media are smothered either in the platitudinous praise for the late Mrs. Gandhi or preoccupied with the babble of election, most people are inclined to forget the tragedy of the Sikhs, unwilling to face the ugly events that shall forever mar the year 1984. But, for the Sikhs everywhere, the calamitous experience will continue to haunt them for generations. In the words of George Steiner, ‘“‘each indignity visited upon a human being, each torture is irreducibly singular and inexpiable. Every time a human being is flogged, starved, deprived of self-respect, a specific black hole opens in the fabric of life.” In case of Sikhs in India, the fabric lies in tatters.
Limbo of abstraction
Government has, predictably, come up with figures of the dead and sanctimonious statements of the assistance doled out to rehabilitate the survivors. Soon the figures too will recede into the comfortable limbo of abstraction. And paeans of praise will be sung for India’s resilience in coping with crises. For Sikhs, it is time for introspection not mourning, for honest appraisal shorn of acrimony, for arousing the conscience of India and the world in order to survive with honor and dignity, to achieve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. First the introspection.
Where did we go wrong
On the morrow of India’s independence, scarcely recovering from the disastrous events of Partition, the mass of Sikhs accepted the Akali leadership, just as the leaders reposed faith in the unity of India, in secularism and in the pledges of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. But so far from honoring the pledges (in particular, Nehru’s assurance of ‘‘an area and a setup in the North wherein the Sikhs can experience the glow of freedom’’) a creeping process of betrayal was set in motion by the central government. Sikhs had not only to cope with the Punjabi Hindus’ open disavowal of their mother tongue but an erosion of the powers that are associated with local government, climaxed by the carving out of a mutilated Punjab, deprived of hills, forest and river watersheds, reducing the ‘‘land of five rivers” to a trickle of two — without its own capital. While the Sikh leadership bungled in their protests, and in the strategy, and vied with one another for suprem-demands acy, the center ignored the basic problem with lofty disdain, until it delivered a fraudulent award on the Chandigarh issue, calculated to weaken Punjab and to appease Haryana at the same time.
The Akalis’ struggle for political justice was fitful and frustrating not only because of the centre’s intransigence but because of their own ineptitude and lack of consistency. By the time the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was hammered out in 1973, the Central leadership, knowing the inherent weaknesses of the Akalis, became even more adamantine, while maintaining the pretense of open-mindedness, the mask finally falling off with the summary dismissal of the Akali coalition government of the state in 1980, close on the heels of Mrs. Gandhi’s triumphant return to power.
Dialogue of the deaf
The halfhearted negotiations between government and the Akalis assumed the classical character of the dialogue of the deaf, with government never tired of trotting out the phoney argument that other states must be won over for an overall settlement of the Punjab demands. Government’s oft-repeated explanation that the storming of the Golden Temple was dictated by action of the last recourse sounds hollow in the background of prevarication and dithering of more than 18 months of negotiation conducted at the level of a doddering home minister, while the Prime Minister remained unapproachable and aloof, palming off the Akalis with chance pronouncements, at odd places, out of season, about carting away tobacco vendors from the holy city, to assure the world that the religious of the Sikhs have indeed been conceded. Her slogan: “‘shed hatred, do not shed blood,” in fact was suffixed to her June 2 telecast to the nation, when the 1,000,000 strong army stood poised to launch a massive assault in Amritsar that turned out to be a mindless massacre of pilgrims, priests and sewadars, instead of a limited commando operation to apprehend the hundred odd men suspected of terrorist acts.
Role of the Army
Solemn declarations have been made about the army’s humane role and about the generals who had ‘prayers on their lips’ during the assault. One would have liked to leave out any reference to the armed forces, for they constitute the only element of India’s governance that is relatively free from many of the ills afflicting the country’s body politic. But there are certain unexplained and uncharacteristic aspects of the infamous “Operation Blue Star” which cannot be glossed over in any dispassionate analysis.
Doubtless, the armed forces in a democracy must operate at the behest of the elected civil government. However, the use of the army in civil disturbances is governed by an elaborate and clear cut set of regulations as well as conventions. The distinguished soldier, General S.K. Sinha (retired) recently deplored the excessive reliance on the army for dealing with law and order within the country. He warned against the risk inherent in committing the armed forces too often and too long in the quelling of civil unrest, particularly one precipitated by political inaptitude and capable of political solution.
No less disturbing is the fact of combatant generals suffering themselves to be used for propagandist purposes over audiovisual media, as was the case in Amritsar in June last. Tragically, the army gunned down an unknown number of innocent men, women and children in the Golden Temple, and at Patiala in Gurdwaras Dukh Niwaran, and used menacing military hardware wholly uncalled for by the situation. They failed to furnish the list of civilian casualties and to enable their next of kin to perform last rites a duty legally and morally incumbent on them even in respect of the enemy in war, under the Geneva Convention of International Red Cross. The Nobel Peace Laureate, Sean MacBride had, in a similar context some years ago, observed: “It used to be the rule always that you had to take precautions not to injure innocents or civilians.” Every civilized norm was flouted by the army.
It is said that, shortly after the June operation, the Prime Minister had rebuked the generals for over stepping their brief, for the overkill and the destruction of the holy Akal Takht. Had this private remark been made publicly, it would have tempered the agony of the Sikhs. But, then, any such admission would have detracted from the image of the government. Mrs. Gandhi thus proved herself as ‘‘the coldblooded practitioner of power politics’ and the Durga incarnate champion of the Hindu dharma! In consequence, the assault on the Golden Temple left a permanent scar on the Sikh psyche and soured the Sikhs’ traditional admiration for the many splendored Indian army.
The resultant tidal wave of resentment among the Sikhs was unprecedented. Government made no effort to own the excesses; on the contrary it took refuge in mendacity and fabrication to justify the fact and scale of operation, underplayed the destruction and compounded its guilt by subborning a bogus Baba to “restore the _ pristine grandeur of the Akal Takht’” through sundry contractors and paid labour itself an affront to the hoary Sikh tradition of Kar-Seva.
Long Night of Terror
But no one allowed the true Sikh sentiment to surface. Instead the media repeatedly broadcast the identity of the assassins and gave undue prominence to the individual and isolated, inflammatory actions of some overseas Sikhs. The hours between the foul deed and the official announcement of Mrs. Gandhi’s death were used to whip up frenzy against Sikhs across the Hindi heartland, triggering a holocaust too terrible to be narrated. In city after city the weeklong night of terror descended on the microscopic Sikh minority before the sun had set on that black Wednesday, as blood thirsty mobs sought out defenseless men, women and children, dragging them out of homes, shops, trains, trucks and taxis, to be clubbed, slashed and burnt alive. Homes, schools, gurdwaras, factories, vehicles and business establishments were looted and arsonized with impunity. For the police were not simply the lookers-on, they aided and abetted the rampaging mobs, even as the administration crumbled in paralysis.
Method in Madness
But there was a method in this madness, brought into play by the same political scum that had staged the anti-Sikh riots in Haryana in February and many who ‘strut about in the Delhi’s corridors of power, including members of Parliament. Otherwise, how could a set pattern emerge so soon and so extensively? Consider the withdrawal, disarming and confinement to barracks of 6,000 Sikh policemen in Delhi, the reluctance to call the army. The dithering to issue the “‘shoot at sight’”’ orders the singling out of Sikh homes and shops by the mob with the help of either neighbors or official machinery the catalogue is endless. Demands by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and numerous other civil rights organizations for a thorough probe into the role of the government and the ruling party in ‘“‘planning instigating and executing,” the barbarities on Sikhs have remained unheeded. The relief camps sheltering the victims have been hastily dismantled, not because the terror stricken families have regained confidence and the means of rehabilitation, but because the ruling party’s image would be tarnished in the pre-election weeks!
Much has been written, during the last few months about the role of the intelligentsia, the loudest inquisitionists being the Hindu press. Not many have cared to notice that majority of educated Sikhs, like educated Hindus, Muslims. Christians are apolitical, averse to taking a public stand on burning issues. Most are in services civil and military professions and business. Why blame them for the incidental violence at the fringes of politics?
On the other hand, look at the majority community’s intelligentsia. Did they shed a tear for the dead in Amritsar; was there no jubilation over the assault on Golden Temple? Did anyone protest over the inflammatory writings of Lala Jagat Narain and his son? And what about the vitriolic articles of the then Editor, Indian Express, Mr. Arun Shourie and Editor of the Times of India, Mr. Girilal Jain, calculated to run down the distinctive Sikh ethos and, in the process betraying a clear shift from conceptual secularism to fashionable communalism. The Editor of Bombay’s Sunday Observer, Mr. Vinod Mehta went so far as to say that one cannot be both a Sikh and an Indian!
Such perverted writings have vitiated the atmosphere to a point where humiliating Sikhs has become a favorite pastime of the modern elite. Starting with the Asian Games in Delhi in November, 1982, the intellectual chauvinism on this score has only become more brazen. The consequences were too apparent in the political commentaries in the wake of Amtfitsar tragedy.
This blitzkrieg of unfair writings has spawned a curious reaction among the Sikhs, individually and collectively. They are now bending over backwards to praise Mrs. Gandhi, endorse her Punjab policies and extol the success of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi in “restoring the peace so speedily,’ representing a swing of the pendulum approximating to abject surrender.
Are Sikhs Pampered?
The strident communal press has been quick to chastise the Sikhs as a pampered community, overrated and over represented in Indian polity and prone to secession and subversion. Out of this line of argument has emerged a definition that all Sikhs are terrorists, all Amritdhari Khalistanis. Those who did not sing praises of Mrs. Gandhi deserve to be lynched. It is ironical that Sikhs should be brought to such straits as to have to make public declaration of their patriotism and to wear their spirit of unity on their sleeves, that those who provide food grains to the teeming millions are made fodder for the guns, that the state they call their own should become a vast concentration camp, dotted with secret courts and detention wards, with lawless laws for, allegedly, restoring the rule of law, under which one is presumed guilty unless one can establish one’s innocence the dream of ‘‘glow of freedom”’ turned into a *nightmare of the Gulag!
In the din of election does anybody remember Punjab and its agony? How human rights become irrelevant in that woebegone state? Is there no place for Sikhs in India? While the moral and constitutional responsibility for the Sikhs’ survival with honor rests squarely on the government, the majority community cannot shrug its shoulders.
*The reference is to Gulag Archipelago of Alexander Solzenitzin.