Many Indians have hailed the accord signed by Prime Minister Gandhi and the “moderate” Sikh leader Sant Harchand Singh Longowal. Most Sikhs reject it as a sellout. They feel let down and betrayed once again.
The economic and territorial demands by the Sikhs ~were the product of a feeling of insecurity regarding their survival as a distinct religious community. The accord does not address the real issue of religious freedom and identity. It does not even ensure “amnesty” for all victims of government brutality who are rotting in jails or are in voluntary exile to avoid persecution. It does not even ensure stoppage of government brutality against innocent Sikhs and immunity of gurdwaras against police and army intervention and attack. It does not ensure freedom of expression in the gurdwaras which the Sikhs have traditionally insisted upon. The accord accepts a worse situation for the Sikhs than the one in July 1982 when the agitation started.
At best the accord can be viewed as the beginning of a process in which the government and the majority . Hindus would work to create the atmosphere of tolerance and harmony in which the Sikhs and other minorities in India could feel safe and respected. The Sikh alienation is deep. Sikhs have been burnt alive, raped, looted, and humiliated. Indian government’s violent suppression of their peaceful agitation has profoundly hurt their psyche. Tokenism will not heal it.
It is well known that some militant Hindus wish to make India a purely Hindu state and have diligently worked to undermine minority religions in India. The Punjab Hindus disowned Punjabi language as their mother tongue declaring it to be the language of Sikhs. Mrs. Gandhi, to reap political advantage, encouraged disaffection among various religious communities. Militant Hindu newspapers and the Nirankari cult published and disseminated literature containing derogatory references to the Sikh religion. The Nirankaris murdered unarmed Sikh protesters. No one was punished. The government, through deliberate inaction, encouraged the groups that slandered the Sikh faith.
Thirty-six years of betrayal by the government, discrimination by the majority Hindus, and poor leadership resulted in serious erosion of religious values among the Sikhs. This was what the so-called secular national leaders had looked for all along. However, Sant Bhindranwale’s emergence as a dynamic and inspiring leader reversed the trend. Punjab saw a massive religious revival among the Sikhs. Tens of thousands of Sikhs sought confirmation in their faith. A state government scared by Sant Bhindranwale’s popularity and growing influence reacted by treating him as a threat to government’s authority, calling all confirmed Sikhs “extremists” and using torture and murder to discourage Sikhs from flocking to him.
The persecution was brutal and continues to this day. Thousands of innocent Sikhs were arrested on trumped-up charges. By September 1983, nearly two hundred had been murdered or tortured to death and reported killed in fake police “encounters.” Thousands returned home from “interrogations” crippled and mentally deranged. Sikh women were stripped, paraded in streets, and raped at police stations. The courts, the press, and the national leadership showed complete indifference to Sikh agony. Many Sikhs, including Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, took sanctuary in the Golden Temple to escape the fake ‘“‘encounters.” Even though there were no charges against these men, the government propaganda described the Golden Temple as a haven for criminals. There was a massive misinformation campaign to alienate the bulk of the Indian population from the Sikhs and their cause.
During its invasion of the Golden Temple and other Sikh shrines, the Indian army killed thousands of innocent men, women and children. Many Sikhs were tied up and shot. No lists of the dead were made. The families were not allowed to claim the dead. The victims, including persons who were badly wounded, are said to have been unceremoniously dumped in heaps and burnt. Thousands, including small children, were detained and subjected to torture.
Mary Anne Weaver, writing about the cordon and search operations in 1984, reported: “The pattern in each village appears to be the same all males between the ages of 15 and 35 are trussed and blindfolded, then taken away. Thousands have disappeared in the Punjab since the Army operation began. The government has provided no lists of names; families do not know if sons and husbands are arrested, underground, or dead.” William Claiborne wrote: “In some villages, there are no young men between the ages of 15 and 30. Hither they are dead, in jail or they have run away to Pakistan.”
After Mrs. Gandhi’s death, thousands of Sikh men were dragged out of homes, cars, buses and trains, beaten helpless, doused with kerosene and then burnt alive in the presence of their families. Their women were then gang raped. There was widespread looting and arson directed at Sikh property. There are said to be thousands of widows, tens of thousands of orphans, and hundreds of women abducted and missing. Even though many of the culprits were positively identified by the survivors, no one has been punished.
There has been a ban on all news from Punjab. Travelers from India are searched and some have ended up in jail for bringing “anti-India” films and tape recordings out of that country. International press and TV have not been allowed into that state. An Associated Press reporter is on trial in India for telling the truth. In K.M. O’Leary’s words: “The media and the press were used by the government to either misrepresent or suppress the extent of the violence towards the Sikhs.”
Sikhs outside India have not been able to help the victims. The government has steadfastly taken the position that the problem does not even exist. Refugees from murdering and burning hordes were forced to go back to the burnt out shells of their homes. International relief organizations have not been allowed to provide redress.
The government has refused to hold impartial inquiries into the massacres. It is well known that several high ranking political figures were actively involved in them. The police were a party to the massacres, arson and looting through voluntary inaction or active participation.
The government and the Indian press have made wild and patently false accusations of secession, treason, and antinational activity against Sikhs. Surely, this is the single most important reason for the virulent mass hysteria against the Sikhs. Sikhs continue to be branded unpatriotic. The Indian army is reportedly recruiting 100,000 Gurkhas to “reduce its dependence upon the Sikhs.”
Sikhs have been described as violent terrorists even though, as a matter of fact, there have never been any cases of Sikh mobs setting upon Hindus. In Punjab villages, according to India Today, the Sikhs have been reassuring their Hindu neighbors of protection even though, ironically, they themselves have been the targets of wholesale oppression. Sant Bhindranwale said: “They say I kill Hindus and get Hindus killed. Does anyone here know of any occasion when I asked that such and such Hindu should be killed? Have I ever expressed delight at any Hindu’s death? Still they keep saying I kill Hindus and get them killed.”
The Sikhs feel the government wants to destroy their religion. They are under pressure to renounce the teachings of their gurus. Their cherished ideal of a “saint soldier” is being maligned. They are not allowed freely to bear arms and are denied freedom of expression even in their places of worship. Confirmation in their faith is regarded as a crime and the external symbols of their religion invite harassment, abuse, and even murder. One government document declared taking “Amrit,” a ceremony of religious confirmation, to be “an oath in the name of religion to support extremists and actively participate in the act of terrorism.” “Amritdhari” (confirmed) Sikhs were referred to as “dangerous people pledged to commit murder, arson and acts of terrorism … These people may appear harmless but they are basically committed to terrorism.” An indication of a leader’s involvement in terrorist activity was “that he instructed his subordinates to read the Sikh scripture!”
In Pope John Paul II’s words: “War and violence originate when one does not recognize the fundamental rights of man … Violence directed against the dignity of the individual is’ intolerable and unworthy of man … if we remain silent, the clamor of violence will stifle the cry of the people who call for justice and peace.” In India the fundamental rights of the Sikhs have been trampled upon, repeatedly, violently. Fighters for India’s freedom and its stout defenders, they have been made scapegoats for all crime and hunted down as terrorists. Tragically, the free world has ignored their call for justice. No one has spoken up against the Sikh holocaust.
Before June 1984, few Sikhs supported the idea of an independent Sikh state. Sant Bhindranwale said: “How cans a community which has contributed so much for the country’s freedom wish it fragmented?” The current support for Khalistan is a cry of desperation of people wronged beyond measure; of people whose most sacred shrines have been destroyed, way of worship ridiculed, young men and children murdered, women dishonored, and most dedicated leaders killed and maligned.
Through its invasion of the Golden Temple, the Indian government told them plainly that they could not be allowed to follow Guru Gobind Singh’s instructions requiring that Sikhs bear arms, that their way of worship had to be in conformity with the Hindu notions of sanctity, and that their unbroken heritage of religious freedom and control of their places of worship was intolerable.
Fundamental changes, not token concessions, are needed to reestablish the trust eroded by thirty-eight years of betrayal and persecution. Sikhs seek freedom for their homeland so they can freely practice their religion. Bold’ initiatives, not reluctant handouts, will secure for India the friendship of a free Sikh state.