The words Punjab and Sikh burst on the global scene in 1984 and have commanded considerable attention since then. The popular perception is that a “handful of terrorists” are committing acts of violence and the government of the so-called “largest democracy” in the world is trying to fight this campaign. Recently, the Western world itself has faced considerable violence and terrorism in one form or another. An ignorance of the Sikh/Punjab issues and a general anger towards terrorism as such has created a tendency in most circles to simplify matters.
What are the issues? Did the violence begin as a last resort weapon towards deliberate neglect of Sikhs by the Government of India? And, is the Government of India (and India’s Hindu majority) indulging in a calculated campaign of wiping out a religious minority?
The Sikh nation maintains that the current repressive attitude of Indian Government: is. nothing new. The Hindu community and its leadership are determined not only to exterminate the Sikhs but also other potent minorities.
Currently, Sikhs constitute about 2 percent of Indian population. In the undivided British India, an independent Sikh State was finally annexed in 1848. In 1877, Sikhs launched a movement for a “Punjabi Suba”–a separate province where all persons who spoke Punjabi language could enjoy the freedom of preserving and promoting their cultural heritage. Sikhs also declared their support for Indian Freedom Movement. As early as 1929-30, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had declared that Sikhs would be treated as a distinct separate entity and no Indian constitution would be approved without the participation and endorsement of Sikhs.
In 1946, both the British and the Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah tried to persuade the Sikhs not to join the Hindus. But Gandhi and Nehru repeated their unqualified assurances on Sikhs’ rights and these assurances were accepted in good faith.
However, the 1950 Indian constitution came as a shock to the Sikh nation. It declared Sikhs as part of the Hindu majority religion. The Sikh leader in Indian constituent assembly, Hukam Singh, rejected this clause but the constitution was adopted since Hindu Congress had a majority.
Why would a “secular state” try to define the religion of any segment of its population? This question is at the heart of Sikh-Hindu confrontation.
The scope of this pamphlet does not permit the luxury of further historical detail. However, it is a verifiable fact that Sikhs in Punjab and elsewhere in India are victims of terrorism by a ruthless majority and its equally ruthless political leadership.
This pamphlet will briefly deal with some important aspects of human rights violations in India such as 1) Indian Government has consistently attempted to suppress peaceful dissent. 2) Distorted information is used to prove that all violence in Punjab is initiated by “Sikh militants” and only non-Sikhs are the victims. 3) Indian Government and Hindu community is practicing Nazi/Fascist doctrine of Class Guilt–to punish all members-of a community for the alleged crimes of a few. 4) The Sikhs are not protected by laws of the country or its judicial system.
Suppression of Peaceful Dissent:
The Indian and international press and world leaders acknowledged that a recently assassinated Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal was a “moderate” leader. In an interview with India’s most respected biweekly magazine India Today (October 15, 1982,) Longowal said:
“The promise (of Gandhi and Nehru) should be honored. In 35 years of independence Sikhs have been treated as second class citizens. .. We have been subjected to gross injustice. . . (All political narties like) Congress, Janata Party, Lok Dal, the communists–all have led peaceful protests. But when we wanted to go to Delhi and protest, our buses were stopped, our trucks seized and damaged. Four Sikhs were killed . . . trains were searched and Sikhs dragged out. . . Mrs. Gandhi is living in a fool’s paradise if she thinks the Sikhs can be kept as slaves.
The interview contained not threats of violence but the magazine still headlined it as “Militant Stand.” Such calculated media angles have contributed a great deal towards creating a negative image of Sikh nation as being “extremist and terrorist.”
As a result of this successful campaign, innocent Sikh victims of Indian Government’s terrorism are finding that many western nations are reluctant to grant them refugee status or even allow them to come as visitors.
Longowal interview also shows that Sikhs were victims of state backed Hindu communal violence. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (assassinated during Indian army’s attack on Golden Temple) was considered as the cause of all violence in Punjab. But even before he arrived on the scene as an effective political force, Sikhs were deprived of their inalienable right to peaceful political dissent.
Another glaring example of Indian Government’s chronic intolerance for peaceful dissent came to light during Indian prime minister’s 1985 visit to United States. The National Press Club invited the Indian Ambassador to address a meeting on June 7, 1985 and it also invited the prime minister to speak at a luncheon on June 14. However, the club invited an American Sikh leader, Sardar Ganga Singh Dhillon, to express his views on the situation in Indian Punjab. This meeting was set for June 11.
The Indian Government reacted angrily in Delhi and Washington; it called the invitation a “gross discourtesy” to Indian prime minister; demanded cancellation and sought U.S. State Department’s help to pressure club; threatened that if Dhillon was allowed to speak then the prime minister would cancel his luncheon speech; and the entire Indian press painted the event as a US-Pakistan conspiracy to embarrass the prime minister and cited it as a “proof” of a “foreign hand” in political situation in Punjab.
In the best traditions of impartiality, the National Press Club refused to withdraw the invitation.
The episode, however, raises many interesting questions: 1) Indian ambassador and Indian prime minister used the club forum to express their version of Punjab situation but in their view a Sikh should not have been allowed to present his side of the story. 2) If an American citizen’s peaceful dissent in America (on the subject of Punjab) is unacceptable to Indian Government then is it conceivable that it would allow this to happen in India? The answer may be found in the following episode.
On September 16, 1985, The New York Times reported that Indian Government had confiscated and destroyed the copies of a report on government’s brutal handling of the Punjab situation. The report was compiled by an independent civil liberties group, Citizens for Democracy. It asserted that “clearly innocent” people had been arrested and the police in Punjab had carried out “sadistic torture, ruthless killings, fake counters, calculated ill treatment of women and children, and corruption and graft on a large scale.”
The foreword of “Oppression in Punjab” was .written by a respected judge V.W. Tawrkunde. The judge and others involved in the preparation and printing of the report have been charged with sedition. Chandra Shekhar, prominent opposition leader and president of Janata Party, has accused Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of “sustained attempts to suppress the civil rights of the people.”
These points should be noted: A) Those who prepared the report were not Sikhs. B) None of them had any record of supporting the separatist movement. C) They had not attempted to incite or condone violence.
The simple fact that they considered some Sikhs to be innocent victims of state terrorism was enough to accuse them of sedition.
These are only a few examples of how the Indian Government has attempted to suppress peaceful dissent at home and abroad. By systematically and forcefully closing all doors to peaceful dissent the Indian Government has left the Sikh Nation with two options: 1) To surrender to Hindu majority and lose their distinct cultural and religious identity, or 2) To find alternative ways of expressing their dissent. In this case, the Indian Government has the resources and the international clout to discredit the entire Sikh nation; force foreign governments to close their doors to Sikh refugees so that they cannot escape to more secure environments and can be easily slaughtered in Punjab.