Dear Mr. Gandhi:
I am writing this letter as a Sikh distressed at the grim news we have been getting from India for over a year now.
You might like to know a Sikh’s perception of the situation. It might help to find a solution compatible with the unity and integrity of India as well as survival of the identity of the Sikh religion and restoration of dignity and honor of the Sikhs. In this letter I shall try to describe how a Sikh feels at this time and make some suggestions which might be useful.
The Sikhs feel their religion is under attack and that some extremist elements in the majority community are out to discredit the teachings of Guru Gobind Singh. The Sikhs feel they are being branded terrorists simply for being followers of the tenth Guru. Their cherished ideal of a “saint soldier” is being maligned. They are expected to redefine “sanctity” of and to surrender the freedom of expression in their places of worship, to dismantle their religious organization, to discourage confirmation in the faith (the “amrit ceremony’), and to deemphasize the external symbols of their religion.
Any lasting solution of the problem must correct this feeling. To understand the basis for Sikh fears and frustrations it is necessary to see recent history from a Sikh’s point of view.
It is well known that some sections of the Arya Samaj have worked against the Sikh religion since the last century. Till 1947, however, this antagonism was low-key. After freedom, there was an active campaign by the Punjab Arya Samaj to represent Punjabi as the language of the Sikh religion and to disown it as their mother tongue. Some of them also started publicly speaking and writing against the Sikh religion. Long before there was any so-called “terrorist” activity in Punjab, Lala Jagat Narain wrote derogatory articles against Jathedar Gurdial Singh Ajnoha of the Akal Takhat and even Guru Gobind Singh. He was clamoring for Sant Bhindranwale’s arrest as far back as April 1981 for the sole reason that the Sant and his associates “had been moving about in the state at will, addressing congregations.” It is noteworthy that up to that time the only religious murders in Punjab had been those of nonviolent Sikh protesters at the hands of Nirankaris. Most Sikhs regard Sant Bhindranwale’s arrest in September 1981 as an attempt to shut down the Damdami Taksal, the premier theological seminary for the Sikh religion, which he headed. Official policy after September 1981 appears to have based on the assumption that somehow Sant Bhindranwale was connected with Lala Jagat Narain’s murder.
Sant Bhindranwale protested Lala Narain’s tirades against the Sikhs and the apparent government patronage of the Nirankari sect whose leaders publicly derided and insulted Sikh gurus and Sikh _institutions. They were a threat to peace because of their provocative attacks on the Sikh faith, its founders and its leaders. They murdered unarmed Sikh protesters and no action was taken against them. The government (including the Akalidominated coalition), instead of curbing their nefarious activities, was perceived to have actually encouraged them and tried to subdue Sikh protest.
The Akalis had, from time to time, been agitating for certain political and economic demands. In a free country, there will always be demands by various regions and various groups. These need to be addressed by the government on their merits. An average Sikh, while sympathizing with these demands as being in his economic interest would not seriously consider making an agitation on economic issues into a “Dharam Yudh” (Religious Struggle). Sant Bhindranwale’s perception that the government was encouraging the Nirankaris and other forces against the Sikh religion set the stage for a religious revival and transformation of the Akali movement into a religious crusade. The state government declared Sant Bhindranwale an “extremist” and to control his followers came down upon the Sikhs with a heavy hand.
Sant Bhindranwale protested Punjab government’s arbitrary and highhanded actions which included confiscation of arms licenses issued to Sikhs, large scale arrests, torture, humiliation and murder of young Sikh men and women. Over two hundred Sikh young men were murdered or tortured to death at police stations and reported killed in fake police “encounters.’’ In many cases the bodies were not returned to the families. Thousands were sent home from interrogations crippled and mentally deranged. Sikh women were stripped and paraded in the streets and raped at police stations. Meantime, certain irresponsible political leaders made statements threatening Sikhs outside Punjab with dire consequences if the Punjab Sikhs reacted to the oppression. Sant Bhindranwale and the large majority of Sikhs were not interested in politics. They merely wanted the police brutality ordered by Darbara Singh’s government stopped and the guilty officials punished. No one, including the courts, took notice of these atrocities. Sant Bhindranwale, frustrated in his attempts to get justice, attributed official callousness to the fact that the victims were Sikhs. He reminded the Sikhs that when “daleel, appeal and vakeel” (reasoning, appeals, and legal action) have been tried and have failed, they themselves would have to seek justice and punish the guilty individuals. Some frustrated persons reacted to this by taking the law into their own hands. Evidently, certain criminal sections of society took advantage of the lawlessness to commit robberies and other crimes of violence. The government, either by design or because of foolishness, ascribed all crime to Sant Bhindranwale who was virtual prisoner in the Golden Temple. In Sikh view this was an attempt at character assassination of a holy man. Instead of providing redress to the victims of police brutality, the state government escalated the violence. When the state government was finally dismissed and President’s rule imposed in late 1983, Sant Bhindranwale is known to have welcomed it in the hope that justice would be done. He, in fact, questioned why this had not been done much earlier when Zakarya Khan’s (Sant Bhindranwale often referred to Darbara Singh as Zakariya Khan) government was killing so many Sikhs and came about only in response to a Hindu having been killed in police firing? He interpreted it as indicative of the government placing more value on the life of a Hindu than of a Sikh. However, after imposition of President’s rule, the suppression of the Sikh movement became even more vigorous with increased lawlessness in the state. This chain of actions and reactions culminated in the attack on Harmandir Sahib and scores of other gurdwaras. No Sikh can forget this chapter in history. No arguments can justify the destruction of Guru’s home and Guru’s throne.
I need not recount the massacres during the Indian army’s invasion of the Golden Temple and scores of other Sikh shrines in June 1984. Thousands of innocent men, women and children, were killed. Many Sikhs were tied up and shot, the wounded were not attended to, and no attempt was made to identify the victims. No lists of the dead were made. Relatives were not allowed to claim the bodies. The victims were unceremoniously dumped in heaps and burnt. Thousands, including children as young as two years of age, have been held without trial and subjected to inhuman torture. Many Sikhs living outside India sought to visit India to see their families, relatives and friends. They were denied permission. Even when permission was given, they faced a lot of harassment while in India. The ban on news promoted rumours and bred fears.
After Operation Blues tar, according to press reports: “Thousands of Sikhs have disappeared in the Punjab. Young Sikh males have been rounded up, trussed, blindfolded and taken away. The government has provided no lists of names; families do not know if they arrested, underground, or dead.” This is extremely disconcerting.
After Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, many members of the Congress (I) party along with numerous police officials encouraged, and in several cases supervised and participated in, mob violence. Sikh men were dragged out of homes, cars, busses 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.
Reports in the Indian press give the impression that the government and the Hindu dominated press oppose the fundamental beliefs and practices of the Sikh religion. “Amrit” is a ceremony of religious dedication, but one government document declared it to be “an oath in the name of religion to support extremist and actively participate in the act of terrorism.” Amritdhari Sikhs were referred to as “dangerous people pledged to commit murder, arson and acts of terrorism.” According to the Indian press, a strong indication of Sardar Simranjit Singh Mann’s involvement in terrorist activity is “that he instructed his subordinates to read the Sikh scripture!” Does secular India consider the Sikh religion inherently seditious and, therefore, to be destroyed? Is creation of Khalistan the only way Sikh religion can survive?
Statements by some militant Hindus give the Sikhs the feeling that this indeed is government policy. For example, Dr. Baldev Raj Nayar speaking at Princeton University on March 16, 1985 said that the Sikh religion was secessionist because of its Semitic nature. He went on to say that the Sikh religion has sanctified violence, is coercive, and that the Sikh agitation was based on a desire to match their (the Sikhs’) enormous economic power with political power. He made the ridiculous suggestion that the Sikh objective was to conquer and subjugate India. He regarded the Sikh peaceful protest as an antinational activity and the November 1984 atrocities as a signal to the Sikhs that their alleged quest for a separate Sikh state “is not going to be a costless affair.” This misrepresentation based upon an attitude of envy and revenge is a grim reminder of the Nazi propaganda against the Jewish community. After the November 1984 massacres and government’s reluctance in bringing the known culprits to book, the Sikhs feel that the view given by Dr. Nayar may possibly be official policy. It needs strong action on your part to counter such irresponsible statements and to reassure the Sikhs.
Sikhs are at a loss to understand why some persons in the government and the press repeatedly make wild and patently false accusations of secession, treason, and antinational activity against their peace-loving community and promote mass anti Sikh hysteria. The Sikhs have a religious commitment to freedom of worship and protection of the weak and the oppressed. Killing innocent persons is against their beliefs. A Sikh, by definition, cannot be a terrorist. There have never been any cases of Sikh mobs attacking Hindus. In Punjab villages, the Sikhs have been assuring their Hindu neighbors of protection even though, ironically, they themselves have been the targets of wholesale oppression. On the other hand, Sikhs continue to be harassed and humiliated. They are branded as unpatriotic. The Indian army is reportedly recruiting Gurkas to “reduce its dependence upon the Sikhs.” Having been in the forefront of the struggle for freedom, the Sikhs have always felt that their patriotism, written in the blood of their martyrs, was above question. They feel deeply hurt by this official mistrust.
There is much talk of Sikh separatism. As you are certainly aware, the number of Sikhs subscribing to the notion of Khalistan (an independent Sikh state) was extremely small till June 1984. Sant Bhindranwale declared repeatedly he was neither for nor against the creation of a separate Sikh state but was quiet on the subject. In his words: “How can a community which has contributed so much for the country’s freedom wish it fragmented? We wish to stay in India but want to be treated as equal citizens.” In August 1983 he publicly appealed to the Sikhs not to shout pro Khalistan slogans as it hurt the feelings of many people in India and it was wrong for Sikhs to do anything that hurt others’ feelings. Still he was labeled a “separatist.” The massive support for the demand for Khalistan is a post Bluestar phenomenon. It 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 honest and sincere leaders maligned. They need understanding, not further mistrust and harassment.
Sant Bhindranwale never hurt or condoned hurting any innocent person. In May 1984, he said “They say I 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.” He was no terrorist and he was not an extremist. In his words, if “one who takes amrit and helps others take it, who reads the gurbani (the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sabib) and helps others to do the same, who gives up intoxicants and helps others do likewise, who urges all to work together in harmony, who preaches Hindu Sikh unity and coexistence, who says ‘if you are a Muslim, if you are a Sikh, be a devout Sikh, and respect your scriptures, united under the saffron flag (religious flag of the Sikhs), stoutly support the Panth (the Sikh community), and be attached to your Guru’s throne and Guru’s home,’ is an extremist, I am one.”
As the Prime Minister of India, you have to look after the wellbeing of all Indians. Persecution of any community on the basis of religion must not be tolerated. Even if Mrs. Gandhi was in fact killed by the two Sikhs accused of the crime, it cannot justify revenge against the entire Sikh community.
You are the most powerful person in India supported by the largest parliamentary majority in the history of that nation. You have just returned from a triumphant tour and promises of support from the most powerful countries of the world. You are the one person who can set things right and take adequate corrective action to once again restore confidence among the members of the Sikh faith.
I believe it is extremely important for you to show you are on the side of fairness and justice regardless of political considerations. An impartial inquiry into the riots must be held immediately and those found guilty of the inhuman atrocities be punished promptly regardless of their political stature. The officials guilty of torture and murder during and before the Bluestar operation must be punished. This must be done not as a political deal with the Sikhs but as punishment for crime in accordance with the law. As is well known, if the law does not provide justice, lawlessness will necessarily follow.
Harassment of Sikhs traveling to and from India and within India must stop. They must be provided adequate security. At present, Sikhs travelers tell us that, regardless of their nationality and political affiliation, they are subjected to the most humiliating searches and questioning. Wearing a turban appears to be reason enough for one to be singled out for a harrowing experience at the airports, in busses, at roadside checkpoints, and elsewhere.
The government should stop accusing Sikhs living outside India of promoting secession. This does not promote understanding. Sikhs living abroad are by and large as interested in a peaceful solution as anyone else. Agencies of the government should be instructed to stop using the word “terrorist” as an inevitable adjunct to the word “Sikh” and to desist from routinely ascribing any and every violent crime to nonexistent ‘Sikh terrorists.”
Sikhs of the world should be freely allowed to help in redress and rehabilitation of the victims. If the Sikhs wish to restore the Akal Takhat Sahib or other places of worship, they should be permitted to do so.
I trust you do not share the view of some members of the majority community that Guru Gobind Singh’s teachings are at variance with India’s secularism. Any attempt to revise or restrict Guru Gobind Singh’s instructions would be interference with the basic principles of the Sikh faith and will never be tolerated by any Sikh. Guru Gobind Singh’s “saint soldier” is armed not for crime or self-aggrandizement but for defense and as a soldier for peace and truth. He has built a unique reputation and a tradition of indomitable courage in the face of overwhelming odds over four centuries. He can be a tremendous asset to the country as he has always been. The Sikhs should be freely allowed to follow their religious traditions. What the Sikhs most need is for you to unequivocally declare that free India will not restrict them in living their lives as directed by Guru Gobind Singh. The economic, political and territorial demands made by the Sikhs were the product of a feeling of insecurity as a distinct religious community. This feeling has grown continually over the last 38 years. In 1984, their worst fears were proved right. Recent events given the impression that the majority community in India wants to destroy the Sikh religion. The Sikh is badly hurt; physically, economically and emotionally. It is important that the government make the Sikh feel that he and his religion are safe in India. The search for a lasting solution can only begin after you act to heal the wounds. The Sikhs of the world await your action to initiate such a process.
Ranbir Singh Sandhu, Ph. D.
Professor, College of Engineering
The Ohio State University