A Carnage, with its Fangs Upon History

A retrospection on the eve of the 35th anniversary of the Anti-Sikh riots: Tale of tribulation and tragedy

“History is only the register of crimes and misfortunes.” 


One may disagree with this widely quoted statement, but the following anecdote may suffice and surprise with its uncanny semblance to Voltaire’s clairvoyance.

We were on our way to Mumbai from Punjab. At a station right outside Delhi, a mob gathered around the train, screaming, ‘Sikhs have killed the nation’s mother.’ They hit my husband on the head with an iron rod and dragged him out of the train. I screamed as I watched them burn him alive.”

-Mohinder Kaur, who lost her family in the 1984 riots.

Kaur is not an exception. Rows of widow colonies scream similar tales. 

As we embark into October 2019, we, Indians await the 35th death anniversary of India’s own prototype of an Iron Lady, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, on October 31, 1984. What remains shrouded in oblivion is the aftermath of the tragedy, which ravaged parts of the world’s largest democracy with an estimated death toll of 3,350 deaths (in official figures). After the partition in 1947, the anti-Sikh riots in India witnessed the largest massacre of members of a single religious order within a span of 3 days. With a public security mechanism, including police and armed forces turning a blind eye, what transpired has been a portrayal of loss, political apathy to it’s extreme and gross violation of fundamental human rights of an unprecedented nature. The last nail on the coffin has perhaps been the rhetoric delivered by the successor of Mrs Gandhi, as also her son, the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. On being asked about the reported carnage that shook the Indian capital from October 31-November 3, he went on record stating, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” The metaphor has been too obvious to overlook.

The 1984 anti-Sikh riots can be regarded more as a culmination of a flame that has its roots in a persistent series of events spanning almost over a decade in the North Indian state of Punjab, prior to 1984. The seeds lay in the Sikh demand for an independent state for their community, to be formerly termed as ‘Khalistan’, or the land of the Khalsa. Sikhism is the 4th largest religion in India, with a following of 20.8 million in India. One of it’s militant religious leaders, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had been invited by the Sikh political party Akali Dal’s then-president, Harchand Singh Longowal to take up residence inside the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar, Punjab. The Golden Temple or the Harminder Sahib, is widely regarded as the holiest shrine of the Sikh community. One of the reasons to provide shelter to Bhindranwale within the Golden Temple complex had been to guarantee immunity against his arrest by the Indian Government. Bhindranwale had made the hallowed sanctuary a garrison of weapons and subsequently a headquarters of Khalistani militants. One of his principal aims had been to initiate a battle for the creation of the separate state of Khalistan. The location of the Temple added credibility to claims of a  ‘holy war’, adding a religious tinge to the ongoing insurgency.

An encounter that changed the course of history

The much anticipated action, initiated by the Indian Government arrived on June 8, 1984, in the guise of the Indian military action carried out between June 1-8, to eliminate the militant religious leader, Bhindranwale and his band of insurgents from the Harmandir Sahib Complex in Amritsar. This operation had been formally codenamed as ‘Operation Blue Star’. The sanction to execute the order had stemmed from the decision of Mrs Indira Gandhi. An international angle to the raging political situation in Punjab had heightened its impact on global geopolitics of the time. Indian intelligence agencies had widely reported that a trio of the Khalistani militants, Shahbeg Singh, Amrik Singh and Balber Singh had undertaken 6 trips to Pakistan between the time frame of 1981-1983. The Indian Intelligence Bureau had reported about the weapons training imparted at gurudwaras (Sikh centres of worship). 

There had been widely circulated international reports pertaining to the Russian intelligence agencies, including the KGB, tipping off the Indian Agency RAW, about the CIA and ISI collaborating on an agenda directed at Punjab. Kiessling in his publication, Faith, Unity, Discipline : The Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan had described with vivid detail how during the course of interrogating a Pakistani Army Officer, RAW had received credible news that over a thousand trained Special Service Group commandos of the Pakistani Army had been voluntarily dispatched to extend support to Bhindranwale’s anti India Insurgency. The Sikh Diaspora in Canada had also explicitly extended their support to the movement. On the final failure of negotiations and arbitration, the Indian army launched a full-scale offensive against the contingent of heavily armed insurgents. The scale of ammunition possessed by the insurgents included, inter alia, anti-tank heavy artillery, China-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The official estimate of militants nabbed can be numbered at 1,592. Bhindranwale had been one among the dead. However, the operation had caused severe damage to the Golden Temple, inflaming the religious sentiments of Sikhs all across the world. The operation attracted widespread criticism from eminent members of the community all across the globe. Khuswant Singh, the renowned Indian journalist/novelist returned the Padma Bhushan, the 3rd highest civilian award by the Republic of India, as a mark of protest. Operation Woodrose swept through Punjab following Operation Bluestar which marked indiscriminate arrests across the Punjabi countryside, the banning of the All India Sikh Student’s Federation and total suspension of civil liberties by the Indian government.

Of an assassination and a pogrom

Four months later, as a consequence of the military activity in June, on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi had been shot dead by her Sikh Bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, in vengeance. What followed is often regarded as one of the darkest chapters in the history of Indian polity. Perhaps the worst hit was the national capital. The prominent local leaders of the Indian National Congress including Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, Lalit Maken and HKL Bhagat, had been prominent among the frenzied mob. The riots left hundreds dead, burnt, butchered, raped, widowed and homeless. What is perhaps the most disturbing segment of the massacre is that, it wasn’t a natural outburst of anger and helpless expression emerging from the loss of a much revered Prime Minister but a well designed, carefully crafted execution of anti-Sikh violence. It was a result of a series of meetings concluded throughout the night of October 31 and the dawn of November 1, including senior police officers and sitting members of the Parliament. The Indian government’s refusal to administer the army immediately in riot-affected areas, its confiscation of licensed firearms by legitimate holders of the Sikh religion, and its distribution of lists of homes which served as residences of Sikh families by making use of government records ensured precision in the massacres. Most people were scalped and burnt by being set alight with kerosene or doused in phosphorus, which ensured the charring of its victim to the bone. On November 1, Sajjan Kumar was seen by eyewitnesses, handing out iron rods from a parked truck to a group of 120 and ordering them to “attack Sikhs, kill them, and loot and burn their properties.” The organised nature and large-scale coordination prevalent in the riot is evident from the testimony of an eyewitness, Aseem Srivastava in his report to Misra Commission:

“There were also some young men on motorcycles, who were instructing the mobs and supplying them with kerosene oil from time to time. [On] one more than a few occasion[s] we saw auto rickshaw[s] arriving with several tins of kerosene oil and other inflammable material such as jute sacks.”

It was only in the late evening of November 3 that the army and law enforcement mechanisms intervened to reduce the riot’s intensity.

Ten commissions had been set up to investigate the riots. Out of the 10 commissions, the Nanavati Commission (2000) found sufficient evidence against both Tytler and Kumar. However, it absolved Rajiv Gandhi and other high-ranking officials of the INC of any possible involvement in the riots. Further acknowledging that the passive indifference of Delhi Police and its failure to provide protection to the riot-affected individuals. On December 17, 2018, Sajjan Kumar’s acquittal in the 1984 riots had been reversed by the Delhi High Court and he had been sentenced to life imprisonment. The latest development has been the Indian Home Ministry ordering the reopening of a 1984 anti-Sikh riot case against veteran Congress leader Kamal Nath (current Chief Minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh). The Special Investigation Team will look into alleged accusations of inciting a crowd against Sikhs outside a gurudwara at Rakabganj in Delhi on the fateful day of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

The 35 years since the murderous mob riots ravaging through the nation, debates continue unabated on whether the term ‘anti-Sikh riots’, should be replaced by the term ‘Sikh genocide’. The riots bring out the heinous toxicity promoted by populism, leaving democracy in disarray, paralysing notions of human rights as mindlessness gains precedence above all. It is ironical that in the demise of Indira Gandhi, who harboured a legacy of commitment to secularism throughout her mortal life left a predicament of one of the worst communal killings in India. The law may take its course, but to the families maimed and destroyed by the riots, many of whom had been Indira Gandhi loyalists prior to 1984, 35 years on, closure still remains a far cry.


Oyeshi Ganguly

An undergraduate student of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Interests range from the Beatles to Manto and everything in between. Travel enthusiast. A philatelist. Harbours an unquenchable curiosity towards everything under the sun.

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