It was the summer of 1985 when I was visiting New Delhi, the national capital of India, to attend a family wedding. I had long hair back then and was aged 15. Both me and my uncle were wearing turbans, like other Sikh men, and were waiting at a transit stop for the next bus to go to see our relatives.
As soon as the bus arrived and we were about to climb in after other waiting passengers, the door was slammed on us.
When my uncle protested, the conductor shouted that there was no seat inside. Even as we pointed at some empty seats, the answer was: “We have told you there is no seat.”
Before we could argue the bus sped away.
The incident left me shocked but I wasn’t surprised.
A year earlier, New Delhi witnessed a large-scale massacre against Sikhs following the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence. It came after she had ordered a military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in Amritsar. The military operation in early June 1984 was launched to flush out religious extremists who had stockpiled weapons inside to carry on their armed struggle against the government.
The militants were seeking special rights for Sikhs and Punjab; the government accused them of conspiring to create a separate state of Khalistan with the help of Pakistan.
The army operation was followed by a series of violent incidents against Hindus in Punjab. The military attack, which could have been avoided, left many pilgrims dead. Buildings inside the shrine were destroyed, igniting an angry reaction from Sikhs across the world.
Since I lived in Amritsar with my parents back then, I too witnessed the damage the military operation had brought to the Akal Takht—the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs inside the temple complex. The shattered building completely shook me and others in my family.
Months later when Gandhi was assassinated, thousands of innocent Sikhs were murdered in New Delhi and other parts of India by goons led by the members of her so-called secularist Congress party.
The ugly events of 1984 galvanized the Sikh militant movement and more violence and bomb blasts followed. In June 1985, Air India Flight 182 was bombed mid-air above the Irish Sea, killing all 329 people aboard. The incident was blamed on Sikh militants based in Canada. Sikhs who make up a mere two percent of India’s population came under microscope.
The bus incident wasn’t the only shocker. One evening while we were staying at our aunt’s small apartment, we got a knock on our door by a police contingent. They came to question all of us, to know where we were from, and what the purpose of our visit was. To prove our credentials, we had to produce the marriage invitation card from my cousin’s family.
The officer who led the police party said that they had received complaints from neighbours, who were alarmed over suspicious people in the locality.
There were some heated arguments between my relatives and police officials, but they finally left satisfied. Until that point, we had been hearing stories about police harassment of Sikhs outside Punjab. This was the first time we faced it directly.
The Sikh militancy continued through the 1980s and ended by the mid 1990s. But looking back at those days, I can confidently say that the northwestern Indian state of Punjab became the laboratory of Hindutva long before the western state Gujarat ever did.
Hindutva is a political term often used by supporters of Hindu theocracy, and particularly by the now ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which wants to turn India into a Hindu state.
The Congress and other secularist activists often accuse the BJP of turning Gujarat into a laboratory for Hindutva in the period leading up to an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002.
After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is dedicated to the Hindutva ideology, was chief minister of the state when the slaughter was organized.
The massacre followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, leaving more than 50 people dead. The BJP government blamed Muslim fanatics for the carnage.
Much before the massacre, BJP supporters were trying to terrorize Christians in Gujarat, succeeding in polarizing society along religious lines in the state to sustain power. Activists who have been following these developments saw the footprints of Hindutva politics behind all these episodes. They warned that once the BJP captured national power in New Delhi, it was going to implement the Hindutva model across the country.
It is not surprising to see that ever since Modi became prime minister in 2014, violence has grown against religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians. This can be explained by the narrative of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), of which the BJP is a part.
The RSS considers both Islam and Christianity as alien religions whereas Sikhs are seen as part of the Hindu fold. A section of the Sikh community is apprehensive of the assimilationist agenda of the BJP.
Not only have Hindutva vigilantes sharpened their attacks on Muslims and Christians, the police and security forces under Modi have become more aggressive in dealing with Islamic extremists, which has made the lives of ordinary Muslims even more difficult. Much like Sikhs in the 1980s and 1990s, Muslims are being viewed as potential terrorists in the eyes of the mainstream in India.
Congress verses BJP
While there is no doubt that the BJP is more dangerous than the Congress party because of its well calculated social-engineering program to transform India into an exclusionist Hindu nation, the Congress has lost it moral right to criticize the BJP on the issue of communal politics because of what it did in 1984 and later.
The Congress experiment with fanatical politics was done purely for “pragmatic reasons”, whereas for the BJP it is more for “programmatic reasons”. That said, the Congress must take blame for turning Punjab into a Hindutva laboratory long before the BJP tried to turn Gujarat into a laboratory of hate politics—or even before the concept of a Hindutva laboratory entered the consciousness of secularists. Several instances are sufficient to prove this point.
Even before the events of 1984, Sikhs were frequently demonized by the Congress, Hindu chauvinists, and a section of the media.
Any genuine demand, including reorganizing Punjab along a linguistic basis for the growth of Punjabi language, was seen as unpatriotic. RSS leaders tried to dub any such movement not even aimed at separating Sikhs from India as being supported by Pakistan. As the Congress remained adamantly opposed to accepting it, the Hindi-language press mocked the demand.
Before Punjab was reorganized in 1966, Hindu fanatics ensured that Punjabi-speaking Hindu families declared Hindi and not Punjabi as their mother language. This was designed to defeat demands for a Punjabi-speaking state.
Sikhs were frequently portrayed as part of the Hindu fold, and that only strengthened fears of assimilation within the Sikh community. Besides, RSS propaganda openly distorted Sikh history and tried to appropriate it to prove that Sikhism was created to protect Hinduism from Islam.
Once Punjab was reorganized, the share of river water was distributed in complete violation of riparian laws. A BJP leader, Laxmi Kanta Chawla, sarcastically commented in an interview with me that there was noting wrong in sharing the river waters of Punjab with neighbouring states because water in Punjab was not going to Pakistan.
Chawla frequently honoured police officials responsible for human rights abuses and the killings of the suspected Sikh militants in staged shootouts.
Meanwhile, Hindu extremists frequently raised provocative slogans that dubbed Sikhs as antinationals and Pakistani agents. In any event of violence against innocent Hindus in Punjab by unknown assailants, innocent Sikhs were targeted outside Punjab by mobs with the connivance of the police.
When the Golden Temple Complex was stormed, Hindu chauvinists distributed sweets. The RSS openly justified the army attack and the anti-Sikh pogrom following the murder of Indira Gandhi.
Not surprisingly, all this paid dividends to the Congress when it won the general election under Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, with a brute majority. The complicity of the Congress and the RSS in majoritarian democracy was clearly visible.
The process laid the ground for the BJP to repeat the experiment in Gujarat in 2002. This enabled Modi to get elected with a strong majority in the election that followed the bloodshed.
Modi’s ascendance to power is an outcome of the Hindutva laboratory, which was started in Punjab by the Congress-RSS alliance. And this has partly contributed to the near decimation of the Congress and other secular parties.
Relevance of 1984
As Sikhs are getting ready to commemorate the anniversary of the infamous military attack on their equivalent of the Vatican in the first week of June, there is a need to acknowledge how history is being repeated 33 years later. Other minority groups are coming under attack in India, which is often called the world’s largest democracy. Among the most vulnerable are Muslims, who are being stigmatized internationally due to growing Islamophobia, which has made Modi’s task easier.
In Kashmir, a Muslim-dominated northern state where people are fighting for the right to self-determination, paramilitary forces continue to kill people at will. Staged shootouts, forced disappearances, and custodial rapes have been a common occurrence in Kashmir. Under Modi, the intensity of such attacks has increased.
Tribal people, who only form eight percent of the total population, are also constantly facing barbarity at the hands of police and security forces in the name of a war against a Maoist insurgency.
The mainstream is hardly questioning what is being fed to them by the media and the Modi administration. But then again, it never raised questions when Sikhs and Punjab were facing similar challenges. The discourse of nationalism that blinded the dominant Hindu society back then remains as powerful and is even fortified today.
This is not to justify violence done by minority extremists. However, the question should not be how they were they treated then and how they’re being treated now, but why has Hindutva extremism continued to enjoy the patronage of the state for all these years?
When the state had to deal with a handful of extremists holed up inside the Golden Temple Complex, the army was sent to attack a place of worship. Yet no one saved Sikhs from mobs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s murder.
While the killers of Indira Gandhi were punished promptly, those involved in violence against Sikhs were elected and awarded with ministerial posts.
The alleged killers of Hindus in Punjab were themselves killed in staged shootouts; police officials who did all that received out-of-turn promotions and monetary awards. Obviously, the urban middle class who was scared of terrorism accepted this as normal.
The trend has not changed and today Muslim men are being hounded in a similar fashion. For the record, Muslim men who were held in connection with the torching of the train in 2002 were charged for terrorism, whereas the anti-terror laws weren’t applied to those who killed innocent Muslims afterwards.
Back then, scores of Muslim men were executed in staged police shootouts after being branded as terrorists in Gujarat. They were shamelessly dubbed as Pakistani agents to shut down any criticism of state repression.
The history of 1984, therefore, has lessons for those who want to understand how a brutal majoritarian democracy works and helps people in power to retain control by keeping minorities under their boot. In fact, nothing is more illustrative to examine the mindset behind today’s Modi government in India and the one that worked behind the Congress three decades earlier.