By Khushwant Singh
07 November, 2004
There are two anniversaries so deeply etched in my mind that every year they come around I recollect with pain what happened on those two days. They occurred 20 years ago. One is October 31, when Mrs Gandhi was gunned down by her two Sikh security guards. The other is the following day, when the 'aftermath' consummated itself: frenzied Hindu mobs, driven by hate and revenge, finally killed nearly 10,000 innocent Sikhs across north India down to Karnataka. Four years later, Mrs Gandhi's assassins Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh paid the penalty for their crime by being hanged to death in Tihar jail.
Twenty years later, the killers of 10,000 Sikhs remain unpunished. The conclusion is clear: in secular India there is one law for the Hindu majority, another for Muslims, Christians and Sikhs who are in
October 31, 1984: The sequence of events remains as vivid as ever. Around 11 am, I heard of Mrs Gandhi being shot in her house and taken to hospital. By the afternoon, I heard on the bbc that she was dead. For a couple of hours, life in Delhi came to a standstill. Then hell broke loose-mobs yelling khoon ka badla khoon se lenge (we'll avenge blood with blood) roamed the streets. Ordinary Sikhs going about their life were waylaid and roughed up. In the evening, I saw a cloud of black smoke billowing up from Connaught Circus: Sikh-owned shops had been set on fire. An hour later, mobs were smashing up taxis owned by Sikhs right opposite my apartment. Sikh-owned shops in Khan Market were being looted. Over 100 policemen armed with lathis lined the middle of the road and did nothing. At midnight, truckloads of men armed with cans of petrol attacked the gurudwara behind my back garden, beat up the granthi and set fire to the shrine. I was bewildered and did not know what to do. Early next morning, I rang up President Zail Singh.
He would not come on the phone. His secretary told me that the president advised me to move into the home of a Hindu friend till the trouble was over. The newly-appointed prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was busy receiving guests arriving for his mother's funeral; home minister Narasimha Rao did not budge from his office; the Lt Governor of Delhi had no orders to put down the rioters. Seventy-two gurudwaras were torched and thousands of Sikh houses looted. The next few days, TV and radio sets were available for less than half their price.
Mid-morning, a Swedish diplomat came and took me and my wife to his home in the diplomatic enclave. My aged mother had been taken by Romesh Thapar to his home. Our family lawyer, Anant Bir Singh, who lived close to my mother, had his long hair cut off and beard shaved to avoid being recognised as a Sikh. I watched Mrs Gandhi's cremation on TV in the home of my Swedish protector. I felt like a Jew must have in Nazi Germany. I was a refugee in my own homeland because I was a Sikh.
What I found most distressing was the attitude of many of my Hindu friends. Two couples made a point to call on me after I returned home. They were Sri S. Mulgaonkar and his wife, Arun Shourie and his wife Anita. As for the others, the less said the better. Girilal Jain, editor of The Times of India, rationalised the violence: the Hindu cup of patience, he wrote, had become full to the brim. N.C. Menon, who succeeded me as editor of The Hindustan Times, wrote of how Sikhs had "clawed their way to prosperity" and well nigh had it coming to them. Some spread gossip of how Sikhs had poisoned Delhi's drinking water, how they had attacked trains and slaughtered Hindu passengers. At the Gymkhana Club where I played tennis every morning, one man said I had no right to complain after what Sikhs had done to Hindus in Punjab. At a party, another gloated "Khoob mazaa chakhaya-we gave them a taste of their own medicine." Word had gone round: 'Teach the Sikhs a lesson'.
Did the Sikhs deserve to be taught a lesson? I pondered over the matter for many days and many hours and reluctantly admitted that Hindus had some justification for their anger against Sikhs. The starting point was the emergence of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a leader. He used vituperative language against the Hindus. He exhorted every Sikh to kill 32 Hindus to solve the Hindu-Sikh problem. Anyone who opposed him was put on his hit list and some eliminated. His hoodlums murdered Lala Jagat Narain, founder of the Hind Samachar group of papers. They killed hawkers who sold their papers.
The list of Bhindranwale's victims, which included both Hindus and Sikhs, was a long one. More depressing to me was that no one spoke out openly against him. He had a wily patron in Giani Zail Singh who had him released when he was charged as an accomplice in the murderof Jagat Narain. Akali leaders supported him. Some like Badal and Barnala, who used to tie their beards to their chins, let them down in deference to his wishes. So did many Sikh civil servants. They lauded him as the saviour of the Khalsa Panth and called him Sant. I am proud to say I was the only one who wrote against him and attacked him as a hate-monger. I was on his hit list and continued to be so on
that of his followers-for 15 long years-and was given police protection which I never asked for.
Bhindranwale, with the tacit connivance of Akali leaders like Gurcharan Singh Tohra, turned the Golden Temple into an armed fortress of Sikh defiance. He provided the Indian government the excuse to send the army into the temple complex. I warned the government in Parliament and through my articles against using the army to get hold of Bhindranwale and his followers as the consequences would be grave. And so they were. Operation Bluestar was a blunder of Himalayan proportions. Bhindranwale was killed but hailed as a martyr. Over 5,000 men and women lost their lives in the exchange of fire.
The Akal Takht was wrecked.Symbolic protests did not take long coming. I was part of it; I surrendered the Padma Bhushan awarded to me. Among the people who condemned my action was Vinod Mehta, then editor of The Observer. He wrote that when it came to choosing between being an Indian or a Sikh, I had chosen to be a Sikh. I stopped contributing to his paper. I had never believed that I had to be one or the other. I was both an Indian and a Sikh and proud of being so. I might well have asked Mehta in return, "Are you a Hindu or an Indian?" Hindus do not have to prove their nationality; only Muslims, Christians and Sikhs are required to give evidence of their patriotism.Anti-Sikh violence gave a boost to the demand for a separate Sikh state and Khalistan-inspired terrorism in Punjab and abroad. Amongst the worst was the blowing up of Air India's Kanishka (June 23, 1985), which killed all its 329 passengers and crew, including over 30 Sikhs. Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, who signed the Rajiv-Longowal accord (July 29, 1985), was murdered while praying in a gurudwara just three weeks later. In August 1986, General A.S. Vaidya, who was chief of staff when Operation Bluestar took place, was gunned down in Pune in August 1985. The killings went on unabated for almost 10 years. Terrorists ran a parallel government in districts adjoining Pakistan which also provided them arms training and escape routes. It is estimated that in those 10 years over 25,000 were killed. Midway, the Golden Temple had again become a sanctuary for criminals. This time the Punjab police led by K.P.S. Gill was able to get the better of them with the loss of only two lives in what came to be known as Operation Black Thunder (May 13-18, 1988). The terrorist movement petered out as the terrorists turned gangsters and took to extortion and robbery.The peasantry turned its back on them.
About the last action of Khalistani terrorists was the murder of chief minister Beant Singh, who was blown up along with 12 others by a suicide bomber on July 31, 1995, at Chandigarh.It is not surprising that with this legacy of ill-will and bloodshed a sense of alienation grew among the Sikhs. It was reinforced by the reluctance of successive governments at the Centre to bring the perpetrators of the anti-Sikh pogrom of October 31 and November 1, 1984. A growing number of non-Sikhs have also come to the conclusion that grave injustice has been done to the Sikhs. Several non-official commissions of inquiry-including one headed by retired Supreme Court chief justice S.M. Sikri, comprising retired ambassadors and senior civil servants-have categorically named the guilty. However, all that the government has done is to appoint one commission of inquiry after another to look into charges of minor relevance to the issue without taking any action. The Nanavati Commission has been at it for quite some time: I rendered evidence before it over two years ago. It has asked for further extension of time, which has been granted till the end of this year. The only word I can think of using for such official procrastination is disgraceful.
I have to concede that the attitude of the bjp government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani towards the Sikhs has been more positive than that of the Congress, many of whose leaders were involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. Some of it may be due to its alliance with the principal Sikh political party, the Akalis, led by Parkash Singh Badal. It also gives them a valid excuse to criticise the Congress leadership. Nevertheless, I welcomed the Congress party's return to power in the Centre because it also promises a fairer deal to other minorities like the Muslims and Christians. And I make no secret of my rejoicing over the choice of Manmohan Singh, the first Sikh to become prime minister of India and he in his turn selecting another Sikh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, to head the Planning
The dark months of alienation are over; the new dawn promises blue skies and sunshine for the minorities with only one black cloud remaining to be blown away-a fair deal to families of victims of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984. It was the most horrendous crime committed on a mass scale since we became an independent nation. Its perpetrators must be punished because crimes unpunished generate more criminals.