Shoe-hurling Sardar and deep-rooted Sikh grievances

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By Momin Iftikhar

Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram showed his nimbleness in dodging the rather casually thrown footwear, but the offending Sikh journalist, Jarnail Singh, had poignantly made his point. The issue at hand — the state of apathy shown by successive Indian governments to bring to book the perpetrators of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in which around 4,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone. Despite passage of twenty-five years, only a dozen or so people have been brought to book for the Sikh pogrom which includes no big fish. The Sikhs in India are seething over the gross injustice inflicted on the community, and the headline grabbing shoe-hurl, eerily reminiscent of President Bush’s encounter of a closer kind, is an apt indicator that the embers of the Sikh anger are still glowing, and the matter can’t simply be brushed under the carpet without a fair resolution nor will it fade out with the passage of time.

Proverbially speaking, the pen is mightier than the sword and shoe throwing by journalists, to make a point, is a trend that can’t be justified nor endorsed. However, Sikhs are known for their forthrightness and carrying a level head in emotionally charged situations is not one of their strengths. Jarnail Singh was incensed when the home minister tried to sidestep the journalist’s query regarding the clean chit given by the CBI to Congress leader Jagdish Tytler, who played a major role in leading Hindu mobs during the 1984 Sikh pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh body guards. Ends justify means, and the Sardar showed no remorse for his breach of protocol and propriety. “My method may have been wrong, but the issue that I stand for was not,” said the unrepentant Jarnail Singh as he was being whisked away by the police.

A shoe-throwing journalist can be ignored for his impudence, but the issue to which Jarnail Singh tried to draw attention to is deep and substantive; the matter of bringing to justice the killers of Sikhs who, during the 1984 riots, enjoyed a tacit Congress Government patronage. The Congress Party’s decision to give sitting MPs—Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler—alleged of playing a leading role during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, party tickets for contesting the Lok Sabha elections, has raised the Sikh heckles. Rubbing salt into the Sikh wounds is the award of a clean chit to Tytler by the CBI, which has angered the community. The case against Tytler relates to an incident on Nov 1, 1984, when a Hindu mob led by Congress Party activists, including Tytler, set afire Gurdawara Pulbangash, killing three persons. It is worth remembering that during the Sikh pogrom the Congress party leaders in Delhi were vying with one another in leading assaults on the Sikhs in Delhi in order to win favour of Rajiv Gandhi, the new prime minister of the Nehru Dynasty.

The 1984 Sikh pogrom was triggered by the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, who sought revenge for the assaulting of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army in June 1984. The shocking manner of Indira’s death let out the long suppressed communal demons of anti-Sikh sentiments harboured by the Hindus. The days that followed saw a bloody pogrom of Sikhs. Encouraged by tacit approval of Rajiv Gandhi and the Hindu establishment, goons belonging to Congress Party led berserk mobs that roamed the Sikh neighbourhoods, putting houses to torch and killings Sikhs, including young children and boys. Worst kind of atrocities were committed in Delhi neighbourhoods where police remained a silent witness to murder and arson permitting mobs a free hand in venting their diabolic rage. It was only when Army was ultimately called in to quell the riots that a semblance of normalcy returned. When bloodlust subsided, 10,000 Sikhs had been killed and innumerable gurdawaras demolished to dust.

As the Hindu-Sikh communal divide widened and a full-blown Sikh insurgency took root in Punjab, the Indian establishment responded by resorting to no-holds-barred state sponsored terror tactics to tackle it. In such environment not only were the Sikh separatists demanding separate homeland killed in fake encounters, but thousands of innocents also lost their lives to state brutality. How many Sikhs were killed by the Punjab Police only remains a wild guess. The bodies of those killed were disposed of through hasty and unauthorized cremations or through consigning to various water channels, which crisscross the entire Punjab. In this context, it is instructive to note that in 1996 the Supreme Court of India upheld a finding by the Central Bureau of Investigation that 2097 bodies had been cremated in three crematoriums on police orders without proper notification or documentation. This constitutes only the tip of an iceberg as many more crematoriums are suspected of illegally disposing of thousands of Sikhs’ bodies on police orders. The illegal cremation of Sikhs during 80s and 90s has formed a bleeding wound that has traumatized the Sikh community despite passage of 25 years. This particular aspect has been suitably researched and summarized in an exhaustive report ‘Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab’ published by the South Asia Forum for Human Rights in Katmandu.

The wheels of justice in India, involving cases concerning persecution of minorities move imperceptibly, if at all. Since 1984 successive Indian governments have appointed nine commissions and committees to investigate the Sikh pogrom. The most recent commission, headed by Justice GT Nanavati submitted its report to the Indian Government on February 9, 2005, which has accused several Congress leaders, including Tytler, for playing a leading role in instigating the anti Sikh violence in 1984. The Congress led UPA government, however, has made it abundantly obvious that it has no intention of initiating legal proceedings against those accused of leading mobs that resulted in the killings of thousands of Sikhs. The Nanavati Commission’s recommendations are consigned to a fate none other than that meted out to the reports of eight earlier commissions. Given the state of impasse in face of such sensitive issues, involving the death of thousands of Sikhs, the shoe hurling by Jarnail Singh, crude as it appears, may be accommodated as a desperate attempt by an on-the-edge Sardar to draw attention to an issue that has all but become irrelevant from the viewpoint of the Indian main stream political parties.

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