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Remembering the Sikh Genocide

Thirty-six years ago a decade long Sikh Genocide started amid the month of November 1984. Sikhs were blazed alive, Sikh ladies got raped, Sikh business and properties flared to cinders in the towns and streets of the world’s so-called largest democracy (India).

Hindu vigilante groups, assembled in various parts of Northern India to carry out the holocaust of the Sikhs with the encouragement of the Indian government’s ministers and Members of Parliament and with the support of the police.

36 years on – the hegemonic secular state and all the successive Indian governments have described this Genocide of the Sikhs as a ‘communal riot’.

However, the UN Convention on Genocide section 2 clearly states:‘Genocide is ‘any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group – Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’.

Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi first unilaterally declared a state of emergency in the country in 1975 after her own election was declared fraudulent and nullified by Allahabad High Court in 1975. India was declared ‘secular’ at the time when Indian democracy, civil rights, Parliament and elections were suspended.

Mrs Gandhi ruled by decree. Amendment 39 allowed Prime Minister of India to ignore the courts’ decisions. Indira Gandhi after reassuming the office of Indian Prime Minister in 1980 was so determined to teach Sikhs a lesson. She wanted to win the support of majority population for her successive victory in elections of 1984. Like her father she firmly believed in the notorious theory of German Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, which suggests that ‘violence is a continuation of politics by other means’.

She also adopted a strategy that the Sikhs should not be able to get international support or sympathy and they should rather be presented as ‘Sikh terrorists’ and not as freedom fighters, or victims of state terrorism.

During the summer of 1983, Indira Gandhi asked Lt General Srinivas Kumar Sinha, the then vice-chief of the Indian Army to prepare a position paper for an assault on Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) the holiest Sikh shrine. Gen. Sinha was willing to carry out the order but sought permission from the then Defense Minister to convey his views to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi before ordering his soldiers.

He strongly advised her against taking such a step as he knew that an attack on the Golden Temple would estrange the Sikhs and jeopardize the unity of the Indian Army which was so reliant on Sikh soldiers. He sought premature retirement from the Army in 1983 on being denied the appointment of Army Chief. General Arun Shridhar Vaidya was appointed the Chief of Army with Lt. General Krishna Swamy Sunderji (General Officer Commander in chief of the Western Command) as vice Chief. In September 1983, Indira Gandhi asked Vaidya and Sunderji to prepare a position paper for an attack on the Golden Temple (Darbar Sahib) and both agreed.


On June 2, 1984, the Indian army surrounded Darbar Sahib.

About 150,000 Indian army troops sent to the state of Punjab, with helicopter gunships, tanks and modern weaponry. The state was sealed off from the external world. Journalists were removed. Telephone lines were cut, preventing internal and external communication. All independent newspapers and radio stations were closed down. An indefinite curfew was imposed across the whole of Punjab, with 20 million residents placed in a state of siege and imprisonment.

On June 4,1984, Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to invade the Darbar Sahib complex in Amritsar. As it was the anniversary of the martyrdom of the 5th Sikh Guru, Guru Arjun Dev, it was full of thousands of pilgrims. 36 other Sikh shrines were simultaneously attacked using massive fire power. On the excuse of apprehending ‘a handful of armed men’ lodged inside the Darbar Sahib, the Indian Army unleashed a terror unprecedented in post-independence India. Indian army used the Vijayanta tanks to win the fight. These let loose a barrage of highly explosive shells, which tore off the entire front of the Akal Takht, (the temporal seat of the Sikhs), setting off fires in many of its internal rooms (some of which housed precious historical Sikh relics), and badly damaged its dome.

With dead bodies lying all around, the vast lake of the Golden Temple Complex was transformed into a thick red of profuse blood.

No attempts were made to provide assistance to the injured or dying. In an effort to destroy a crucial part of the Sikh heritage, Indian army deliberately set fire to the Sikh Reference Library within the complex, after it had been secured. Irreplaceable copies of the Sikhs’ holy Scripture (Guru Granth Sahib), the Sikhs’ archives of documents and even artefacts from the lives of the Sikh Gurus were burnt to ashes. Amritsar experienced the second massacre of the century, the first one being in Jallianwala Bagh.

As the Sikhs were badly hurt, two of them avenged the humiliation by shooting dead Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984. On 1st November 1984, Sikh Residences and businesses were marred with a big “X” on their entrances with chalk. Trucks were loaded with fuel oil, tires, 3 feet long iron rods, and flammable powders which were flammable upon touching an open surface. These items were then dispersed among the gangs along with money to each criminal as reward for their backing in the bloodshed. Every gang had a list of addresses of Sikhs obtained from voting records provided by government officers. The crowds of Hindu extremists from the outskirts of Delhi were transported to various densely populated Sikh areas. This mobilisation was backed by the India’s Centre government resources.

The government-controlled television station Doordarshan, and All India Radio began broadcasting provocative slogans seeking bloody vengeance, ‘khoon ka badla khoon se lenge’ (we will take blood for blood!).

Murderous gangs led by the leaders, with some policemen participating, began to swarm into Sikh houses, hacking the occupants to pieces, chopping off the heads of children, raping women, tying Sikh men to tires set aflame with kerosene, burning down the houses and shops after ransacking them. Mobs stopped buses and trains, in and out of Delhi, pulling out Sikh passengers to be lynched to death or doused with kerosene and burnt alive.

But the violence wasn’t just confined to Delhi, but unleashed throughout India. Sikhs were killed in Uttar Pradesh, mostly in cities like Kanpur, where the administration there let things take their course for a day or so before imposing a curfew. The steel town of Bokaro bore the brunt of the violence in Bihar. In Madhya Pradesh, the violence was spread over nearly 40 towns including Indore, Bhopal, Jabalpur, Ujjain, Raipur, Gwalior, Raigarh, Mahendergarh and Bina. Similar attacks of violence occurred in Haryana, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat. It is estimated that around 30000 Sikhs were killed.

Renowned author Khushwant Singh wrote in his book ‘My Bleeding Punjab, ‘I realised what Jews must have felt like in Nazi Germany. The killing assumed the proportion of a genocide of the Sikh community.For the first time, I understood what words like massacre, holocaust and genocide really meant. Sikh houses and shops were marked for destruction in much the same way as those of Jews in Tsarist Russia or Nazi Germany.’

It is very clear from the Sikh Genocide that India despite its pledge to be secular could never free herself of the scourge of Hindu extremism.

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