As Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau heads to India next week to meet his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, he needs to know the inconvenient history of the prime minister's office in New Delhi.
This has become even more important in the light of growing attacks in minorities under Modi and some startling, recent disclosures made by a highly controversial but prominent Indian politician.
Almost 35 years ago, following the assassination of then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, thousands of innocent Sikhs were slaughtered across the country by goons led by members of the slain leader’s Congress party.
The murder of Gandhi was in retaliation to the army invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in the city of Amritsar in June of that year.
The military operation was ordered to flush out religious extremists who had stockpiled arms inside the place of worship.
The attack left many innocent pilgrims dead and important buildings inside the complex were heavily destroyed. This enraged the Sikhs all over the world. Under these circumstances, she was gunned down by her bodyguards at her official residence in Delhi.
The late Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, succeeded her as the next prime minister. There are many documented pieces of evidence suggesting that Rajiv Gandhi was both complicit in the massacre of the Sikhs and benefited from the bloodshed.
The community was deliberately targeted to polarize the Hindu majority against the Sikhs, who make up merely two percent of the Indian population, with an eye to Congress winning the impending general election.
Both major Indian parties scapegoated minorities
Hindu fundamentalist groups and the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which is currently in power, started its revivalist movement all over India during 1980s.
Minorities were made scapegoats by forces who wanted to turn India into a Hindu state. Sikhs became the victims partly because of an armed insurgency by Sikh militants fighting for extra rights in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab.
There were frequent killings of Hindus in Punjab, which were often avenged by Hindu fanatics in other states by organizing mob attacks on the Sikh minority.
It is believed that Rajiv Gandhi and his party wanted to capitalize on anti-Sikh prejudices by organizing large-scale violence and his mother's murder became a god-sent opportunity.
In fact, shortly after the massacre, Rajiv Gandhi won the election with a brute majority in December 1984. The so-called secular Congress party ran its campaign in the name of national unity that brought huge dividends.
Sikhs were framed as "the other" during the vicious campaign. Some BJP supporters also justified the violence against the Sikhs and in some cases participated in the massacre as foot soldiers.
The Hindu majority's collective anger against Sikhs translated into electoral victory for Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress party.
Rajiv Gandhi not only rewarded Congress leaders seen inciting mobs against Sikhs with ministerial positions, he went to the extent of justifying the massacre in a public speech.
Using the metaphor of a falling tree, stated; “When a big tree falls, Earth shakes a bit.”
This was to imply that the violence against the Sikhs was a natural reaction to the death of a towering leader and no way was it organized.
Interestingly, when Rajiv Gandhi himself was assassinated in 1991 by a Tamil suicide bomber, no such reaction took place against Tamil community, which only belies the reaction theory.
Rajiv Gandhi linked to attacks on Sikhs
There are other indications that point out to the direct involvement of Rajiv Gandhi in the massacre.
The then Sikh president of India, the late Zail Singh, acknowledged in his autobiography that the PMO did not show any interest in stopping the violence when Singh tried approaching it on behalf of Sikh citizens who had called him for help.
The then home minister, P.V. Narsimha Rao, who was the in charge of law and order and later became prime minister, failed to get any favourable response from the PMO when he called it after being approached by several activists for immediate intervention.
A retired police officer from Punjab, Julio Ribeiro, writes in his book that as a security adviser, he suggested to Rajiv Gandhi that he must take action against some key Congress leaders involved in the massacre to win over the confidence of the Sikh community. Ribeiro claims that when he did this, he was scolded by an infuriated prime minister.
In one media interview, Rajiv Gandhi tried to blame Sikhs for the violence, as he said that most riots took place in areas where the Sikhs celebrated the murder of Indira Gandhi. Such rumours were commonly spread by Congress supporters to create an environment of hatred against the Sikhs.
All this indicates that throughout the tragedy and later, Rajiv Gandhi tried to shield those involved and cover up the complicity of the state machinery.
There are some other documented facts that throw some light on this possibility.
One of his cousins was a senior police officer in Delhi who remained a mute spectator and did nothing to stop the mob that killed a Sikh in his presence.
Another cousin of Rajiv Gandhi was instrumental in getting an access to the voters’ list of Sikhs, which was allegedly used by mobs to identify their homes during the violence.
The most glaring instance of Gandhi’s approval of violence was the chanting of the slogan “blood for blood” in his presence by people who had come to pay last respects to Indira Gandhi as her body lay in state.
This was something that was relayed live on the public broadcast and many people, including this writer, witnessed it on TV. There is no evidence that Gandhi did anything to stop such provocative sloganeering.
The delay in deploying the army to control the violence, with the police either remaining indifferent or being involved, and the use of public transport to ferry mobs clearly show that the massacre was not just organized by the ruling Congress, but the Indian state was culpable.
This explains why Gandhi was never charged or any senior Congress leader was ever convicted even though several non-Congress governments came to power during the past three decades.
Newly released videos shock Indians
However, the biggest bombshell was thrown only a few days ago by Jagdish Tytler, the former union minister.
Back in 1984 Tytler was allegedly seen by some eyewitnesses inciting the mobs. Though he was never convicted, at least one commission of inquiry named him. As a result he was forced to resign from the government.
He currently is under investigation for his alleged involvement. He recently told an Indian news channel that Rajiv Gandhi and he together drove around Delhi in the same car to take stock of the situation.
This is the first time that Tytler, who is accused in the 1984 violence, has made such a statement.
As if this was not enough another video clip has emerged in which Tytler can reportedly be seen and heard acknowledging the murders of over 100 Sikhs. Tytler has claimed that the video is fake.
This controversy has given the opposition parties and activists a handle with which to beat the Congress high command. They are now asking that Rajiv Gandhi be charged posthumously.
An online petition at Change.org has been started by Radical Desi asking the president of India to strip Gandhi of Bharat Ratana, the highest civilian award given to him in 1991.
In Canada, the former president of the World Sikh Organization, Prem Singh Vinning, has demanded a reinvestigation into these revelations.
Vancouver-based Indians Abroad for Pluralist India has organized an emergency rally asking for the arrest of Tytler. The demonstration will take place at 4 p.m. on Sunday (February 11) in Holland Park in Surrey.
Congress left a sorry legacy
It’s a shame that Rajiv Gandhi lowered the dignity of the PMO of the world’s so-called largest democracy. Like it or not, he set the precedent for sectarian politics that is now being played out openly under right-wing Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi.
It is not surprising to see a spike in violent attacks on religious minorities in India ever since Modi’s BJP came to power with a majority in 2014. The BJP has always intended to turn India into a Hindu theocracy.
The Congress party, with its dubious background, must take some blame for majoritarianism practised by the BJP. After all, Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, oversaw a repetition of what was done by the Congress in 1984.
His government applied similar techniques to target Muslims during a pogrom that followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, which left over 50 dead.
The Modi government in Gujarat at the time blamed the incident on Muslim fundamentalists, though one commission of inquiry found that it was an accident.
The violence helped Modi to muster a majority government in the Gujarat assembly election.
Like Rajiv Gandhi, Modi also relied on the "reaction theory" to rationalize the violence. He stated that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Today when we see Muslims and other minority communities being targeted every day by supporters of the BJP, we must recognize sins committed by secularist forces, like Congress, to understand the genesis of the problem.
Unless we acknowledge that the mask of secular India came off in 1984, we will just be dealing with symptoms and not the cause.
The culture of impunity started by Rajiv Gandhi and his party emboldened the BJP to blatantly use every opportunity to further its agenda with the help of the state apparatus.
It's the Congress party that undermined Indian secularism—a situation now being exploited by the BJP.
It's so hypocritical to see the outright Hindu right-wing BJP is trying to embarrass Congress by bringing up 1984, but what can one expect in a situation where the self-styled secularists themselves have been involved in politics of hate?
Hopefully, Canada, which claims to be a human rights leader in the world, will look into this.
Trudeau must engage in candid conversation with Modi and let his Indian counterpart know that the world is watching these important issues instead of focusing on trade relations alone.