If one is looking for an explanation why there is not much outcry over ongoing repression of minorities in India, 1984: India’s Guilty Secret offers some clues.
Authored by England-based Pav Singh, the book brings to light some interesting facts about the general silence of the west, particularly the U.K. government, dating back decades earlier.
In the first week of November 1984, thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered following the assassination of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence in New Delhi.
It came after she had ordered a military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, in June of that year. The army assault was designed to flush out armed religious extremists, who were behind a violent insurgency in support of their political demands.
The invasion known as Operation Bluestar left many buildings inside the complex destroyed and scores of innocent worshippers dead, which outraged Sikhs around the world. Even moderate Sikhs who were opposed to the militants felt anguished and agreed that the army operation was avoidable.
After all, these events alienated ordinary Sikhs from the Indian mainstream and only strengthened the hands of separatists who wanted an independent Sikh state. Under these circumstances, Gandhi was shot to death by her angry bodyguards. There were celebrations following her murder in some parts of the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom.
The resulting massacre of Sikhs in India was organized by Congress party officials to avenge the death of Indira Gandhi and to polarize the Hindu majority against the minority Sikh community. This was done with an eye to garnering votes in the name of national unity in the impending elections.
That was despite the fact that the Congress party claimed to be secular, unlike the current Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India, under which attacks on religious minorities have grown.
Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, succeeded her as prime minister and rode to power with a brute majority in the general election held shortly after his mother’s death. He seemed to justify the anti-Sikh pogroms by suggesting that most violence occurred in places where Sikhs had celebrated the murder of his mother.
Adding insult, he publicly stated that when a big tree falls, earth around it shakes a bit. In a way, he tried to cover up the culpability of the state by using the metaphor of a falling tree.
He tried his best to frame the massacre as “a natural reaction” of the people of India, who were offended by Sikhs who killed his mother. Notably, no such reaction was seen when Rajiv Gandhi himself was blown by a Tamil separatist bomber in 1991.
The book by Pav Singh leaves no doubt that Rajiv Gandhi was complicit in the mass murder and took advantage of the violence.
Apart from the chilling facts suggesting Rajiv Gandhi's involvement in the violence, the author went into the reasons behind the silence of global leaders on a tragedy of this magnitude in the world’s so-called largest democracy.
Singh points out that how Margaret Thatcher, the then U.K. prime minister, remained indifferent to the massacre of the Sikhs. She expressed anger at celebrations in Britain over the death of Indira Gandhi, but never denounced the wholesale slaughter of Sikhs in India, which left thousands dead.
Rather, her government had extended help to Indira Gandhi through military advice in advance of the army attack on the Golden Temple Complex.
Singh goes into details of the defence deals between the two countries that dissuaded the Thatcher regime from taking a strong position against the massacre of Sikhs. The U.K. government preferred to remain neutral in such an alarming situation.
Moreover, Singh points out that this was not the case when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened in China or when opposition increased to apartheid in South Africa.
He rightly mentions that in many cases, the U.K. government slapped sanctions against several nations in light of gross human rights abuses. In the case of South Africa, it came after being urged to do so by other world leaders, including Rajiv Gandhi.
But because the U.K. government did not want to lose an opportunity to sell helicopters to India, it conveniently overlooked the sufferings of the Sikhs.
Almost 35 years after the massacre, under an outright sectarian government in India, attacks on religious minorities have increased.
BJP supporters, who are determined to turn India into Hindu theocracy, continue to terrorize different minority communities with impunity.
Meanwhile, the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been linked to an anti-Muslim massacre in 2002 in Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time. Mobs led by BJP activists used similar techniques to target Muslims that were applied against Sikhs in November 1984.
Though Modi was denied visa by many foreign governments following 2002 violence, he now enjoys complete hospitality by the western powers after becoming prime minister in 2014. Even as there is a spike in violence against minorities in India, the west remains a mute spectator, partly because of business considerations.
It seems that trade remains the main factor behind this indifference, just as it was back in 1984.
Singh’s book must be read by those who wish go to the heart of this quest for the truth.
Even otherwise, those who want to learn about the extent of the anti-Sikh massacre and understand its long term impact, particularly on women who were subjected to sexual violence by the mobs, must read the book.
It is a well researched document, which is based on interviews and the findings of both independent investigators and the state-sponsored commissions of inquiry.