Gurpreet Singh: The notable parallels between Kristallnacht and the Sikh massacre of 1984

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      The month of November that brings back the memories of the fallen heroes of the Second World War has a special significance for two minority communities—Jews and Sikhs.

      It triggers the ugly flashback of persecution of these two groups by members of dominant communities with the backing of the state.

      This year marks 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht—or the night of broken glass—when violence against Jews broke out on November 9, 1938 following the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a teenage Polish Jew.

      This was in retaliation of the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany. Since the assassin’s parents were among those expelled, he shot at Ernst vom Rath, a diplomat attached to the German embassy, on November 7.

      Rath died two days later, after which the Nazis organized a pogrom against the Jewish people, accusing them of a wider conspiracy against Germany. Their homes, businesses, and places of worship were destroyed while dozens of Jews were killed. The night of broken glass is a reference to the glass found littered on the streets following the bloodshed.

      Likewise, the Sikhs were also targeted during the first week of November 1984 after Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, at her official residence.

      Her bodyguards were outraged over an army invasion on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar in June that year. Gandhi ordered the military attack to flush out religious extremists who had stockpiled weapons inside the place of worship.

      The ill-conceived army operation left many innocent worshippers dead and some important buildings destroyed. This enraged Sikhs all over the world.

      Gandhi’s murder was followed by well-organized anti Sikh massacre across India by the slain leader’s Congress party. Although Congress claims to be secular, the party went the Nazi way and attacked Sikh homes, businesses, and gurdwaras to punish the entire community. Sikh women were raped. About 3,000 people were killed in the national capital of New Delhi alone.

      Metro Vancouver residents recently held a rally in Surrey's Holland Park to draw attention to the attacks on Sikhs in India in 1984.
      Gurpreet Singh

      Unlike in Germany, New Delhi streets were littered by more than broken glass. After all, tires and kerosene were used to kill innocent Sikhs by way of "necklacing".  

      In both cases, the Nazis and the Congress party systematically scapegoated the two minority groups and consolidated their power by "othering" them in the eyes of the majority Germans and Hindus, while police and firefighters remained mute spectators.

      This month, the two communities came together at Gurdwara Singh Sabha in Surrey to commemorate the victims of the two holocausts that took place in different parts of the world. 

      Genocide Remembrance: Moving From Darkness To Light was mainly organized by a Sikh activist and researcher, Sukhvinder Kaur Vinning, and was attended by an award-winning social justice Jewish educator, Annie Ohana.  

      The two women acknowledged the cultural genocide of other groups, including the Indigenous peoples of Canada, and believe that remembrance is important to challenge attempts to make people forget the history and move on.

      Indeed, one who forgets history is condemned to repeat it and that’s the reason why bigotry continues to grow unchallenged.

      November is not just an occasion to remember the past but also a time to reflect on the present. Racism against Jews remains alive, considering the recent murders of 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh by an anti-Sematic white supremacist.

      Meanwhile, attacks on non-Hindus—especially Muslims and Christians—as well as Dalits (so-called untouchables) have grown in India under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government that is clearly taking advantage of a culture of impunity started by the Congress in 1984.

      India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, is widely blamed for his party members repeating the 1984 atrocities in 2002 against Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where he was the chief minister back then.  

      It is hypocritical to see privileged society keep telling minority communities to forgive and forget, but it never forgets Remembrance Day or even the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Busloads of tourists are brought to her former residence, which has now been turned into a museum.

      Yet Sikhs are repeatedly lectured to bury the past.

      Those who are scared to discuss these dark chapters of history need to shed this fear and accept the reality of an unevenly divided world living with a selective memory and a false sense of belongingness. To change this discourse we need to first recognize all historical wrongs and fix them through reconciliation—and then make sure they are not allowed to be repeated by populist leaders such as Donald Trump and Modi.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine. He's also the author of Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector and Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families. Both were published by Chetna Parkashan.