Thousands of Sikhs were murdered across India during the first week of November 1984 following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Innocent Sikhs were systematically targeted by mobs encouraged by Gandhi’s ruling Congress party officials in connivance with the police.
Decades have passed, and there has still been no justice for the victims’ families. Barring a few convictions of foot soldiers involved in the mayhem, no senior politician complicit in the crime has been booked on charges.
Successive non-Congress governments, including the current one led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), have also failed to bring closure. In fact, attacks on religious minorities have grown under BJP rule.
It's believed that BJP supporters joined murderous gangs that let loose a reign of terror on Sikhs in 1984, which helped Congress win the election. This came by Congress riding on a sympathy wave by polarizing the Hindu majority in the aftermath of Gandhi’s murder.
In the absence of justice and continued denial by the Indian establishment of any wrongdoing in the world’s so-called largest democracy, Canada and other western democracies need to step in.
This becomes even more necessary after the recent election of Kamal Nath as chief minister of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. He'll be sworn in on Monday (Deember 17).
Witnesses have claimed to have seen Nath leading mobs outside a historic gurdwara in New Delhi, the national capital of India, in the aftermath of Gandhi's assassination. Though he was never charged, these witnesses believe he was responsible for violence that led to at least two murders near the gurdwara.
Nath, however, has denied this and claimed to have tried to distract the crowd.
Under his leadership, Congress recently won the assembly election in Madhya Pradesh, defeating the BJP. Liberal democrats who see Congress as a secular alterative to the BJP continue to overlook Congress's baggage of 1984 and have shown scant interest in the outrage over Nath's victory.
Despite worldwide protests by Sikhs against his rise to chief minister (equivalent to being a provincial premier in Canada), the Congress party went ahead with its controversial decision. This only establishes that the party doesn’t care about Sikhs, who make up merely two percent of the Indian population.
Canadian Sikhs too were petitioning against his appointment. Notably when Nath was visiting Canada in 2010 as a union government minister, he was greeted by angry Sikh protesters. The then New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton, boycotted his events.
Canada, which has a significant number of Sikh MPs and ministers in the federal government, can learn something from the legacy of a towering leader like Layton and seriously think of formally recognizing the 1984 violence as genocide.
That’s the least the Canadian government can do to exert pressure on India for justice. After all, there has been a campaign in Canada to do this for a long time.
MPs have presented genocide petitions in Parliament, while the Ontario legislature has already passed a motion calling the 1984 massacre a genocide.
Not surprisingly, these symbolic but important actions drew angry responses from the Indian government. It won’t ever acknowledge something that ruptures its reputation internationally.
Canada shouldn’t just worry about its trade relations with India. It must pay attention to its obligation to human rights or simply stop claiming to be a global champion of social justice.
India has repeatedly shown its unwillingness to listen to any amount of criticism from both inside and outside the country regarding what happened in 1984. Foreign intervention is the only hope.
Often those seeking justice are branded as “antinationals” or Sikh separatists. This is designed to silence activists who've been raising this issue for years. The Congress conveniently labels them as supporters of the BJP or its Sikh allies.
What critics won’t acknowledge is that all of those seeking accountability aren’t from the Sikh community. There are some humanists, including those who denounce Sikh separatists, who've been campaigning for justice for what happened in 1984.
Rather than demonizing those fighting for justice and fairness, it’s the Indian state in general and Congress in particular that need to be exposed. For the record, an Indian court recently described the 1984 violence as genocide, yet it's Congress leaders who've often compared the BJP with Nazis.
If all of that is acceptable to the Indian mainstream, then why is Canada so scared of using the “G” word?
Whether the definition of genocide is applicable to the 1984 Sikh massacre remains a point of debate, and not everyone is on the same page. But the fact is that it was state-sponsored terrorism against a minority community. Those who committed atrocities must be held accountable.
Canada needs to rise to the occasion and tell the Indian government in clear terms that it should either provide justice to Sikhs or it will recognize the massacre as a genocide. This would send a strong message to the establishment that allowed the killing of its citizens with impunity and refuses to hold these criminals accountable.
That’s the only language that a repressive and unresponsive regime understands. By remaining neutral, Canada is clearly siding with the oppressors.
Today, the BJP is taking advantage of that by normalizing violence against minorities.
Thanks to the deafening silence of countries like Canada, the Indian state is unchallenged as it continues to persecute oppressed communities.
Canada has to make a beginning somewhere to break this silence. If not now, then when?