The humiliating defeat of the opposition Congress party in the recent Indian parliamentary election comes close to the 35th anniversary of the state-sponsored repression of the minority Sikh community.
The once-dominant party bagged only 52 seats out of total 543 in the Lok Sabha, which is the elected lower house.
This was despite the fact that Congress claims to be a secular alternative to the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) under which attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, have grown sharply.
Yet the anti–incumbency factor didn’t work and as a result, the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected with a brute majority, taking 303 seats.
That was more than the 282 it won in the 2014 election.
Even though this election was seen as referendum on the future of secular India, with the BJP bent upon turning the country into a Hindu theocracy, the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi failed to sell its image as a credible secular alternative.
Modi described the tag of secularism carried by the Congress party as fake.
Though I strongly dislike Modi for his sectarian politics, I agree with him 100 percent when he described the secularism of Congress party as sham.
It was exactly 35 years ago in 1984 that the Congress, as the governing party, targeted the Sikh community to polarize the Hindu majority to win the impending general election.
Then prime minister Indira Gandhi, the grandmother of Rahul Gandhi, was locked in a conflict with the moderate Sikh leadership of Punjab that was seeking extra rights for the community and their home state.
Indira Gandhi remained adamant and never tried to resolve these issues with honesty. This resulted in the emergence of a parallel Sikh extremist movement that believed in an armed resistance.
This situation was allowed to get out of hand following which Indira Gandhi ordered the military invasion of the Golden Temple Complex—the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar—in June 1984.
The ill-conceived army operation, which was avoidable, aimed to deal with a handful of militants. The attack left many innocent worshippers dead and the highest temporal seat of the Sikh faith, the Akal Takhat Sahib, heavily damaged.
This alienated Sikhs from the mainstream.
On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence in New Delhi. Following the high-profile murder, innocent Sikhs were killed all across India by mobs led by Congress party activists.
Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, was later appointed as the prime minister and there's considerable evidence of his complicity in the pogroms.
He went to the extent of justifying the anti-Sikh massacre as a natural reaction to the death of a popular leader, whereas it was, in fact, a state-supported genocide.
The Congress won 404 seats out of 514 in the election that followed the Sikh massacre. Notably, the BJP won only two seats in the house, which meant that the Congress was able to attract the traditional BJP Hindu vote bank.
This vindicated Sikh leaders who had been complaining that the army invasion was planned to win the election and nothing else by scapegoating their minority community.
This whole episode set the precedent for majoritarian democracy under which minorities are targeted with impunity to win elections by polarizing the dominant group.
Modi employed a similar strategy in Gujarat in 2002. Before becoming prime minister, he was the chief minister of Gujarat, which saw worst anti-Muslim pogrom in recent years.
That massacre followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. More than 50 people died in an incident that Modi blamed on Islamic extremists.
Shortly after that, BJP supporters organized mass murders of Muslims all over the state. Subsequently, Modi won the assembly election with a huge mandate.
Modi’s ascendance to power cannot be delinked from the ugly events of 1984.
Ironically, Modi repeatedly raised the issue of 1984 during the election campaign to embarrass Congress, even though BJP workers were also involved in the anti-Sikh massacre.
What is happening today to all other minority communities under Modi is the culmination of the Sikh genocide of 1984.
It marked the beginning of an era of impunity and the death of the idea of an India that is based on diversity and pluralism.
It is pertinent to mention that Modi and his party openly played the religious card during the recently election campaign and also fielded candidates involved in hate crimes and hate speech against Muslims and Christians.
It is a separate matter that they had the moderate Sikh leadership of Punjab on their side. This particular group cannot go along with Congress because of its baggage from 1984.
Even otherwise, Hindu nationalists consider Sikhs as part of the Hindu fold, a theory that is strongly contested by many Sikh activists.
Unfortunately, the Congress lacks genuine remorse for what it did in 1984.
Except for making some symbolic moves, such as appointing Manmohan Singh as the first Sikh prime minister, the Congress party never came clean on this issue.
Singh delivered a vague apology for 1984, but never acknowledged the involvement of the Congress party or his colleagues in the massacre. That itself was a mockery of repentance.
Several months before the recent general election, the Congress appointed Kamal Nath, a senior leader allegedly involved in the 1984 massacre, as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.
During the general election, one of the senior Congress leaders, Sam Pitroda, basically said "what happened happened in reference to 1984.
It is high time that Rahul Gandhi own up to his moral responsibility for the massacre and apologize for the actions of his beloved dad and grandma.
It is important to mention here that a Sikh separatist leader, Simranjeet Singh Mann, who had resigned as a police officer in protest against the army invasion of the Golden Temple, has set a great example.
Mann apologized for the actions of his grandfather, who was the custodian of the Akal Takhat during British rule.
That grandfather, Aroor Singh, presented a robe of honour to a general responsible for the hideous Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
On April 13, 1919, British troops fired on a peaceful gathering of demonstrators who had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh public park located near the Golden Temple. They were protesting against the arrests of leaders of the freedom struggle. Close to 1,000 people died in the incident.
I still remember, as a journalist, confronting Mann at a news conference in Punjab almost two decades ago to ask what he thought of this action by his grandfather. Mann categorically said that it was a wrong thing to do and later apologized for it.
If Mann can do so despite his grandfather not being directly responsible for the massacre, why can’t Rahul Gandhi do the same? He should learn something from a person like Mann—who, despite being a separatist, had the courtesy to apologize for someone in his family who had betrayed the national movement.
More than an apology, the Congress needs to do some soul-searching on its commitment toward secularism.
Merely criticizing Modi and the BJP for being outright sectarian is not going to work. Congress has to really prove that its words match its deeds.