Gurpreet Singh: Indian election results open old wounds, bringing back memories of Sikh massacre of 1984

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      “Why is there no salt with peanuts in the bag?” asked one soldier to another on a train heading to Amritsar, Punjab.

      “What do you expect from those who are not loyal to the salt of the nation?”  came the reply from a fellow soldier.

      This discussion left my father shaken to the core.

      Maybe the soldiers did not notice a turbaned Sikh sitting next to them or maybe they just brought this up to humiliate him.

      For those who need to understand the context of the conversation, it is important to know that salt is a test of one’s loyalty in India.

      Those who are loyal to their masters are called namak halal (for being indebted to the one who provides for food); those who aren’t are namak haram.

      For these two soldiers in a conflict zone, the locals were namak haram. They were most likely from Uttar Pradesh, a northern Indian Hindi-speaking state where people eat peanuts with salt. You get it for free if you buy peanuts from a vendor.

      But in Punjab, where they were then posted, this wasn’t the case. If you bought peanuts you wouldn’t get free salt simply because people in Punjab eat peanuts differently.

      My father knew what these soldiers were talking about. He had been to Uttar Pradesh so he also understood their language.

      It was a clear reference to his people, whose loyalty to the nation had come into question ever since Punjab had been turned into a military zone.

      The time when this incident occurred was when my father was posted in Amritsar—the Mecca of the Sikhs. He worked as a sales manager with a government-owned oil company.

      He was travelling back home on a train when he bumped into these soldiers who were passing a judgement on his coreligionists, just because they did not get free salt from the vendor at the railway station.

      My father never forgot this conversation. He felt completely helpless and couldn’t muster courage to confront them, either.

      It was challenging for any ordinary Sikh to argue with Indian soldiers who were then ruling their homeland of Punjab. But he shared his pain with me and the story has stuck with me since he first narrated it.

      On Father’s Day I still remember the way he explained it with a lump in the throat.  

      This happened months after the infamous Operation Bluestar that was executed by the Indian army in the first week of June 1984.

      The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had ordered a military invasion on the Golden Temple complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, to deal with a handful of armed extremists. They were accused of using the place of worship as their hideout to carry out their political movement for religious rights.

      Their leader, a fiery preacher named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, believed that the Sikhs were being treated as second-class citizens in Hindu-dominated India.

      Because the government wasn’t sincere to address the issue and had deceived the moderate Sikh leadership at every step, Bhindranwale became more popular among ordinary Sikhs.

      He emphasized that Sikhs should arm themselves to fight against injustice in accordance with the principles of Sikhism, which teaches its followers to resist repression.

      An era of killings began. Ordinary Hindus and moderate Sikhs became the target of violence, besides the political leaders who were on a hit list of Bhindranwale and his supporters.

      On the pretext of crushing terrorism, the Indian government decided to go ahead with Operation Bluestar. Indian forces stormed the place of worship.

      This occurred even as Sikh pilgrims were gathering there to mark the martyrdom day of their fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, who had laid the foundation for this holy place.

      Earlier this month, Sikhs gathered on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery on the 35th anniversary of an Indian army attack on the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar.

      Instead of resorting to other means to prevent the bloodshed and sacrilege—and making the militants surrender—the Indian government let the army turn the temple complex into a battlefield.

      The incident left scores of pilgrims dead and the highest temporal seat of the Sikh faith, Akal Takhat Sahib, heavily damaged.

      All these ugly memories have been refreshed following the May 23 election in India.

      It brought back to power—with a majority—the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP won more than 300 of the 543 seats in the house.

      The was even higher than 282 seats BJP won in the 2014 election when Modi first became prime minister.

      This year’s election coincided with the 35th anniversary of Operation Bluestar and subsequent events. The linkage between the two episodes happening within a span of three-and-a-half decades cannot be overlooked.

      What my father and his fellow Sikhs faced during 1984 has a lot in common with what other minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, face today under BJP rule.

      There is reason to draw parallels between 1984 and 2019. Especially considering that Indian voters reelected the BJP that openly scapegoated Muslims and riled the Hindu majority against them during the campaign and throughout its first tenure.

      Operation Bluestar was clearly aimed at teaching a lesson to Sikhs—two percent of the Indian population—to garner the support of the Hindu majority in the forthcoming election. This was proven soon after the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards.

      Gandhi’s Congress party, which claims to be a secular alternative to the BJP, engineered an anti-Sikh pogrom across the country. The mobs led by Congress party activists targeted innocent Sikhs to avenge the murder of their leader.

      In the general election held in the aftermath of the massacre, Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, won a huge majority, capturing more than 400 seats. The BJP only won two seats in the parliament as its "vote bank" [base] shifted to the Congress.

      It won the election riding on the anti-Sikh wave and using the slogan of national unity.

      Video: This NDTV documentary highlights how the real culprits behind the 1984 attacks got away with murder.

      Sikhs felt alienated and insecure during that period. In particular, turbaned Sikh men like my father became potential suspects in the eyes of police and paramilitary soldiers. The majority community remained largely indifferent to grievances of Sikhs caused by Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh massacre.

      My father, who was a carefree man, often trimmed his beard. But after Operation Bluestar he decided not to cut his facial hair anymore.

      He became more religious and the events of 1984 had a lot to do with this. Though he was never baptized, he became a dedicated follower of his faith.

      Before the army stormed at the temple, my father was given responsibility to install cooking gas cylinders at the Golden Temple complex kitchen. His company also supplied the cooking gas.

      When this began, he often used to visit the Golden Temple and had a chance to meet Bhindranwale personally on number of occasions. Sometimes, my father's colleagues visiting him from Delhi used to ask if he could arrange meetings with Bhindranwale as they were curious to know what this man was fighting for. To this, my father obliged.

      Once Bhindranwale pointed out to him that he shouldn’t be trimming his beard and be respectful of the religious code. However, my father just ignored this.

      That's because he had mixed feelings about Bhindranwale, who had become a hero for many in Punjab. While my father agreed with him about the attitude of the government toward Sikh issues, he was also critical of violence by militants.

      Around that time, audiotapes of Bhindranwale’s speeches were in great demand.

      We used to bring them home to listen to them to understand the nature of conflict between the government and the Sikhs.

      One day, my father got so upset over some violent incidents that had taken place inside the Golden Temple complex that he wanted us to stop playing his tapes.

      However, everything changed during and after Operation Bluestar.

      The state of Punjab was brought under curfew and there was complete press censorship.

      At night, the administration imposed blackouts, claiming that neighbouring Pakistan might attack, taking advantage of the situation to help Sikh militants create a separate homeland of Khalistan.

      I was 14 at that time and was sick with stomach flu. I was not in a position to go anywhere, nor would the situation allow anyone to step out in the first place. But the sounds of gunfire and shelling are still etched on my memory.

      Our house was a distance from the Golden Temple complex, but we could clearly hear deafening sounds throughout the army operation. During the day, we would see heavy smoke emerging from the direction of the Golden Temple.

      To prevent any accident in the kitchen of the temple, my father was asked by the administration to relocate the cooking gas cylinders. For this he was given a curfew pass.

      When he came back, he was depressed over what he saw at the temple. He shared with us his first-hand account of having seen the signs of destruction everywhere—and the dead bodies.

      After the operation was over and when the temple was finally opened to the devotees, my father took all of us inside. When I saw the building of Akal Takhat scarred with shelling, I could not believe it. This completely frightened me.

      I became angry and felt so helpless. Even though my father wasn’t political and my understanding of politics was nil, I was convinced that the government had humiliated my people.

      After I had witnessed all this, my father told me that he had decided to stop trimming his beard out of respect for Bhindranwale, who had died fighting against the Indian army. Thanks to the Operation Bluestar, Bhindranwale had now become a martyr in the eyes of my father.

      An ambivalent admirer had now become his follower.

      In 2016, Metro Vancouver Sikhs placed wreaths alongside columns of names of militants who fought the Indian army in 1984.

      Some of his colleagues had already started spreading rumours that he was a supporter of Bhindranwale. A complaint was made against him within his organization but nothing was established.  

      They failed to understand that he was only pained, just like many other Sikhs. Notably, his mother was a Hindu and his elder sister was married into a Hindu family, so he was always aware to keep a distance from Sikh separatists.

      My father always believed that innocent Hindus in Punjab were either being killed by Indian agents to discredit Sikh militants and create a religious divide between the two communities or by foreign powers.

      That's because a true Sikh, according to him, wouldn’t kill an ordinary Hindu, come what may.

      Interestingly, one of my cousins is a Hindu who had served in the army and supported Operation Bluestar.

      A more distant cousin is a Sikh who deserted the army in retaliation for the attack. He was among those who revolted as soon as news of army invasion on the Sikh equivalent of the Vatican reached them.

      My father voted against the Congress party for many years after the events of 1984. But in 2004, when the Congress appointed Manmohan Singh as the first Sikh prime minister, he softened his position and tried to bury the past and move on.

      Singh’s appointment came after BJP threatened to stop Congress leader Sonia Gandhi from becoming prime minister because of her foreign origin. Sonia is the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who was ultimately responsible for the Sikh massacre as head of the Congress party in November 1984.

      Even when my father was disillusioned with the Congress, he was very clear on one thing: he would never support the BJP. He often used to tell me that the BJP is much more dangerous than the Congress because it wants to turn India into Hindu theocracy.

      Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) has named BJP head Amit Shah (right) as home minister, despite Shah being implicated in anti-Muslim massacres in Gujarat in 2002, according to an exposé by journalist and author Rana Ayyub.

      He also believed that BJP supporters were involved in the anti-Sikh massacre.

      Though the Congress was directly complicit as it was in power, the BJP folks, he used to say, also had a hand in the violence.

      He sincerely trusted Sonia Gandhi for giving Singh a chance to become prime minister to bring closure, though I never agreed on this with him. I still believe that the Congress has never tried to address the issue of 1984 honestly and the appointment of Singh was merely symbolic.

      Yet, my father stuck to his belief until the final years of his life. He died in November 2017.

      I was visiting India to see him, as he wasn’t keeping well, when he passed away following a cardiac arrest.

      The night before, he expressed his concern over growing attacks on religious minorities under Modi.

      Modi is widely accused of repeating a 1984-like massacre against Muslims in 2002. He was the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat back then.

      The bloodshed followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Modi blamed he incident, which left more than 50 people dead, on Islamic fundamentalists.

      After the train burned, BJP supporters began targeting Muslims all over Gujarat. Much like Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, Modi gained a huge majority in the next assembly election.

      Ever since Modi became prime minister, India has witnessed a spike in violence against minorities. During this year’s election campaign, Modi and his cohorts intensified their hate campaign against Muslims, constantly accusing them of indulging in terror and antinational activities.

      Police violence against Muslims has also increased under Modi. So much so, newly appointed Home Minister Amit Shah was the alleged mastermind of the killings of Muslims in police custody in Gujarat.

      The narrative of Muslims being Pakistani agents or terrorists is no different from the one used in 1984 against the Sikhs.

      Before the recent election when 40 soldiers died in a suicide attack blamed on Kashmiri Muslim militants in Pullwama, ordinary Kashmiri Muslims were targeted by the mobs throughout India.

      Agree or not with that, this polarization helped Modi to come back to power with an even greater majority. 

      The structural violence against Sikhs during 1984 needs to be understood to comprehend what India is facing today.

      It set the stage for a culture of impunity that gives police and state-sponsored vigilantes freedom to pick on minorities, scapegoat them, and get the majority to support their masters.

      To conclude, I confess that I still like to eat peanuts with salt, as I lived in Uttar Pradesh for many years with my parents. My wife and others often joke that I am more like someone born in Uttar Pradesh.

      I have every reason to shun this practice in protest against what my father was subjected, but I am still sticking to it with a hope that a real India, based on the principles of pluralism and diversity, will recover one day from this madness and will be back on the rails.

      I may not agree with my father 100 percent on all issues, but I am keeping a hope that someday his resilience will help us regain what we have lost in a majoritarian democracy.