“When a big tree falls, earth around it shakes a bit.” Those words still echo in my memory from my teens. That was the first public reaction of then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to the anti-Sikh massacre following the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984.
I still remember the TV footage of Rajiv Gandhi making the offensive statement at a huge public gathering. His mother was the prime minister when she fell to the bullets of her Sikh bodyguards at her official residence.
In June that year, she had ordered the military attack on the Golden Temple complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar. The operation was launched to flush out religious extremists who had stockpiled weapons inside the place of worship, and had been running death squads which frequently targeted Hindus in Punjab.
The crisis was the result of a conflict between the Sikh leadership and the central government headed by Indira Gandhi over some political and religious demands of the former.
The invasion left many people dead and buildings inside the shrine heavily destroyed. This enraged the Sikhs across the world.
Community leaders accused the government of not using other peaceful alternatives to avoid the situation, as part of a design to win the forthcoming general election by whipping up anti-Sikh emotions to garner Hindu majority votes.
Even moderate and patriotic Sikhs felt alienated after the attack. Under these circumstances, two of her Sikh bodyguards shot Indira Gandhi.
The assassination was followed by a well organized anti-Sikh pogrom in different parts of India. Easily identifiable due to their turbans and beards, Sikhs became vulnerable to violence instigated by leaders of Indira Gandhi’s Congress party, which claims to be secular.
One of the killers of Indira Gandhi was shot to death immediately after her assassination, the other was hanged later.
Amidst the chaos, her son Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as the next prime minister and later won the general election with a majority.
The slogan of national unity paid dividends to the Congress. Those linked to the violence were awarded with ministerial positions. The apprehensions of those who saw the army invasion of the Golden Temple complex as a political conspiracy were proven correct.
While the victims of violence were still in shock and struggling for justice, Rajiv Gandhi used the metaphor of a falling tree to justify the bloodshed following criticism over the anti-Sikh massacre. His statement had a clear message that Sikhs would not get justice. Indeed, 30 years have passed and Sikhs continue to await justice.
For those who are completely detached from the tragedy, it is time to move on and forgive and forget everything. Some are still convinced by Rajiv Gandhi’s statement and think that it was a natural reaction to the murder of a towering leader.
However, the comment was not just insensitive, but an attempt to mislead the public and make the anti-Sikh violence appear as a reaction of the majority community. It was not an emotional or angry outburst of a son who had lost his mother, but a well calculated speech to cover up the complicity of the state in the massacre of Sikhs.
Eyewitnesses and activists who documented these cases clearly point out that the police remained a mute spectator to the killings. Electoral rolls were used to identify houses where Sikhs lived.
Congress leaders were seen leading the mobs, who were provided with tires and kerosene to burn Sikhs alive.
Women were raped and mobs who were involved in sexual violence were seen having fun. There were no signs of mourning or anger as claimed by the apologists of the establishment. All this implies that criminal bands were hired for the job by those in power.
Another indication of state complicity is that there was hardly any violence of great magnitude in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the biggest city of West Bengal province, simply because the Communist government in the region had a will to prevent attacks on Sikhs. The regions under Congress rule, however, including the national capital, became highly unsafe for Sikhs. In New Delhi alone, thousands of Sikhs were murdered with impunity.
Going by Rajiv Gandhi’s argument, there is no explanation as to why the earth did not shake in Calcutta, which had no shortage of Indira Gandhi admirers. Was it not because the Communist government acted swiftly to prevent large-scale violence, something the Congress government failed to do in Delhi and elsewhere?
Or why did the earth not shake when “a much bigger tree” fell in Delhi on January 30, 1948? Mahatma Gandhi, a world renowned peace icon and leader of the passive resistance movement, was certainly much more popular than Indira Gandhi in terms.
He, too, was assassinated, although by a Hindu extremist, a Maratha Brahmin. Why was there no large-scale frenzy against Maratha Brahmins? It is true that there was a low-scale reaction against Maratha Brahmins, but that cannot be compared with what was done to the Sikhs.
Gandhi was murdered as he challenged the Hindu fundamentalists who wanted to see India transformed into a Hindu nation.
One cannot deny some amount of disgust over Indira’s murder, as she was killed by the very people she trusted. After the army attack on the Golden Temple complex, she wanted to restore the confidence of Sikhs in her government.
In spite of warnings about the presence of Sikh bodyguards in her security detail, she wanted to retain the men who assassinated her. There was also some anger accumulating against Sikhs on account of anti-Hindu violence in Punjab. This anger was clearly reflected in the heavy mandate in support of Rajiv Gandhi.
But would it be appropriate to conclude that the well organized violence was a reaction? If that was the case, why did some Hindus risk their lives to save Sikhs from the mobs?
If reaction to one high profile murder can be so natural and brutal, why then did anti-Hindu violence did not break out in Punjab, despite large-scale massacres of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere?
All this illustrates that such violence would not have been possible without the involvement of the government.
It is pertinent to mention that Rajiv Gandhi, who tried to convince the world that the anti-Sikh violence was a reaction to the death of his larger than life mother, was also assassinated. He died at the hands of a Tamil Hindu suicide bomber.
If violent reaction is a reality in Indian politics, why was such violence missing against Tamil Hindus when Rajiv Gandhi was blown into pieces?
The most dangerous part of Rajiv Gandhi’s "falling tree" metaphor is that it legitimizes violence against religious minorities in the world’s so-called largest secular democracy. His speech set a precedent for the 2002 violence in Gujarat, where Muslims were slaughtered following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.
Over 50 passengers died in the incident that was blamed on Islamic extremists by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). As a result, anti-Muslim violence broke out.
The tactics used against Sikhs in 1984 were reapplied on Muslims in Gujarat by the BJP. The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was chief minister of Gujarat back then.
Modi also tried to rationalize the killings by using the theory of each action resulting into an equal reaction.
The Gujarat violence was rooted in the Hindu-Muslim conflict that started in 1992 after BJP supporters had demolished an ancient mosque, claiming that the site where it stood belonged to a Hindu god. According to the BJP, the land was the birthplace of Lord Rama, where once a grand temple stood.
They continue to claim that the temple was razed and a mosque was built by an Islamic ruler at the disputed site. The train that was allegedly torched in Gujarat was bringing devotees from this site where the BJP now wants to construct a big temple.
The demolition of the mosque in 1992 was followed by well-orchestrated violence against Muslims in Mumbai. Muslims had opposed celebrations over the demolition of the mosque, leading to tension between the two communities, as a result of which Hindu extremist groups slaughtered Muslims. The ugly events of 1992 therefore had vitiated the communal environment of the country, and culminated into the anti-Muslim massacre in 2002.
In 2008, anti-Christian violence in Orissa state captured headlines. The massacre followed the murder of a fanatical Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. He belonged to the same group that was actively involved in anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat.
Responsibility for the Swami's murder was claimed by Maoist insurgents, who targeted him for his anti-Maoist and antiminority activities in Orissa. Yet the murder was blamed on Christians, and was avenged by Hindu fanatics who were determined to teach a lesson to Christian missionaries. The fanatics have constantly accused missionaries of converting tribal Hindus into Christians. There has been series of attacks on Christians in various Indian states, including Gujarat.
All these incidents reflect very badly on the Indian state. Despite the constitution that guarantees secularism, there has always been a pattern behind attacks on religious minorities, which are mostly well organized and politically motivated. The idea is to please the majority by keeping minorities under the boot. Otherwise, why do such violent reactions never occur against the majority?
Metaphors of falling trees or actions versus reactions are only a cover-up tactic to fool the public and reassure those who are ready to fearlessly commit such horrendous acts. India's leadership needs to be honest. Either it should openly acknowledge that India is a Hindu state hiding behind the mask of secularism, or it should set its record straight and treat those involved in violence against minority groups as terrorists, and deal with them like other terror groups.
Under the current Modi government, Hindu extremists have become so emboldened that they openly ask for installation of statues of Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, who is considered the father of the Indian nation.
Godse was associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), an ultra Hindu nationalist cultural outfit, which has links to the BJP. The Congress government banned the RSS after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder, only to later revoke this prohibition.
The Indian state has failed to recognize this campaign as an act of sedition. As compared to the blatant glorification of Godse, any attempt to glorify the murderers of Indira Gandhi is seen as antinational.
For instance, a Punjabi movie glorifying the killers of Indira Gandhi was promptly banned, while a play glorifying Godse has been openly enacted a number of times in Maharashtra.
During a radio interview with me, a Godse supporter commented that he did not murder Mahatma Gandhi for personal reasons. The assassination, according to him, had a strong ideological basis, as Godse saw Mahatma Gandhi as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu.
Well, that can also be said for the killers of Indira Gandhi. They never had a personal animosity with her either.
How then does cutting one tree become such a heinous crime that you go to the extent of punishing the entire community of the tree feller? And why just forgive everyone from the community of someone who axed a different tree? It is time to question this selective justice and secularism.