Gurpreet Singh: When they came for the Sikhs in 1984

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      It was the summer of 2018 when I was visiting Berlin with my family. My curiosity about the history of Holocaust was one of the reasons that took me there.

      Once we drove to the city from Frankfurt, where we had landed for the first leg of our vacation to Europe, I began searching for any landmark associated with Martin Niemöller.

      Luckily, his house wasn’t far from the place we had rented for our stay. After locating it through Internet, I went there, but to my disappointment the building that has been turned into a museum was shut for some kind of construction. All the signs out there were in German, a language alien to me. There was no response to the phone number given on the website with information about it.

      Niemöller’s story had always fascinated me. The theologian and pastor is famous for his poetic quotation; “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”.

      Being a critic of Adolf Hitler and Nazis, he had to spend several years in concentration camps, including one in Sachsenhausen near Berlin, where we went for a day trip.

      Previously a supporter of Hitler, Niemöller parted with him after Nazis began taking control of the churches. It was his opposition to the Nazification of churches that turned him into an enemy of the state.

      Niemöller never looked back after that and became an icon for human rights defenders across the globe. His transformation truly reflects his sentiments expressed in his popular verses, which are frequently appropriated by civil rights activists even today.

      Video: Learn more about Pastor Martin Niemöller.

      Incidentally, he passed away in 1984, a watershed year for Sikhs in India.

      It was around this time that the Sikhs in Punjab were struggling for greater rights to safeguard their religious freedom and political autonomy. Even as their agitation largely remained peaceful, these people, who make two percent of the Hindu-dominated India, were unfairly targeted by the self-proclaimed secularist Congress government.

      This was done in the name of national unity to win the upcoming general election by polarizing Hindus. Any campaign by the moderate Sikh leadership was either ignored or maligned in the mainstream media as separatist. There were even allegations that the government secretly patronized a parallel militant leadership to both weaken the Sikh movement and create suitable circumstances to go after the community to please the majority.

      Both the state-controlled media and embedded journalists of that time blamed some inside the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar for a spate of killings of Hindus and political critics of the militants by death squads.

      Exactly 38 years ago in June, 1984 the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of Sikhs, to deal with a handful of insurgents who were holed up inside this place of worship. The ill-fated military operation left many innocent pilgrims dead and important historical buildings destroyed.

      All other alternatives to make the militants surrender through negotiation, a siege, or cutting the water and power supplies were avoided to make it appear like a spectacular victory over one group of people. The bloodshed culminated five months later in the the murder of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, who were outraged by the events in Amritsar.

      Following her assassination, the Congress party orchestrated a massacre of Sikhs all over India. In New Delhi alone nearly 3,000 Sikhs were slaughtered by the mobs with the help of police.

      Gandhi's son Rajiv, who many believe was complicit in the pogroms, won the next election with a huge mandate by riding on an anti-Sikh wave In becoming the prime minister, he left little doubt about the real intentions of the ruling party behind targeting a particular community.

      However, the privileged majority remained indifferent to such blatant repression. Even the so-called liberals looked away as they considered and still see Congress as a sacred cow. They very conveniently overlooked the grievances of the Sikhs.

      Rather than standing up for an aggrieved minority or doing anything meaningful to assuage their hurt, these liberals were carried away by the one-sided propaganda of the Congress party.

      Video: This video from the Wire explains the origins of attacks on Sikhs in 1984.

      It has been well documented that the supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently governs India also relished the sufferings of the Sikh community. Some of them openly justified the actions of the Congress government, while others joined in the massacre.

      That explains why the Congress won with a brute majority in 1984. The BJP was left with only two seats in the parliament, while Congress bagged more than 400.

      Fast forward to February 2002 when Gujarat witnessed its worst Muslim massacre on the watch of then chief minister Narendra Modi. Thousands of Muslims were killed by the mobs led by the BJP activists in the state after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, leaving more than 50 passengers dead.

      Modi, now the prime minister of India and leading the BJP government in New Delhi with a comfortable majority in the house, blamed the 2002 incident on Islamic fundamentalists, inciting Hindus to go after Muslims.

      Though Modi was never charged, the survivors continue to allege his involvement. The pattern of violence was similar to the one observed in 1984.

      Modi was re-elected with more seats in the assembly election that followed.

      This gave him an edge over other leaders of the BJP and gradually turned him into a potential candidate for the post of the prime minister in the 2014 parliamentary election, even as he was able to sustain his rule in Gujarat until then.

      In the meantime, the BJP continued to do its spade work by indulging in divisive politics to ensure his ascendance. In 2008, an anti-Christian massacre rocked the easter state of Odisha where a controversial Hindu preacher was killed by the Maoist insurgents. But the BJP supporters were looking for an opportunity to teach Christian missionaries a lesson for their work in the tribal community. So the Christians were blamed.

      The BJP has always accused Christian missionaries of converting Hindus through fraudulent means, although India’s traditional secular conventions allowed people to change their religion.

      The fact remains that most poor and marginalized sections of India, especially Dalits (so-called untouchables) and Adivasis (Indigenous peoples), often become Christians by choice to avoid caste-based persecution within the Hindu society.

      Emboldened by the majoritarian support for all these years, the BJP knew exactly what they were doing and were able to muster enough numbers to ensure the outstanding win of Modi, first in 2014 and then in 2019. Notably, Modi did not lose the second election even though attacks on religious minorities and political dissidents grew under his rule.

      Back in Berlin, I was wondering where Indian society has gone since 1984.

      In the German capital, we could hardly see any residue of the Nazi era being celebrated, whereas India has gone backward in spite of tall claims about diversity.

      The Nazis actually have become the mainstream in India and live among its citizens. This should not surprise anyone as the founders of the Hindu supremacist cultural organization Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), of which the BJP is a part, once glorified Hitler and justified the Jewish Holocaust.

      Inspired by Nazism, they spent years trying to transform India into s Hindu theocracy through social engineering. And today not just the Sikhs, but everyone is in danger.

      Had others stood up for the Sikhs in 1984, the fate of contemporary India would have been different.

      I really wish Niemöller was alive to see this and relate it with this to his own experiences and guide us all.

      One after another, minorities have been assaulted with impunity in India, paving the way for Modi to rule over a country where Muslims and Christians have been turned into second-class citizens. Meanwhile, Sikhs face a challenge of being assimilated into the Hindu body politic.

      The RSS has never acknowledged the distinct identity of the Sikhs and has vehemently considered them as part of the Hindu fold. This is something that triggered anxiety among Sikhs during 1980s, leading some to take to up arms in the first place.

      Dalits and Adivasis who have endured systemic discrimination for centuries have become even more vulnerable in Hinduized India. Under these circumstances, a reasonable or liberal Hindu voice from the dominant society isn’t safe either.

      Those who dare to question Modi or the RSS can end up being eliminated or thrown in jail on trumped-up charges.

      It’s time to learn something from the legacy of Niemöller. If there is any takeaway from that, it is the lesson of uniting and fighting back for everyone and not leaving others in harm’s way before it is too late.