A long article, but worth the effort of reading it, both for Sikhs and non-Sikhs.
Man in Blue
Sarbpreet Singh, Contributor, Playwright, commentator and writer
Boston, 21 April 2017. On 26 December 2014, The Union Home Minister of India, Rajnath Singh visited Tilakvihar, a poor and blighted neighborhood in Delhi, also known as The Widow Colony where the wives and children of Sikhs who were murdered in 1984 had been settled.
Speaking about the violence that had raged in Delhi after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which in an insidious game of semantics that had lasted for thirty years, had been disingenuously characterized as a ‘riot’, he said : “It was not a riot, it was genocide instead. Hundreds of innocent people were killed..”
On 6 April 2017 government of Ontario, Canada passed a motion declaring :
“In the opinion of this House, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, should reaffirm our commitment to the values we cherish, justice, human rights and fairness, and condemn all forms of communal violence, hatred, hostility, racism and intolerance in India and anywhere else in the world, including the 1984 Genocide perpetrated against the Sikhs throughout India, and call on all sides to embrace truth, justice and reconciliation.”
Particularly in the light of Rajnath Singh’s pronouncement in 2014, the response of the Indian government and the Indian media is extremely troubling and bears examination.
The official response to the motion was to reject it and call it misguided, suggesting that it was “based on a limited understanding of India, its constitution, society, ethos, rule of law and the judicial process”.
This response is problematic for many reasons, perhaps the most significant being the suggestion that somehow the Indian judicial process had adequately addressed the horrific violence of 1984, which even the most casual observer will recognize as newspeak.
The equally important and I would say subtler issue with this response is the suggestion that the ethos of Indian society condones the mis-characterizing of horrific sectarian violence and the rejection of justice. I know for a fact that this suggestion is patently false!
How can I say this with such confidence?
For the past two and a half years, I have been traveling the world with Kultar’s Mime, a play about the 1984 genocide, created and directed by J Mehr Kaur. Our travels have taken us to India twice, where the play has been presented in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Chandigarh and Amritsar.
In the cities outside the Punjab, our audience was mostly non-Sikh. Kultar’s Mime is a powerful and emotional play that pulls no punches as it tells the story of the 1984 Delhi genocide from the perspective of four young Sikh survivors.
It also unflinchingly draws attention to the organizers of the violence, who have been named in reports produced by unimpeachable Human Rights groups and intrepid journalists.
In the Fall of 2014, when the play was presented mostly on the East Coast in the US and Canada, we talked about the possibility to taking it to India. All of our well-wishers tried to dissuade us, suggesting that an attempt to draw attention to the 1984 genocide would be met with hostility or worse in India.
I have to confess that when we landed in Delhi in October 2014 and prepared to present for the first time in India on October 31, the thirty year anniversary of the genocide, we did so with great trepidation. I was convinced that we would be discredited as trouble makers, intent on reopening the wounds of the past.
I was delighted to be proven wrong! The play was met with an outpouring of support and empathy, eliciting positive coverage in newspapers such as The Hindu, The Telegraph, The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Pioneer, The Tribune, Mid-Day and many more.
Even more heartening was the response of young Indians, born after the horrific events of 1984 who had absolutely no prior knowledge of the genocide.
The important lesson that I learned when we took the story of the 1984 genocide back to India was that humanity of the common man is alive and well as is his ability to empathize. Nobody felt a need to vilify us for drawing attention to the horrific events of 1984.
Nobody accused us of having “… a limited understanding of India, its constitution, society, ethos, rule of law and the judicial process” even though we were absolutely willing to lay the responsibility for the massacre where it belonged!
Why then this response to the Ontario motion? Why is the government of India so afraid of any attempts to draw attention to a dark chapter in the nation’s history, while common people seem to have no issue acknowledging it and responding with compassion?
My question is of course, rhetorical.
This brings me to the second topic that I would like to address in this article : the bugbear of Khalistan.
As I was reading the coverage of the Ontario motion in the Indian press, I was struck by a common thread that ran through most of the coverage.
After reporting on the motion and the Indian government’s official response, most of the stories turned their attention to ‘pro Khalistan’ groups which allegedly played a significant role in getting the motion introduced and passed.
Captain Amarinder Singh, the newly elected Chief Minister of Punjab went so far as to label the Defense Minister Of Canada, Harjit Singh Sajjan, a much decorated war hero as a ‘Khalistani supporter’.
The powerful in India, particularly those affiliated with the Congress Party, responsible for perpetrating the 1984 genocide, have raised the specter of Khalistan over and over again every time attention is drawn to the fact that thirty-two years after one of the most heinous crimes perpetrated in independent India, those responsible continue to stalk the corridors of power with impunity.
This canard is particularly toxic because it immediately draws attention away from the victims and perpetrators by focusing it on a ‘threat’ that is so deeply rooted in the nation’s psyche that the mere mention of it is sufficient to banish empathy and supplant it with fear.
As a Sikh leader who has traveled extensively and participated in many Sikh fora over the last several years, and is somewhat aware of what is happening in the community at large, let me go out on a limb and say this.
This notion of a present day ‘Khalistani threat’ is utter nonsense! It is about as credible as the ‘Northwest Territorial Imperative’ to carve out an Aryan homeland in the US and Canada!
The fact that Indian press knows this, as does Captain Amarinder Singh only underscores the brazenness of their position!
I recently had a first hand encounter with the effect of this cynical propaganda that I would like to share with my readers.
On April 9, just three days after the Ontario motion was passed, the Harvard Pluralism Project presented Kultar’s Mime at Harvard University as part of a program designed to address the current climate of fear and uncertainty, wrought in no small part by the lingering effects of the US Presidential election.
After the performance, Dr Diana Eck, Harvard Professor and the Director of The Pluralism Project moderated a discussion with the audience, in which J Mehr Kaur and I participated.
The discussion progressed like many others before with the audience responding emotionally to what they had experienced, expressing both shock and empathy as we pondered the larger issues relating to sectarian violence organized by state actors.
And then a hand went up int he audience. It was a young woman, a recent immigrant from India who wanted to know what my opinion was of Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale and what I thought of the recent resurgence of the Khalistan movement! It was an unexpected question that left me nonplussed for a moment!
It is important here to set some context for those of my readers who are not intimately familiar with the history of the events of 1984. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in June 1984 launched an attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, ostensibly to flush out a band of Sikh militants under the leader of the charismatic Sikh preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale, who had sought refuge in the complex.
Punjab had been wracked by violence for several yeas preceding the attack, which was attributed by the Indian Government and the Press to Sikh militants, who were agitating for the creation of a Sikh state called Khalistan.
The violence continued for almost a decade after 1984 and with the benefit of hindsight we now know that a plethora of actors, that included criminals, state police and paramilitary agencies, rogue government-sponsored vigilantes and Sikh militants contributed.
Unraveling the complex political realities of the Punjab from the mid seventies to the mid nineties is a subject worthy of discussion but far beyond the scope of this article. It is a well accepted fact that militancy in the Punjab was snuffed out by the mid-nineties through the crushing use of force by the government.
Suffice it so say that Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale was a polarizing figure who to this day is variously described as a knight errant whose only agenda was to rid modern day Sikhism of various corrupt practices that had set in, a bloodthirsty terrorist who ordered the killing of innocent Hindus with impunity, a dupe of Indira Gandhi’s political party who used him to play electoral politics in the Punjab, a simple minded village preacher etc. based on one’s viewpoint and worldview.
Why do I even bring this up?
The Sikh genocide of 1984 in inexorably linked to the political history of the Punjab in the eighties, which if one is not vigilant, can give credence to an extremely toxic narrative which goes roughly as follows:
The Sikhs were at odds with the Indian government and embraced militancy and the movement to create Khalistan to further their political demands, exemplified by the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale.
That caused Indira Gandhi to launch an assault on the Golden Temple and resulted in her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. That in turn prompted retaliatory attacks against Sikhs, which were unfortunate but somewhat understandable. The Sikhs after all, in a certain sense, had ‘asked for it’.
That is the narrative that all right thinking people need to reject! As well as the implication that anyone who draws attention to the gross injustice of the 1984 genocide must somehow be a follower of Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale or a supporter of Khalistan!
This is the cynical game that The Indian Government and the Indian Media are playing in their response to the Ontario motion. Amarinder Singh is playing exactly the same game when he dubs Harjit Singh Sajjan a ‘Khalsitani’.
The young woman who asked the unexpected question, I am sure, did so with no malice at all! It is simply the effectiveness of the carefully crafted narrative speaking!
Let me say this! I honestly do not know who Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale was and in the context of the 1984 genocide, I do not care. Nor should anyone else!
No matter who he was or what he did or did not do, nothing can every justify the savagery of the 1984 Sikh Genocide. Trying to link the two is a thinly disguised attempt at justifying the killing of thousands of innocents and the unleashing of terror that continues to haunt an entire community thirty two years later, as it seeks acknowledgement and justice.
Those who seek to make this connection need to be ashamed of themselves. Those who allow themselves to be seduced by a Goebbelsian narrative to justify such savagery need to introspect.
The government of India needs to understand that acknowledging the 1984 Sikh genocide and making an honest attempt to address its festering wounds will only strengthen the ‘largest democracy in the world’. Embracing the Ontario motion rather than vilifying it can only enhance India’s reputation in the community of nations.
There is nothing to be afraid of!
Sarbpreet Singh is a playwright, commentator and poet, who has been writing while pursuing a career in technology for several years. He is the author of Kultar’s Mime, a poem about the 1984 Sikh Genocide. His commentary has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and Worldview, The Boston Herald, The Providence Journal, The Milwaukee Journal and several other newspapers and magazines. He is the founder and director of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of traditional Sikh music and serves on the boards of various non-profits focused on service and social justice. He is very active in Boston Interfaith circles and serves as a spiritual advisor at Northeastern University.