image caption: Gurmukh Singh OBE

Thirty-Nine Years After June 1984

The same questions are asked by the global Sikh community in June every year as they remember the thousands of Sikhs who lost their lives in Panjab and later in Delhi and the rest of India. In June 1984, Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was able to ignore all constitutional safeguards and misused the army and state agencies to start prolonged state suppression of the most loyal Indian minority, the Sikhs of Panjab.

Earlier events from 1947 to June 1984 had kept reminding the Sikhs that their survival depended on continual assertion of their religio-cultural identity. The Panjabi Suba agitation should not have been made necessary to save Panjabi language and culture. For various reasons, by June 1984, the political stance adopted by Indra Gandhi towards the Sikhs was hostile. The Constitution (through the President and the judiciary) and the Parliament, could not stop her from ordering the Indian army to kill own citizens.

She was able to confine the Sikh President, Giani Zail Singh, to the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) instead of seeking timely advice from him about the causes of unrest in Panjab. In fact, to outside observers who were able to meet the President, he gave the impression of being a virtual prisoner at the Presidential Palace by end March 1984. He was taken away from Panjab politics for reasons we can only speculate about. He was a shrewd politician and did memorialise Sikh Gurus and heroes.

In 1947, the administrative power in India passed on from the white sahibs to the brown sahibs. However, the vast majority of Indians and minorities never gained true freedom from centralised colonial style institutions and rule, except that it was no longer from London but from Delhi.

Therefore, for the Sikhs, who had led the freedom struggle empowered by the egalitarian socio-political revolution started by Guru Nanak Sahib against any form of totalitarian rule, partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 simply started the next phase of the same revolution. Pre-independence promises made to the Sikhs by the wily upper class Congress leaders leaning heavily towards Hindutva politics, were conveniently forgotten and the Sikh case continues to be a running sore.

The need for the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (1973), with a list of Sikh demands as a reminder, was felt by the Sikh nation. Then followed a sequence of events leading to the massive blood-shed in 1984 and the following decade. Operation Blue Star attack on Darbar Sahib and about 40 other Gurdwaras, was carried out between 1 and 10 June 1984. In the months that followed, a clean-up operation code-named Operation Woodrose was started throughout Punjab to prevent the outbreak of widespread public protest in the state.

The two army operations were in the nature of army invasion of the Sikh homeland. Paradoxically, the 1984 army action against Panjab also reminded the Sikhs not only of Jang Hind-Panjab after Maharaja Ranjit Singh but also of their nationhood. That they are with the Indian diversity by own free choice as a distinct people.

The scale of bloodshed during and after June 1984, the extra-judicial killings in the years that followed, justice delayed for decades and the ready use of draconian laws against the Sikhs, continue to add to the Sikh resolve to assert own identity and legal rights. Those rights include the right to self-determination as a democratic, historical and legal choice.

Gurmukh Singh OBE

Principal Civil Servant Retd