For Sikhs, 1984 was a turning point.
Illustration: Alyssa Osben

India is commonly known as the ‘biggest democracy’ in the world, with its estimated population of 1.353 billion. Not to mention, with 28 states and eight union territories, the populations live through unique experiences with a variety of subcultures within each area.

However, this does not guarantee unity and tolerance amongst all areas of this vibrant and culturally rich country. In the north of India, bordered by Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, is the Land of the Five Rivers, Punjab. Punjab is the birthplace of the Sikh religion, a Dharmic religion that is distinct from Hinduism. In 1984, thousands of Sikhs were murdered in India by fellow Indians, and the violence that took place in June of that year saw a Sikh bloodshed that would stain their minds for years to come.

We’ve all heard the words nationalism when it comes to Nazi Germany or far-right ‘patriots’ in Europe or the States, but nationalism is not a word confined to the Western world. Hindutva nationalism is the unfortunate lovechild of Hinduism and nationalism which wants to see Hinduism as the main religion of the country, and for obedience to the status quo. 

From observation, this form of toxic nationalism has seen the consistent belittlement and mistreatment of Sikhs throughout the country due to their religious choice. Whether it’s reflected in the government’s decision to sentence Sikh political prisoners for ‘waging war against the state’ despite there being a lack of evidence, or the government’s reluctance to reprimand those who were involved in anti-Sikh riots, there is a sense of discrimination.  

Historically, Sikh autonomy has been trivialised, for example, after the Constitution Act of India was written in 1950, Sikhism was said to be a ‘sect of Hinduism’. In 1955, Sikh marriages were constituted under the ‘Hindu Marriage Act’, albeit being its own unique ceremony with different procedures (later amended by the Anand Marriage Act). These seemingly small details appeared to undermine the independence of the Sikh religion. 

The events that occurred in 1984, orchestrated by the Indian government and supported by British parliament, are vital to understand modern Sikh history. 36 years on, this is still an event that many people are not aware of, and it is a disservice to Sikhs around the world to not educate ourselves on the consequences to the Sikh community.

At the centre of this event was the Khalistan movement, which at its core sought a self-dependent and self governed state within Punjab; this movement was supported by many Sikhs within India and the diaspora outside. The Khalistan movement has had a difficult and painful journey to the present day, with militant ideology often overshadowing the fundamental aim of establishing a new land for Sikhs. This has also led to many failed peace negotiations with the Indian government and remains unresolved to this day. 

Sikhs in this respective region, who were represented in the Indian parliament with one seat by the Shiromani Akal Dal party, had protested for nearly two years for their list of statements. Known as the Anandpur Sahib resolution, this list ensured the sovereignty and respect of Sikhs in Punjab which was largely ignored by the government. In 1982, Sant Jarnail Bhindrawale commenced the ‘Dharam Yudh Morcha’ which was a set of peaceful protests prescribed to pressure the government into engaging in talks about the resolution. After being ignored for months, the next step to be taken by the party was to stop the transport of grains that Punjab would supply to the rest of India, to apply more pressure. 

image of someone reading 1894, with 'Breaking news' on the tv in the background. The caption reads 'wow can you imagine something like that happening now'
Illustration: Manvir Dobb

Before this could happen, and in a bid to remove the ‘militant terrorists’ from Punjab, Operation Blue Star began, which saw ten whole days of ruthless violence against the Sikhs. In the prime minister’s words, she instructed the armed forces not to ‘shed blood, shed hatred’.  

A 36-hour curfew was placed upon Punjab, leading many to seek refuge in the Golden Temple. Those who occupied the sacred gurdwara in Amritsar were told by armed forces that if they conceded defeat and surrendered, they would be spared, only to leave the temple with their hands up and their lives taken. 

The state of Punjab was shut off to the rest of the world, so that media coverage could not catch notice of the government’s actions against the Sikhs. After this, the Golden Temple’s complex was bombed, libraries containing sacred texts burnt and medical workers were threatened to be killed if they attempted to treat injured and wounded Sikhs. The government even ordered armed troops to shoot unarmed protestors in New Delhi, Punjab and Srinagar in Kashmir. In New Delhi, Punjab and Srinagar, protestors were also killed by the police.

We can question why there was no willingness to compromise, but for Sikhs it solidified their fears of discrimination from the state; discrimination rooted in, the idea that they should have sovereignty over a place where they were a majority. 

After Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister at that time, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, those loyal to her were driven to avenge the Sikhs, as if they were actively responsible for her death. What became known as the 1984 Skih massacre took place over four days of civilian led ‘riots’. Many recounts of these four days recall non-Sikhs pointing the finger at Sikhs, and a feeling of terror spread over anyone who held the Sikh identity.

Sikhs across the country and within Punjab, especially, feared death, assault and harassment, with many hiding in their homes. Sikh men and women removed visual signifiers of their faith such as cutting their hair and taking off turbans. Many mothers are still unaware of the whereabouts of their sons, in the dark about their fates. Women were raped, children were murdered and Sikhs across the country were persecuted.  Roughly 11,000 Sikhs were killed within those four days. 

These events still remain largely unknown to people outside of India, with many continuing to praise Indira Gandhi and the British Prime Minister  Margaret Thatcher who approved of Gandhi’s measures. This event leaves a gaping and still very fresh wound in the hearts of Sikhs, not to mention those who were caught directly in the crossfire. 

1984 was a turning point for many Sikhs across the world and their relationship with their homeland, especially as the community comes to terms with these events with no support or acknowledgement from the government. Unfortunately there is still fog around the events of this year, with videos of Sikhs still being attacked by nationalists circulating on social media, and Bollywood tycoons such as Amitabh Bachchan and Priyanka Chopra supporting people such as, K.P.S. Gill, a Indian Police Service officer with a heavily criticised human rights record. What we can appreciate is the coming together of Sikh communities in India, England, Canada, and other countries across the world in attaining justice for our community.