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1984 riots: When silence spoke so unmistakably

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By Sanjay Suri

President Zail Singh could not get through to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi when he needed most to, when thousands upon thousands of Sikhs needed him to, urgently. It was after all a matter of life and death for them.

“We tried all day,” Tarlochan Singh, press secretary to the president through those deathly days of 1984, and later chairman of the Nation Commission for Minorities, said at an event last week at the launch of the book ‘1984 – the Anti-Sikh Violence and After’ that I have written. I was then eyewitness to much of the violence as a crime reporter with The Indian Express newspaper.

Picture from @HarperCollinsIN
Picture from @HarperCollinsIN

But all day and late into the night the president could not get a word in, Tarlochan Singh said in his startling revelation. That kind of stonewalling between the head of state and head of government was unprecedented. Rajiv Gandhi had been sworn in prime minister on the evening of October 31; his mother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated by two Sikh police bodyguards earlier in the day.

Zail Singh had learnt almost before anyone else, just how direly threatened Sikhs were then in Delhi. “The President was the first Sikh to be attacked,” senior lawyer H.S. Phoolka, who has been campaigning for justice over the 1984 killings, told the gathering. The president’s car was stopped and attacked early in the evening of October 31 while he was on his way to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where Indira Gandhi had been taken.

The president could hardly have been expecting the new prime minister to display some of the hostility he had encountered on the street the evening before. Because hostility this evidently was; Rajiv Gandhi then undoubtedly was a son grieving over the shocking murder of his mother, but he was also prime minister. Surely, his personal grief was not such that he couldn’t set it aside a minute for the sake of the president.

Rajiv Gandhi
“Rajiv Gandhi (1987)” by Bart Molendijk / Anefo

Rajiv Gandhi’s silence spoke unmistakably; he knew that Sikhs were being attacked all over Delhi the next day but demonstrated that he really did not want to know. Tarlochan Singh believed the president wanted to express concern over the safety and security of Sikhs. But if all he wished to do was to reach out to Rajiv Gandhi over his personal loss, it would still appear hostile to refuse to take that call.

Tarlochan Singh’s intervention at the meeting added a new dimension to a chapter on Rajiv Gandhi in the book, where I present facts to show that the killing of those thousands of Sikhs was backed – at the least I argue – by “passive aggression” coming personally and directly from Rajiv Gandhi.

Yet more inputs arose at the meeting pointing the same way, by way of a glimpse of the personal responses of the Lt. Governor of Delhi, P.G.Gavai. “He wept and wept because he said he had failed,” Capt. J.S.Gill, an associate of Gavai, told the meeting.

Why did Gavai think he had failed? The book records a telling documented fact, that Rajiv Gandhi called Gavai for a meeting at 5.30 pm on November 2 and instructed him that all violence must end within 15 minutes. This was the first firmly decisive step Rajiv Gandhi took. But by then 3,000 Sikhs had already been killed. Did Rajiv Gandhi not know before then that Sikhs were being massacred? What was Rajiv Gandhi ordering Gavai to end, now suddenly within 15 minutes.

The killing, and the loot and arson were in evidence all over Delhi, and Rajiv Gandhi was hardly ignorant of these. He most certainly would want the violence to end on the evening of Nov 2 because among other considerations, world leaders had begun to arrive in the city for Indira Gandhi’s funeral to take place the following day. Perhaps he had a more humane intention, eventually, than preparing a presentable city before foreign dignitaries. But before that meeting with Gavai, no such decisive move came from the new prime minister to end the violence.

Rajiv Gandhi had no doubt delivered a speech calling for peace and harmony. But to share here a thought in the book: “The Sikhs of Delhi did not need to hear speeches on the right thing to do; they needed the right thing done.” This, clearly and tragically, was not.

Gavai too had seen that, how could he not? He was agonized because he found himself powerless to do any earlier what he knew it would take. What as that? And who or what restrained him? Another question answers that question.

In the course of an interview with former police commissioner Ved Marwah, the question arose who had stopped his inquiry from completion at the last minute. Marwah would not answer the question, but he did offer an answer by way of raising the question: “Who else?”

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20 Indians Killed In A Terrorist Attack In Afghanistan

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC) condemned the attack

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Afghan firefighters clean up the site of a deadly suicide bombing near Kabul University, in Kabul, March 21, 2018.
Afghan firefighters clean up the site of a deadly suicide bombing near Kabul University, in Kabul, March 21, 2018. VOA

A suicide bomber targeted a group of Sikhs and Hindus, two Afghan minority communities, in Jalalabad city, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province, on Sunday, killing nearly 20 people.

“They brutalized us. They have martyred 15 and wounded 15 other Sikhs. We are not aligned with any group or party. Why would anyone attack us? We never harmed anyone,” Tarlok Singh, a member of the Sikh religious minority, told VOA.

However, an Afghan health official told VOA the death toll was higher, with 19 people killed — at least 17 from the Sikh and Hindu communities — and at least 20 others injured.

The Sikhs and Hindus were reportedly on their way to attend a gathering led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the provincial governor’s office when a suicide bomber on foot detonated his explosive device.

Islamic State through its media wing, Amaq, took responsibility for the attack in Jalalabad city, however, the militant group claimed to have targeted a “medical compound.”

It is believed to be one of the first times a suicide bomber has targeted members of the Sikh minority group in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, it is the first time that our Sikhs become the victim of suicide bombing. The leaders of the group and their active community members were all killed or injured today,” Zabihullah Zimaray, a former provincial secretary general of Nangarhar province, told VOA.

Avtar Singh Khalsa, a longtime leader in the Sikh community, was among those killed in today’s suicide attack, an Afghan official told VOA.

Khalsa was an unopposed candidate running for the only seat for Afghan Sikh and Hindu minorities in Afghanistan’s parliamentary election in October.

Place where the attack took place
Map, Place where the attack took place. VOA

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (IHRC) condemned the attack and called the attack on minority groups “… an obvious example of a war crime,” and asked the Afghan government to bring those responsible to justice.

“The Afghan armed oppositions must respect the international humanitarian laws and human rights values and refrain from targeting specific groups or individuals,” IHRC spokesperson Mohammad Bilal Sidiqi told VOA.

Discrimination

The Afghan Sikh and Hindu populations totaled about 220,000 in the 1980s. That number dropped sharply to 15,000 when the mujahedeen were in power during the 1990s and remained at that level during the Taliban regime. It is now estimated that only 1,350 Hindus and Sikhs remain in the country, according to an investigation conducted by TOLO news, Afghanistan’s most viewed private television station.

Discrimination is one the many reasons Sikh and Hindu minorities are fleeing Afghanistan, Anar Kali Hunaryar, an Afghan Sikh senator, told VOA in a previous interview.

“Discrimination has caused our children not to attend the mainstream schools and that is why most of our kids in Afghanistan remained illiterate and could not actively participate in their communities,” Hunaryar said during the interview.

Afghanistan is a predominantly Muslim country, but the constitution spells out equal rights to the followers of other faiths.

“The sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rituals,” reads Article Two in Chapter One of the constitution.

However, Rawinder Singh, a member of the Afghan Sikh and Hindu Union, who spoke to VOA previously on the topic, named “social discrimination” as the No. 1 problem religious minorities face in the country.

The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of the Sikh faith, and India is home to the world’s largest Sikh population.

“Our fellow Afghans call us Indian and we are being told to go back to India. We are Afghans just like any other resident of this country. Yes, we follow the same religion as Indians, but it’s not rational to say that we do not belong to Afghanistan,” Singh told VOA.

Sikh and Hindu minorities mostly dwell in the south and eastern Afghanistan, and their numbers continue to fall.

Also read: Twin Bomb Attacks in Afghanistan’s Kabul Kills 25 , IS Takes Responsibility

“We were being treated ill and discriminated in the past, but today they badly brutalized us,” Tarlok Singh said, referring to the suicide bomber attack. (VOA)