Written by Kultar Singh – member of the Street Law Project
In June 1984, the Indian Army attacked Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, as well as 41 other gurudwaras (Sikh places of worship) throughout Punjab. The assault, codenamed “Operation Blue Star,” marked the beginning of a policy of gross human rights violations in Punjab that continues to have profound implications for the rule of law in India.
According to the Government of India, Operation Blue Star was executed to capture Sikh militants who were operating out of Harmandir Sahib complex. However, the government launched military operations during a Sikh religious holiday, when the complex was overflowing with worshippers. Eyewitnesses report that over 10,000 pilgrims were trapped inside the complex on June 3rd when the government imposed a shoot-on-sight curfew, preventing anyone from escaping.
The Army claimed that it entered the Golden Temple complex with “sadness and reverence” (Tribune, June 7, 1984). In contrast, according to the head librarian, Army troops burned the Sikh Reference Library housing rare Sikh manuscripts and historical artefacts, after they had taken control of the building.
Non-government sources estimate that anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 were killed in the attack. The Indian government’s official report claims only that 493 “terrorists” were killed. The practice of “secret mass cremations” would be used for more than a decade to destroy evidence of thousands of Sikhs disappeared and unlawfully killed by the government during its counterinsurgency operations in Punjab.
Indira Gandhi, the prime minister at the time, was responsible for the operation, and on the 31st of October 1984 she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. As a result, her son and the ruling Congress party organized three days of killings of Sikhs.
Frenzied mobs of young Hindu thugs, thirsting for revenge, burned Sikh-owned stores to the ground, dragged Sikhs out of their homes, cars and trains, then clubbed them to death or set them aflame before raging off in search of other victims.
Witnesses watched with horror as the mobs walked the streets of New Delhi, gang-raping Sikh women, murdering Sikh men and burning down Sikh homes, businesses and Gurdwaras (Sikh houses of worship). accounts describe how law enforcement and government officials participated in the massacres by engaging in the violence, inciting civilians to seek vengeance and providing the mobs with weapons.
The pogroms continued unabated, and according to official reports, within three days nearly 3,000 Sikhs had been murdered, at a rate of one per minute at the peak of the violence. Unofficial death estimates are far higher, and human rights activists have identified specific individuals complicit in organizing and perpetrating the massacres.
The term commonly used to describe the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984 is “riot.” The word riot is problematic because it implies random acts of disorganized violence. It invokes images of chaos that overwhelms law enforcement and the government that is there to protect its people.
The anti-Sikh violence of 1984 was not a riot. The massacres were not spontaneous, anomalous or disorganized. According to a report belatedly commissioned by the Government of India in 2000, “but for the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons, killing of Sikhs so swiftly and in large numbers could not have happened.”
Our failure to properly define the problem has also meant that it has not received the appropriate response; neither the Indian government nor the international community has treated the violence for what it is – a crime against humanity.
Jasmeet Kaur was the sister of Harpal Singh and daughter of Lakhbir Kaur. Her story is one of the many Sikh women who were raped, killed and tortured during the 3-day genocide. On the first day of the massacre, they were all detained and within hours, they had all been beaten and imprisoned. Later that evening, in front of her and her mother, her
Brother was stripped naked and beaten. Her mother was then stripped nude in front of her. Jasmeet Kaur, then 16 years old, witnessed her mother being raped in front of her by three police officers before she passed away. She was freed three days later, but her brother was never located.
To this day, few perpetrators of the attacks have been held accountable for their actions. The complicity of the police in the atrocities is an issue that has also not received adequate investigation. Retired police officers have admitted in interviews that they prevented victims from filing first information reports and that they aligned themselves with anti-Sikh rhetoric, facilitating the ensuing violence.
The Indian government has hindered investigations and failed to take steps to rectify the human rights abuses that took place. In 1987, the Kapoor-Mittal committee was established to investigate the role of the police in the 1984 genocide. The committee identified 72 negligent officers and recommended that 30 of those officers be dismissed. However, no action by the government was taken to discipline or dismiss these individuals. In many instances the government closed cases due to a lack of evidence.
Legislative reform is vital to ensure that the police and others in positions of power can be held to account for being complicit in and facilitating such atrocities. Furthermore, legal proceedings must be taken in a transparent and objective manner to secure justice for the victims of the genocide, to ensure that nobody is exempt from the rule of law and to prevent further fundamental abuses of political power.