who came out of the distance
wrapped in cold rain and bells:
I owe to earth’s pure death
the will to sprout.
One morning, 27 years ago, I – a young lad living in the west – was walking to school. It was seasonably cool morning. There was a dusting of frost on the grass and a slight chill in the air, but a warming sun was rising. It was the day after Halloween, but that wasn’t so much on my mind as I met up with a friend – another Sikh boy – on the same route to school.
“They got Indira Gandhi,” I said to him. I may have had a tone of satisfaction in that statement.
It was November 1, 1984, and I was 11 years old. Much of the attention of our home the night before was directed to the news of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister. She was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards as retribution for her attack on Sikhism’s holiest shrine – Operation Bluestar on Harmandir Sahib (aka the Golden Temple) – in June of that same year. I was at Harmandir Sahib about a year and a half prior to Operation Bluestar, and even at that young age, I was cognizant of the tensions that were rising.
Indira Gandhi ordered the attack on the pretense of eliminating violent extremists who sought more autonomy for Sikhs and the state of Punjab, but in doing so, she orchestrated the killing of thousands of innocent Sikhs on an auspicious day for Sikhism, as well as the invasion and destruction of Sikh places of worship and valuable historical artifacts. It was clear that the overt use of force across Punjab towards Sikhs was intended to do more than simply eliminate a few supposed violent extremists.
Operation Bluestar would turn out to be a failure: instead of crushing a small and relatively unpopular Sikh militancy, it fueled a great alienation of Sikhs from their country of origin and legitimized the separatist movement. Because of her orders to attack Sikhism’s central shrine, Indira Gandhi became extremely vilified among Sikhs around the world. Her assassination at the end of the following October was celebrated by some Sikhs at home and abroad, but the celebration didn’t last long. Almost immediately after her death, politicians and other government officials in India’s capital and around the country organized the mass butchery and slaughter of thousands of innocent Sikhs. In those fateful few days after November 1, 1984, my family – sitting from afar – could only watch in horror and pray that our relatives in India would escape the violence.
One of the darkest times in Sikh history was set forth from that point, and continued on for more than a decade with death and destruction. As Sikhs, we have always read about such dark days centuries ago in our history, but here we were now seeing our people persecuted right in front of us.
Both Operation Bluestar in June 1984 and the anti-Sikh pogroms in the following November had a significant impact on me as a pre-teen. I progressed through my teen years with images and news of violence against Sikhs, and developed an awareness of a threatened identity with the knowledge of gross violations of human rights against Sikhs by the Government of India. As I reached my college years in the 1990s, the continuing violence – both from extremists and that which was Government-sponsored – inspired me to learn more about Sikh history and to become very protective of the Sikh identity. I developed strong sympathies to pro-Sikh causes and for the Khalistan movement (the Sikh separatist movement), and some friends considered me to be a fanatic.
And, in those days, fueled with a young man’s passion, maybe I was. Time and experience has tempered some of the hardline attitudes I developed in those years, but a solid foundation for my Sikh identity had developed and has carried on today. I wonder, though, what might have become of me had I been a Sikh youth growing up in Punjab in that turbulent time instead of being part of the Sikh diaspora and sequestered in the west. I am quite certain there is a strong likelihood that I would not have survived, much like the thousands of young Sikh men in India who not-so-mysteriously disappeared at the hands of Indian police.
I cannot do justice to the history of that time (for the full context, see the Sikh Genocide Project). Very few people have been held to account for their role in the horrors of November 1984, and in the decades since, Sikhs have been pursuing a fleeting justice against those who had a role in the genocide.
What amazes me now, however, is the resiliency that today’s Sikhs are displaying, and especially among Sikh youth. Free by distance and time from those years of Sikh persecution in India, Sikh youth in the west are now re-discovering (and discovering for the first time) the events of 1984 and beyond, and will not let those guilty of mass crimes against humanity pass with impunity. Organizations such as Sikhs for Justice and Ensaaf continue to bring awareness and pursue justice on behalf of Sikh victims of the genocide around the world to hold to account individuals who played roles in the anti-Sikh genocide, and Sikh youth are confidently talking about topics related to those years that once were unpalatable in social circles.
While many people lament a dissociation of Sikh youth from their heritage, I believe the cusp of a Sikh rejuvenation is on the horizon. We may never achieve full justice for the death and destruction of 1984 (that never should have been allowed to happen), but seeds were planted in those years that may well be leading to a Sikh renaissance blossoming today.