The ghosts of Sikhs massacred in the riots following Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 have come to haunt All India Congress Committee president Sonia Gandhi, who is visiting New York to seek medical attention at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Sonia Gandhi was issued summons by US Federal Court, New York on September 9, 2013 for her alleged involvement in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Readers may recall that Indira Gandhi had launched her military in the controversial Operation Blue Star on June 3-8, 1984 in which the Akal Takht, the holiest of relics of the Sikhs, housed in Harmandir Sahib, also known as the "Golden Temple" in Amritsar, Indian Punjab was desecrated and destroyed to flush out Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Sikh leader, who had taken residence in Harmandir Sahib, was accused of amassing weapons in the gurdwara to start a major armed uprising, which is contested by most Sikh scholars who claim that Indira Gandhi attacked the Harmandir Sahib complex to present herself as a great champion of democracy so she could secure victory in the forthcoming elections.
During the assault, Sant Jarnail Singh and nearly 5000 civilians were killed, most of whom were innocent pilgrims. The operation is criticized on the grounds of the choice of time of attack by Government, heavy casualty, loss of property, and allegation of human rights violations by Indian Army personnel. The timing of Operation Blue Star coincided with the Sikh religious day, the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, the founder of the Harmandir Sahib. The Indian army deployed tanks, helicopters, heavy artillery and even chemical weapons to hunt down the alleged militants. Total media blackout was imposed in Punjab by the Indian Army before the attack. According to “The Times” reporter Michael Hamlyn, journalists were picked up from their hotels in a military bus and deported to the adjoining state of Haryana. The main towns in Punjab were put under curfew while news blackout was imposed and Punjab was "cut off from the outside world". Brahma Chellaney, then the “South Asia” correspondent of the Associated Press, was the only foreign reporter who managed to stay on in Amritsar. His telexed dispatches provided the first non-governmental news reports on the bloody operation, appearing on front pages of “New York Times”, “The Times of London” and the “Guardian” exposing much higher figures of casualties than that admitted by the government. Mr. Chellaney also reported that “several” suspected Sikh militants had been shot with their hands tied.
The military action led to an uproar amongst Sikhs worldwide and the increased tension following the action led to assaults on members of the Sikh community within India. Many Sikh soldiers in the Indian army mutinied, while numerous Sikhs resigned from armed and civil administrative office and several returned awards and honours they had received from the Indian government. The Sikh community perceive the attack on their holiest shrine as unjustified and Bhindranwale was declared the greatest Sikh martyr of the 21st century by Akal Takht (Sikh Political Authority) in 2003.
Four months after the operation, on 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, two of her Sikh bodyguards, in what is viewed as an act of vengeance. Subsequently, more than 8,000 Sikhs were killed in the ensuing anti-Sikh riots, which reportedly, the ruling Indian Congress abetted with security forces watching ineffectively while Sikh women were raped and butchered, their men slaughtered and property pillaged by militant mobs.
Having waited 39 years for justice to be meted out to the perpetrators of the bloody massacre, the Sikh community has finally adopted the legal course to seek redress. Gurpatwant Pannun is the attorney for the U.S. based Sikh community for Justice, which has initiated the case against Gandhi on behalf of Jasbir Singh and Mohender Singh, who suffered physical and emotional damages as a result of the attacks, having lost close relatives. Mr. Pannun states that the Congress party organized the systematic killing of Sikhs in 1984, while Sonia has been protecting and shielding the killers, allegedly Kamal Nath, Sajjan Kumar, and Jagdish Tytler, giving them important positions within the Congress party, while no investigations have taken place of the mass murders.
The lawsuit may not reach trial in the US but will cause a lot of embarrassment to Sonia Gandhi. The Indian Congress President has lost near and dear ones too and perhaps she should take cognizance of the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 and mete out justice.
The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst and host of programme Defence and Diplomacy on PTV.