Assassinations, Peace and State Violence in India and Pakistan

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was way past midnight in Chicago when I was awakened by a phone call. "Congratulations," someone was saying in Hindi, "Indira Gandhi is dead." It took me a while to properly understand what he was saying. He was an Indian, and I was shocked to hear his celebratory tone on the death of his leader and his assumptions that as a Pakistani I must be happy as well.

That was twenty five years ago on October 31, 1984, when the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two of her Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, to avenge the attack by Indian military on the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of Sikhs which resulted in killing a thousand Sikhs.

She was neither the first nor the last Gandhi to be assassinated. She was also not the only South Asian leader to be assassinated.

Rajiv Gandhi, who became Prime Minister of India after his mother's assassination, himself was slain by a Hindu female suicide bomber in 1991. She was a member of Tamil Tiger. Initially Tamil Tiger received funding, weapons, and training in India from the government of Indira Gandhi.

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007 in Pakistan. Ironically, Taliban accused of her assassination were organized with her government's active patronage.

The Sikh rebellion was started in the late seventies by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, whom Sanjay Gandhi, the other son of Indira Gandhi, had actively promoted in order to weaken the Sikh's Akali party for the benefit of the Congress party.

As Indians mark the death anniversary of Indira Gandhi, Sikhs renew their call for justice, and Pakistan bleeds with terrorism, it is important to reflect how justice, reconciliation and forgiveness can allow humanity to move forward and how its absence can continue to harm people.

Any state, as the most organized power, has more responsibility to be a patient actor. Instead of taking a short-term view, insisting to establish the writ of the state, it needs to take a longer view of issues and think of long-term consequence of its strategies. Unfortunately, states sometime behave in a tribal mode of retaliation and revenge.

If Indira Gandhi in the Golden Temple, Amritsar and Pervez Musharraf in Lal Masjid, Islamabad, had taken an approach of patiently waiting instead of storming the houses of worship with fire power, the bloody outcomes and even bloodier consequences could have been avoided.

1,000 Sikhs died at the invasion of Golden Temple, 4,000 more Sikhs were murdered by Hindu mobs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination and 10,000 more Sikh male "disappeared" in the Indian anti-terrorism war.

Death counts are rising in Pakistan as military battles continue, making millions refugees, in the Northern areas while the suicide bombers target Pakistani cities. Survivors of Lal Masjid had promised this outcome.

If the Indian and Pakistani governments had stayed away from the tactical use of extremists against their political rivals they would not have inadvertently contributed to the acceleration of violence. Indira Gandhi created and nourished Bhindranwale among Sikhs and trained Tamil Tigers against Sri Lanka whereas Bhutto created Taliban. Gandhi and Bhutto both played a role in their own unfortunate demise by accelerating extremism and violence.

One lesser-known government actor, Asfandiyar Wali Khan, on the other hand, behaved differently, establishing a peaceful negotiated path in Pakistan's conflict with its Taliban. He is the Chief Minister of Pakistan's North-West-Frontier Province where the war is being waged against the Pakistani Taliban. He is a grandson of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a follower of Gandhi in his movement for non-violence. This left-leaning secular politician reached an agreement with Maulana Sufi Muhammad to end the insurgency in the area. The Pakistani Parliament unanimously approved their peace deal early this year. However, the Pakistani government with active and public pressure from the United States, went on establishing the "writ of state" which continues to devastate life throughout Pakistan.

State should also learn to differentiate between individual acts and collective responsibility.
A sort of collective punishment was imposed upon the whole Sikh community when Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards. Police and army stood by in Delhi allowing extremist Hindu gangs roamed around in hijacked public transportation, as women were Sikh gang-raped and their homes and properties were destroyed. The Nanavati Commission reported that the state and politicians had been heavily involved.

Twenty five years have passed since, but no action has been taken against any politicians and officers involved. State allowance or tolerance of extremist violence perpetuates the same behavior.

The State repeated its behavior in Godhra, Gujarat in 2002 when thousands of Muslims were systematically killed and women gang raped. Narendra Modi, the chief minister and the chief architect of this Gujarat genocide against the Gujarati Muslims, still is in power.

Industrious Sikhs, who turned Punjab into a model of agricultural efficiency, making India self-sufficient in wheat, are still asking for justice as they carried out demonstrations and a strike this week.

In the absence of justice and reconciliation, Akal Takhat, Amritsar, the highest Sikh religious authority, sort of a Sikh Vatican, in 2008 honored the assassins of Indira Gandhi by declaring them martyrs of Sikhism.

Justice, forgiveness, compromise and reconciliation remain important tools at the hands of Indian State as well as Pakistani State.

Both countries continue to face armed insurgencies. While a good part of Northern areas of Pakistan are under Taliban insurgencies, a good part of eastern and central India remains under armed Naxalite influence. State has an option to keep on fighting militarily, losing its soldiers, risking civilian casualties-fueling new insurgents and continued collective punishment. This path has not stopped the Naxalite insurgency in India which has been going on for the last 40 years.
Nor will Pakistan achieve military success following a similar path.

Maybe I am naïve thinking that patience, negotiation, and reconciliation can deliver. But some "naïve people" in South Africa did themselves some good when they chose to stop the armed struggle and instead sought reconciliation choosing the forgiving path of Truth commission over vengeful actions.

If it worked in South Africa, it can work in India and Pakistan as well.

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