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Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia

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A Gandhian Apology to Sikhs for Ghosts of 1984?

Posted: 05/03/11 08:33 AM ET

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A recently released WikiLeaks cable from August 2005 included an assessment by a senior diplomat at the American Embassy in New Delhi, India. It describes the parliamentary apology tendered by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in mid-August 2005 for the pogroms against the Sikh community by members of his own political party in the first two weeks of November 1984 as being "almost Gandhian -- a moment of clarity in India's long march to religious harmony."

The cable further added that the Prime Minister had "apologized for one of the saddest and darkest moments in recent Indian history" and the apology "stands in exquisite contrast to the opportunism and hatred directed by Senior Government of India officials against Sikhs in 1984."

The unconditional brief apology, offered 21 years after the heinous pogroms against Sikhs in Delhi and across India, was presented verbally by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Aug. 11, 2005 in the Indian Parliament with these words: "I have no hesitation in apologizing not only to the Sikh community but the whole nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our constitution ... On behalf of our government, on behalf of the entire people of this country, I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place."

The assassination of the Indian Prime Minister on Oct. 31, 1984, allegedly by two Sikh members of her security force, triggered an organized orgy of violence and ethnic cleansing against Sikhs in India's capital city of New Delhi and across the country.

Printed media and citizen commission reports show that following the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, thousands of Sikh men and women were killed and raped across India over a period of at least two weeks. These reports show that during these pogroms, thousands of Sikh men were murdered, many necklaced with tires soaked in kerosene and set afire by jubilant mobs, and thousands of Sikh women were publicly raped, many in front of their male relatives. The lucky few were saved by their friends and neighbors of many faiths.

The Indian Government estimated the number of persons killed in Delhi alone during the first three days of November 1984 at nearly 2,700. A list of 3,870 names of Sikhs killed was published by Indian Express newspaper on Nov. 1, 1989. The total for the country is estimated to be about 20,000, with 10,000 in Delhi alone. Several citizen commission reports have documented that the leaders of India's ruling Congress Party and officials of the Government organized and encouraged these massacres to "teach the Sikhs a lesson."

"Almost as many Sikhs died in a few days in India in 1984 than all the deaths and disappearances in Chile during the 17-year military rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990 ... Not only Chile, but also Argentina, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, and Ethiopia, among other nations, have been addressing atrocities from decades past. India, in refusing to confront its bloody recent history, stands in glaring contrast to these nations," wrote Barbara Crossette, the New York Times Bureau Chief in Delhi from 1988 to 1991, in her article, "India's Sikhs: Waiting for Justice," published in the Summer 2004 issue of World Policy Journal.

In the context of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's parliamentary apology, it is particularly disheartening that prominent politicians of his own Congress political party who directly, and in person, provoked the carnage of innocent Sikh citizens of India have still not been brought to justice. A Sikh woman witness to the direct involvement of one such perpetrator is now being dissuaded from providing her testimony.

In the last few weeks, reputed Indian media have widely reported on video-recorded evidence of a senior member of the Congress Party and of the National Commission for Minorities, Mr. Harvendra Hanspal, pressuring Ms. Nirpreet Kaur (whose father had been brutally murdered in the pogroms) to not testify against Mr. Sajjan Kumar, one of the prime accused in the Delhi pogroms as well as a former Member of Parliament and current member of the Congress Party.

The Prime Minister's silence on this recent matter has been deafening. The World Sikh Council -- America Region recently wrote an open letter to the Indian Prime Minister urging him that if his verbal apology is sincerely held, then he should "walk the talk" by taking appropriate action at this time by dismissing Mr. Hanspal from India's National Commission for Minorities.

Mr. Hanspal's lack of integrity has now been exposed and he is no longer fit to serve as a member of the Commission whose primary objective is to protect the rights of minorities in India. Mr. Hanspal has abused his membership of the Commission and his continuance on the Commission is detrimental to the interests of minorities (particularly the Sikh community) and the public at large. Hence the Council urged that he be removed as a member of the Commission in line with the very essence of such a Commission, and particularly in line with the sentiments expressed in the Prime Minister's apology.

The Council has urged the Prime Minster to rise above partisan politics as a statesman and make good on his verbal apology by dismissing Mr. Hanspal from the membership of the Commission. This is an opportunity for him to showcase to India and the world that his parliamentary apology is sincere and he is morally committed to the path of reconciliation.

1984 was indeed a watershed for Sikhs in India and abroad. The trauma of June 1984 Operation Bluestar and the government sponsored pogroms that followed in November 1984 have left a permanent impression on the Sikh psyche. 1984 has altered and redefined the dynamics of the Sikh relationship not only with the political entity that is India, but also Indian society at large. More than a quarter of a century later, 1984 remains unpunished and all the issues around it unresolved.

The crimes committed against the Sikhs were horrendous enough, but they become infinitely worse when seen in the light of government collusion, if not very active participation. Since 1984, justice has remained both illusive and elusive. Justice delayed is justice denied. A string of government appointed inquiry commissions have only served to rub salt into the wounds of the Sikhs. The guilty remain free.

The Sikhs need more than a Gandhian verbal apology. Actions speak louder than words. We demand justice from India -- the world's largest democracy -- that transparency, accountability and restitution become a cornerstone of its democracy not empty apologies and rhetoric.