A Brutal Corrective

Even the most peaceful Sikhs have a difficult time forgiving a military assault on their holiest place of worship. Foreign citizens were not allowed to visit or even travel through Punjab without an additional visa. Yet this perception has manipulated public opinion by minimizing and watering down the formalized destruction of thousands of Sikhs. Cindered human remains lie scattered in the first 20 yards of the first lane. Instead of defending the innocent victims, policeman disarmed the Sikhs and then encouraged mobs to shoot on sight. Barely a paragraph goes by without a citation. The violence did not seem like spontaneous reactionary behavior. But this backfired in spectacular fashion. Perhaps the most barbaric acts of violence against the Sikhs unfolded in Block 32 of Trilokpuri, a downtrodden enclave east of the main capital where approximately 400 Sikhs were slaughtered or burned alive. Conventional histories from India portray these killings as happening in the midst of riots. But Singh argues the violence was organized and premeditated by Congress Party politicians, so he uses words like “genocide,” “pogrom,” and “government-orchestrated murder.” Such terms seem accurate to Singh, while a word like “riot” does not, because it implies impulsiveness and spontaneity. Singh spent years researching this material, scouring testimony, police reports, affidavits, conference proceedings, books, videos, and countless newspaper and magazine articles, all of which are notated with assiduous detail over 60 pages of citations and bibliographical material. Women were raped en masse. Mobs appeared readily supplied with phosphorus to set buildings and bodies ablaze. Pav Singh needn’t worry about apologizing for depicting graphic violence, as it only strengthens an inescapable conclusion: the Indian government should apologize to the victims. Phoolka, I Accuse…: The Anti-Sikh Violence of 1984 by Jarnail Singh, and 1984: The Anti-Sikh Riots and After by Sanjay Suri, each of which is worth searching out. Eyewitness accounts and journalistic reports placed politicians directly in the mobs or driving alongside the mass murderers. Pav Singh (of no relation to this reviewer) was born and raised in the United Kingdom, but with relatives close to the violence. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two of her bodyguards, both Sikhs, to take revenge for her botched military attack earlier that year on the Golden Temple, the holiest place of Sikhism, an attack dubbed Operation Blue Star. Such clarity is refreshing, as the subject of his book has been cloaked by arguments and cover-ups for years. The bibliography only amplifies the horror even more, as Singh employs the type of endnotes that excerpt a phrase from the corresponding page in the body of the book — phrases like, “children were lynched,” “their assailants poured acid,” “half-burnt corpses,” or “the stench refused to leave” — followed by a source for more information. My mom and I were stuck for two days applying for extra paperwork. At the time of the Operation Blue Star fiasco, tensions between the Punjabi Sikhs and the central government had percolated for decades and were already past the boiling point. He writes with legitimate emotional connections to the massacres, but somehow found enough distance to conduct an honest investigation. FEBRUARY 11, 2018
IN HIS NEW BOOK about a notorious ethnic slaughter, 1984: India’s Guilty Secret, Pav Singh declares he will make no apology for depicting graphic violence because he feels he owes it to the victims. Like any apparatus of scholarship implemented correctly, we’re left wanting to continue the investigation ourselves. After the assassination, more than 8,000 Sikhs were killed. It would have taken hours to see the temple, so we eventually gave up. The remaining two-thirds of India’s Guilty Secret deal with what Singh calls a “cancer of unaccountability” since the massacre of 1984, in regards to elaborate cover-ups, destruction of records, calculated deployments of misinformation, and the blatant machinations of two separate whitewashing commissions. Yet somehow, in this case, it swung into action almost immediately. A WikiLeaks cable identifies an American diplomat acknowledging the Congress Party’s role in the attacks. The undisputed facts are brief. We learn how, after Gandhi was assassinated, an entire network of killers was somehow instantly armed with pipes, knives, and voter lists. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and it’s safe to say both sides were to blame. This was not a bunch of hooligans sitting around in a pub, driven by sudden impulse to go beat up a few people. The whitewash continues to this day, Singh writes. He calls out the Indian government and questions whether India can ever be taken seriously as the “world’s biggest democracy” if it continues to let henchmen off the hook for such murderous atrocities. Bhindranwale became the most influential religious figure in Punjab. Lifeless arms hang over balconies; many houses have bodies piled three-deep on their doorsteps. On that trip, friends and family relayed grotesque accounts of Sikh women being murdered by placing tires over their torsos and then setting them ablaze. After occupying the Golden Temple complex with weapons and ammunition, he took on the image as a theocratic Punjabi secessionist and a desperado bent on subverting the government. The organized network of murderous mobs and its successful execution depended on ensuring that all logistical support for the killers was in place beforehand, he writes. As the book steamrolls up to the current day, Singh unearths more details not mentioned in previous books. Nearly a thousand Sikhs ­— the militants as well as innocent pilgrims visiting the temple and Bhindranwale himself — did not survive. I do not believe such stories were exaggerated or embellished. ¤
Gary Singh was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University and is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press). As Pav Singh points out, India’s bureaucracy on its best day is a dysfunctional mess. In a gruesome way, a reader can literally scan down the notes and see repeated half-phrases of graphic violence over and over again, almost like newsbytes. But what sets Pav Singh’s project apart from these earlier efforts is an exhaustive and relentless amount of sources. Indira Gandhi ordered an assault on the temple with the pretext of flushing out Bhindranwale and his militants, but it turned into a bloodbath, with the Sikhs putting up a serious armed resistance. S. No one was held accountable. In Amritsar, they were searching every single car that drove up to the Golden Temple, where a line of automobiles sat motionless, backed up for a mile down the road. Entire hierarchies of law enforcement conveniently dissolved almost on cue. The Akali Dal, the Sikhs’ main political party in Punjab, was spearheading a list of legitimate grievances against the government in New Delhi, complaints rooted in events and broken promises going all the way back to before India’s independence in 1947. Her assassination became a convenient excuse for the killings to happen sooner and not later. It was only a matter of time before someone retaliated against Indira Gandhi and before Congress Party politicians in New Delhi began simultaneously planning their own massacre of innocent Sikhs just to “teach them all a lesson,” as one group of them supposedly said. Children were burned alive. Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party wanted to neutralize the Akali Dal and split the Punjabi vote. The text of 1984: India’s Guilty Secret foregrounds many explicit details. It was not a “riot.” Such a synchronized network of murder seemed very well engineered. In the final chapter, titled, “Truth, Justice & Reconciliation,” Singh unleashes a guilt trip, blow by blow. No one desired such a violent outcome. As an irreligious teenager unversed in anything Sikh-related, I went to Punjab in 1988, when tensions over these issues were more than palpable. His healthy obsession with speaking truth to power puts him on par with any established investigator. The latter scheme, Pav Singh writes, was already hatched before Gandhi was killed. Once we made it to Punjab, Indian troops were everywhere. So her son Sanjay, along with India’s then-president Zail Singh, helped engineer the rise of a provocative Sikh preacher from the Punjab countryside, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. We learn more specifics about how Britain’s Special Air Service dispatched an official to write up a secret report advising Indira Gandhi on how to attack the Golden Temple. I’ll even say he’s obsessive — in a good way. He offers a credible perspective to which I can relate. Here again the book is extensively sourced. Previous authors have endeavored to cover this material in books like When a Tree Shook Delhi by Minoj Mitta and H. Singh quotes an Indian Express city reporter, Rahul Bedi, one of the first outsiders to discover what happened in the poor Trilokpuri community:
Two lanes of Block 32, an area of around 500 square yards inhabited by around 450 Sikh families, is littered with corpses, the drains choked with dismembered limbs and masses of hair. At the base level, the word “riot” is still floated around in Orwellian fashion. He morphed into a de facto spokesperson for many political, economic, and religious grievances in Punjab, where distrust of New Delhi was already at an all-time high. The remaining 40-yard stretch of the street is strewn with naked bodies, brutally hacked beyond recognition.