In recent weeks, Sikhs worldwide have engaged in peaceful protests about the planned execution of Balwant Singh Rajoana and stood in solidarity with Sikhs in Punjab.
Twenty years ago, the Sikh Coalition did not exist, many of our supporters were not yet born, and an even larger portion is too young to remember that part of our history. Yet it was the most formative set of events for an entire generation of Sikhs. During that dark period, our community’s history was marked by extra-judicial executions, faked police encounters, disappearances, and torture.
This critical time in our history sent ripples through the Sikh nation that shape us even today. In order to understand why the Sikhs of Punjab and across the world are protesting, we must understand the pain of twenty years ago.
In this context, through Vaisakhi, the Sikh Coalition will share a factual modern history of Sikhs - our struggle then and how it impacts our current state of affairs both in the United States and in Punjab and India. As a community, the lesson of last week’s protests is that we cannot forget our history.
The Pain of Three Decades
While the Sikh community has had a history of concern about the ability of the Indian state to protect minorities, beginning with the refusal of all Sikh representatives to sign India’s constitution in 1950, it was the attack on Darbar Sahib in June 1984 that began a true downward spiral in relations between Sikhs and the Indian government.
As chronicled by eyewitness accounts, thousands of innocent by-standers were killed as Darbar Sahib and over 40 Gurdwaras in Punjab were simultaneously attacked by the Indian army. Photographs taken of the attack’s devastation make clear that irreplaceable Sikh artifacts and original Sikh scriptures were intentionally destroyed while innocent pilgrims were summarily executed with their hands tied behind their backs with their turbans.
This onslaught of state terrorism did not end with the attack on Darbar Sahib and 40 other Gurdwaras in June 1984. Thousands of Sikhs were systematically murdered in government-sponsored killings throughout India after the assassination of India’s Prime Minister by her Sikh bodyguards in November 1984.
Barbara Crossette, a former reporter for the New York Times, wrote a Foreword about her experience in New Delhi in 1984 for Ensaaf’s report, “Twenty Years of Impunity: The November 1984 Pogroms of Sikhs in India.” In her Foreword, Ms. Crossette writes about Sikhs enduring a “vicious pogrom” that saw “several thousand Sikhs slaughtered” throughout India within a week.
Till this day, the victims of these abuses seek justice. Their pain and the loss of their loved ones has never been acknowledged by the Indian government. As explained in Time magazine and a documentary film called “The Widow Colony,” enclaves of Sikh widows and their now-adult children still live together in New Delhi and pray for justice to arrive.
Sadly, impunity for the violation of basic human rights did not begin and end in 1984. Next week, we will share with you information on human rights abuses from 1984 to 1995 and the impact on Sikhs today.
We hope this message provides some insight over why Sikhs would hold demonstrations for what many view as one-sided justice today. For further information, please refer to our suggested reading list on human rights.