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The clock has turned full circle

By Payal Singh Mohanka
Last updated on: November 08, 2005 18:24 IST
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Part I: That horror 21 years ago

Part II: The mayhem after the assassination

It suits groups with a vested interest to drive a wedge. Journalist and political observer, Inder Jit, says:

There is no sense of alienation. It is a case of rank opportunism. These feelings are motivated by those playing political games. This is a trumped up sense of alienation with one motive -- to wrest political power.

There were those who did not hesitate to add fuel to the fire. Will we get security in a Hindu raj? Don't we inspire jealousy? After all, we are a minuscule community, just 2 per cent of the population, yet we are comparatively more prosperous: no beggars, the best temples, charity, the famed langar (free meal in the community kitchen in all gurudwaras).

The Indian Army had fought three wars and Sikhs had displayed amazing valour and done the country proud. Sikh intellectuals began introspecting on what had gone wrong. Their community had lost sons and fathers fighting wars for the nation.

Punjab grew the most food. It fed the entire country. Ever so gradually a feeling of hurt began to grow. First Punjab had been broken up into West and East (which went to Pakistan).Then again the West was divided into the states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Land holdings shrank with time, as families grew larger and land prices escalated.

If a Sikh had three sons, traditionally one would go to the army, one would head abroad, where a relative had already gone, to make money and the third would be involved in agriculture. Daughters received an equal share of the family land. Often, there was litigation. These factors prompted sons to sell their share of the land to the builders' lobby.

Jaspal Singh, a businessman and member of United Sikhs, a global organisation, says:

There was liquid cash with the youth and those working against the state did what Japan did to China. As Pearl S Buck said, Japan could not defeat China but made China an opium den. Suddenly there was an introduction of drugs and liquor into Punjab. Labour from Bihar poured into the state.

Neighbouring countries with agendas of their own, such as Pakistan, seized the opportunity. Youths were cajoled into crossing the border for training. The idea was to foment trouble and create instability. Young men were given AK-47s and taught how to rob a bank. Sikh leaders and ordinary residents of Punjab were disturbed by this trend. Things worsened as, despite growing a bulk of the food crops for the entire country, Punjab found itself strapped for cash.

Since the state was relatively prosperous, federal laws ensured that a substantial part of the taxes collected in the state accrued to the Centre, causing even more resentment. The central government's policies alienated youth and embittered a patriotic community.

In addition, the Sikhs in the diaspora, particularly those spread over Western Europe and North America, seemed to feel a need to reiterate their identity and began to fund the separatist movement.

At present Punjab is one of the most peaceful states in India. There is still unemployment but the percentage of those educated has gone up. There have been substantial changes --agriculture has been mechanised. The new generation of inheritors of agricultural land holdings is diversifying -- they are not using land only to grow crops but are opening spas and McDonald's outlets as well -- testimony to the changing Punjab.

Less well-to-do youth are migrating to Canada and USA. In search of better economic prospects both skilled and unskilled labour is leaving in droves. Migrants go to the extent of selling their land to raise money as agents charge around £10,000 to help them leave Indian shores, very often illegally. This exodus is having its repercussions; the demography of Punjab is changing. Seizing the opportunity for any kind of work, impoverished labour is migrating from Bihar.

Over the years, Biharis have even begun making forays into politics. They are able to vote in Punjab and their votes can make a crucial difference to the outcome. Senior Sikh residents of Punjab who suffered the loss of loved ones and property 21 years ago do feel a sense of pain but they still feel part of the Indian nation.

The bitterness of this scarred community would have reduced if those guilty of instigating the 1984 riots had been punished. Five times more people were killed than in the Gujarat carnage in 2002. Slack leadership was blamed for not taking the guilty to task.

Nine commissions or panels have been instituted by the government to inquire into the 1984 riots, starting with the Marwah Commission in November 1984 itself, but all of them have either been ineffectual, wound up or had their findings not acted upon.

An independent citizens group led by Dr Rajni Kothari and retired judge V N Tarkunde published a detailed report, Who are the Guilty? which squarely blamed the government and several leading lights of the then ruling party for inaction and complicity -- but no action was forthcoming.

It took 21 years for the riot victims to get the first semblance of justice. The 339-page Justice G T Nanavati inquiry report (instituted by the previous government in May 2000) was submitted to the present Congress-led government on February 9, 2005 but was not placed before the Indian Parliament until August 8.

The government sought to gloss over the findings in its Action Taken Report, giving a clean chit to the indicted Congress leaders. There was a huge outcry the following day, with public protests and rallies. The Opposition parties, television networks and newspapers condemned the government, forcing it to act.

Two of the accused, including a central minister, were forced to resign. The prime minister, himself a Sikh, apologised for the 1984 riots and made a statement in Parliament on August 11:

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... I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community. I apologise not only to the Sikh community but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution. Though we cannot rewrite the past we should have the ability to write a better future for all of us.

For the younger generation all this is history. The death toll in Punjab between 1984 and 1994 was around 25,000. The return of peace and the political process commenced, in a sense, with the signing of an accord on July 24, 1985 between the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and the Sikh leader, Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal.

This was followed by elections to the Punjab assembly. It culminated in May 1996 when the Akalis supported the right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in forming a central government.

Simultaneously the border with Pakistan was barricaded, making infiltration and cross-border terrorism difficult. The state police machinery came down heavily on the militants, often ignoring human rights, in their bid to curb terrorism.

Today, the clock has turned full circle. For the first time ever, India has a Sikh prime minister appointed by the Congress. It also has a Sikh army chief and Sikhs in many important posts. The old glory is returning.

To be continued

Payal Singh Mohanka is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. This article first appeared in the Round Table Journal of Commonwealth Affairs.

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