In recalling the brutal aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Kuldip Nayar urges the Indian people to return to the religious and social liberalism that once characterised the country.
On October 31, 1984, I was on my way to Peshawar from Lahore to meet Khan Abdul Wali Khan, son of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Pashtun independence activist know as ‘the Frontier Gandhi’. My friend and I stopped halfway, at Abottabad, to have a cup of tea. The radio was blaring out the news, almost continhuously, that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by her Sikh security guards.
It was a BBC broadcast. The All India Radio announcement came four hours later. There was now no question of our proceeding further, but it was too late to catch the flight back to Delhi from Lahore. I had no permission to cross the border on foot.
It was late in the afternoon the following day that I landed at Palam. The airport wore a forlorn look. The two Sikh officers at the immigration counter stood aloof. I could not make out what had happened. A Hindu immigration officer explained that many Sikhs had been killed in the city. (The official figure of casualties was put at 3,000 in Delhi alone.) Hordes of fanatics had descended upon them to kill them.
I could not imagine how this was possible when the Hindus and Sikhs had long been so close to each other, in both social and religious terms, and when the government supposedly had firm control of the situation. But it turned out that the government itself was a party to the killings.
The then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, reportedly said that his mother had been murdered and ‘nothing had happened’. And after the massacre of the Sikhs, he had simply commented that when a big tree is felled, the earth is bound shake. He showed no qualms, no sense of sorrow.
Rajiv Gandhi intentionally delayed the deployment of the army. To my horror, I subsequently discovered that he had stopped even the flag march by the army because he wanted to ‘punish’ the Sikhs. The police had also been told to overlook violent incidents against the Sikhs.
After the Nanavati Commission had reconstructed the events in a White Paper, I asked Justice G T Nanavati why he had not named the people responsible for rooting out and killing the Sikhs. He replied that it was ‘so obvious’, and would not elaborate further.
Indeed, it was not a secret and Justice Nanavati was quite right in not spelling out. His reticence was in order. Even though he had come to the conclusion that Rajiv Gandhi was behind the killings, he, as a judge, could not hold the then prime minister guilty without a proper inquiry.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi should have publicly apologised for what had happened to the Sikhs at the hands of her family, headed by Rajiv Gandhi. But Sonia preferred to go to President Pranab Mukherjee to complain about the rise of intolerance—although there was nothing wrong per se in her doing so because anybody can see that intolerance in India has increased over the last one and a half years.
There is no doubt that tolerance levels have reduced since the advent of the Narendra Modi government. But it is also true that India’s liberal elements are failing to speak out. Their silence is ominous, and it is hard to understand why the media, in particular, should be such a mute spectator. Early November is a time when past atrocities against the Sikh community should be recalled and condemned at joint meetings of the two communities. But even liberal Hindus are not taking the initiative.
The contamination of bureaucracy is obvious. There is tolerance towards minorities but not acceptance. When I was India’s High Commissioner in London, I was privy to the particular way in which the officials there behaved. I noticed that the High Commission’s main gate was kept closed and when I asked about it, the security men told me that this was being done to keep the Sikh terrorists away.
They would open the aperture in the door to see if the visitor was Sikh or non-Sikh. If he were a Sikh, he was told to come through the back door and was thoroughly frisked. I was horrified because the assumption was that all Sikhs were terrorists. I immediately insisted that the gate be opened up and the Sikhs were allowed through the main door.
I also found that there was a list of 100-odd Sikhs who were declared by the Home Ministry as ‘undesirable’. A Sikh rang me up from Lancashire to request me to issue a visa to his son, who was just 12 years old. I asked him why he did not simply follow routine procedure, and the man said that Sikhs were not being issued visas. I took up the case of this boy and found that his father was listed as ‘undesirable’.
Going deeper into the case, I found that the father had raised a slogan ‘Khalistan zindabad’ (long live Khalistan) outside India House, the High Commission’s headquarters. I found it strange that the sins of the father should be visited on the son, and I also felt bemused that the father had been blacklisted simply because he had raised a slogan.
I told the visa officials that if we were to deny a visa to this boy, he would definitely become a Khalistani. But if he was granted a visa and went to India, he would see that there was no discrimination against the Sikhs. The visa was finally approved and after visiting India, the boy and his family became proud to be Indian. They had gone all over and found that there was no discrimination against the Sikhs. True, there was a fringe element that was against minorities, but it had very few supporters.
One argument I have long expounded is that the country should be differentiated from the government. The government belongs to a political party or a combination of parties which can be voted out in elections. But the country belongs to all the people and any harm done to it will affect all the communities, whether they are in the government or in opposition.
India, as a nation, has survived for so long because it has a spirit of accommodation and a sense of tolerance. Those who are trying to defeat this idea are doing untold harm to the country. Fortunately, the people have now awakened to the feelings of intolerance and bigotry which some elements are spreading. This is a positive sign.