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A big tree fell, Sikhs died

A big tree fell, Sikhs died

Author: Kanchan Gupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: November 1, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/212610/A-big-tree-fell-Sikhs-died.html

Twenty-five years ago yesterday, Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated. She was walking towards a wicket gate in the garden of 1, Safdarjung Road, which used to be the Prime Minister's residence, for an interview with Peter Ustinov who was shooting a documentary. As she reached the gate, two guards posted there, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, shot her with their service weapons. Mrs Gandhi, riddled with bullets, was rushed to All-India Institute of Medical Sciences; by then, she was already dead. Later that evening, Rajiv Gandhi took oath of office as Prime Minister. Till then, Mrs Gandhi's death was not officially confirmed to a shocked nation.

After committing their dark and dastardly deed, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, according to one version, surrendered to the other guards on duty. The details, however, remain fudgy. Beant Singh is believed to have tried to escape and was shot dead. Satwant was also shot, but he survived and faced trial. He was hanged for his crime along with Kehar Singh, a co-conspirator who pleaded innocence till the end.

Those are the basic details of what happened 25 years ago yesterday. The story, however, neither begins with Mrs Gandhi's assassination nor ends with the crowning of Rajiv Gandhi as her successor - or, for that matter, the execution of Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh.

Satwant Singh was to later claim that he and Beant Singh killed Mrs Gandhi to avenge the desecration of the Golden Temple during Operation Bluestar in the summer of 1984. That was when Mrs Gandhi, spurning all advice to exercise restraint, decided to send the Army into the holiest Sikh shrine with the avowed purpose of freeing it from the clutches of Khalistani terrorists, led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had converted the complex into a fortress.

Operation Bluestar began on June 3 when a 36-hour curfew was declared, power supply to Amritsar was cut off, all mediapersons were asked to leave the city, and strict censorship of news was imposed. The Army top brass who had planned Operation Bluestar thought it would be an easy task - soldiers would march in, fire a few shots, and Bhindranwale and his men would plead for mercy. It didn't quite happen that way.

After relentless firing by both sides through all of June 4 and 5, the Army brought in the big guns, shelled the Golden Temple complex, and sent in the first lot of men. A battle raged till the morning of June 8 when the guns fell silent. Bhindranwale and his military strategist, Maj Gen Shabeg Singh, who nursed a grudge against the Government for being sacked one day before his retirement on what he claimed were trumped up charges, were among the dead.

The damage was huge - the Akal Takht had been virtually destroyed along with other buildings; Harmandir Saheb had been scarred - as was the loss of lives. The Government said 83 soldiers and 492 civilians, including many Khalistani terrorists, were killed, but those figures were disputed by enraged Sikhs. An AP reporter, who defied media restrictions and stayed put in Amritsar, filed a story, published in foreign newspapers, pegging the death toll at 200 soldiers and 800 civilians. In the villages of Punjab even these figures were considered far too low.

Mrs Gandhi had convinced herself that once Bhindranwale was neutralised, the Khalistan movement would die a swift death and Punjab would forget Operation Bluestar. But that was not to be. There was no let up in Khalistani separatist violence and Sikhs, who till then had no sympathy for Bhindranwale, were seething with rage. Those seeking revenge found willing accomplices in Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, which only fetched the Sikh community and the nation further grief.

Twenty-five years ago today, murderous mobs comprising Congress thugs and led by the party's storm troopers, were out in Delhi, indulging in an appalling orgy of violence. Sikh men, women and children were dragged out of their homes and slaughtered remorselessly. The killers shouted "Khoon ka badla khoon se lengey" as they placed burning tyres around the necks of Sikhs begging for their lives.

For three days the Congress Government did nothing. Delhi Police watched the bloodletting without so much as admonishing the Congress goons. The party's rage boys went around colonies, marking houses belonging to Sikhs which would then be attacked by those grieving for their dear departed leader. Even gurdwaras were not spared. One of the most hideous images of the time that has stuck to my mind is that of a stray dog feasting on a half-burnt corpse.

On November 3 evening, by when the mobs had begun to tire and there weren't many more Sikhs to be killed to avenge Mrs Gandhi's assassination, the Army was called in to help restore order! By then, 2,733 innocent people had paid with their lives for the crime committed by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. Thousands were rendered homeless. Inspired by the pogrom in Delhi, Congress hoodlums had set upon Sikhs in other parts of the country too - there are no official figures for those killed, but conservative estimates put the toll at 2,000. So, the butchery resulted in the death of more than 4,000 Sikhs; presumably that served to quench the thirst for revenge.

No, the story doesn't end with the massacre or Rajiv Gandhi's astounding justification of what his party goons had done - addressing a rally at Boat Club on November 19, he told his cheering fans: "Some riots took place in the country following the murder of Indiraji. We know the people were very angry and for a few days it seemed that India had been shaken. But, when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little."

In fact, this is a story whose last chapter is yet to be written as the guilty men of 1984 were never punished. Two Congress leaders, Lalit Maken and Arjan Dass, who were among those accused of leading the mobs in Delhi, were killed by Khalistanis. Others were promptly provided with commandos to guard them. HKL Bhagat is dead and unsung, but those like Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar still roam free - although they shall forever be scared to walk into a dark alley.

In a further twist to this tragic tale which began 25 years ago, 329 innocent people lost their lives when Khalistanis based in Canada bombed Air India's Emperor Kanishka on June 23, 1985, to avenge the slaying of Sikhs in 1984. Ironically, the culprits of that mass murder, too, have escaped justice.

Most of us pretend that the massacre of Sikhs occurred in the distant past. But that should not lull us into believing what the Congress believes: That it never happened.

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