The undisputed facts are brief. 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. After the assassination, more than 8,000 Sikhs were killed.
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. Yet this perception has manipulated public opinion by minimizing and watering down the formalized destruction of thousands of Sikhs. The whitewash continues to this day, Singh writes.
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. 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. Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party wanted to neutralize the Akali Dal and split the Punjabi vote. 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. But this backfired in spectacular fashion.
Bhindranwale became the most influential religious figure in Punjab. 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. 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.
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. Nearly a thousand Sikhs — the militants as well as innocent pilgrims visiting the temple and Bhindranwale himself — did not survive. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and it’s safe to say both sides were to blame. No one desired such a violent outcome.
Even the most peaceful Sikhs have a difficult time forgiving a military assault on their holiest place of worship. 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. The latter scheme, Pav Singh writes, was already hatched before Gandhi was killed. Her assassination became a convenient excuse for the killings to happen sooner and not later.
The text of 1984: India’s Guilty Secret foregrounds many explicit details. We learn how, after Gandhi was assassinated, an entire network of killers was somehow instantly armed with pipes, knives, and voter lists. Mobs appeared readily supplied with phosphorus to set buildings and bodies ablaze. Eyewitness accounts and journalistic reports placed politicians directly in the mobs or driving alongside the mass murderers. Entire hierarchies of law enforcement conveniently dissolved almost on cue. Instead of defending the innocent victims, policeman disarmed the Sikhs and then encouraged mobs to shoot on sight. Women were raped en masse. Children were burned alive. No one was held accountable.
Pav Singh (of no relation to this reviewer) was born and raised in the United Kingdom, but with relatives close to the violence. He writes with legitimate emotional connections to the massacres, but somehow found enough distance to conduct an honest investigation. He offers a credible perspective to which I can relate. As an irreligious teenager unversed in anything Sikh-related, I went to Punjab in 1988, when tensions over these issues were more than palpable. Foreign citizens were not allowed to visit or even travel through Punjab without an additional visa. My mom and I were stuck for two days applying for extra paperwork. Once we made it to Punjab, Indian troops were everywhere. 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. It would have taken hours to see the temple, so we eventually gave up.
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. I do not believe such stories were exaggerated or embellished. The violence did not seem like spontaneous reactionary behavior. This was not a bunch of hooligans sitting around in a pub, driven by sudden impulse to go beat up a few people. It was not a “riot.” Such a synchronized network of murder seemed very well engineered.
As Pav Singh points out, India’s bureaucracy on its best day is a dysfunctional mess. Yet somehow, in this case, it swung into action almost immediately. 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.
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. 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. Cindered human remains lie scattered in the first 20 yards of the first lane. The remaining 40-yard stretch of the street is strewn with naked bodies, brutally hacked beyond recognition. Lifeless arms hang over balconies; many houses have bodies piled three-deep on their doorsteps.
Previous authors have endeavored to cover this material in books like When a Tree Shook Delhi by Minoj Mitta and H. S. 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. But what sets Pav Singh’s project apart from these earlier efforts is an exhaustive and relentless amount of sources. I’ll even say he’s obsessive — in a good way. Barely a paragraph goes by without a citation.
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. 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.
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. At the base level, the word “riot” is still floated around in Orwellian fashion.
As the book steamrolls up to the current day, Singh unearths more details not mentioned in previous books. A WikiLeaks cable identifies an American diplomat acknowledging the Congress Party’s role in the attacks. 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.
Here again the book is extensively sourced. 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. His healthy obsession with speaking truth to power puts him on par with any established investigator. Like any apparatus of scholarship implemented correctly, we’re left wanting to continue the investigation ourselves.
In the final chapter, titled, “Truth, Justice & Reconciliation,” Singh unleashes a guilt trip, blow by blow. 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. 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.
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).