The BJP and the Sangh’s Sikh appeasement is electoral hypocrisy

5 July 2019
In recent years, the Sangh Parivar has doubled down on its efforts to project itself as an ally of the Sikh community. Mustafa Quraishi/AP Photo

On 8 May, during this year’s Lok Sabha elections, the prime minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in the Fatehabad town in Haryana. The town borders the state of Punjab and has a significant Sikh population. “This chowkidar of yours promised the Sikh society and the country that he will punish the perpetrators of the 1984 riots,” Modi told the crowd. “I am confident that the process of giving life sentences or death sentences to the guilty has been started.” Modi also referred to the Congress leader Sam Pitroda’s remark—“1984 happened, so what?”—to label the party as an “enemy” of the Sikh community. It should be noted that Pitroda had apologised for his remark and the Congress president Rahul Gandhi also criticised Pitroda for the comment. In another rally, in Punjab, the Bharatiya Janata Party national president Amit Shah asserted that the BJP and Narendra Modi were well-wishers of the Sikh community. “In 1984, thousands of Sikhs were killed and none of the accused were punished,” Shah said. “But after the Modi government came to power, families of the victims finally got justice.” Shah asserted that Sajjan Kumar, a three-time member of parliament from the Congress, was convicted for killing five members of a Sikh family and sent to jail by the special investigation team constituted by the Modi government.

However, despite anger against the incumbent Congress state government in Punjab, the Lok Sabha elections did not yield significant results for the opposition parties. The Shiromani Akali Dal, a BJP ally, did not have a good showing and the “Modi wave” failed to have any impact in the state. During these elections, the Akali Dal and the BJP repeatedly raised the 1984 massacre with a lot of bombast. The 1984 Sikh massacre is an unforgettable tragedy in the history of the Indian republic. Several human-rights activists and intellectuals believe that if the 1984 massacre had not happened, the 1992 anti-minority riots and the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat would not have occurred either. The 1984 and 2002 massacres get raised as poll planks in every election and the BJP’s leaders have consistently used the 1984 massacre to deflect questions on the 2002 pogroms.

So, do the BJP and Modi—the 2002 massacre of Muslims occurred on his watch—have the moral right to talk about the 1984 massacre? Can the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh truly be well-wishers of the Sikh community? The RSS’s agenda is to homogenise India into a nation with one colour, one ideology and one culture and the Sangh Parivar’s leaders, big or small, constantly spread hate against minority communities. Along with these questions, we also need to find answers to the Sangh’s role when the state of Punjab was burning in the decade of the 1980s.

In the 1950s, when state borders were being demarcated on linguistic lines, the Punjabi Suba—province—movement arose. The movement demanded a Punjabi-speaking state carved out from the pre-Partition East Punjab state. This would have created a Sikh-majority state. It was the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, which now claims to be a well-wisher of Punjab, that tried to generate support for its agenda of a “Greater Punjab” by pitting the two majority communities—Hindus and Sikhs—against each other. In Amritsar, the Jan Sangh gave their full support to organisations that wanted to open stores selling beedis, gutkha, tobacco and tobacco products close to the Golden Temple, also known as Harmandir Sahib or Darbar Sahib. Sikhism has a strict proscription against tobacco and tobacco products. It was also a BJP national level leader, Harbans Lal Khanna, who publicly destroyed a model of the Golden Temple close to the Amritsar railway station.

In addition, in 1984, the RSS and the BJP were first in line of those pressuring the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government at the centre to take military action in the Golden Temple, in what came to be known as Operation Blue Star. On 3 May 1984, a few weeks before Blue Star commenced on 1 June, the BJP leaders LK Advani and AB Vajpayee sat on a dharna in Delhi, demanding that the armed forces be sent into the Golden Temple. In his memoir, My Country, My Life, Advani admitted this and even extolled the military action. In the chapter on Punjab, titled “The Trauma and Triumph of Punjab,” Advani wrote, “One of the major mass agitations in the history of the BJP was … against what we termed as the government’s virtual surrender before Bhindranwale and his private army, who had made the Golden Temple their operational headquarters.” After Operation Blue Star, there were several reports stating that the RSS distributed laddus in celebration of the military action.

On 8 November 1984, Nanaji Deshmukh, a Jan Sangh leader who was felicitated with the Bharat Ratna by the Modi government, published an essay, “Moment of Soul Searching,” in which he praised Indira Gandhi for Blue Star and justified the 1984 Sikh massacre by saying that it was the fault of the Sikh leaders of that time. Similarly, in 1985, Arun Shourie, another BJP leader who served in Vajpayee’s government but is currently estranged from the party, contributed to a book titled The Punjab Story. Shourie’s essay in the book, “Lessons from the Punjab” justified Operation Blue Star. It is also a fact that a number of present day BJP leaders, such as Subramanian Swamy, were in the Congress party during Rajiv Gandhi’s time.

Similarly, it is also true that a number of BJP and RSS leaders were involved in the 1984 massacre, a fact that the Sangh Parivar wants to forget and hide. At least 49 members of the BJP and Sangh are named in the 14 first information reports registered at the Delhi City police station after the massacre. The maximum numbers of FIRs related to the 1984 killings were registered at the Sriniwaspuri station in south Delhi. A look at those FIRs shows that a number of BJP and Sangh leaders were booked on charges of murder, arson and rioting in the areas of Hari Nagar, Ashram, Bhagwan Nagar and Sunlight Colony. One of the people named in the FIRs is Ram Kumar Jain—a poll agent for Vajpayee during the 1980 Lok Sabha elections.

Shamsul Islam, the writer and historian, told me, “After the massacre, the way Rajiv Gandhi rallied the majority community in the name of nationalism is proof of the fact that the radical Hindu organisations fully supported the Congress.” Another incident that highlights the Sangh Parivar’s animosity towards the Sikh community is the killing of ten Sikh pilgrims by the police in Uttar Pradesh’s Pilibhit town in 1991. The police claimed they were terrorists. This happened under the watch of the BJP state government led by former chief minister Kalyan Singh.

The litany of the Sangh’s doublespeak on the Sikh community does not end here. In 2010, when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, his government tried to invoke a circular issued by the state government in 1973—under the ambit of the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act 1948—to take away the land of Sikh farmers who were settled in the state’s Kutch and Bhuj regions since 1965. The move was challenged in court and when the state government lost the case in the Gujarat high court, Modi’s government approached the Supreme Court. According to Surender Singh Bhullar, the de-facto leader of the Sikh farmers based in Gujarat, “Today, the BJP’s local leaders behave like goons with us; they want to throw us out from our lands. In reality, Modi is against not just the Muslims but all minorities.”

A recent report by The Caravan also reveals how the Modi government’s official notifications still use the phrase “Sikh terrorism.” According to the report, the Modi government has “constituted a standing focus group on terror financing, specifically to look into terror funding for Islamist and Sikh Terrorism.”

The BJP’s leaders also routinely make controversial statements against the Sikh community. During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP leader Varun Gandhi reportedly referred to the Sikh community as “Khalistanis.” In May this year, Anil Vij, the health minister in the BJP government in Haryana, was caught on camera abusing the Sikh community in Ambala—a town in Haryana with a significant Sikh population—during a public meeting because the locals had raised anti-BJP slogans.

Even Modi, whom Amit Shah refers to as a well-wisher of the Sikh people, had used the former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s identity to insult the entire community. Once, he referred to Manmohan as Shikhandi—a character in the Hindu epic Mahabharatha, who manipulated events to orchestrate Bhishma’s death at the hands of his grand nephew Arjun. Another time, he mocked Manmohan with a derogatory slur against the community. During a speech, Modi recounted a meeting he had with Manmohan, who was then the prime minister. He narrated how, much to his surprise, Manmohan was extremely cordial towards him and that he happened to look at a watch and saw “ki barah bajne wale the”—that it was going to be 12. He was referring to a trope which implies that the Sikh community starts behaving irrationally the moment the clock strikes 12.

According to Gurpreet Singh, a Canadian journalist of Punjabi descent, the BJP is trying to display a false camaraderie with the Sikh community because they also want to make inroads in the non-resident Indian Sikh community. The NRI Sikh community is spread across the world and wields significant influence in their respective countries. According to Gurpreet, the BJP wants to use the NRI Sikhs to elevate their image abroad.

Several intellectuals and leaders from the Sikh community believe that the RSS wants to subsume the Sikh religion within Hinduism. Numerous such incidents keep coming to light from time to time. Shree Bharati Prakashan, a publisher affiliated with the Sangh Parivar, has been accused of printing literature that distorts Sikh history to suit the RSS’s agenda. These publications portray the Sikh gurus’ fight for humanitarian values as a fight against Islam and Muslims. Several books by this publisher have indulged in character assassination of the Sikh gurus too.

In 2006, during the commemoration of the four hundredth anniversary of the execution of the fifth Sikh guru Arjan Dev, the BJP leader Sushma Swaraj had objected to the reference to a Hindu character named Chandu associated with Arjan Dev’s killing. According to Sikh lore, Chandu wanted to marry his daughter to Arjan Dev’s son but the Sikh guru refused. Chandu then instigated the Mughal emperor Jahangir against Arjan Dev, ultimately leading to his arrest, torture and execution. During the same event, the BJP also raised a demand for ending the boycott of the RSS’s Sikh wing, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, by the Akal Takht since 2004. The Akal Takht is the highest temporal seat of Sikhism.

The Sangh—which wants to homogenise the entire country under the banner of one nation, one religion—and its political arm, the BJP, are completely against Muslims, Christians, Dalits and Adivasis and this is why they want to assimilate all other religions with Hinduism.

In 1984, in reference to the anti-Sikh pogrom, Rajiv Gandhi had infamously said, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes.” He couched the majoritarian sentiment on display during those days as nationalism, which won him the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. Thirty years later, another man became the prime minister, who compared another massacre targeted against a minority community to Newton’s third law of motion and said “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” In his five years as the prime minister, Modi has created an atmosphere where violence against and killings of minorities have become commonplace. The murderers of minorities are felicitated and abusing them is considered “nationalism.” In reality, Modi’s Sikh-love is another smokescreen deployed by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to obfuscate their anti-Sikh history.

This news report first appeared in Karwan, The Caravan’s Hindi website. It has been translated and edited.

Shiv Inder Singh is a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Punjabi portal Suhi Saver.