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.