July 11, 2020
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1984 Massacre

Exploiting The Sikh Sentiments

The hurt within the larger community remains, the anger is like a festering sore even today, and most say they have no real hope for justice. The difference is that the ordinary Sikh refuses to ally with any political party on this issue anymore.

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Exploiting The Sikh Sentiments

This isn’t the first time that the CBI has given a clean chit to Jagdish Tytler for his alleged role in the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. In September 2007 too, the investigating agency had sought closure of the case against Tytler on the grounds that it could not trace the witnesses. But there was no angry shoe throwing then. Nor was the CBI action marked by statewide ‘rail roko’ protests in Punjab and demonstrations in the national capital. Now, delighted Sikh organizations of various political hues are falling over themselves to honour, reward or even give a ticket to journalist Jarnail Singh, the hero of the moment, for throwing his shoe at the home minister P Chidambaram. 

The difference lies in the timing, April 2009 being election time. And political parties, in this case the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal - BJP combine in Punjab have yet again geared themselves up to make political capital out of a tired issue, flogged to death for all of these 25 long years. Flogged so much that today, save for the politicos, justice for 1984 riot victims is not the emotive issue it used to be in Punjab.

Which is why, in September 2007, when the CBI first sought closure of the case against Tytler, it was not the Akali Dal, (flush from its assembly election win) which raised a hue and cry, but a motley group of NRIs called Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) led by a US based lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannu who took up the challenge to coax witnesses to come out and depose before the CBI. Working quietly, the SFJ with the help of some members in Punjab, traced the witnesses, persuaded them to forget their fears and depose in the larger interest of the community and raised some funds too. 

On the other hand, the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) seen as a hand maiden of the Akali Dal, merely paid lip service to the campaign. SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar publicly offered to help and support the witnesses many of who were too scared to speak out. As a result, Surinder Singh, Jasbir Singh and several others came up to depose. The CBI was forced to go to the US in December 2008 to record the statements of these two. Makkar then had even announced that he would hire the best lawyers to fight the case in the courts. He is saying the same thing now but few are ready to believe his words this time, because he forgot his promise almost as soon as he made it in 2007. Just as the SGPC has forgotten its promise to re-settle Surinder Singh, a granthi of a Delhi gurudwara and a key witness in the Tytler case, in Punjab. 

Ever since he came out of hibernation and deposed before the CBI in February 2008, Surinder has been beseeching the SGPC to give him a job in a gurudwara in Punjab so that he can move out of Delhi and escape the constant intimidation from Tytler’s men. Surinder has told the CBI that he saw Tytler and his men on the morning of Novmber 1,1984, exhorting rioters to kill the Sikhs instead of looting them. This, he claims, led to three Sikhs being burnt before his eyes on the road outside Gurudwara Pulbangash in Delhi, while he watched from it rooftop. Surinder was then the head granthi of Gurudwara Pulbangash and the gurudwara premises too had been set on fire, forcing them to take shelter on the roof. 

Today, when the Akali Dal whips up passions in Punjab, people like Surinder Singh -- who is living in fear in a Delhi gurudwara -- and the group of lawyers fighting the case in the courts cannot help being cynical. "Whether it is the Akalis or the Congress, neither has been sincere towards the Sikh cause. Both have used it for their political ends. But the insincerity of the Akalis is worse because the party exists for the interests of Sikhs", says Navkiran Singh, prominent human rights lawyer, presently heading the SFJ’s Punjab chapter. 

Is the Sikh anguish that is being seen on the streets in Punjab and Delhi today then, manufactured? The hurt within the larger community remains, the anger is like a festering sore even today, and most say they have no real hope for justice. The difference is that the ordinary Sikh refuses to ally with any political party on this issue anymore. It is his private angst which finds expression now and then, but is not a political statement anymore. Even the country’s first Sikh PM, Manmohan Singh, who is otherwise very popular in Punjab, has let them down on this issue. Manmohan Singh apologized for the carnage in parliament, but it ended up as yet another farce because the apology was not accompanied by concrete action in making those responsible for it accountable.

Punjabis nowadays are fed up of watching endless replays of Hawain a Punjabi film based on the 84 riots, running on Fastway TV Channel widely believed to be controlled by Sukhbir Badal. His infamous youth Akali Dal is confabulating on how to keep the issue on the boil, till the election campaign ends. Jagdish Tytler has withdrawn from the electoral fray, and Sajjan Kumar too might follow suit. This will be taken to the people as a victory of the Akali Dal. The party’s contribution towards avenging the atrocities on Sikhs. 

But is the average Sikh paying any attention to these shenanigans?

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