Workers Hammer No. 226
1984 carnage of Sikhs
Communalism in India: tool of capitalist rule
As the 30th anniversary of the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar approaches, official documents made public in Britain revealed that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government aided the Indian military in planning the attack in the Sikh holy city. The documents that were declassified in January include a personal letter from Thatcher expressing support for Indira Gandhi’s policy on the Punjab. Support for the 1984 atrocity against the Sikhs is hardly shocking, coming from the former colonial power that was directly responsible for the first Amritsar massacre. In 1919, under the command of General Reginald Dyer, troops gunned down and killed somewhere between 400 and 1000 civilians who were gathered in a park. Many had come to celebrate a religious holiday; others came out in defiance of a British ban on political protests against colonial rule. Last year, prime minister David Cameron paid a high profile visit to Jallianwala Bagh, the scene of the 1919 Amritsar massacre. Cameron’s hypocritical expression of “regret” was a cheap ploy to garner votes from among Britain’s 500,000 Sikhs.
The 1984 assault on the Golden Temple ordered by Indira Gandhi’s Congress government in Delhi was an atrocity against all Sikhs. Ostensibly intended to overpower armed Sikh fundamentalists, followers of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had taken up positions in the temple complex, the attack slaughtered as many as 2000 people, many of them pilgrims, including women and children. The attack made a martyr out of Bhindranwale and dramatically boosted support for religious fundamentalism among Sikhs. In India and abroad, angry protests erupted, often led by reactionaries demanding Khalistan, a theocratic Sikh state. Some 4000 Sikh soldiers deserted their regiments as the unrest spread to India’s armed forces, over ten per cent of which were Sikh. Throughout Punjab and in cities such as Delhi, Sikhs were arrested and tortured by the thousands. At the time we wrote, “the vicious crackdown by the Hindu-chauvinist Gandhi regime was an attack on the entire Sikh community and a bloody lesson to all opponents of the regime. And the repercussions are likely to be immense, and even bloodier, as the reactionary legacy of British imperialist rule continues to wreak havoc upon the Indian masses” (Spartacist Britain no 60, August 1984). That legacy was again played out in a communalist frenzy, directed overwhelmingly against the Sikhs, that recalled the horrors of Partition.
By declaring war on the Sikhs, Mrs Gandhi got more than she bargained for. On 31 October, she herself was assassinated by Sikh members of her bodyguard. For the next three days the capital city was engulfed in a wave of pogroms that culminated in a massacre of 3000 Sikhs in Delhi alone. One particularly heinous atrocity took place in Trilokpuri, east Delhi, in a colony housing impoverished low caste Sikhs. Over a 72-hour period, some 350 people were butchered in a single block. A team of journalists who had been tipped off by a survivor, made their way to Trilokpuri suspecting that, “even while the whole city was in the grip of mass killings, there was something exceptionally dreadful about the plight of Block 32”. One of the journalists, Rahul Bedi, later testified that the street was “littered with limbs of human bodies, hairs and charred bodies” (When a tree shook Delhi, M Mitta and H Phoolka, 2007). Some 30 Sikh women from Trilokpuri were raped. Mass rapes are part of a gruesome pattern that was seen during Partition and almost always accompany communalist bloodletting. Again in 1991 in Kunan Poshpora, Kashmir, Indian Army troops gang-raped nearly 100 women in a single night.
In the three decades that have elapsed since 1984, the families of the victims have fought courageously for the legal system to punish those responsible. But ten official “enquiries” have whitewashed the crimes, while leading figures in the Congress party have built political careers out of their involvement in inciting terror against the Sikh community. Among them are Jagdish Tytler, who served several times as a minister in the federal government, and leading politician Sajjan Kumar, who had charges filed against him, including for murder and rioting, but whose case has been bogged down in the courts. Rajiv Gandhi, who took over as Congress leader and prime minister after his mother’s death, condoned the anti-Sikh terror in his infamous November 1984 statement that:
“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.”
— When a tree shook Delhi
Congress romped to victory in elections in December 1984. Today, with India-wide elections imminent, the Hindu-supremacist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is expected to win and its candidate, Narendra Modi, is tipped to become prime minister. Among liberals and reformists, opposition to BJP communalism frequently takes the form of presenting Congress as a supposedly secular alternative. The BJP rose to prominence in Indian politics based on its association with the violent attacks on Muslims that followed the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 by Hindu-chauvinist mobs. By the end of the 1990s the BJP led a coalition government of all India. Similarly, Narendra Modi, who was chief minister in Gujarat during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms, has built a political career on the back of this violence. The role played by Congress leaders in 1984, and the 30-year cover-up of their guilt, gives the lie to the notion that Congress is an alternative to BJP communalism.
Marxists and the Sikh question
In India as a whole, with a Hindu majority of over 80 per cent and a population of some 1.2 billion, the Sikhs are a tiny minority of about two per cent, concentrated in Indian Punjab. The Punjab was severely affected by the horrors of Partition, which were the culmination of systematic divide-and-rule machinations by the British imperialists. The violence was not only a consequence of, but “was a principal mechanism for creating the conditions for partition” (P Brass, Journal of Genocide Research, 2003). In the main, the mass killing, raping, looting and forced population transfers on an enormous scale were carried out by organised paramilitary outfits. Hindus and Sikhs who lived in western Punjab were driven eastwards to India, by outfits such as the national guards of the Muslim League. Muslims were forced to flee in the opposite direction, often at the behest of Hindu communalist forces such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or by Sikh militia. Calling for the formation of an Akali Fauj (Sikh army) on the steps of Lahore legislative building in March 1947, the principal Sikh leader at the time, Master Tara Singh, declared that Sikhs must be prepared to die for their cause.
In post-Partition India, the Sikh leadership has repeatedly shown its anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim credentials. As a reward for loyalty in the 1965 war with Pakistan, the capitalist rulers in Delhi granted the Sikhs’ demand for new state borders. In 1966, the state boundaries were re-drawn, creating the present Sikh-majority state of Indian Punjab, a new state of Haryana and enlarging Himachal Pradesh in the process. Sikhs are heavily represented in India’s armed forces, which are a vital bulwark of the unity of the state. It was a Sikh general, Kuldeep Singh Brar, who led the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple (while the Khalistani forces inside the Temple were led by a former army officer, General Shabeg Singh). On the eve of the slaughter in Amritsar — which lies less than 20 miles from the Pakistan border — Brar rallied his troops by warning that “the enemy” had links to Pakistan.
The anti-Communist Khalistani forces certainly looked to Pakistan for support. During the 1980s, Pakistan’s rulers, together with the US and British imperialists, massively armed and funded the reactionary Islamic-fundamentalist mujahedin forces in Afghanistan in a “holy war” against the Soviet Union. As Trotskyists, from the beginning of the 1979 Soviet intervention we proclaimed: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan! Extend the social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples!” (See “Afghanistan: women under imperialist occupation”, Workers Hammer no 219, Summer 2012).
The 1984 attack on the Sikhs posed a litmus test for revolutionaries. Post-independence India fits Lenin’s description of tsarist Russia as a “prison house of peoples”. As part of their programme for proletarian power, Lenin’s Bolsheviks trenchantly opposed Great Russian chauvinism and called for the right of self-determination for all nations, including their right to secede. At the same time Lenin insisted that “Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just’, ‘purest’, most refined and civilised brand” (Critical remarks on the national question, 1913). Our position on the Sikh question was not conditional on the reactionary character of the Khalistani leadership, of which there was no doubt. Bhindranwale, who had once threatened to kill 5000 Hindus, and his theocratic Dal Khalsa movement were fundamentalist anti-woman thugs who carried out murderous terror against Communists in the Punjab. In the early 1990s, Sikh communalists carried out attacks on Hindus, often targeting buses and killing scores of people at a time.
In the summer of 1984 we wrote: “We demand an immediate halt to the repressive military/police operation in the Punjab, the withdrawal of all troops and the release of all Sikhs imprisoned in the dragnet.” At the same time, we insisted:
“Isolated from a revolutionary perspective, however, these elementary demands will not end — and in the short term might well inflame — the communalist turmoil which today threatens to engulf the Punjab. The only progressive answer lies in the Indian proletariat, which has historically demonstrated militancy and organisation . Armed with a revolutionary programme to overthrow capitalism, the relatively small but strategically powerful working class is the one social force that, carrying the agrarian masses behind it, can put an end to the communalist horrors and furnish a just solution to the legitimate grievances of India’s many oppressed minorities. And this requires the forging of a Trotskyist party.”
— Spartacist Britain no 60, August 1984
And we added:
“The Sikhs are not just a religious grouping, however, but form a distinct community inhabiting a particular territory with a common language (Punjabi) and customs. And while the Sikhs may not yet be a nation, the present dynamic points to their further national consolidation. Nations are not born fully-fledged but are consolidated in struggle (generally by expelling or destroying other peoples). Undoubtedly, and more emphatically since the bloodbath at Amritsar, many Sikhs see themselves as a nation. But whether they achieve the fundamentalist dream of Khalistan (‘state of the pure’) or some other form of self-determination, or they are genocidally repressed by the Hindu majority, under capitalism the outcome can only be reactionary.”
We warned that: “To establish their own state, the Sikhs must necessarily remove, one way or another, millions who share the land of Punjab with them.” The population of the Punjab is deeply interpenetrated. Business and industry in the cities tend to be in the hands of Hindus, and in rural areas, 75 per cent are Sikhs. The competing claims of the peoples of South Asia as a whole can only be equitably resolved within a socialist federation of South Asia. We are necessarily algebraic about the future relationships of the workers states that may make up such a federation, and cannot pre-determine whether or not the Sikhs would form their own state.
The Indian reformist left generally denied the legitimacy of the Sikh struggle against national oppression. The Moscow-loyal Communist Party of India (CPI), which for years had been a servile creature of the Indira Gandhi regime, shamelessly supported the army’s assault in Amritsar. The CPI general secretary at the time, CR Rao, declared: “We have always been for effective steps to put down extremist violence. These should, however, be combined with efforts for a political solution, which will go a long way in isolating the extremists” (Overseas Hindustan Times, 23 June 1984). As for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), its then leader, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, issued an almost identical statement and praised the army for its “tremendous precautions to protect the Golden temple” (Hindu, International edition, 23 June 1984).
Today, the CPI (M) shows the same loyalty to India’s capitalist rulers over Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. While refusing to call for Indian troops to get out, in 2010, CPI (M) general secretary Prakash Karat wrote to prime minister Manmohan Singh, pleading with him to “take a bold initiative for a political dialogue with all sections in the state” (4 September 2010, cpim.org). In contrast to these reformists, we Marxists have said: “Today, insofar as the Kashmiri struggle is not decisively subordinated to a military conflict between the Pakistani ruling class and its Indian rival, Marxists uphold the right of self-determination for the people of Kashmir, which means the right to independence or — should they so choose — to merge with Pakistan (or India)” (“Down with India’s bloody repression in Kashmir! All Indian and Pakistani troops out now!” Workers Hammer no 212, Autumn 2010).
Myth of post-communal Punjab
The Indian state crushed the Sikh insurgency in a wave of repression that lasted until the early 1990s and incurred a death toll in Punjab estimated in the tens of thousands. Support for Khalistan remains strong among the Sikh diaspora in Britain and Canada. Among the Sikh population as a whole, the enormous crimes and injustices have not been forgotten. The anger and frustration that still burns was seen recently in London where General Brar, now retired, was holidaying in 2012 and was physically attacked by Sikhs. Brar’s assailants were given outrageous prison terms, ranging from ten to 14 years, for inflicting a couple of superficial wounds on the general, who was one of the chief architects of mass murder in Amritsar in 1984.
Since 1997, the state of Punjab has been governed almost continuously by an alliance of the Akali Dal, a Sikh party, and the BJP. The Akali-BJP alliance is often touted as the end of communalism in the Punjab. This is a fallacy. The Akali Dal was founded in 1920, as the political arm of the committee to manage the Sikh temples (gurdwaras). From its inception it operated within the framework of communal divisions laid down by the British rulers by introducing separate electorates for Sikhs in 1921 (as they had done for Hindus and Muslims in 1906). The Sikh nationalist leadership has now thrown in its lot with the Hindu communalist BJP, in an alliance that is necessarily anti-Muslim.
Moreover, the Akali Dal today represents the interests of Sikh farmers belonging to the Jat caste of wealthy landowners. The Akali-BJP alliance “has united the dominant castes among the Sikhs and Hindus” that “replicates the social structure of the Punjab village in its legislative assembly” (Economic and Political Weekly, 31 March 2012). Although Sikhism originated in the fifteenth century in part in opposition to the Hindu caste system, caste oppression is rampant in Punjab.
The tenth guru, Gobind Singh, turned Sikhism into a fighting religion in 1699, establishing its distinctive symbols — including beard and dagger. When the Sikhs were defeated in the Anglo-Sikh wars that ended in 1849, the British incorporated the former foes into the army. The racist British rulers designated the Sikhs as a “martial race” and granted them special privileges as a reward for Sikh military support in suppressing the uprising of 1857, known as the Sepoy Mutiny but more appropriately described as the “first Indian war of independence”. As part of their determination to prevent any such rebellion in the future, the British reorganised the army on the principle of divide-and-rule, awarded Punjabi peasants land as an incentive to join the army, and undertook a vast expansion of agriculture. The predominance of the Jat caste of rich farmers among the Sikh population today has its origins in these colonial schemes.
The caste prejudices of the Akali leaders were manifest in the 1930s, when Dr BR Ambedkar proposed to lead India’s 60 million dalits (“untouchables”) into the Sikh religion. The Akali leadership rejected this and, according to author Kapur Singh, “they unanimously decided that Ambedkar and his follower untouchables must be dissuaded and stopped from becoming Sikhs for all time” (quoted in “Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community”, Economic and Political Weekly, 28 June 2003). The Punjab’s Green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s enriched the Jat farmers, while creating the need for unskilled farm labourers, with the result that many lower caste migrant workers flocked to the state from areas such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Today, dalits constitute some 30 per cent of the Punjab’s population — the highest proportion in India — and more than 80 per cent of those dalits live in rural areas and are among the most deprived and impoverished section of the population. Caste oppression compounds the subjugation of women in the villages, where rape and violence against women are daily occurrences.
Following independence from Britain, India continues to be dependent on imperialist finance capital, and will remain so while capitalist rule persists. This underlines the importance of an internationalist perspective that is not limited to South Asia, but linked to socialist revolution in the imperialist centres, including Britain, Canada and the US. India remains heavily agricultural, which means that agrarian revolution is a key component of the programme for proletarian state power. The working class must win the support of the rural masses to its side by championing agrarian revolution to overthrow the landlords and capitalists.
At the same time, India has a significant industrial proletariat, which is the motor force of the Indian socialist revolution. Not far from Punjab lies the industrial centre of Gurgaon, including Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest car maker. Workers at this plant have carried out a series of powerful strikes, uniting workers across caste and religious divisions. In July 2012, the bosses made a frontal attack on the trade union in the plant. When a manager mysteriously died in a fire, some 147 workers were arrested, falsely accused of murder and put in jail, where they have languished ever since. This is an attack on all workers. The capitalist bosses who have gone to such lengths to stamp out the union among these workers are well aware of the potential power of the working class.
The labour of the proletariat produces the profits that enrich the ruling class. But this potential power is hamstrung by the existing political leadership. What is essential is forging a new leadership of the working class that fights to turn the unions into organs of proletarian unity and class independence from the bosses and their state. This task is linked to the forging of a revolutionary vanguard party.
The communalism that repeatedly threatens to tear India apart is not some inevitable condition of the country, but a legacy of British colonial rule and a cornerstone of capitalist rule in the region. The carnage of Partition was not the only possible outcome of the independence struggle. But a democratic, secular capitalist India was not on the historic agenda. The militant upsurge against colonial rule at the end of World War II could have signalled the opening of great possibilities for a revolutionary party. Instead, there was the Stalinist CPI, whose support for British imperialism during WWII was a betrayal that had fateful consequences for the Indian independence struggle. As we noted:
“Britain had lost control. Posed pointblank was not only India’s political independence from two hundred and fifty years of the British jackboot; the social liberation of India’s toiling masses from millennia of indigenous caste, gender, communal and class oppression was also now suddenly within grasp. What was needed was a revolutionary vanguard party of India’s small but strategic and modern, urbanised industrial working class which could rally and draw behind it the millions of peasant poor and other oppressed, oust the British, and put the native capitalist-landlord alliance out of business, launching a direct offensive for both national and social liberation through capturing proletarian state power.”
Instead, the CPI’s perspective was to subordinate the interests of the proletariat to the bourgeois nationalists, particularly the Congress leaders, and to peddle illusions in “Gandhiji”. As the above article pointed out:
“The Congress leaders feared the unleashing of the workers and peasants against the capitalists and landlords many times more than they desired to enforce the demand to ‘Quit India’ on the British imperialists; the Stalinists with their grovelling before Churchill had made themselves for a key period of time ‘the most universally detested political organisation in India’. The intervention of a revolutionary Trotskyist party with some real weight in the proletariat was at this juncture the decisive element in whether the question of India was solved along the October model or left after post-war ‘independence’ to the bloody partition designed by the British imperialists.”
— “The 1940s ‘Quit India’ movement — Stalinist Alliance with Churchill Betrayed Indian Revolution”, Workers Hammer nos 131 and 132 (September/October and November/December 1992)
We base ourselves on the programme of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in the victorious October Revolution of 1917. In India during World War II, this programme was upheld by the Trotskyist forces of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, section of the Trotskyist Fourth International. But the small forces of the BLPI were insufficient to take advantage of the revolutionary crisis. As our article cited above continued:
“Yet by midnight of 14 August 1947, when Congress prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru rose to address ‘free’ India’s parliament of capitalists, landlords and princes, the spectacular upsurge had been derailed. Instead, a pro-imperialist alliance of the Congress bourgeoisie and the Muslim League landlords had successfully diverted the revolutionary momentum into British imperialism’s waiting trap, the nightmare of communalist Partition. India’s working masses had paid with their lives — and were now about to pay even more — for the absence of a revolutionary party to lead its millions in an independent struggle for workers power.”
The key task in India remains the forging of a Leninist-Trotskyist party.