Mark Tully
November 15, 2014

File photo showing Delhi, the nation’s capital became a funeral pyre for three days, from October 31 to November 3 in 1984.

It’s not surprising that the coverage of the 30th anniversary of the attacks on Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination concentrated on the grief and anger of the survivors. The anger of those who saw the police failing to protect them, and the courts’ failure to bring the guilty to book, inevitably still rages. Having witnessed the violence in Delhi I would never want the voice of the survivors to be silenced. But there is another angle to the story that has gone largely unreported. It is the failure of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Operation Bluestar, the all too often brutal military and police operation that followed Bluestar, and the riots to drive a wedge between the Sikhs and the Hindus. That was the intention of Bhindranwale, who tried to persuade the Sikhs they were slaves of the Hindus, and it could well have been the consequence of all the mistakes the government made.

It would be an insult to the survivors to suggest that the wounds of 1984 have healed. But as the Sikh sociologist Surinder S Jodhka has written: “The community has moved on.” When I met Sikhs in Delhi, Amritsar and rural Punjab while recording radio programmes about Operation Bluestar, time and again I was told that they wanted to put 1984 behind them. Of course I came across anger and sadness, but one Sikh was very angry with me for making programmes that would revive the memories of 1984. That the Sikhs feel they are very much part of Indian society and can live in dignity retaining their own identity is, I would suggest, in no small measure because Indian society is still underpinned by its unique multi-religious culture. It’s the culture of the Bhakti and Sufi saints, of Mahatma Gandhi, who was proud to call himself a Hindu, and of Jawaharlal Nehru, who, although agnostic, some would argue atheist, acknowledged the greatness of the Indian plural tradition.

But religion and politics make a toxic mixture. It was this that led to partition and the destruction of the pluralist culture of united Punjab. In 1946 Malcolm Darling, a retired British member of the Indian Civil Service, rode on horseback across Punjab to assess the mood in villages and small towns. He became aware of the tragedy that lay ahead, saying, “what a hash politics threaten to make of this tract where Hindu, Muslim, and Sikhs are as mixed up as the ingredients of a well-made pilau”. When Bhindranwale fell out with the Congress, the Akali Dal refused to stand up to him because they thought he was a vote winner.

To win votes on a religious basis voters have to be convinced that their religion is threatened or they are being discriminated against because of their faith, whether they are the majority of an electorate or a minority. The story of the Ram Janambhoomi movement and the riots that followed the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque would have taken a different turn if both Hindu and Muslim leaders had sought for a compromise.

In some parts of the world religion has become a dirty word. A United Nations rapporteur who investigated the extent of religious freedom in Europe described that continent as suffering from Christophobia — so great was the hostility to the Churches he discovered. The biologist Richard Dawkins is the arch-apostle of the virulent atheism that has spread so widely. He once wrote,  “Imagine with John Lennon a world with no religion. Imagine no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no partition of India.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s achievement in bringing Hinduism to the West. What message does he want to take on his world travels — the message of Vivekananda’s inclusive culture based on its ancient pluralist religious traditions, or a narrow nationalist Hinduism that divides India on the basis of religion? Rudyard Kipling pointed out the damage those who create divisions cause their own religion when he wrote,  “He that hath a gospel whereby heaven is won (carpenter, or cameleer, or Maya’s dreaming son) many swords shall pierce him, mingling blood with gall, but his own disciple shall wound him worst of all.”

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