The week before Indira Gandhi was assassinated I was in Delhi. This was my first visit after the massive Indian army assault on the Golden Temple, which had so shocked the Sikh psyche and created a deep rift between the Sikhs and the central government in India. The press had been reporting that all was now well in the Punjab, and the official view was that it was only a matter of time before the problem would be resolved.
But what I heard from relatives and close friends living in the Punjab was completely different from this sanguine view. I was told that, contrary to government statements, the assault on the Golden Temple and some 40 other Sikh shrines throughout the Punjab on June 5 and 6 had resulted in more than 700 army casualties and that nearly 3,000 Sikh men, women and children, most of them innocents, had been killed.
In the weeks following the assault, some 5,000-7,000 Sikhs were rounded up under a newly enacted Terrorist Affected Areas (Special Courts) Ordinance, under which persons can be detained up to a period of two years without trial (a year without even a charge being filed against them), can be tried in secret and are presumed to be guilty until they can prove their innocence.
Behind the dark curtain of these shameful laws had disappeared the entire Sikh moderate leadership. No one knows how many people are being held by the army under these laws because no casualty, missing or detainee lists have been issued by any authority. Some 30-40 Sikh children between the ages of 4 and 14 were recently released when it was found out that they had been detained as "dangerous terrorists" by the army since June.
In the villages across the Punjab, Sikh homes were broken into and searched, young Sikhs were regularly beaten, and some were taken away never to return. There were reports of widespread interrogations under torture. Instead of providing the "healing touch," the succeeding five months had further alienated the Sikhs already traumatized by the slaughter and destruction at the Golden Temple and other shrines in June.
I knew then that the calm in Delhi was unreal and that something would shatter the illusion. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated my worst fears were realized. It was a heinous act, and all right-minded Sikhs condemn it. The fact that one of her Sikh assassins had returned from a visit to his village in Gurdaspur, one of the districts most affected by army operations, is revealing, given what I had heard.
The mindless slaughter of more than 1,200 innocent Sikhs that has followed the assassination, apparently in "revenge" by Hindus, often in an organized manner while the police stood by, has left even the most moderate of Sikhs stunned. All decent Indians have been shocked and ashamed. It must be added that, as has been the case throughout our history, there were innumerable instances of Sikh lives' being saved by Hindus. But now the two communities stand at the edge of an abyss, and it is imperative that we pull back.
The question is: where do we go from here? Rajiv Gandhi has an excellent opportunity to break with the counterproductive policies of his mother. He should take several urgent steps to bind our wounds:
Those who perpetrated the horror in Delhi and elsewhere must be brought to justice to reassure all Indians that the law will be impartial as between Sikh "terrorists" and their Hindu counterparts, especially if the reports are correct that this violence was organized by some members of his ruling party.
The government must release the Sikh leadership and thousands of innocents languishing in detention centers and revoke the draconian Terrorists Act and return us to a government that respects our civil liberties.
The government must meet the legitimate Punjabi demands on which agreement has been reached many times before only to be sabotaged at the last moment by one side or the other for petty political gains.
The government must give up the idea that political problems can be solved by military means and eschew all advice to "teach the Sikhs a lesson." Apparently the Sikh masses have been learning an altogether different lesson, and those who advocate separation and violence have only been strengthened.
Elections must be held, especially in the Punjab, to allow a representative government once more to govern the state.
The government must move to restore the sense of trust in Sikhs as equal citizens, a trust that has been eroded by holding all Sikhs responsible for the actions of the few.
The Sikhs must also now show courage and vision to heal the wounds. We should readily accept those of our legitimate demands that are met by the new leadership and be willing to return to the negotiating table. We must make common cause with the Hindus and convince them that our demands are not all "Sikh" demands but those that serve the interests of all Punjabis. We must prevent any "revenge" killings against Hindus in our midst. And we must totally disassociate ourselves from those who advocate the use of violence and terror to obtain even what we perceive to be our just rights. Violence, hatred and vengeance are totally contrary to our faith, and the resort to arms that defines our martial ethos cannot be justified except as "a last resort" -- and that too only in self defense.
Nowhere do our gurus advocate terror and the slaughter of innocents. We must begin to empathize with the terror Hindus have felt during the past three years and act in ways to reassure them that we care for their well-being and safety as we do for our own.
The Hindus in the Punjab must make common cause with the Sikhs, especially on those demands that are clearly to the benefit of all Punjabis. Elsewhere they and the government must now move to reassure all Sikhs that they will never again be punished as a community for the actions of a few by the unleashing of the sort of pogram that we saw last week.