The 1984 Delhi Anti-Sikh Pogrom refers to a four-day pogrom that took place in various parts of India’s capital, New Delhi, causing the death of nearly 3,000 Sikhs. It followed the assassination on October 31, 1984 of Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, by her two Sikh bodyguards, in revenge for Operation Blue Star. This event – probably the most deadly in the violent history of Delhi – remains highly controversial. Twenty-five years later, most of its instigators and perpetrators remain unpunished despite the claims of various survivors and human rights groups that the pogrom was orchestrated by officials of the Congress Party with the connivance of Delhi administration and police. Anti-Sikh violence was not restricted to Delhi but also took place in other Hindi-speaking heartland states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. This case study nonetheless focuses on Delhi as the pattern of violence was set up there and then reproduced elsewhere.
The relationship between the Sikh community of Punjab and the Indian central government had been marked by tension since India’s accession to independence on August 15, 1947. Considering themselves as the great losers and victims of the Partition of the British Raj , Sikhs have often interpreted the policies of the Indian national government as discriminatory and harmful to their faith and community. They resented the inclusion of Sikhs in the frame of the Hindu religion under article 25 of the 1950 Indian Constitution and were outraged by the central government’s refusal to grant their demand for the creation of a Punjabi Suba (a Punjabi-speaking province where Sikhs would be the majority) while similar demands were granted to other states in the frame of the linguistic reorganization of states’ boundaries during the mid-fifties. Started in 1950, the Punjabi Suba movement finally achieved its goal in 1966, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promulgated the tri-partition of the Indian Punjab between Punjab (where Sikhs represent nearly 60% of the population whereas they form only 2% of the national population), Haryana (gathering some Hindi-speaking districts) and Himachal Pradesh (getting adjacent Hindi-speaking districts). Then, first in 1973 and again in 1978, following the Emergency, New Delhi discarded and unduly stigmatized as secessionist the demands from the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) – the Sikh premier political party – contained in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. It requested decentralization of power, provincial autonomy, industrial development, better allocation of Punjab’s river waters, abolition of the ceiling for the recruitment of Sikhs in the Army, attribution of Chandigarh as capital of Punjab only (to this date Chandigarh is the capital of both Punjab and Haryana, and an Union territory), etc. It is during this period that Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the head of the religious seminar Dam Dami Taksal, tapped into Sikh discontent and emerged as the iconic leader of the struggle against the «Hindu conspiracy» which was said to undermine the Sikh religion and community. During the early 1980s Punjab witnessed a rising confrontation when Hindu and Sikh civilians as well as police officers were hit by a wave of killings. It attributed by the Indian government to alleged Sikh militants. In 1982, at the time when the SAD was launching a popular and pacifist movement called Dharm Yudh Morcha , Bhindranwale moved with his followers to the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of Sikhism, in order to spread his message among the Sikhs of Punjab. Indira Gandhi who was worried by his rise, though it was allegedly sponsored by some of her close advisors such as Giani Zail Singh as a mean to weaken the SAD, ordered the Indian Army to attack the Golden Temple Complex and capture Bhindranwale. The assault was called Operation Blue Star and took place on June 6, 1984. It resulted in the total destruction of the Akal Takht – the highest site of authority within Sikhism – as well as the library, which contained original copies of Sikhism’s most sacred texts. Moreover, Bhindranwale and most of his followers were killed. The Sikhs, whether supporters of Bhindranwale or not, were shocked by this attack on their most revered place of worship and outraged by the scale of violence. According to official accounts, Operation Blue Star caused 493 civilian deaths and 83 army casualties. But both eyewitnesses and scholars question this figure as thousands of pilgrims were within the Golden Temple Complex on the very day of the assault as it was, purposely or not, the anniversary of the martyrdom of the fifth Guru, Arjun. This event propelled a cycle of extreme violence, which lasted until 1995, between the Indian state forces and some Sikh armed militants fighting for an independent Sikh state in Punjab named Khalistan. While violence unleashed during the Khalistan movement was mostly concentrated in the Punjab, another event – the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, in retaliation for her sending the army to the Golden Temple – set off a second sequence of mass violence, this time in New Delhi, the capital of India. It lasted for four days and resulted in the death of nearly 3,000 Sikhs.