The 1984 Sikh Genocide: What It Is and Why We Need to Know About It

Many Sikh families, especially Sikh women, bear the emotional cost of losing husbands, brothers-in-law, and siblings to the Sikh genocide. Photo Credits:  The Logical Indian Crew

Many Sikh families, especially Sikh women, bear the emotional cost of losing husbands, brothers-in-law, and siblings to the Sikh genocide. Photo Credits: The Logical Indian Crew

On the night of October 31st, 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was murdered by her two bodyguards, who happened to be Sikh*. Upon public notice of her assassination, Indian citizens -- more specifically, Hindu nationalists -- took matters into their own hands and relentlessly murdered, burned, raped, and tortured Sikhs all over India, mainly in Punjab and Delhi. One of the main motivators for their actions was the belief that all Sikhs were responsible for the actions of two Sikhs. Over the next three days, approximately 8,000 to 17,000 Sikhs were killed and about 50,000 were displaced.

Hindu nationalists rationalized their actions by blaming Sikhs for the death of “the Mother of India” and argued that Hinduism is the king of all religions because, by their rationale, Sikhism encouraged the behavior displayed by the two bodyguards and it was their responsibility to eradicate India of its influence.

Sajjan Kumar, one of the main perpetrators of the Sikh genocide, gets sentenced to life in prison. Photo Credits:  PTI

Sajjan Kumar, one of the main perpetrators of the Sikh genocide, gets sentenced to life in prison. Photo Credits: PTI

Such a large range of killings warrants the question: why wasn’t there more specificity and care taken when measuring the Sikh lives lost in this massacre? The only answer to this is the Indian government was compliant in this genocide. Congress Member of Parliament, Sajjan Kumar, was observed in Delhi communities on the morning of November 1st, 1984 handing out iron rods to groups of rioters and ordering them to “attack Sikhs, kill them, and loot and burn their properties.” Kerosene, a lighting fuel used in jet engines and cleaning solvents, was supplied to rioters by leaders of the Congress Party. The intricate details of these attacks were no coincidence; members of the government and citizens alike carefully orchestrated this organization to execute the genocide.

Ten committees were created following the genocide to investigate its origin and likelihood of occurring. The first of these was the Marwah commission, whose role was to determine the connection between police departments and the damage done to Sikhs. However, in June of 1985, the Home Ministry instructed this committee not to proceed any further.

The Misra commission, headed by Justice Rangnath Misra, a judge on the Supreme Court of India, then took over this task and published its report in August of 1986. Misra’s report stated it did not have the responsibility to identify specific names, proving the creation of the committee to be unnecessary. The Human Rights Watch criticized this report as being biased because it cleared all high-level officials of directing any pogroms or riots. The report was also subject to intense scrutiny due to its refusal to identify specific perpetrators of violence and instead pinpointed victims and published their names and addresses.

The Kapur Mittal Committee, created in February of 1987, was also appointed the task its predecessors failed to accomplish. It had almost finished a full police inquiry of 1985, when it was asked to discontinue this investigation. However, it proceeded and published a report in 1990, citing 72 officers of gross negligence and calling for the dismissal of 30 out of these 72 officers. But no action has been taken regarding this finding.

Following these committees were the Jain Banerjee committee and the Potti Rosha committee, both recommended by the Misra committee to investigate the lack of registration of cases. The death toll (up to 17,000) didn’t match up with the amount of cases (about 500) registered by the Indian government. Both the Banerjee and Misra committee sought to bring justice to Sajjan Kumar and his atrocious involvement in the genocide, but he evaded both cases until recently. The rest of the committees were created to verify the actual number of Sikhs killed and affected by the genocide, but they were not as effective as expected as the Indian government refused to acknowledge the great number of deaths and displacements that resulted from its complacency during the Sikh genocide.  

Sikh families in the aftermath of the deadly killings of their husbands and brothers. Photo Credits:  The Logical Indian Crew

Sikh families in the aftermath of the deadly killings of their husbands and brothers. Photo Credits: The Logical Indian Crew

While the Indian government still has yet to recognize these events as a human rights violation, let alone genocide, there have only recently been small steps to justice. In December of 2018, Kumar was awarded a life sentence for his role in the Sikh genocide.

There are a number of problems still seen today as a result of the Indian government’s declination to recognize October 31-November 3, 1984 as a genocide, much less take responsibility for it. First of all, the Indian government addresses these days as “the anti-Sikh riots.” This terminology is wrong as “riots” implies disorganized, spontaneous acts of violence too overwhelming for law enforcement to handle.  It allows the government to escape acknowledging the malicious intent rooted in the massacres. The intentional ignorance of these events encourages Hindu nationalism and the oppression of Sikhs. Since Hinduism is the most prevalent religion across India, the possible declamation of it would discredit the entire government and cause political turmoil. The Indian government’s fear of being overthrown by a majority of their population isn’t fair to Sikhs in India because they lost such a big part of their population and the least the government could do to commence reparations is recognize the perpetrators of the violence.  The Ontario Legislature passed a motion in April of 2017 condemning the “anti-Sikh riots” as genocide, but the Indian government took offense to this and lobbied against it by calling for its repeal. Throughout this paper, even I have referenced these events as the Sikh genocide because the deliberate killing of innocent Sikhs due to the actions of 2 Sikhs should be considered genocide.

The Indian government’s blatant ignorance and refusal to accept responsibility will only hinder its capacity to grow as a whole religion is suppressed under its rule and their sufferings are minimized to the point of negligence.

Even when searching “Sikh genocide” on Google, there are sparse sources available under this title, and the Wikipedia page redirects viewers to “the anti-Sikh riots.” The Indian government’s blatant ignorance and refusal to accept responsibility will only hinder its capacity to grow as a whole religion is suppressed under its rule and their sufferings are minimized to the point of negligence. Sikhs are not even considered a separate religion according to the Indian constitution: Sikhism is deemed to be a branch of Hinduism. This erases the Sikh identity and forces them to adopt the title of Hindu, which decimates their suffering.

Our responsibility as informed people is to understand what happened and recognize the impact the Sikh genocide still has today. Among many cases of unwarranted brutality, Sikhs are the most likely to be illegally detained and tortured in India. Let’s also not forget to recognize that history has a tendency to repeat itself: failing to agree that the events in 1984 constitute a genocide radiates the message that mass murder based on a common trait among people is a valid reason to eradicate those people.

As Asian-American citizens, the best thing we can do as a part of the same minority community, is to ensure that the Sikh genocide is recognized internationally; with more recognition comes precaution and precaution ensures the failure of anything similar to the Sikh genocide happening ever again. Targeting minority populations is a common trait of genocides and if we can identify signs of a possible genocide, we have the power to stop them before it gets out of hand. In terms of the Sikh genocide, identifying the religious discrepancy between Sikhs and Hindus would’ve lead us to more easily detect the rise of Hindu nationalism and therefore, possibly, stopping the genocide before all the damage it caused.


*Sikhism, originating in the Indian state of Punjab, is a religion following the teachings of Guru Nanak; the simplified, mainstream ideology of this religion is based on equality in all humankind and engaging in selflessness throughout one’s life.