Rahul Gandhi, Sikhs and the Politics of Apologia

In his speech in London recently, Rahul Gandhi said that the perpetrators of the massacre of 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi should be punished and he would support that “100 percent”, but he will not blame the Congress party. The opposition wants him to apologise for this comment. 

Just suppose he does apologise to the Sikh community, would justice be done? Thirty four years later, why are they then waiting for a fair trial, why is the hurt still so raw?

In a span of three days 2,733 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone while the government did nothing. What followed was not only genocide, but complete misuse of power. Punjab was sealed off; 150,000 troops made their way in; on June 4, Indira Gandhi gave orders to the army to attack the Golden Temple and 40 other gurdwaras in Punjab.

With Operation Bluestar, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale became the Osama to Indira’s Bush. She and son Sanjay had used him, propping him up as a leader, when he was a non-entity. Just days before the attack, Rajiv Gandhi reportedly referred to him as a “saintly religious preacher”. In fact, a formal declaration of “independent Khalistan” came only in April 1986.

It has been typical of governments to target innocents when they fail to deal with a group's demands or aspirations. It was no different in the case of Sikhs. And even if the then prime minister was killed because of disaffection, it had nothing to do with the community, and most certainly not the way for a ruling party to use the system to decimate citizens.

It was an organised carnage because the next day itself the mobs had voters’ lists and were targeting Sikh homes with rods, knives and petrol cans. The state machinery was at the disposal of the government. These institutions adhered to what the government expected of them. The police looked the other way and in many instances assisted the mobs, even providing diesel from their official jeeps to set fire to homes and people. The state-owned media carried only one point of view, including slogans.

Despite the murder of over 3000 people across 80 towns, the arson and looting, Human Rights Watch reported that “the Delhi police eventually filed only 587 First Information Reports (FIRs), official complaints…Out of these, the police closed 241 cases without investigation, claiming inability to trace evidence”.


Is Rahul Gandhi, therefore, right in stating that the Congress was not involved when civil rights organisations had clearly provided names of 16 leaders from the party and 13 policemen?

Congress leaders say he cannot be held responsible for what happened because he was only 14 then. There are children and teenagers from that time who watched their fathers and brothers being hacked to death, their mothers and sisters getting raped, their homes torched, their shops looted. They live in the camps set up for the widows of 1984. Many still carry the scars; they have turned to drugs, are jobless and have turned to petty crime.

Others had altered their identity. Like Harbans Singh who I had met many years ago in Delhi. He had discarded the turban. His views, though, echoed his roots: “Maneka was shunted out of the house all because she is a Sardarni”, Indira had an “evil, parochial mind”, Sanjay was “a goonda”, Rajiv’s sins were his weakness and insensitivity in making that now infamous remark after the massacre, “When a great tree falls, the ground shakes”.

He held no grudge against Congress loyalists like Buta Singh who atoned for his sins by doing seva cleaning the shoes of devotees at the gurdwara. “You have to be true to the Khalsa.”

By being faithful to his faith, he was trying to cope with his anger, his losses.

Rahul Gandhi is trying too. Revealing a mind capable of grasping nuance, a few days ago in Hamburg he said that he did not feel jubilant over the death of V.Prabhakaran, chief of LTTE that was behind his father’s assassination: “He might have been a bad or an evil person, but the violence that was done against him was impacting others, like it had impacted me. If you go deep, you will find there is something that triggered that violence. It’s not just a random event. Some action or violence done against him or her has triggered it.”


The Nehru-Gandhi family has chosen the high ground when confronted with the killers of Rajiv Gandhi to the extent that Sonia Gandhi had written to President K.R.Narayanan to commute the death sentence of the four convicted. Priyanka Gandhi even met Murugan’s wife and later observed, “meeting with Nalini was my way of coming to peace with the violence and loss that I have experienced”.

They do not have that luxury of a higher ground in the case of the assassination of Indira Gandhi because of the aftermath.

Demanding an apology from him is merely pandering to the gallery of tokenism. Sonia Gandhi has apologised; Dr. Manmohan Singh did, and he too exonerated the party. In a sense, it is probably right. We do not expect some terrorists to tarnish the name of a community, it is therefore perhaps a broad stroke to accuse the entire party of being complicit.

Last year at the University of California, Rahul Gandhi had said, “I absolutely love the (Sikh) community. If there’s anything I can do to help them get justice. I’ll be the first person to do so.” The premise is flawed. You do not have to love a community to ensure they get justice; it is your duty, especially when you are in a position to do so. There were protestors outside the venue; he did not speak to them. Just as Rajiv Gandhi completely ignored to address the brutal killings when he came to power on a ‘sympathy wave’. The children and widows of the dead had no such hope for redemption and renewal.


Yet, India routinely elects leaders to the top post following their sins of omission or commission. There are second and third layer explainers to varnish their acts. K.P.S. Gill, who was security advisor to Narendra Modi in 2002 had covered up for his leader: “In law and order situations, it is the police leadership which has to respond and not the political leadership.”

In later years, as Director General of Police, Gill took charge of dealing with terrorism in Punjab. With the state under president’s rule, he had excessive power. Encounter killings became the order of the day for which promotions were promised. An activist exposed 6000 hidden cremations by the police in one district alone. Gill, celebrated by the media and socialites, was viewed by Sikhs as the “butcher of Punjab”.

It would be ridiculous to believe that the alienation of Sikhs was due to the acts of some militants; it has to do with wounds, first of the Partition and then of being persecuted by the ruling elite. They are not even perceived as a significant vote bank. Which is the reason why the likes of Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler could continue to contest elections as Congressmen. The latter, in fact, was even honoured with a 'siropa' by Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee in 2004, 20 years after his role in the pogrom. No group is above political expediency.

There were quite a few of such expedient voices from the tony boys’ club that thought vengeance was their birthright. They may not have held the baton but they did incite mobs. And they did it for the party. They should have had no place in the Congress, let alone being allowed to contest elections. Rahul Gandhi fancies himself as an idealist and he was not 14 anymore when they were given tickets. He was, in fact, 47 and the president of his party when he anointed Kamal Nath, another accused in the 1984 killings, early this year as party president in Madhya Pradesh before the assembly elections. Does this look like the justice he talks about?

Justice is not mere words to quell the anger of a community. Even if it helps bring some sort of temporary closure, closure must not wipe out history.

Planned, targeted killings are a political act. Justice would be done when political leaders who either fan the flames or cash in on the embers are criminally tried for, and denied, the power they abuse.



In an obituary on VS Naipaul who died at 85 on Saturday, August 11, The New York Times paid a rich tribute and in the first paragraph said: “What he did want, it became apparent, was to rarely please anyone but himself.”

He did have an interesting eye and he could smell blood from afar. While his writing had the taut rhythm of a stringed instrument, his political ideas were about relentless drumbeating. I ceased to see him as a fine writer the moment he began to come across as a spokesperson for reductionist politics. Was he pleasing himself alone? That would then reveal his stripes.

The NYT piece further states: “Naipaul’s unsympathetic views of postcolonial life made him among the most controversial writers of his time. No white Westerner could have spoken as he did. He wrote of the “primitivism” and “barbarism” of African societies. He fixated in India on the lack of plumbing: ‘They defecate on the hills; they defecate on the riverbanks; they defecate on the streets.’ He denigrated the country of his birth: ‘I was born there, yes. I thought it was a mistake.’ He was a critic of Islam.”

He certainly made good of the mistake by capitalising on it and even being seen by the rightwing as some sort of authority on India. He came across as a bigot, a casteist, and projected a bird’s eye view as reality.

There will be some fine reviews of his literature. I’ll reproduce what I wrote in 2006:

Sir Vidia’s Shadow-boxing   
Sir Vidia has done it again. Speaking in Brussels at the Belgian Festival of India, he took on an almost Huntington-like language when he said about a country he has never lived in, that there "could be a very radical kind of revolution — village against city".  
At a very real level this is a potent premise, except that V. S. Naipaul does not see it as the dumbing down of urban culture and the upward mobility of rural ethos. He skirts the issue of romanticising the village idyll, which would have at least been an honest Bollywoodesque take, and instead lambasts the urban dweller: "People in cities are turning their backs to Indian civilisation. They want green cards. They want to migrate. They want to go to England. They want to go to the US" and this he deems is "parasitic and awful".  
This is a man who is sitting in England, cashing in on his Indian origins and West Indian breeding. He does not have the basic decency to acknowledge the place he was born and brought up in. For him, Trinidad is, "A billion people and a little island, which has done almost nothing for me." Talk about being parasitic.  
We know what his idea of Indian civilisation is, given his political views. Even if one were to accept that, where does he get the idea that such civilisation rests in stasis?  
He is even more alarmist when he states, "Caste is a great internal series of friendly societies and in bad times it kept the country going. But people don't understand this. It has to be rethought and a new way of looking at it. In India it is having trouble at the moment because it rules politics. Foolish people think that the upper castes are oppressing the lower castes. It is the other way."  
Factors such as the number of deaths of lower caste people, the continual disparities that exist due to this "friendly societies" theory that essentially means people should stick to their lowly status, the complex issue of what constitutes caste politics all seem to have been lost to this intellectual giant.  
Everyone and everything is Lilliputian in his scheme of things. I insist on repeating the phrase I have used for his ideas: 'Naipaul's Malgudi – an imagined town'. The reason being there are real people in it, but he places them where he wants to. It is his conformist plan, and conformist he is.  
He wants to be an establishment totem, and it suits the knight to ride a shining 'White' steed, taking his Englishness rather seriously. No wonder he protests against a larger world-view. As he once said, "Multiculturalism is a very much left-wing idea that gained currency about 20 years ago. It's very destructive about the people it is meant to defend."  
Why would one want homogeneity? Even in non-global villages, the uniformity is superficial, as in a geographical identity. Culture, by its very nature, revolts against being boxed in. That is the reason it is reinvented and updated, unlike tradition that tends to be static.  
The global village is really utopian. So, we must look at it through an idealistic prism. How many dis-similarities can it accept and encourage? How much dynamism is possible without causing chaos? Is tolerance a patronising term or does it encourage dissent? Is dissent welcome or a nuisance?  
V. S. Naipaul wouldn't know that even if it hit him on the head. According to his self-proclaimed Dr Watson Farrukh Dhondy's recollections of the recent meeting, Naipaul believes, " India is undergoing a cultural revolution. There is the vast mass of the population whom he will call the 'temple-goers' and then there are the elite who look outward from India towards America and get their fashions, fads, wastefulness and aspirations from there. He chooses to call them the 'green-card-wallahs'. They may not possess such a card but they form a category. The clash he predicts, while not venturing to spell out what form it will take, will be a clash of these cultures rather than the predicted battles between the rich and the poor."  
Trust Sir Vidia to reduce the vast mass of people to 'temple-goers', such is his completely closed mindset. While one does agree a bit with his stereotype of the green-card-wallahs, how would he explain the possible clash? Isn't this elite the one that builds temples? And is his disgust ideological or merely an echoing of the racist anti-immigration voices?  
He does not say it aloud, but when he talks about meeting a culture half-way, he is propping up an ideal nationalism. It fits in perfectly with his crusade. Contemporary nationalism has indeed become a renewal of a religious or quasi religious identity. It may be obvious in states where they happily call themselves, say, the Islamic Republic or a Buddhist state, but the West is using religious terminology all the time for electoral/emotional purposes.  
Therefore, the belongingness and shallow shared values would be based on a limited 'need'. Naipaul takes the thesis of historical value to further abuse Indians. "There is no tradition of reading in India. There is no tradition of contemporary literature. It was only in Bengal that there was a kind of renaissance and a literary culture. But in the rest of India until quite recently people had no idea what books were for," he said.  
Such arrogance belies ignorance. He has been miffed with the reception his books have received, essentially his discourses 'An Area of Darkness' and 'A Wounded Civilisation' as well as his journeys through the Islamic world. Naipaul as novelist is quite different from Naipaul the social observer. The moment he ceases to be a litterateur, he will be judged by norms one would use for a social analyst or a critic.  
There is some worth in writings from the diaspora. Nirad Chaudhari did a good job of playing the 'insider' outside by almost caricaturing himself; Solzhenitsyn's exile was more real in that he was silenced intellectually. Naipaul prefers to play the maverick Brown Sahib. This proves that he lacks conviction as a commentator. It has been said that most Indians objected to Naipaul's books on India because they were uncomfortable truths. That is not true. The problem is he saw only what he wanted to see. He was censoring the truth to fit in with his bird's eye-view and calling it the caged reality.  
One can understand the need to politicise certain aspects of that vision, but to give it the stamp of verisimilitude is dishonesty. At one level, even a Kipling does not make us uncomfortable because he made no claims over us. Sir Vidia tends to get proprietorial, much in the manner a gypsy would with a tent. It is time he realised that the landscape is a bit more than the ground beneath his feet.