American Sikhs remember mass violence in India, 30 years later

An Indian Sikh devotee takes a dip at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on May 23, 2014, on the occasion of the 535th birth anniversary of Guru Amardas, the third master of the Sikhs. It's the same temple that was attacked by Indian troops in 1984.</p>

An Indian Sikh devotee takes a dip at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on May 23, 2014, on the occasion of the 535th birth anniversary of Guru Amardas, the third master of the Sikhs. It's the same temple that was attacked by Indian troops in 1984.

Simran Jeet Singh was born in Texas in the summer of 1984. He doesn’t remember that year, of course, but like many young Sikh Americans, he’s grown up hearing about it: The Indian government feared Sikh secession. At the order of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, military troops marched on Sikhism’s holiest temple. Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Anti-Sikh violence erupted throughout India.

Memories of 1984 weigh heavily on the minds of the 25 million practitioners of Sikhism worldwide, representing the fifth-largest religion in the world. Thousands of Sikhs were killed that year and a generation later, young Sikhs like Singh are marking the 30th anniversary of the events with attempts to better understand their past.

“We’re seeing a number of organizations push forward and try to figure out how can we draw inspiration from [the 1984 violence], get out of this victimization mentality and really create some sort of positive memory and progress,” said Singh, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University and senior religion fellow with the Sikh Coalition.

Singh helped commemorate the 30th anniversary of the violence by organizing a relay run on June 1. Participants ran 84 miles through New York City to raise awareness of the events of 1984.

Some Sikhs hope this anniversary will bring more than just awareness—they want legal change.

Sikhs for Justice, a New York-based organization is sponsoring a June 6 march outside the United Nations. Gurpatwant Pannun, a lawyer who represents Sikhs for Justice, said organizers hope thousands of Sikhs from around the world will join them for the event, which falls during the anniversary of the first wave of violence in 1984. The march’s goals are to win more legal rights from the Indian government and to convince the UN to officially recognize the events of 1984 as genocide.

Wolf Gruner, professor of history at the University of Southern California with a specialty in genocide and mass violence, said he understands Sikhs for Justice’s incentive to lobby the UN.

“It has such an impact when you can call something ‘genocide.’ It gets much more public traction than just ‘mass murder,’” Gruner said. He explained that because of the weight that the term carries, defining tragedies all comes down to politics. “The violence is launched for political purposes and also, post-conflict, the memory is influenced by politics,” he said.

While those involved with the Sikhs for Justice campaign do want political action, many young Sikhs like Singh prioritize taking control of those historical memories.

“The one-sided story has kind of become the popular memory of what happened in 1984 and that’s a very difficult hurdle for us to get past as a community,” said Singh.

Estimates of Sikh casualties in 1984 vary widely, as do accounts of exactly what happened and why. Media access was restricted at the time and few legal or academic investigations of the events have been conducted in years since. For Sikhs who didn’t live through the violence, the topic inspires a lot of questions. That’s why so many organizations are trying to start conversations about Sikhism’s troubled past among young practitioners of the 500-year-old religion, Singh said.

The Jakara Movement is a California-based non-profit that provides Sikh youth empowerment programs and leadership training. Jakara is organizing student conferences for American Sikhs this year, which will focus on the events of 1984. On the east coast, the non-profit Surat Initiative is publishing facts and articles about the 1984 violence on its Facebook page every day of 2014. And Bay Area Sikh volunteer organization Saanjh is creating a makeshift archive of YouTube videos of Sikhs sharing their memories of the traumatic year.

“For second, third generation folks in the diaspora who might not have a direct connection to India now and might not know these stories, we wanted to create a format that’s easy for the Facebook generation to follow,” Saanjh organizer Mallika Kaur said.

The scores of videos collected so far tell a range of stories. One white-haired woman chokes up almost as soon as she starts explaining her memories. A man sighs as he describes his loss of patriotism for India. Another woman describes being nine years old, peering through the windows at the terrifying violence on Delhi’s streets.

“Sikhs, just like any group, are a diverse people with different opinions,” Kaur said. Even so, she said many of the interviews share common themes. “It was clear that in 1984 a lot of people immediately stood up and felt a part of something bigger.”

She even heard of some men living in Sikh diaspora communities who began wearing the religion’s traditional turban and beard after the violence began, wanting to identify more strongly with their heritage. Kaur hopes that sense of community and identity does not get lost for the generations born after 1984. In fact, as Kaur sees it, young Sikhs in the US are in a unique position to preserve their culture’s history.

“Any Sikh alive in ’84 really was affected. It’s kind of like a ‘where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ or ‘where were you when the towers were struck?’” Kaur said. “The diaspora has the luxury of being able to discuss this openly. I think people in the homeland don’t always have that freedom.”