Sikhism Lives on Through Me

The fundamental issue is that ignorance and misunderstanding lead to bigotry and hate when left unattended....

Sikhism lives on through me.


New Delhi, 1984. ~ New York, 2014.

In my parent’s bedroom is a framed photo that seems a bit out of place. The small image has an aged yellow tint and displays my father at the young age of 24 standing proudly atop the G.B. Pant Hospital in New Delhi, India. He looks just as I do now. Tall, skinny, his not-yet full beard kept neatly on the sides of his jaw as he sports a clean pair of glasses and a neat turban matching his shirt. By the age of 24, my father had already completed medical school, and was in his residency pursuing a specialty in anesthesiology. His eyes shine of dreams of the success that would come from his hard work in the future. However, what could not be captured in the photograph is what my father had seen in that year, 1984.

When I asked my father what he remembers most about the year 1984 he paused for a moment and replied “trucks full of burnt bodies pulling into the morgue of the hospital.” The trucks my father saw were full of the corpses of Sikhs killed in the invasion of the Darbar Sahib and the events that would unfold as a result of the invasion. As my father was completing his residency, an increasingly complex conflict between Sikhs and the Indian Government was developing. The Indian government launched a full-scale military attack on the theo-political capital of Sikhs- the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, Punjab, in an event formally known as Operation Blue Star. The Darbar Sahib is the most venerated and historically significant temple in the Sikh faith. Thousands of innocent pilgrims had filled the temple to pray and pay their respects during a major Sikh festival on June 1, 1984. On that same day, tanks and a fully armed military brigade forcibly entered the temple in relentless search of a dissenting “militant group” within the temple.

Preconcieved (15K)During the time the Indian military was in the Darbar Sahib, over 1,600 innocent Sikh pilgrims were killed, a majority of the temple was destroyed and marred with bullet holes, and the Sikh Reference Library, home to over 1,500 rare manuscripts, was looted and burned. An archaic and effective way to attack a culture, much like those of the Qin in China and the Nazis in Germany, this book burning was far from collateral damage. Anthropologist Joyce Pettigrew elaborated on the motives of the invasion in saying “the Army went into Darbar Sahib not to eliminate a political figure or a political movement but to suppress the culture of a people, to attack their heart, to strike a blow at their spirit and self-confidence.”

Following Operation Blue Star, the head of the assault, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikhs, who were acting alone. The assassination led to wide spread public unrest and caused the systematic murder of thousands of Sikhs. As a result of Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh backlash, it is estimated that near 15,000 Sikhs were killed. This number disagrees with the Indian government’s ambiguous report of the events but clearly resonates with the blood spilt on the pure white marble floors of the Darbar Sahib and on the farmlands of Punjab.

My father was in the heart of it all, the capitol of the nation, New Delhi. He was staying in a hostel with his close friends who were also completing their residency. “I vividly recall when Indira Gandhi was killed” he told me. “I remember going up to the top of the hospital and watching as her funeral procession marched through the streets. Scattered around the procession was smoke coming from small random spots around the city.” The smoke my father saw emanated from the burning of Sikh homes, businesses, and people. The mobs that were causing those fires that popped up throughout New Delhi in front of my father’s eyes were far from random, but systematic and deliberate. The police cooperated with the mobs and allowed them into Sikh homes and watched as they killed the men and raped the women, showing no clemency to the elderly or the young. My maternal grandfather, who was visiting and had immigrated to America some years prior, was forced to cut his hair in order to safely flee the country, for had anyone seen his turban and unshorn hair, he would have been killed on sight.

Thirty years have passed since 1984. Allegations have come and gone about the riots, many of which seem to link the riots directly to the Indian government and seem to die down as they get lost in the bureaucratic process. My father and mother have lived in the United States for the majority of their lives yet little is forgotten. My father has spent a large amount of time working on documentaries and activist efforts focused on receiving justice and acknowledgement of the events that took place in 1984. Though, as time passes, it seems the attempts have become less and less effective as the generation directly affected by the events is aging and many want to forget, for their own peace of mind.

Perhaps I am stubborn or unwise when I say that I simply do not want to forget. Though I was far from present during 1984, the events that took place that day are closer to home than many could imagine. I have seen my fair share of discrimination. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Sikhs have faced discrimination, slurs, and have even been subject to violent and murderous hate crimes. It is through the prejudice and ignorance I see today that I find myself searching for a remedy and yearning to act. As thoughts of the past violence in India flash through my father’s mind, very real events of violence flicker on my computer screen involving young Sikhs. I am restless.

The fundamental issue is that ignorance and misunderstanding lead to bigotry and hate when left unattended. To eliminate ignorance is a hefty task that is thought of as time consuming and difficult, if not impossible. Yet, we must try. One approach is to educate others to avoid generalizations. Simply put, not all Germans today have Nazi sentiments, not all Muslims are terrorists, not all Sikhs assassinated Indira Gandhi, and not all Indian government members planned 1984. Though it is easy to get caught up in the sensationalism of the newest crusade, I urge each person to take a step back and follow his or her own religious beliefs, rather than enforce them. I am a full and active supporter of all campaigns pursuing justice for Sikhs affected by or killed in the events of 1984. Despite this, I believe the most potent statement to those covering up the events of 1984 is the pursuit of excellence as a student and a citizen, all the while maintaining uninhibited and devout practice of my religion. The blood spilt in 1984 and the hate many face today will not be in vain. Sikhism lives on through me.


Article written by Manmeet Singh Gujral, a freshman at Dartmouth College, Hanover NH during his senior year in high school


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