Massacre questions that refuse to die
One year ago today, David Cameron marked the first visit by a sitting British prime minister to the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple at Amritsar in Indian Punjab, by endorsing Winston Churchill’s condemnation of a “deeply shameful” event in colonial history.
On April 13, 1919, British troops opened fire on peaceful Sikh protesters in the Jallianwala Bagh gardens close to the temple.
The British said 379 were killed, although the true toll was almost certainly hundreds higher. It was India’s Bloody Sunday and Churchill called it a monstrous act.
Nearly a century later, members of the UK’s Sikh community gathered at Downing Street, Mr Cameron’s official London residence, and the nearby British foreign ministry for another protest.
The subject is again Amritsar and bloodshed at Harmandir Sahib, as Sikhs call the Golden Temple.
Mr Cameron may well feel he has enough on his plate after the floods and gales that have caused widespread disruption and damage in much of Britain.
But once again, the anger of the Sikhs concerns Britain’s role, indirect this time, in mass slaughter.
In June this year, Sikhs will commemorate an event that holds importance comparable to that of the killings of 1919 in the history of their faith: the storming of the temple by Indian troops in 1984.
Dabinderjit Singh, a prominent spokesman for the British Sikh community, says the false pretext of apprehending “a handful of militants” inside was used by the Indian army to justify unleashing “a terror unprecedented in post-independence India”.
The objective was to remove the revolutionary Sikh religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and armed followers who had occupied the temple.
The consequences were devastating. Bhindranwale was killed, but so were many more.
Early figures for fatalities – 83 Indian troops and 492 civilians – were quickly discredited and while there is still no agreement on the true human cost, some independent accounts suggest more than 700 military deaths and as many as 5,000 civilians.
Mr Cameron’s words a year ago fell short of an apology for what happened in 1919, although he did express his personal regret.
Sikhs are now demanding more answers about the extent to which British special forces advised Indian commanders before the assault on the temple. They dismiss a “review” of Britain’s involvement as a whitewash.
Britain’s Sikh leadership is campaigning for a judge-led public inquiry and threatens to boycott politicians from Mr Cameron’s Conservative party, which is facing general elections next year, who fail to support that cause.
Sikhs, said to number 27 million worldwide with 83 per cent living in India, refer to the operation as an act of genocide.
More killing was to follow. Less than five months later, Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister who had personally ordered the storming of the temple, was assassinated.
Two Sikh bodyguards shot her as she walked in the gardens of her official residence to keep an appointment with the British actor Peter Ustinov, who had arranged to interview her for a television documentary.
Mrs Gandhi’s murder led, in turn, to anti-Sikh pogroms in which thousands more died.
Britain has the largest concentration of Sikhs outside India – between 600,000 and 750,000 by some estimates. The 2011 UK census put the figure at 420,000 in England alone.
Many have direct family connections to those who were present at the massacre of 1984 and either died or survived.
Gareth Johnson, a Conservative member of the UK parliament, admires Sikhs ”not only for their great success in fully integrating themselves into British society, but also for their extraordinary contributions”.
Sikhs make up the largest ethnic minority in Mr Johnson’s constituency of Dartford, south-east of London, and he describes their Gurdwara Haragobin, or place of worship, as a “lively, bustling and welcoming” place.
“There is a clear determination among Sikhs to strive hard and be successful in business, which is a trait that is very much to their credit.
“Another claim to fame that the Sikh community can call on is the extraordinarily low crime rates.”
Despite this successful integration, however, the Sikhs are unhappy with the British government’s handling of their grievances in the approach to June’s anniversary of the 1984 massacre.
Mr Cameron ordered a review on January after an opposition Labour MP, Tom Watson, claimed the 1984 government of Margaret Thatcher colluded with the Indian government in planning the assault on the temple.
The government promised the review, by a top civil servant, the cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, would be independent but Sikhs complain it had “inherent limitations and was too narrowly focused”.
In the UK parliament, the foreign secretary, William Hague said only one British military adviser went to India in response to a request from New Delhi.
This was some time before the assault, he added, and the help given was “advisory, limited and provided at an early stage”.
While describing what happened at Amritsar as an “utter tragedy”, he insisted the provision of advice from the UK had a “limited impact” on events at the temple three months later.
The statement enraged the Sikh leadership, who claimed MPs were misled by Mr Hague’s assertion that officials met Sikh organisations to ensure their concerns were dealt with in the review.
“In fact the meeting took place after the review had in effect been completed,” said Bhai Amrik Singh, who chairs the British branch of the Sikh Federation.
In a letter to Mr Cameron, Mr Singh called for the disclosure of restricted documents “so the truth can come out on the extent to which the Indian authorities have over the last 30 years tried to silence the Sikh voice of opposition in the UK”. Otherwise, he went on, suspicion would remain “and community confidence and trust in the UK government continue to suffer”.
Sikhs say a full inquiry should investigate suspicion that defence-related commercial interests lay behind Britain’s willingness to provide military assistance “for a controversial operation that it hoped the complicity for which would never emerge”.
They argue that this “complicity’ extended beyond what Mr Hague acknowledged, including the use of helicopter gunships linked to the advice given by the British Special Air Service (SAS). They also allege that the SAS offered to train Indian officers for the planned assault and that tanks used in operation were “exclusively British built and supplied”.
The depth of feeling about the massacre is fuelled by a stream of contemporary reports, some of them from non-partisan observers.
In all, about 125 Sikh shrines in the Punjab were reported to have been attacked as the operation was launched.
A reporter who defied attempts by the authorities to expel all journalists from the area said an attendant at Amritsar’s crematorium told him there was not “enough wood to burn the dead individually”.
Among eye witness accounts, a teacher claimed she saw about 150 people shot dead by soldiers after their turbans were used to tie hands behind victims’ backs.
A singer at the Golden Temple, Harcharan Singh Ragi, who escaped with his wife and young daughter, claimed his family witnessed the killings of hundreds of people, including women.
His family was spared, he said, because a commander took pity on their child who fell at his feet begging him not to kill her parents.
The Indian government defended its actions, claiming the operation was a “last resort” to flush out terrorists from the temple and prevent a planned uprising.
There was also reference to “a deep-seated conspiracy of a certain foreign power”. Subramaniam Swami, a Hindu politician then president of the opposition Janata party, wrote: “It smacks of Mrs Gandhi’s playing the familiar old Pakistan card for all it is worth.”
India, ruled by a coalition led by the Congress Party, which has been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in the 67 years since independence from Britain, can expect a stream of reminders of Amritsar between now and the 30th anniversary early in June.
For those Sikhs clamouring for justice, it may be of scant consolation that after such a tortured history, their faith is at least represented at the highest level. In Manmohan Singh, in office for nearly 10 years, India has its first Sikh prime minister.
Updated: February 19, 2014 04:00 AM