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A Look Back At The Sikh Genocide of 1984

Author: Rienna Kaur

Editor: Amirah Syazwani Shawel

Operation Blue Star was a military invasion sanctioned by the Congress government of Indira Gandhi from the 1st until the 10th of June of the same year. The operation was said to have been planned to remove a known militant, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his supporters from Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple which is the holiest site for the Sikh faith.

For the majority of the Sikh community, Operation Blue Star is identified as an attack on their most revered and historic shrine and that too barely two days after Guru Arjan Dev’s martyrdom day. The Operation, interestingly named after a company selling air conditioners and refrigerators at the time, will remain a tragic event in India’s post-independence history, from which no winners emerged. It neither immediately ended terrorism nor religious militant politics, and in fact, ended up manifesting itself in horrific proportions thereafter.

Operation Blue Star was carried out in such a huge proportion where Sikh’s holiest site, the Golden Temple, was targeted and 41 more gurdwaras all over Punjab. The invasion was carried out on a Sikh religious holiday with thousands of worshippers present. The Golden Temple complex was completely surrounded and a shoot-on-sight curfew was imposed on all of the pilgrims trapped inside the complex. The 10 days invasion had prompted the lives of several innocent people.

Despite Indian Army authorities' claims that the raids used only required force and resulted in few deaths, Ranbir Kaur, a school teacher on a field excursion to the Harmandir Sahib observed the killing of nearly 150 persons who had been imprisoned inside the basement. Doctors who conducted post mortems reported that the hands of Sikhs had been tied behind their back with their turbans and they had been executed at point-blank range. Army troops also burned the Sikh Reference Library that houses rare Sikh manuscripts and historical artifacts after they had taken control of the building.

The aim of the operation was to silence demands for Sikh religious and political autonomy and resulted in the deaths of 492 civilians. In retaliation, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. The events that followed represent one of the darkest periods of modern Indian history. This assault marked the beginning of a policy of gross human rights violations in Punjab that continues to have profound implications for the rule of law in India.


Indira Gandhi’s assassination sparked the 1984 Sikh Genocide in retaliation. Almost 3000 Sikhs were killed in the span of three days with significantly more having their human rights violated. The ‘systematic’ attack as described by the 2005 Nanavati committee had men being assaulted before being burned alive and women being raped. For the next five days, New Delhi and many other parts of India became slaughtering grounds. Thousands of Sikh homes and shops, identified by electoral rolls, were looted and set on fire by organized groups. Over 50,000 Sikhs ended up in refugee camps as a result. According to the Indian government, 2,700 people were killed, but NGOs estimate the number of deaths to be in the range of 8,000 to 17,000 as a result.

This contradicts the popular media characterization of the 1984 events as anti-Sikh riots because a riot suggests scattered and spontaneous acts. Instead, the horrors perpetrated should be classified as genocide. Sikhs were purposefully targeted in a well-coordinated and systematic manner. A fact-finding team organized by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties came to the conclusion, after interviewing hundreds of eyewitnesses, drafting case summaries, and examining government documents and actions during that time, that in a majority of the cases, these attacks were, according to the report, the outcome of a well-organized plan were very much deliberately done by important politicians of the Congress.

After being found guilty of murder and instigating violence, Congress leader Sajjan Kumar was sentenced to life in jail for his key part in the 1984 genocide. However, this did not happen until 2018, more than three decades after the crimes were committed.


Few of the attackers have been held responsible for their crimes to this day. The police's role in the crimes is another subject that has gotten insufficient attention. In interviews, retired police officers acknowledged preventing victims from filing first-information complaints and aligning themselves with anti-Sikh sentiment, aiding the ensuing violence. The Indian government has obstructed investigations and failed to take action to address human rights violations. The Kapoor-Mittal committee was constituted in 1987 to look into the involvement of the police in the genocide of 1984. The committee identified 72 cops who were careless and recommended that 30 of them be fired, but unfortunately, no actions were taken against those cops. In many instances, the government closed cases due to a lack of evidence. 

Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi's son, was later sworn in as the world's biggest democracies' prime minister. It was clear early on that he was unconcerned about the misery of his fellow countrymen being massacred so near to his home. When questioned about the massacre, he minimized the violence by saying that “the ground shakes when a great tree falls.”


Legislative change is essential to guarantee that police officer and others in positions of power may be held accountable for their roles in and facilitation of such crimes. Furthermore, judicial processes must be conducted openly and impartially to guarantee justice for genocide victims, guarantee that no one is free from the rule of law, and prevent additional fundamental human rights violations.

One of the most important steps is to first thing recognize the killings as genocide. The Indian government refuses to recognize the anti-Sikh riots as genocide and has put its estimate of dead at 2,800. So, if the Indian government refuses to acknowledge the genocide, can we appeal to the rest of the world for help? The California State Assembly was the first to recognize it as it is and later on followed by the Ontario legislative body that passed a motion in April 2017 acknowledging the Sikh genocide.

Then New Democrat Gurratan Singh, who introduced the bill, said the Sikh community’s cries for justice over the event have gone unheeded.

“The trauma of this genocide is real and still impacts Sikhs that call Ontario home.”

“This bill will create a time to allow for reflection and help begin the process of healing for thousands of Sikhs who continue to suffer.”

Unfortunately, it could not pass as the Indian government pushed against it and demanded that it be repealed. Jagmeet Singh, a current member of the Canadian House of Commons and Leader of the NDP signed Bill 177 in 2020, designating the first seven days of November as Sikh Genocide Awareness Week. In the United States, three months after a 1984 Sikh Genocide Memorial was installed at Otis Library in Connecticut, it was removed as requested by the Indian government.

Although it has been 37 years, India now has a once-in-a-generation chance to make atonement and seek reconciliation while individuals who were directly touched by the violence are still living. It is in the Indian government's best interests to find a solution to this problem while the main players, which are survivors and perpetrators alike, are still alive. Political stability in India will remain a struggle until then, as minorities, especially India's more than 21 million Sikhs, continue to feel alienated and attacked by their own government.

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