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  • Writer's pictureLAWGIC STRATUM

1984 Sikh Riots: The tragic history of India

Author: Isha Pandey

Violence espouses the potential to leave deep inundations in the lives of those who face it. It is not a way of expression it is a way of defacing humanistic values of a society we all are a part and parcel of. It is a subpart of a larger human endangering phenomenon could be anything and everything as it is faceless. One of them is riot. Riot is defined as turbulent disturbances caused by a group of people. However, this definition ceases to capture the brutality with which such crimes are committed. This paper is going to cover how Sikh community was deliberately targeted leading to carnage against the community and how a ruling government plays a major role in fueling said acts.

Punjab assembly elections were held in 1972 in which the Shiromani Akali Dal was not able to procure enough seats to form the government. The leaders of the party wanted autonomy for their state. They came up with Anandpur resolution which demanded that many powers like provincial autonomy, industrial development, better allocation of Punjab’s river waters, attribution of Chandigarh as the capital of Punjab and decentralization of power should be transferred to the state government from the central government to which Centre opposed. After which a radical Sikh leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale emerged as the face of a nestling separatist movement called Dharma Morcha in 1982. By 1983 almost 410 had died and many were injured in the violent clashes as Bhindranwale and his supporters took to arms which led a deadly terrorist movement.

After which the Centre imposed President's rule in Punjab. To evade his arrest, Bhidranwale and his supporters took shelter in the complex of the Golden temple. On June 1st, 1984 Indian army launched the Operation Blue Star on the order from the Centre which lasted till 6th of June to remove the militants from the temple. Though Golden temple, the holiest shrine for Sikhs was unharmed, Akal takht and other parts of the temple complex were damaged. The code which started to flush out the militants from the shrine ended in the assassination of the then Prime Minister.

On 31st October, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, Beant and Satwant Singh. This led to imminent apocalyptic hours for the people of Sikh community.

1st November, 1984 the Carnage and Bloodshed

Communal protests are faceless, protest doesn't see humanity or morality all it sees is, what outcome protesting party wants to achieve at the helm of cleaning those who oppose. Indira Gandhi was rushed to AIIMS, Delhi. While there were people outside the hospital protesting not against the two Sikh bodyguards but the entire Sikh community. One of such accounts is, when the then President of India, Gyani Zail Singh, himself a Sikh, reached AIIMS, his convoy was stone pelted by the blood thirsty protesters. While this happened at AIIMS what happened at the other parts of Delhi was not only an attempt at targeting the Sikh but their whole identity, articles which make them a true Sikh. Top Congress officials as well as Delhi police officials had already preplanned the riot on 31st October. Sajjan Singh blatantly gave speeches to murder people from Sikh community in exchange for cash. "Kill the sardars", “Indira Gandhi is our mother and these people have killed her” was chanted by the crowd. The plan was so meticulously executed that Sikhs were murdered in front of their own family and neighbors.

Women who ranged from age 9 to 50 were raped in front of their families, some kidnapped and sexually assaulted. All this was done to set forth the example of 'societal shame.' Protesters deliberately targeted Sikh articles of faith like cutting off their hair before killing them and killing of Sikh families’ bread-winners. Sikh houses burned, buildings desecrated, women gang raped, local Sikh Gurudwaras torched and vandalized, all these happened to the community which only constitutes 1.7% of India's total population. It lasted for almost four days and resulted in nearly death of 3000 Sikhs.

Passive Acquiescence to the Violence

Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother as the Prime Minister of India but his infamous comment “when a mighty tree fall, the earth shall shake” could be interpreted as a denial to the injustices against the Sikh community. The carnage was not a part of a conspiracy of which government was part of rather was “organised for the government by the forces which government itself had created.”(Van Dike, 1996: 206) not only congress (I) leaders organized meetings to distribute the weapons but acted as direct leaders for instigating the mob to loot and burn down properties of Sikhs, Delhi police not only turned a blind eye to the violence but also eventually encouraged the perpetrators to indulge in such acts. More police was deployed for the Indira Gandhi’s procession than for the security of Sikhs. The victims had nothing to do with militancy in Punjab and the assassination of the PM but according to official estimate of causalities only 325 were killed. The Hindustan times reported these numbers. However three years later, the official death toll was said to be 2,733, leaving over 1300 widows and 4000 orphans (Kaur, 2006:5).

Legal and Judicial Operation

After repeated refusals, Rajiv Gandhi finally appointed Ranganath Misra, a judge of the Supreme Court as head of a commission to inquire “into the allegations in regards to the incidents of organized violence which took place in Delhi following the assassination of the late PM Indira Gandhi” and recommend “measures which may be adopted for prevention of recurrence of such incidents” (Misra, 1987:1). Another commission Veda Marwah, additional commissioner of police had been appointed to inquire into the role of the police during the carnage. Misra commission submitted its report in which it stated that the killings were spontaneous in the grief of the assassination of the PM. The report shifted the blame to lower classes because of its increasing criminalization. It added congress (I) workers did participate in the killings but not as the member of the party but in their personal capacity.

In 1987 three more committees were set under the recommendations of Misra commission. But all of them failed in persecuting the real perpetrators. G T Nanavati, a retired judge of the Supreme Court was appointed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA); its terms of enquiry were same as Misra commission. It submitted its report in 2005 acknowledging the violence that occurred from 1stNovember but failed to hold anyone accountable.


The riot was pre-planned and meticulously executed to cleanse the community which was not even involved in the assassination of the Indira Gandhi and the militancy in Punjab. Till date the conviction to the offenders of such heinous crime stands less than 1%. The due justice is still not provided to the community which went through the horrendous journey. Most of the recounts from the Sikh families show how the children of the bread-winners who were deliberately targeted remain with no occupation of their own. It shows how such an act took away the life of the Sikh those affected in a trice.


  • UKEssays. (November 2018). The 1984 Anti Sikh Riots. Retrieved from Baixas Lionel, The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of October 31 to November 4, 1984, in New Delhi, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 9 June, 2009, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898

  • DAS, Veena, «Our Work to Cry: Your Work to Listen», in Veena Das (ed.), Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia , Delhi, Oxford University Press (OUP), 1990.

  • DAS, Veena, «Privileging the Local: The 1984 Riots» in Steven Wilkinson (ed.), Religious Politics and Communal Violence , New Delhi, OUP, 2005, pp. 91-100.

  • VAN DYKE, Virginia, «The Anti-Sikh Riots of 1984 in Delhi: Politicians, Criminals, and the Discourse of Communalism» in Paul Brass (ed.), Riots and Pogroms , London, Macmillan Press, 1996, 201-220.

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