Whilst children (and adults) around the world, dressed in elaborate costumes, commenced their frivolities on the 31st October, the Sikh community in India, and around the world, remembered the thousands of people killed in anti-Sikh riots thirty years ago, and demanded justice from the perpetrators for those still affected by the murders of their loved ones.

From October 31st to November 3rd 1984, at least 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi, and up to an estimated 5,000 more around India, were killed in Hindu-led riots, triggered by the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards. Since the event, there has been a conviction rate of less than 1 per cent for the murders, and, thirty years on, Sikhs are still campaigning for justice. There is widespread belief that the government and police, for their negligence and complacency, as well as those who actively killed, should be held accountable for what took place. At times both categories overlap.

The assassination was, itself, a reaction to Operation Blue Star, an attack on Sikh temples around India in June of 1984. The operation’s aim was supposedly to quell the secessionist and revolutionary sentiments appearing within the Sikh community. The climax came with an attack on the Sikhs’ holiest site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, officially described as being a spontaneous response to quash the dissidents hiding in the holy site, and resulting in hundreds dead and the site torn apart. It has long been thought by Sikh activists that the attack was premeditated, and, earlier this year, documents from the British government archives reveal that the plan was indeed discussed by Indira Gandhi from at least February, and that the British were actively involved in the planning. David Cameron has launched an inquiry, with no date for a report to be made.

Following the Operation it was the unofficial-official policy to take action against Sikhs that were deemed to be suspicious. The minority group continued to be persecuted, and fought back against this, sometimes in destructive ways. This lasted up to the end of October 1984. Starting nearly as soon as the news broke about Indira Gandhi’s revenge assassination, Hindus targeted Sikhs on the streets, in their places of work, and in their homes, killing them as the police sat back and let it happen. One of the worst massacres was in Trilokpuri in west Delhi, where over 400 – mostly male – Sikhs, in the space of a couple of blocks, were dragged out of their homes, piled up, and burnt in ‘a huge bonfire of bodies’, according to one journalist. One woman states she ‘saw dead Sikh children everywhere, still burning like wood’ when she left hiding to go home. The widows left behind carry physical wounds from the abuse they suffered, and mental scars from now living in a government created ‘Widows’ Colony’, struggling to survive without their former breadwinners and loved ones.

Stories like Trilokpuri abound. The government’s official line was, and remains, that the massacres were a spontaneous, public reaction to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, but there is evidence to suggest that just like the attack on the Golden Temple, there was more premeditation than the authorities admit. Journalists in Delhi at the time describe how the mobs were ‘armed with weapons, kerosene, petrol and other inflammable material. They also had copies of the voters list to identify Sikh homes. The involvement of congressmen in power in organising the mass murders was evident. Also evident was the connivance of Delhi police’. Another journalist recounts that ‘the killers were so exact and meticulous that they did not even hurry with their job, just took their time to rape, murder and torture them between meals’.

The Nanavati Commission is the most recent of its kind, created by the Indian government in 2000 to investigate the riots, and it unequivocally stated ‘what had initially started as an angry outburst became an organized carnage’, based on the similar patterns of killings in different areas. It also stated names of individuals like Congress MP Jagdish Tytler who ‘very probably had a hand in organizing attacks on Sikhs’. The ruling Congress Party still did not accept responsibility for their role, and Tytler was eventually promoted. Legal cases against prominent members of the now oppositional Congress Party are frequent and protracted. Eventually, the police filed just 587 First Information Reports, of which they closed 241 without further investigation. Campaigns to get the police to reopen files are also ongoing, with prominent organisations such as Amnesty International India backing the search for justice.

Halloween each year is a stark reminder of the flawed Indian justice system for many communities. Since 1984 there have been riots in Mumbai in 1993 and Gujarat in 2002, which have also led to disputed investigations. To this day 1984 remains an open wound for the Sikh community worldwide, but also for the countless other minority groups facing persecution and oppression at the hands of ‘their’ governments.

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