Printer Friendly

Class, communalism, and official complicity: India after Indira.

The reign of terror which engulfed the Sikh community throughout India following Indira Gandhi's assassination has at least temporarily subsided. The respite from daily reports of escalating violence enables us to reflect about the causes of the cataclysm. Many observers believe that the violence was inevitable: the government was paralyzed by the outpouring of rage against Sikhs once the identity of the assassins was publicly known. We would reverse the causal sequence: by their inaction and in some cases outright incitement, political authorities virtually sanctioned mob destruction. The government's abdication of responsibility becomes more comprehensible in light of the personalization of political power and the concomitant erosion of effective, autonomous political institution under Mrs. Gandhi.

Government inaction ignited a simmering hatred among many Hindus toward Sikhs. Although religious differences fueled conflict between the Hindu and Sikh communities, in this case as in many others, communalism had not simply a religious but also a material basis in the greater affluence of the Sikh than the Hindu community. The assassination both revealed and intensified preexisting tendencies: political authorities, unaccustomed to taking initiatives while Mrs. Gandhi was in power, were ill-equipped to act decisively in the crisis her death provoked. The assassination also facilitated the expression of class conflict, albeit in a communal form, which had hitherto been held in check. From Representative Democracy to Guided Democracy

When Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966, she inherited a political system which conformed quite closely to the British model. It was characterized by centralized but accountable executive leadership, along with relatively autonomous, democratic, and effective political institutions. Under Mrs. Gandhi's aegis, the balance shifted: the executive increasingly usurped the powers of the legislature, judiciary, police, and civil service; the central government increasingly usurped powers of state governments; and Mrs. Gandhi, her family members, and close associates increasingly gained power at the expense of other political officials. Under his mother's patronage, Sanjay Gandhi further corrupted the political process by filling political posistions with personal cronies and stifling dissent with strong-arm tactics. When the opposition threatened her power, Mrs. gandhi dispensed with constitutional processes by declaring a national state of emergency (1975-77) and by frequently declaring President's Rule in several states (thereby replacing majority state government with central power).

It would be a mistake, however, to overemphasize Mrs. Gandhi's reliance on repressive means. Her success also rested on the weakness of opposition parties and her uncanny ability to transcend ideological, communal, and class lines. In the Punjab context her very ability to make herself appear the only moderate alternative to "irresponsible extremists" polarized Hindus amd Sikhs, with ultimately tragic consequences.

The tendencies described above were evident in the events leading up to Operation Bluestar, the Indian army's raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984. In order to weaken the Akali Dal, the only serious opposition in the Punjab to the ruling Congress (I) Party, Mrs. Gandhi cynically promoted the Sikh separatist group led by Sant Bhindranwale. Only a tiny proportion of Sikhs supported this demonic leader--until Opearation Bluestar made him a martyr. According to one journalist, Mrs. Gandhi's "calculated strategy was to encourage the emergence of extremism among the Sikhs and Hindus" in the hope of recruiting the broad majority of both communities. Consistent with this strategy, she imprisoned the leaders of the Akali Dal rather than negotiating with them over their demands for greater economic and political resources for the Punjab. Rejecting advice to mend the growing rift she temporized for months, until Bhindranwale's power grew beyond manageable bounds. Mrs. Gandhi responded by ordering the invasion of the Golden Temple, thereby gaining short-term political profits in the form of Hindu support at the expense of Indias's long-term stability.

It is difficult to exaggerate the inflammatory effect Operation Bluestar had on Sikhs in India. For a fiercely proud people with a long martial tradition, the damage and defilement of this holiest of shrines, as well as the loss of a thousand Sikhs within the Temple, constituted the deepest affront. The invasion resulted in unprecedented solidarity among Sikhs, a wave of support for separatist goals, and Sikh violence against Hindus in the Punjab. The fact that Mrs. Gandhi was murdered by a trusted bodyguard of eight years service suggest the magnitude of suppressed rage among many Sikhs. The Aftermath of the Assassination

A similar pattern of official passivity and provocation can be discerned in the aftermath of the assassination. However, this time the responsibility of the government and Congress (I) go much further, to include toleration of lawlessness, indirect provocation, and, in some cases, active direction of savage assaults on the Sikh community.

There appeared to be no contingency planning despite the repeated threats on Mrs. Gandhi's life. Although the president and newly appointed prime minister belatedly issued appeals to quell the disturbances, they seemed oblivious to the dangers Sikhs faced during the first critical hours. Preoccupied with distributing ministerial portfolios and planning arrangements for Mrs. Gandhi's funeral, political officials at varying levels ignored the total breakdown of law and order in New Delhi and other cities.

The first hours were critical in this regard. The Delhi police commissioner provided a clear signal when he ordered police to accompany the body from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences rather than to control the restive crowd which had gathered outside. This constituted an open invitation for attacks upon the lives and property of Sikhs.

for the next several days, Delhi was without a police force. If police officers were present at scenes of mob violence, they were placid spectators. Their indifference had a galvanizing effect: crowds multiplied and became increasingly brazen and butal. Some police later blamed their superiors for not authorizing them to open fire. This suggests the dereliction of duty both by the police command and lower ranking police, who have ample legal warrant to use force in such situations. Violence quickly subsided once the army was fully deployed, providing depressing evidence that more timely precautions might have averted the tragedy.

Within twenty-four hours, the destruction had reached horrifying proportions. Hundreds of Sikhs were dragged off buses and trains, humiliated, abused and often butchered. Sikh homes throughout the city were looted and gutted; overturned, charred cars and trucks belonging to Sikhs littered the streets. In the outskirts of Delhi, entire neighborhoods were destroyed, and most Sikh men were brutally murdered. Some sikh women were raped, many were killed, and countless made widows. The survivors, had no means of support and no prospects of employment.

The survivors' pitiful condition points up the government's failure to organize adequate relief efforts in the aftermath of the riots. Gurdwaras (temples), private donors, and non-governmental relief organizations stepped into the breach by providing victims with food, clothing, and shelter. The government's initial stance was exemplified by the comment of Delhi's lieutenant governor (highest administrative official), "the government promised meager financial compensation but failed to appoint sufficient welfare workers to process claims.

What explains the total inefficacy of governing institutions? Although it strains credulity to imagine that the government machinery could be totally beset by inertia, recall the decay of political institutions over the preceding years. In face of a crisis of this magnitude, it is likely that police and bureaucracy awaited directives from the newly appointed prime minister rather than taking initiatives. Rajiv Ganhi, however, was at first too grief-stricken to assume public responsibilities.

Police and administrative officials initially seemed shockingly cavalier in their attitude toward the lawlessness. One police officer is quoted as observing, "You must allow for the people's feelings, they are all grieving." (The Telegraph, November 14, 1984) Commenting on the first day's looting, the home secretary observed that Mrs. Gandhi's assassination "was bound to agitate the people and in the expressionof grief there were always some lunatic fringes in every community who try to act in an undisciplined way." (The Statesman, November 2, 1984)

the rot of political institutions was most evident in the numerous instances which have been documented of police complicity and corruption. The police demanded bribes, appropriated stolen merchandise, and even turned Sikhs over to the threatening mobs. Higher ranking political officials may have tolerated police negligence in order to achieve larger political objectives. This interpretation is strengthened by extensive evidence that numerous Congress (I) functionaries instigated mob action against Sikhs.

On many occasions, Congress (I) workers had organized truckloads of villagers and townspeople to provide shock troops for demonstration and processions. This time, however, they did not simply mount unruly demonstrations. With nearly surgical precision, Congress (I) workers reportedly directed mobs to loot and burn exclusively Sikh-owned retail shops, factories, and homes.

Countless newspaper articles report instances in which Congress (I) Youth Committe members, metropolitan councilors, and even members of Parliament directed the activities of rampaging mobs. One account, in the Indian Express, November 11, 1984, reported that "Refugees from Dilshad Garden in East delhi say that they saw Congress (I) workers near their colony preparing lists of the houses and properties of Sikhs in the area and handing them over to the mobs." Numerous victims with whom we spoke provided impassioned corroboration of Congress (I) complicity. Participation by Congress (I) workers would explain the remarkable coordination of disparate mobs which simultaneously attacked Sikh homes and shops in different neighborhoods of Delhi. Although one can only speculate about the reasons for Congress (I) involvement, some party officials probably hoped to reap political dividends from unleashing communal passions and from rewarding their mass following. Those who intended to instigate disorder for partisan reasons may have mistakenly believed that they could control the violence. Congress (I) officials could hardly have intended the destruction that occured two days after the assassination, when looting, arson and physical abuse escalated into mass frenzy and murder. Many people believe that communal passions provided a demonic element that made the situation uncontrollable. From this perpective, the assault on Sikhs was but the latest link in spiraling communal conflict in the subcontinent. Other horrifying examples in the past two years include atrocities by tribals against Hindus in Assam, Sinhalese against Tamils in Sri Lanka, and (of lesser magnitude) Hindu-Muslim conflicts throughout India. Class and Communalism

On the face of it, there is much evidence that the Hindu-Sikh conflict is at root a religious one. Within the past two years, the small group of Sikh separatists indiscriminately attacked Hindus in the Punjab because of their religious identity. While the vast majority of Sikhs did not share their sectarian goals, even the moderate Akali Dal party organized exclusively among Sikhs. The sectarian dimension is even more evident among the Hindu majority. The clearest instance was Operation Bluestar, where a predominantly Hindu government inflicted an irreparable symbolic wound on all Sikhs. In the aftermath of Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, Hindu mobs seemed to vent particular aggression against the symbols of the Sikh religion, for example, by burning, Gurdwaras and cutting the hair and beards of Sikh men (which the Sikh religion strictly proscribes).

Without denying the importance of these observations, the attempt to locate Hindu-Sikh conflict primarily in religious differences leaves a number of questions unanswered. Why is the conflict of quite recent origin? Why has conflict not occured between Hindus and many other religious minorities, such as Buddhists and Jains?

Attempts to explain the sources of conflict in "objective" religious differences founder on the facts that both Hindu and Sikh doctrines, as well as the manner in which these religions are practiced by most people, are highly tolerant. Moreover, although political differences between Hindus and Sikhs have recently increased, religious differences between them traditionally have been less pronounced than between Hindus and Buddhists, Jains, and numerous other minorities. In contrast to Hindus and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs traditionally lived together harmoniously, as evidenced by the high rate of intermarriage. The unspeakable savagery directed against Sikhs seems inexplicable given the absence of long and bitter conflict between Hindus and Sikhs. One should also beware of exaggerating the extent of communal tension between the two groups in the present. During the recent violence, many Hindus helped form defense committees to prevent assaults on Sikhs, provided refuge for their Sikh neighbors, and were active in private relief efforts. Thus, one cannot explain recent events exclusively by reference to communalism. Rather than assuming that religious differences explain communalism one needs to understand how broad socioeconomic cleavages politicize religious traditions to create the basis for communal conflict. What outwardly appears to be an exclusively religious conflict frequently crystalizes multiple causes. The recent assaults on Sikh lives and property cannot be understood solely as a religious conflict, although religion formed the basis for the collective identity of the two communities. Moreover, to a varying extent in differing phases of the violence, sectarian hatred helped fuel the outpouring of rage.

There was a substantial measure of class conflict underlying the recent upheaval. Sikhs are among the most upwardly mobile, enterprising, and prosperous communities in India. Since the late 1960s, they spearheaded the "Green Revolution" in the Punjab, where they form slightly over half the state's population (the only state in India where they form a significant portion of the population). Largely through Sikh iniative, the Punjab is India's richest state, and agricultural productivity is many times that of neighboring states with similar climatic conditions. Sikhs have channeled some of their agricultural wealth from the Punjab into commerce, industry, and transportation in other regions of India. Thus they became more affluent, prominent--and envied--than other religious minorities. With the growing crisis in the Punjab, the already privileged community engendered further resentment when the Akali Dal party demanded greater political rights and economic resources. The government legitimized public hostility to Sikhs by ordering the invasion of the Golden Temple; not surprisingly, a large segment of opinion throughout India welcomed the government's repressive measures.

Following the assassination, a rudimentary form of class struggle that pitted the poorer members of the Hindu community against all Sikhs can be discerned. This is not to suggest that there were clear class cleavages; the rampaging mobs were a motley collection of lumpens, desperately poor untouchables, migrants from outlying villages, and lower middle-class clerks, taxi drivers, and shopkeepers. An elderly Sikh interviewed by the Indian Express (November 11, 1984) observed, "These were not Hindu-Sikh riots. There were goonda (hooligan)-Sikh riots." in the first days widespread pillaging of Sikh homes and retail stores produced a vast redistribution of consumer goods, the symbols of affluence otherwise beyond the reach of rioters. Lest this be idealized, it should be noted that mobs deliberately humiliated and brutalized their defenseless victims. Moreover, and this seems to contradict our emphasis on the class basis of the attacks, much of the destruction was directed against the poorest members of the Sikh community. Although mobs often beat and humiliated middle-class Sikhs, most escaped with their lives. Such restraint was not evident in the treatment accorded to lower-class Sikhs.

There are three possible reasons why poorer members of the Sikh community bore the heaviest costs of the violence. One is economic: Hindus correctly perceive that the Sikh community as a whole is relatively affluent. Although clearly there are immense positions than Hindus in most occupations. Further, the virtual absence of caste distinctions among Sikhs endows them with a higher status than lower-caste Hindus or scheduled castes (untouchables). The second possible reason for mass violence against poorer Sikhs was suggested by several newspaper accounts: to protect themselves from denunciation, looters turned on their Sikh neighbors in the impoverished resettlement colonies after pillaging middle-class Sikh homes and stores. Although large-scale massacres occured in the resettlement colonies only the day after middle-class Sikhs had been looted, we believe that it is anaccurate to explain the mass butchery solely on instrumental grounds.

Thus, in trying to comprehend the causes of the cataclysm, it is useful to distinguished three phases which followed in rapid succession during the several days after the assassination. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, we attribute primary responsibility to Congress (I) for instigating anti-Sikh riots and to the government for negligence and indirect provocation. Class hatred, which many poor Hindus apparently felt toward Sikhs, added an explosive dimension in the second phase. At this point, the upheaval became uncontrollable. The third phase consists of mass destruction, which seems inexplicable on either economic or religious grounds. The full agony of what occured during those horrifying hours in Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, and other resettlement colonies defies rational explanation. To the heart-rending questions asked by the shattered survivors sitting amidst the rubble of their homes, we have no answers.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Monthly Review Foundation, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Indira Gandhi
Author:Kesselman, Amrita; Kesselman, Mark
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jan 1, 1985
Previous Article:Four more years - of what?
Next Article:Nicaragua's ethnic minorities in the revolution.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters