Punjab is a geopolitical, cultural and historical region found in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. Today, part of it lies in India and the other part in Pakistan.
The largest ethno-linguistic group of the Punjab region is the Punjabi people. Punjabi Muslims are in majority in the western part of Punjab, while Punjabi Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus form the majority in the eastern part of Punjab. Examples of other religions present in Punjab are Christianity, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Ravidassia.
After the end of British Colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent, internal conflicts along religious and ethnic lines led to the formation of two separate states in 1947: India, which takes up the bulk of the Indian subcontinent, and Pakistan in the north. (Back then, Pakistan consisted of two regions: West Pakistan and East Pakistan. After another bloody conflict, East Pakistan became the sovereign state Bangladesh in the early 1970s.)
As India and Pakistan were formed in the 1940s, the Punjab region was partitioned between the two countries.
Calls for a sovereign Sikh state
In the early 1980s, discontent with Indian rule spawned the formation of a powerful militant movement who called for the creation of a sovereign Sikh state which were to be named Khalistan.
According to several analysts, a major component in the uprising was the widespread lack of income for young Sikh males in the region.
“Central to the present Sikh unrest is the excess numbers of young male Sikhs over the amount of honorable employment available,” wrote Conor Cruise O’Brien in 1988. “To own even a tiny farm is honorable, but the subdivision of the farmland appears to have reached its limit. (…) What career is open to a young male Sikh who doesn’t have a farm of his own and hasn’t been able to get a place in the defense forces or any other branch of government service? That question remains unresolved, and in the meantime there are too many young [male] Sikhs who find no suitable outlet within the law for their abundant energies.” (O’Brien, “Holy War Against India”, The Atlantic Monthly, August 1988.)
Sikhs begin to disappear
The Indian government responded to the insurgency by launching a program that relied heavily on making people disappear. The typical target was a man, which gave these disappearances a gender-selective component.
According to Khalsa Human Rights, a typical scenario was the one where the victim was taken by plain-clothed police officers or by members of a para-military force with Indian backing. The typical victim was a young man, and the abduction could take place in his home, at his place of work or even in the street. Abductions took place during both day and night. In some cases, the victim would remain disappeared and the family would never know his faith. In other cases, a body – often disfigured – would turn up somewhere, such as along a road, by the railway tracks or in a canal. In cases where families actually pushed on and reported the suspected murder to the police, the case would usually be written off by one of the two standard excuses: the man was shot while trying to escape or he died in an encounter. (Source: Khalsa Human Rights, “‘Disappearances’ in Punjab”.)
Patricia Gossman cites an Indian police offers who claimed that a profile had been developed in the early 1980s to aid the Indian security forces in their struggle against militant Sikhs in Punjab. According to this source, the profile said that young Sikh men in the age span 18-40 who wore turbans and kept their beard long fit the bill for being pro-Khalistan and against the Indian government. When the police received information that Sikh militants had visited a Sikh home, that home would be raided and any Sikh male there that fit the profile would be arrested. (Source: Patricia Gossman, “India’s Secret Armies,” in in Bruce B. Campbell and Arthur D. Brenner, “Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability” [St. Martin’s Press, 2000], pp. 266-67.)
Sexual violence against females
According to Joyce Pettigrew, it was chiefly men under the age of 30 that were disappeared, but female relatives of targeted males could be arrested if it was difficult to find enough men to detain. Women were usually not killed, but sexual abuse was common. Pettigrew also cites a woman from Amritsar who explains how arresting women can be a way of forcing militant males out of hiding.
“When mothers and sisters have been held in custody by the police, their ultimate fate unknown, not all fathers and brothers have been able to cope with the threat of what might happen to them and to remain underground to fight. As one old lady from Sabrawan village, Amritsar district, told me, referring to the many abductions of young girls by the police, ‘In every village and each house there is sadness.’ Hence, to protect their sisters or indeed some other family member, some young militants and their sympathizers have compromised and become informers.” (Source: Joyce Pettigrew, “Parents and Their Children in Situations of Terror: Disappearances and Special Police Activity in Punjab,” in Jeffrey A. Sluka, ed.,”Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror” [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000], p. 211, 219.)
June 1984: Thousands of Sikhs killed in Operation Bluestar
On June 3-6, 1984, Indian forces laid siege to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, as part of an event known as Operation Bluestar. Amritsar is a city in Punjab and the Golden Temple is the holiest shrine in Sikhism. When the Indian forces attacked, the temple was occupied by Sikh militants headed by Sant Bhindranwale, but was also filled with thousands of Sikh pilgrims which were not given any opportunity to surrender.
“Indian government forces were guilty of outrageous violations of fundamental human rights — deliberately attacking the temple at a time they knew thousands of religious pilgrims were inside, not offering an opportunity for surrender, and summarily executing those it captured.” (Source: Human Rights Watch, “Arms and Abuses in Indian Punjab and Kashmir”, September 1994. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/report/1994/09/01/arms-and-abuses-indian-punjab-and-kashmir)
During Operation Bluestar, thousands of Sikhs were killed. Some were killed at the Golden Temple, but there were also dozens of coordinated mass killings taking place at other religious Sikh sites throughout Punjab. Among the dead were both women, men and children.
“Civil liberties organisations, such as the Movement Against State Repression, have claimed that the total number killed in Operation Bluestar exceeded ten thousand. Thousands of young men also went missing in the period after Bluestar.” (Source: Joyce Pettigrew, “The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerilla Violence”, p. 24)
Assassination of Indira Gandhi
October 31, less than five months after Operation Bluestar, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards as revenge for having ordered Operation Bluestar.
Over the five days following the assassination, a large-scale gender-selected massacre on Sikh males was carried out in the Indian capital. It is today known as the 1984 Dehli Massacre.
The 1984 Dehli Massacre
On the evening following the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, widespread killings of Sikh males of all ages started in Dehli at 10 p.m, with Hindu men roaming the streets looking for targets.
The attacks are believed to have been coordinated by Hindu extremist parties, which at this point were already prominent in Indian politics. Throughout the massacre, the Indian police and security forces either refused to intervene or actively assisted by disarming the Sikhs.
An Indian Supreme Court Justice, V.M. Tarkunde, stated in the aftermath of the slaughter that “Two lessons can be drawn from the experience of the Delhi riots. One is about the extent of criminalisation of our politics and the other about the utter unreliability of our police force in a critical situation.” (Quoted in Khalsa Human Rights, “The Delhi Massacre: An Example of Malicious Government”.)
According to Indian feminist writer Madhu Kishwar, it was very clear that the intention was to only kill Sikh boys and men – not women and girls.
“The nature of the attacks confirm[s] that there was a deliberately plan to kill as many Sikh men as possible, hence nothing was left to chance. That also explains why in almost all cases, after hitting or stabbing, the victims were doused with kerosene or petrol and burnt, so as to leave no possibility of their surviving. Between October 31 and November 4, more than 2,500 men were murdered in different parts of Delhi, according to several careful unofficial estimates. There have been very few cases of women being killed except when they got trapped in houses which were set on fire. Almost all the women interviewed described how men and young boys were special targets. They were dragged out of the houses, attacked with stones and rods, and set on fire. (…) When women tried to protect the men of their families, they were given a few blows and forcibly separated from the men. Even when they clung to the men, trying to save them, they were hardly ever attacked the way men were. I have not yet heard of a case of a woman being assaulted and then burnt to death by the mob.
(Source: Madhu Kishwar, “Delhi: Gangster Rule,” in Patwant Singh and Harji Malik, eds., Punjab: The Fatal Miscalculation [New Delhi, 1985], pp. 171-78.)
According to some sources, the estimation of 2,500 killed is too low. In a 1996 article in The New York Times, Sikh activist Gurucharan Singh Babbar claimed that 5,015 Sikhs were killed, noting that he had “piles of affidavits from victims´ families”. (Source: John F. Burns, “The Sikhs Get Justice Long After A Massacre,” The New York Times, September 16, 1996).
The gender-selective nature of the attacks meant that there were many women left afterwards who could bear witness of the events where their husbands and sons were taken from them.
In Khalsa Human Rights “Cases of Victims”, and account given by a Sikh woman who lost her husband and three sons on 1 November 1984 is summarized by an investigator as follows:
“When a mob first came the Sikhs came out and repulsed them. Three such waves were repulsed, but each time the police came and told them to go home and stay there. The fourth time the mob came in increased strength and started attacking individual homes, driving people out, beating and burning them and setting fire to their homes. The method of killing was invariably the same: a man was hit on the head, sometimes his skull broken, kerosene poured over him and set on fire. Before being burnt, some had their eyes gouged out. Sometimes, when a burning man asked for water, a man urinated on his mouth. Several individuals, including her sister’s son, tried to escape by cutting their hair. Most of them were also killed. Some had their hair forcibly cut but were nevertheless killed thereafter.” (Quoted in Khalsa Human Rights, “Cases of Victims”.)
Religious Sikh males typically wear their hair long, and this – and their turbans – were used to identify them as targets by the killers; hence the references to trying to escape by cutting ones hair.
Since the massacre, some of the female survivors have called out for the perpetrators of the massacre to be punished by law, but success has been spotty. In one notable case in 1996, a butcher was sentenced in court for having murdered two Sikh men during the massacre. Evidence presented in court indicated his involvement in at least 150 other killings. The judge presiding over the case was Shiv Narain Dinghra who has also sentenced dozens of participants in the massacre to prison-terms. (Source: John F. Burns, “The Sikhs Get Justice Long After A Massacre,” The New York Times, September 16, 1996).
Rape of females
While female Sikhs were not the intended targets for the killings, rape by Hindu men was rampant as Sikh families were attacked.
Atrocities committed by militant Sikhs
When discussing the Punjab conflict, it is important to take into account that politically motivated murders and other human rights violations have also been carried out by militant Sikhs. Among other things, there was a period where militant Sikhs became renowned for their bloody attacks on trains and buses driving through rural areas in Punjab, and both men, women and children have become victims of militant Sikh attacks in the region.
One example of a massacre in the hands of militant Sikhs took place in August 1986, a little more than two years after the Massacre in Dehli. A group of travellers were stopped, women and children were let out, and the clean-shaven men were forced to bury their heads between their knees. The Sikhs – who where armed with automatic pistols and machine-guns – then shot each man in turn, while shouting about how they wanted to “teach these fat Hindus” a lesson. A total of 14 Hindu men were killed, and seven injured. (Source: Shekhar Gupta with Gobind Thukral, “Punjab: On a Short Fuse,” India Today, August 15, 1986.)
In 1991, two massacres were carried out on trains in Punjab; one in June and one in December. In the first massacre, some one hundred people – mostly men – were killed by Sikh gunmen. The Sikhs ordered women, children and Sikhs to leave the train, before opening fire on the remaining passengers. (Source: Tony Allen-Mills, “Sikh Train Massacres Derail Poll in Punjab,” Sunday Times, June 23, 1991.) The second massacre followed a similar pattern, and resulted in the deaths of 51 people. Women, children and Sikhs were ordered off the train, before the militant Sikhs opened fire on the remaining men. “While all the Sikhs, women and children were ordered off the train, the others began pleading for mercy. The militants assured us that they would only be taking us somewhere and then letting us go,” said one of the survivors in an interview. (…) But then they bolted the doors and opened fire.”(Source: Tim McGirk, “India Train Massacre Caps Year of Violence,” The Independent (UK), December 29, 1991.)
Massacres on civilians proved to be counter-productive for the militant Sikhs, as it caused them to lose a lot of support from the local Sikh communities who began regarding them as groups of thugs rather than idealistic freedom fighters.