British complicity in the attack of the Golden Temple provides a disturbing revelation for British-loyal Sikhs
“We deliberately offered ourselves to bear the penalty for what we had done and to let the imperialist exploiters know that by crushing individuals, they cannot kill ideas…”
Eastern Punjab, 1984
On 1 June 1984, approximately 70,0000 armed servicemen cut off the Punjab from the outside world. Responding to the activities of the Sikh political group, the Akali Dal, the Indian army stormed the most holiest site for Sikhs: The Golden Temple in Amritsar. The consequences of the attack unleashed a major insurgency in the Punjab leading to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who was shot dead by her two Sikh bodyguards) and a resulting pogrom of Sikhs, leaving thousands dead. Payal Singh Mohanka writes:
“Sikh homes were systematically singled out for brutal destruction. Sikhs were hounded, tyres were put around their neck, petrol doused on their faces and they were set ablaze. More than 3000 were either burnt or butchered in Delhi itself. Two hundred Gurdwaras were burnt in Delhi, hundreds of shops looted.”
The pacification of Punjab took many years and led to numerous claims of oppressions and human rights violations. There was hardly a Sikh family who did not suffer at the hands of the Indian security forces. This may seem like a conflict in a far away land about issues that did not concern Britain, and indeed there was no indication that the British government of the day was supporting Indian military operations.
Thirty Years On
William Hague recently admitted in parliament that the British government was “sort of” involved in the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple. This case raises many important issues, challenges and questions for the Sikh community in Britain and worldwide. Many statements from the Sikh community in the UK have expressed understandable sentiments of anger, but perhaps more telling, feelings of betrayal. The anger part I can certainly relate to, but the sense of betrayal not so easily, because to be betrayed implies a relationship of trust, allegiance and of loyalty. For me, pledging allegiance to any western state that has practiced colonial rule is problematic. The findings revealed so far about Britain’s involvement is not so shocking – in fact, such acts are often part and parcel of colonial regimes. Take for instance the way in which the Belgians pitted the Hutus against the Tutsis, culminating in the horror of the Rwandan genocide. In short, the colonisers are never the friends of the colonised.
For Sikhs here in Britain, however, the sense of betrayal is precisely because large sections of our community have felt a “special” relationship with imperial Britain for many years. The incorporation of Sikhs into the British imperialist apparatus facilitated migration to Britain in the wake of the Second World War and associated reconstruction labour shortages. Following the collapse of British colonialism and India’s independence of 1947, many Sikhs migrated and settled in the UK resulting in a somewhat ambivalent association with Britain. Proud to be classed as one of the “martial” races – enthusiastic in their service of the British Empire, complicit with colonial rule in Uganda and Kenya, and lauded as a “model minority” community in contemporary Britain – Sikhs have a uniquely uncritical relationship with their colonial masters. If that’s not enough, some Sikhs love the English so much that they have their own division in the English Defence League – how’s that for a grand gesture of affection?
I am not trying to be facetious or unkind, nor am I attempting to generalise or undermine the feelings of the Sikh community. I am, however, calling for Sikhs to question years of loyalty to beloved Britannia. Hague’s comment is a haunting reminder that despite the special relationship we so naively thought to have secured, our colonial masters never cared and our desperate efforts to seek validation as a hard-working and assimilated community, “more British than the Brits”, is a futile exercise in propping up and legitimising colonial structures.
In wake of recent findings, this is a chance for a profound and deep decolonisation of the Sikh community. Historically, the struggles that have helped to establish a distinct Sikh identity in the context of British race relations legislation often implied a politicisation which did not represent Sikhs as a compliant law-abiding community. In the choice between nation and faith, Sikhs were prepared to disobey national laws in order to obey the scriptural injunctions of Sikhism, which can be seen in previous mobilisations around the right to wear the Turban, Kara, and Kirpan. This determination to be Sikh meant the denaturalisation of the Anglo-centric order which instituted the very fabric of Britain, and in these struggles, one can see a glimmer of the decolonial.
What is now required is a narrative that stitches these fragments together to offer a vision of Sikh identity which is critical and politically-conscious. Only the development of such common sense within Sikh communities across the globe can guarantee the future of a distinctly decolonised Sikh presence, secure in the knowledge that breaking the chains of coloniality would reinforce, rather than undermine, their future.
This is a wake-up call to the Sikh community to use recent events as an opportunity to decolonise once and for all, and demand a public apology for the honour and memory of the thousands of people massacred in 1984 at the hands of the Indian and British government. It’s time to pledge allegiance to our brothers and sisters struggling both here and in the Global South, for it is those who deserve our loyalty.
In the words of J.B Lenoir, “I never will love Alabama, Alabama seem to never have loved poor me.”
Image from: http://www.sikhnet.com/files/news/2012/10-October/006.jpg
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