Bloody Halloween: When evil spirits came to life on the streets of India

When I moved to Canada in 2001 as an immigrant from India, little did I know about Halloween.

Anti sikh riots
Image Courtesy: AFP

All I knew was that the kids go door to door on this day and ask for candies. This is no different than Lohri – a festival of bonfire celebrated in January each year in Punjab. The children go home to home asking for treats. Cool!

As our first Halloween came that year my curiosity grew seeing madness for scary costumes. I did some research and found that it was one way of warding off evil spirits that come to the earth at that time and children dress themselves up like monsters to keep them away so that they consider them as one of their own. Obviously, this is all superstitious, but it has a complete different meaning for someone like me. It’s mainly because of an unforgettable and ill-fated date of October 31 that coincides with something more horrific done to my people 35 years ago.

On this day in 1984, then-Prime Minister of Indira Gandhi was assassinated at her official residence in New Delhi by her Sikh bodyguards who were outraged at the military invasion on their holiest place, the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar. The controversial army operation was ordered by Gandhi in June that year to deal with handful of Sikh militants who could have been otherwise forced to surrender by using other means. Accusing the extremists of committing violence and taking refuge in the shrine, the government of India used its military might to suppress Sikh movement for autonomy of Punjab and equal rights for the minority community. The intent was to polarize the Hindu majority in the name of national unity in the impending general election.

The ill-conceived military attack left many pilgrims dead and historically important buildings inside the complex heavily destroyed. This had enraged the Sikhs all over the world and resulted into the death of Gandhi.

As soon as the news of Gandhi’s murder spread, the violent mobs started organizing against the Sikhs. The members of the slain leader’s ruling Congress party instigated Hindus to avenge her death by targeting innocent Sikhs. As a result, in the national capital of New Delhi alone, close to 3,000 Sikhs were slaughtered. Their women were gang raped. The Sikhs were also murdered in other parts of India under the watch of police. Years have passed, but there is hardly any justice done, barring the conviction of lone former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar and that too in 2018.

The accountability of Indira’s son Rajeev Gandhi – who later took over as the next Prime Minister, was never established, although all signs indicate that he was directly complicit in the genocide that actually helped him to win the December 1984 election with a brute majority on the slogan of national unity and by demonizing the Sikh community.  

The bloodshed of the Sikhs had begun while people in Canada were celebrating Halloween. Those who were dressed up like monsters to ward off evil spirits had no realization what was going on in another part of the world. The evil spirits had actually come alive to go after Sikhs. The international community largely remained indifferent to the massacre. It was seen as a natural reaction to the death of a towering leader, whereas it was not. A state sponsored act of terror was completely overlooked, leave aside the question of slapping sanctions against India.

The issue is relevant even more today as the fight for justice continues, while the massacre has set a culture of impunity in the world’s so called largest democracy. This had encouraged the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi to use a similar experiment against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Modi who is the leader of right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was the Chief Minister of the state back then. He is widely blamed for the violence that followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Over 50 passengers had died in the incident that was instantly blamed on Muslims by the BJP following which large scale violence was orchestrated against the community across Gujarat. This paid electoral dividends to Modi in the next assembly election.  

Fast forward to 2019. Early this year, a suicide attack by a Kashmiri militant had left close to 40 soldiers dead in Pulwama following which the BJP and its supporters started harassing Kashmiris all across India. The attack was blamed on Kashmir based political extremists who have been fighting for right to self-determination. BJP that is known for its hawkish position on Kashmir used every tool in its toolbox to turn Hindus against Kashmiri Muslims in the wake of Pulwama episode. And despite poor performance of Modi government on many fronts since he first became the Prime Minister in 2014, he won another majority in the May 2019 election. Much like 1984 and 2002, Pulwama episode gave breather to those in power.

Emboldened by the mandate given to him by the Indian voters, Modi government arbitrarily abrogated special status given to Kashmir in August 5 and turned the entire state into an open jail. The lockdown continues even though three months have passed.

On this Halloween while we enjoy our treats and have fun with our families and children, it’s necessary to take a moment to remember those claimed by evil spirited politicians 35 years ago and later on. This is the least we can do to first educate ourselves about this dark chapter of the history and pressure our elected officials here to stand up for the minorities who are being persecuted in India with no fear of the outside world. It’s a shame that Canada that claims to be a human rights leader in the world has remained silent over what is going on in Kashmir and growing attacks on religious minorities under Modi. This silence needs to be broken and we all know Halloween fireworks can’t do this. We all need to raise our voices to make this happen. 




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