Sikh Society President discusses The Forgotten Shoes of 1984

In June 1984 Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi carried out an act of deliberate desecration when she sent an Indian army to invade the Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in an attempt to draw out Sikh ‘militants’. This was named Operation Blue star and lead to the destruction of the Golden Temple complex along with the death of thousands of innocent Sikh Pilgrims. The attack was purposely carried out on the day that thousands of Sikhs gathered to remember the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, meaning that the Golden Temple had even more visitors than usual.

“The army went into Darbar Sahib not to eliminate a political figure or a political movement but to suppress the culture of a people, to attack their heart, to strike a blow at their spirit and self-confidence.”

(Joyce Pettigrew,The Sikhs of the Punjab, 1995, 8–9)

Today, at peak times over 100,000 people a day go to visit the Golden Temple. All of those people will take their shoes off before entering as a sign of respect. To think that over 10,000 people did the same thing in June 1984 without knowing they would never return is heart-breaking. Those shoes were from all different parts of India and ranged in all different sizes and ages. The owners of these shoes were murdered in the place where they felt the safest. 

The shoes are also something that the Indian government neglected to hide. Through immense efforts the Indian government distorted the death count, making it seem much lower than they could possibly be. However, the shoes left behind act as a form of remembrance for those whose lives were completely erased from history. They symbolise the lives of those who were unaccounted for. Sadly, this was only the beginning of the violence against Sikhs.

In October 1984 following the assassination of Indira Ghandi, by the hands of her Sikh bodyguards, Sikh massacres were carried out throughout India. It has been estimated that a Sikh was killed every minute during the riot, leading to an ‘official’ death count of over 3,000. The atrocities of 1984 were unimaginably brutal. As part of these ‘Anti-Sikh riots’ it became common practice that Sikh woman were raped in the hope to give birth in ‘Hindu’ children, and the men and children were brutally killed, often set alight, in an attempt to eliminate the Sikh community. 

To this day, the event is most commonly referred to as the ‘anti-Sikh riots of 1984’, this diminishes the importance of the event and the trauma. In order for this crime against humanity to get the acknowledgment it deserves it should be officially deemed as a genocide. By definition this event should be acknowledged as a genocide by the UN. 

India refuses to acknowledge the injustices of 1984, and their refusal to deem it a genocide and hold the perpetrators accountable contributes to their denial of the event. 

The Indian state’s officials stand by Operation Blue star arguing it was a justified political strategy to tackle the tensions in the Punjab, the massacre of Sikhs was dismissed as riots. The word ‘riot’ underplays the tragedy and minimises the effect it had on people. People may take the issue less seriously because they consider it to be a spontaneous act of violence and social upheaval as the word ‘riot’ suggests. When in actuality, the events were planned, mob leaders carried lists of Sikh families and their addresses. This was an act of social cleansing, which demands recognition and consequences for its preparators. 

“Of the 2,733 officially admitted murders, only nine cases have so far led to the conviction of 20 people in 25 years; a conviction rate of less than 1%” (BBC, 2009). The Indian government must be held accountable for their acts of terror and the injustices must not be forgotten.

A person holding a sign

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A file picture of an Akali Dal demonstration by children shortly after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Photo: HT

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Photo credit: BBC News Online