Lessons in solidarity: From Sikh genocide to Black Lives Matter
This June marks the 36th anniversary of the invasion of the Golden Temple in India
Every year, the Sikh community in the Lower Mainland gathers at the Vancouver Art Gallery to mark the anniversary of the heavily armed invasion of the Sri Harimandir Sahib (also known as the Golden Temple) complex in Punjab by the Indian military.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this demonstration will not take place this year.
This brutality that saw the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in June 1984 has been etched into the collective memory of the Sikh Diaspora. Operation Bluestar — the military code name for the action — stands as one of the most horrific acts of state-sponsored violence against the Sikh community in India.
The state of Punjab, a Sikh-controlled region before British colonization, was partitioned in 1947 by the British, with the newly formed independent countries of Pakistan and India gaining half each. In the decades that followed, Sikh leadership led several civil rights demonstrations across Punjab to gain rights for the Punjabi Sikh community, which they felt had been ignored, while the Indian government looked to consolidate its authority.
These tensions came to a head when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched Operation Bluestar, categorizing Sikh leaders in the Golden Temple complex as militants who needed to be removed by force. Troops armed with heavy artillery and tanks stormed the heart of the Sikh faith and opened fire, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Sikhs, destruction of historical monuments and burning of religious manuscripts and artifacts.
In the days following the attack 36 years ago, thousands of impassioned Sikhs — with estimates of up to 30,000 — took to the streets of Vancouver in protest. Both Operation Bluestar and the protests were covered widely across local and national media outlets.
A few years ago, I had the honour of writing and directing A Vancouver Guldasta, a play that ran at The Cultch. The play focused on a Sikh family's experience witnessing media accounts of the attacks on the Golden Temple from their home in South Vancouver.
Each evening, I was moved by something an audience member would share with me following the show. Sometimes, there would be Sikhs in the audience who lived through the experiences shown in the play. Some would even recognize themselves in the archival news footage of the protests used in the show. Some shared their own experiences of living through the violence in Punjab at that time. Some immigrants from outside the South Asian community would share similar experiences of taking to the streets to protest when there was turmoil in places where they once lived. The space created by the sharing of story was one of empathy and consideration for unique perspectives.
For most white Canadians who attended A Vancouver Guldasta and could recall the history, the events of 1984 were a mere blip on their radar. They would say things like, "I wondered what was going on in those days," "I remember driving by that," or "wasn't that about the Air India bombing?" Despite the amount of coverage the attack and protests received, and how deeply members of their communities were affected, for whatever reason, the action taken on the streets did not enter the collective memory of Lower Mainland residents.
For the Sikh community, the Black Lives Matter protests happening right now across North America come at a time when emotions are high as we reflect on the carnage of Operation Bluestar. Unlike 36 years ago, the action doesn't exist in the silo of one community. I am heartened to see not only actions of solidarity in response to the current violence, but also discussions of anti-black and anti-Indigenous behaviours that exist in communities of colour. We are seeing individuals, led by black protesters, take to the streets once again to voice their calls for justice.
To pay homage to those who lost their lives during Operation Bluestar, I believe it to be imperative to act consciously within our current political climate. This means that we not only continue our activism to raise awareness of state-sponsored violence in India, but we must also today march alongside black protesters, amplify black voices through our networks and communities, and hold ourselves accountable for behaviour that perpetuates anti-black attitudes.
But while we empathize and see echoes of the 1984 protests today, we must not simply draw an equivalency between police brutality against the black community and the events of 1984. It is important that the experiences remain unique from one another — our positions, words and actions, need to be taken with care and consideration.
In our own circles, we are all aware of behaviours we participate in that perpetuate anti-blackness. In South Asian communities, colourism, casteism, model minority behaviour, and for-profit appropriation are a few tangible examples. To honour those Sikhs who lost their lives in Operation Bluestar, and to honour the work of those who marched in their memory, it is on us to strengthen our inter-cultural allyship.
The calls for justice in our neighbourhoods should not become a distant memory.
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