"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.
Rajiv Gandhi: A false god of secularists and liberals

Rajiv Gandhi: A false god of secularists and liberals (0)

Gurpreet Singh


On May 21, Twitter was flooded with tributes to the slain former Indian Prime Minister.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber on May 21, 1991.

Since Gandhi was the towering leader of the opposition Congress party, which claims to be a secular alternative to the currently ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), many liberals in India took to social media to pay homage to him. Some of them went to the extent of contrasting him against the present right wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as “compassionate” and “visionary”. This may be partly because of growing attacks on religious minorities under Modi. After all, the BJP aspires to turn India into Hindu theocracy. 

Paying respect to someone who had died is one thing, but to completely gloss over the atrocities committed by any national leader is sheer dishonesty.

How can anyone forget that Gandhi was directly complicit in the 1984 Sikh Genocide that followed the murder of his mother and then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards? She was murdered for ordering a military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in June that year, in order to deal with a handful of militants who had stockpiled arms inside the place of worship. The government justified the attack by accusing Sikh radicals of killing Hindus in Punjab. The ill-conceived army operation left many pilgrims dead, and historical buildings inside heavily destroyed, causing outrage among the Sikhs across the world.

In the first week of November, 1984, mobs led by Congress party activists slaughtered thousands of Sikhs all over India, with the help of police. Rajiv Gandhi had not only remained indifferent to the cries for help coming from the Sikhs, he did not even intervene when Congress supporters chanted “blood for blood” slogans in his presence at the venue where his mother lay in state.

So much so, he used the personal tragedy during the election that followed to polarize the Hindu majority against Sikhs, and won with a heavy mandate. Unsurprisingly, the BJP vote bank shifted to the Congress, reducing the BJP to only two seats in the parliament. It is well documented that BJP supporters also had participated in the anti-Sikh violence, to teach Sikhs a lesson for the killings of Hindus by Sikh extremists in Punjab. The late Nanaji Deshmukh, a controversial leader of the Hindu supremacist organization Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) of which the BJP is a part, had even justified the pogrom in one of his articles.

Adding insult to the injury, Rajiv Gandhi awarded those Congress leaders directly involved in the massacre with ministerial posts in his government.

Leave aside the question of punishing the guilty, he tried to rationalise the massacre by publicly saying, ‘When a big tree falls, earth shakes a bit”. The metaphor was clearly aimed at covering up the crime, and to project it as a natural reaction of the people upset with the killing of the Prime Minister. However, Tamils were not punished in a similar fashion when he himself was blown into pieces.

I still remember how Sikhs became anxious following initial reports of his murder, and feared another state sponsored bloodshed. They heaved a sigh of relief when it emerged that this was a handiwork of Tamil separatists, who were seeking revenge on the Indian government for sending forces to Sri Lanka to help in suppressing their resistance for independence.

It would be wrong to assume that the Sikh Genocide was the only crime against humanity committed under Gandhi’s watch. He was also instrumental behind allowing Hindus to pray at the disputed site of the ancient Babri mosque in Ayodhya. The mosque was later demolished by BJP supporters in 1992. The BJP continues to claim that the mosque was built by the Islamic rulers after razing the temple of Lord Ram, one of the revered Hindu gods, that once stood there.

As if this was not enough, to capitalize on Hindu nationalist sentiments, Rajiv Gandhi also started the broadcast of Ramayan – the epic of Lord Ram - on national TV. Most characters of the serial later joined the BJP. This was a time when the campaign for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya was picking up, which explains the intentions of Rajiv Gandhi.

It can be safely said that he contributed to an ultra-nationalist Hindu movement that eventually changed the socio-political environment of the country. 

In 2002, when some BJP supporters and Hindu devotees were returning by train to Gujarat from their pilgrimage to Ayodhya, it caught fire under mysterious circumstances. This was followed by reports of several skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims on railway stations because of hostilities created by these trips.

Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat back then, blamed it on Muslims, even though one commission of enquiry found that it was an accident caused by a cooking fire inside one of its cabins. Taking a leaf out of the Congress party’s history, the BJP government organized a 1984-like massacre against Muslims in the state. Much like Rajiv Gandhi, Modi also took advantage of an anti-minority frenzy to win the impending assembly election.

Human Rights activists believe that the Sikh massacre set the precedent for such state-sponsored violence. Had the state punished those guilty of 1984, the 2002 wouldn’t have happened.

Modi was first elected as Prime Minister in 2014 with heavy mandate, despite this baggage. Five years later, to the dismay of his opponents, he got another majority, in spite of a spike in mob lynching of Muslims.

One can understand the frustration of helpless secularists and liberals in a regime where the attacks on minorities have become a norm, but let’s not deceive ourselves about what Rajiv Gandhi really was. If we are really concerned about bigotry and intolerance, we need to look back at the history critically to see how people like him laid the foundation of hate politics. Instead of just grumbling over what Modi and his party stand for, it’s time for Congress and its apologists to take some responsibility for the mess India is in.     

Expectedly, Modi also tweeted on May 21 to pay his respect to Gandhi. Interestingly, what binds Modi and Gandhi together in terms of what happened in 1984 is that in 2019, the Modi government gave Bharat Ratna, a highest civilian award, to Nanaji Deshmukh - despite the fact that the Sikhs have been asking for revocation of Bharat Ratna to Rajiv Gandhi. With Deshmukh getting a similar award, the hopes of withdrawing Bharat Ratna to Rajiv Gandhi have died completely. But what can one expect from a system where one mass killer praises the other unapologetically, as people continue to make a choice between the bad and the worse?