Societies, especially in the West, have in the more recent past, become liberal enough to sort of celebrate those who forgive thus putting overt and covert pressure on the victims to forgive the offender[s]. This has led to movements like Restorative Justice that are being selectively used in certain situations to facilitate healing the victims and encourage the offenders to own up to their crime. There have been some suggestions for the victims of the 84 pogrom and the Sikh community to forgive and forget the event and move on. In our analysis that follows we will be looking at the suggestion to forgive and forget closely for their practicability.

Also read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5 and Part 6. Read complete article > Full Text.


Those who have worked with the restorative justice process, suggest never urging, pushing or expecting the victims to forgive out of some kind of obligation or force a victim to forgive an offender, especially of a violent crime. Acceptance of accountability by the offender is key to the success of the process though some victims may forgive without meeting the offender or knowing that the offender took responsibility for the crimes. Such state of mind of the victim is akin to living by the precept inherent in jahan khima teh aap – God is where forgiveness is.

Another factor to keep in mind is that Restorative Justice Process is not quite in sync with the way criminal justice cases are handled. The crimes are viewed as having been committed in contravention of laws against the state and neither the victim nor the offender is expected to be able to influence the process. We however know that the media has the ability to influence processes and outcomes apart from the effect of ideological predilections of the officials. The difficulties may be compounded due to the fact that neither repentance nor forgiving comes easy and both may not happen at all. If there is active lobbying, the usefulness of the vitiated process to resolve politically motivated crimes can become questionable.[1]

A further complicating factor in the instant situation is about the difficulties in establishing clear identity of both the victim[s] and the offender[s]. We have a situation where none of the criminals has asked for forgiveness nor is it clear as to from whom forgiveness is expected to come. It is clear though that no third person can have the right to forgive the criminals on behalf of the victims or their families. These decisions really are personal and are not made in answer to a call by the media or by the PM in the Parliament House. As for forgiving by the Sikhs as a community, we propose to turn to the scriptures and history for seeking any insights or guidance about the likely expected Sikh response.

Guidance from Gurbani & tradition

The Sikh tenets guide us that God is the epitome of forgiveness. The Gurus sing paeans of praise of God for His acts of forgiveness e.g. God has been true to His nature and has not bothered about the devotee’s merits or demerits.[2] Forgiveness therefore should have a place of importance in the matrix of human acts of omission and commission. This seems to come naturally to us when as parents, overlooking the past errors, we teach the children to not repeat errant behavior going forward.[3] Sikhs also glorify those who – dekh ke undith keeta – having witnessed chose to ignore. Thus an act of forgiveness is divine, saintly and fatherly – an act of grace or to motivate better future behavior or to deliberate decision to not respond to provocation. The act of forgiving is a complex decision choice – the complexity increasing if identity of offenders and victims becomes fuzzy in collective organized violence directed at a specifically targeted vulnerable group.

Let us turn to history to see the responses of the Gurus to certain events in their lives that had elements of gross intimidation and about which they have mentioned in their writings. Guru Nanak was witness to the conflict at Eminabad during Babur’s third invasion and has vividly described the excesses of his soldiers [the verses cited earlier].

The above event was the collateral effect of the Lodhi-Afghan conflict for control over India. Widows of the vanquished were dishonored by Babur’s soldiers with the complicity of their superiors. The time was early sixteenth century with the then existing permissiveness in battle situations but Guru Nanak did not accept it and raised his voice. In Babur Vani shabads that reflect on Babur’s invasions, the Guru characterizes Mughals to have been sent by God to punish the Lodhis for their fall. At the same time he likens the punishing Mughals to a bridal party of sinners who indulge in rape and ravine. The Guru asks: where can then one go – God who attached mortals to all these allurements, sits alone and watches on and even chides God for not showing compassion when the suffering screamed in pain. There is no hint to forgive the offenders. If at all the Guru clearly says that if the powerful attack and kill the weak and vulnerable, their master must be called to answer.[4]

Let us also look at an incident mentioned in the compositions of Guru Arjun. As the story goes, Sulahi Khan was a Mughal courtier. Prithi Chand, Arjun’s disaffected brother invited him and both conspired to finish the Guru off. While showing him round, however Sulahi’s horse stepped over a burning kiln that gave way and he was roasted alive. Guru Arjun writes ‘first I was counseled to send a letter or secondly to send two men to mediate or thirdly to do something [to evade the oncoming danger]. I have renounced everything, and I meditate only on You, Prabh. Now, I am totally blissful, carefree and at ease. Enemies and evildoers have perished, and I have obtained peace.’[5] At another places, Guru Arjun writes: ‘God preserved me from Sulhi, (his attack). Sulhi did not succeed in his plot, and he died in disgrace. God drew forth His axe and smote off his head and in a moment he was reduced to ashes. Plotting and planning evil, he was destroyed. He who created him thrust him into the fire. Of his sons, friends and wealth, nothing remains; his brethren and relations have all abandoned him. Says Nanak, I am sacrifice to that Prabh who fulfilled the prayer uttered by His servant.’[6] There is thanksgiving for receiving divine protection but there is no suggestion of forgiving or praying for forgiveness for the unprovoked, conspiratorial attacker.

Namdev in a shabad narrates being asked to revive a dead cow or face death – to test if Gopal will come to his aid. It happens and the cow revives. The king is repentant and Namdev tells the king that the purpose of this miracle is that you, O king, should walk the path of truth and humility.[7] The king’s repentance made forgiveness a moral response.

Guru Gobind Singh too had suffered many attempts on his life and his young sons were killed during battles with the forces of Aurangzeb. In Zafarnama he asks the king what was achieved by killing his four tender sons, when he, like a coiled snake stayed alive. Bravery does not consist in putting out a few sparks and in the process stir up a fire to rage all the more![8] (78-79) The Guru avers that king must be cognizant that God could not have wished for him to create strife but instead to promote peace and harmony among the people. (65) Nor should the ruler use his strength, power and resources to harass, suppress or deprive the weak for this will erode his ability to rule effectively and make the State unsafe. (109) In spite of all that happened the Guru is gracious, kind and compassionate and wants to close the matter without any lingering resentment. He says ‘if only you were gracious enough to come to the village of Kangar, we could then see each other face to face. (58) Come to me so that we may converse with each other, and I may utter some kind words to thee. (60) You are bound, indeed by your word on the Koran, let, therefore, the matter come to a good end, as is your promise. (76) In this exchange there is a clear and pro-active attempt at reconciliation after lengthy and bloody conflict but even this does not suggest unilateral forgiving as a means to closure or to move forward.

The above approach by Guru Gobind Singh seems to be a precursor to the modern day model successfully used by South African truth and reconciliation commission under Archbishop Desmond Tutu [1995-1998] to redress violent acts, human rights violations and politically motivated crimes that were committed by individuals either for the state or for the liberation movement. Surviving victims and relatives of dead victims were given opportunity to tell their grievances. Individuals who confessed to the crimes that they had committed under the apartheid were granted freedom from prosecution if their acts were found to be politically motivated. Those who refused to testify remained liable for criminal prosecution.

Back to 84 Pogrom

Let us now turn to the August 2005 apology by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. In his address, he said: ‘On behalf of our government, on behalf of the entire people of this country, I bow my head in shame that such a thing took place… I have no hesitation in apologizing to the Sikh community. I apologize not only to the Sikh community but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution… we as a united nation can ensure that such a ghastly event is never repeated in India’s future.’

Unfortunately in his entire address Manmohan Singh did not refer to the complicity of the Congress leaders in organizing the pogrom. As such the apology while it is regret expressed by a successor Government about the occurrence of the [ghastly] event and therefore has to be given serious consideration, reluctance to acknowledge any remorse for the complicity of Congress party members in the ‘ghastly’ acts fails to convey empathy to the victims or Sikhs as a community. Instead he commends victims to promote nation’s sense of security by not remembering the event. Witness: ‘By reliving that, by reminding us again and again you do not promote the cause of national integration, of strengthening our nation sense for security’ – some unfeeling evident there notwithstanding his seemingly genuine sense of grief!

It is this kind of continued reluctance to accept accountability for complicity in the planned and organized crime and insincere attempts to seek constructive solutions or to bring a sense of justice and security to the survivors and the Sikh community that has kept the memories and mistrust alive. The sense of simmering lack of trust became evident in the TV debate on 6 June, 2012 after the formal foundation stone laying at Amritsar by the Singh Sahibaan for the Bluestar memorial. The media were back to using all the stereotypes and invectives [like terrorists, anti national, dangers to peace etc] for Sikhs and if it had continued for a period of time as had been done in the 80’s it could have again precipitated a grave safety risk for Sikhs living outside Punjab.

I do not think Sikhs are being obdurate. They have been and continue to be ambivalent about forgiving unless circumstances of the case pose no moral or ethical dilemma. The American Sikh response to the 5 August, 2012 killing of Sikh worshippers at Oak Creek, WI Gurdwara by a white male seems to confirm this reluctance of Sikhs to throw forgiveness at offenders who committed egregious offences against the innocent. Some relatives of the victims wanted to place, alongside the victims, an empty coffin to remember the killer at the memorial ardas as a symbol of forgiveness. That did not happen. Sikhs instead chose to leave a simple but striking memorial – they installed a small gold plate engraved with ‘We Are One. 8-5-12’ beneath one of the bullet holes left unrepaired.[9]

The above tells something about the way Sikh thinking coalesces rather effortlessly to a collective choice of the manner in which they live through and past any traumatic situation – with calm dignity and thoughtful memorializing seemingly turning a tragedy into triumph by embracing an elevating, gentle, principled call! Forgiveness for the perpetrators of gruesome, pre-meditated mass murderers of the innocent is better not asked of or expected for the victim communities to give unless the mainstream society as a whole can come together to recognize collectively the accountability of the offenders as a pre-requisite.


Let us look at the suggestion to the victim group to forget the events a bit more closely. The act of forgetting implies a conscious choice to not remember any more that the traumatic events happened, curb the memory as irrelevant and to not ponder over the need for vigilance or caution to avoid its future repeat.

It should be obvious from the foregoing discussion that 1984 events and the following decade are difficult for Sikhs to forget for their holiest shrines were desecrated by the Indian Army assault in June 1984 and then in November 1984, in Delhi and several other places within the country, Sikhs were subjected to organized and systematic killings, Gurdwaras burnt and the Sikh properties looted after Indira Gandhi was shot by her Sikh guards. Reports about this period record comments like:

  • US State Department’s Country Report in 1993 for India on Human Rights Practices chronicled that: Extrajudicial executions were also encouraged by the Punjab government’s practice of offering bounties for killed militants. The chief minister told the state assembly that over 41,000 such bounties were paid between 1991 and 1993; in some cases more than one person claimed credit for the same killing.
  • Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch reported in ‘Dead Silence: The Legacy of Human Rights Abuses in Punjab’ that: The decade-long insurgency in the north Indian state of Punjab and the brutal police crackdown that finally ended it cost more than 10,000 lives. Most of those killed were summarily executed in police custody in staged ‘encounters.’ These killings became so common, in fact, that the term ‘encounter killing’ became synonymous with extrajudicial execution.
  • Amnesty International, in a 1993 report called, ‘An Unnatural Fate: Disappearances and Impunity in the Indian States of Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab,’ wrote: Each year, scores of people ‘disappear’ in Punjab from among the many thousands of political prisoners detained — Official figures given by the Home Minister in March 1993 put the number of people then held under TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act] in Punjab at 14,457; unofficial sources say several thousands more are held — State complicity in such practices is evident from a clear pattern of official cover-up.

Given this legacy of abuses that Sikhs have endured and knowing that there are thousands of them who feel that their pain has not been recognized by the government or the mainstream and that the abusers are still roaming free, any advisory to forget is not likely to be accepted by the community. Instead the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators and their being rewarded rather than being held accountable makes not forgetting an imperative for the community.

The 84 pogrom was a one sided, deliberate, conspiratorial operation planned, organized and executed by a highly organized group of Congress political workers, complicit government officials, police and hired mobs that selectively targeted male Sikh youth and middle aged men. They came close to a total success. Such attacks border on the genocidal and must not to be forgotten.

Sikhs have had a pretty traumatic passage during their short history of half a millennium. In the end, after heavy sacrifices, they succeeded to carve out an area in the Northwest India where their supremacy became unchallenged. They however did not want to forget the traumas they had been through and introduced references to some of these in the text of their formal supplication at the end of religious services.

Apart from the negatives of the realities involved, Sikhs as a group of highly religious people should not be expected to forget or ignore egregious injustices or institutionalized oppression. Their belief in fighting for the righteous cause and resist discrimination is extremely strong and their history is nothing if not a chronicle of making sacrifices for the shared values of freedom and equality. Belief in dushat nivaaran sant ubhaaran – defeat the evil to assure the ascendancy of the virtuous – as a principle is antithetical to accepting to forget that evil ever happened or forget its existence in our midst.

[1] For a more extensive analysis read Lisa Reaat, The Justice & Reconciliation Project (JRP) California; Marina Cantacuzinoat, www.theforgivenessproject. UK; John Whiteat, Sycamore Tree Project, a restorative justice program in Acacia Prison in Western Australia

[2] – prabh apnaa birdh samaareya, hamra gun avgun naa beechariya -(M V p.623)

[3] – pichhle avgun baksh leye prabh aage marag pave – Sorath M V, p. 624

[4] See also other related compositions: Asa M I, p. 360, Tilang M I, p. 722

[5] dutee-ay mataa du-ay maanukh pahuchaava-o. taritee-ay mataa kichh kara-o upaa-i-aa. mai sabh kichh chhod parabh tuhee Dhi-aa-i-aa. mahaa anand achint sehjaa-i-aa. dusman doot mu-ay sukh paa-i-aa – Asa M V, p. 371

[6] sulehee thae naaraaein raakh sulehee kaa haathh kehee n pahuchai sulehee hoe mooaa naapaak kaadt kut(h)aar khasam sir kaattiaa khin mehi hoe gaeiaa hai khaak ma(n)dhaa chithavath chithavath pachiaa jin rachiaa thin dheenaa dhhaak puthr meeth dhhan kishhoo n rehiou s shhodd gaeiaa sabh bhaaee saak kahu naanak this prabh balihaaree jin jan kaa keeno pooran vaak – Bilawal M V, p. 825. See also Bhairon M V, p.1137 in similar strain, which possibly refers to an incident of attempted poisoning of young Hargobind.

[7] Eis Patheeaa Kaa Eihai Paravaan Saach Seel Chaalahu Sulithaan – Bhairo Namdev, p. 1166

[8] The numbers in parenthesis are the verse numbers in the original text.

[9] Sikh temple holds 1st Sunday service since attack, Associated Press report by DINESH RAMDE, 12/08/12.

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