1984: The Hondh-Chillar Massacre

This was the date in 1984 of the Hondh-Chillar massacre

It was one of the many atrocities of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that ensued the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Hondh today sits in ruins. Prior to November 2, 1984, it was a tiny dhani — basically a hamlet — outside a still-extant village known as Chillar in the northern state of Haryana.

On that dread day, a couple of hundred toughs trucked in by the Congress Party arrived at the dhani and set about sacking the settlement and brutalizing the Sikh inhabitants; at least 31 were beaten or burned to death over the course of several hours.

Surviving villagers eventually rallied to drive off the mob and escaped that night from their devastated homes.

Like other anti-Sikh vigilantism this horror has never been published, and allowed to languish into forgetfulness, as was the physical village itself. The place flashed in the news in 2011 when an engineer in nearby Gurgaon learned about the event accidentally and visited the site’s ruins, later posting heartbreaking photos to social media. That brought calls for reopening case files and preserving the site, none of which occurred; the engineer was forced out of his job a few weeks later, however.

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1992: Sukhdev Singh Sukha and Harjinder Singh Jinda, Operation Blue Star avengers

Two Sikh militants of the Khalistan Commando Force were hanged on this date in 1992 at Pune for assassinating the India army chief who conducted Operation Blue Star.

This operation in 1984 aimed to corral the Sikh independence movement that proposed to carve out a state called Khalistan in Punjab — specifically by capturing (or as happened in the event, killing) the Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In a notable pre-Blue Star outrage, Bhindanwale had a top policeman murdered, and his body remained on the steps of the Golden Temple for hours because other Punjab police were afraid to remove it until Bhindranwale consented.

In the first week of June 1984 the Indian army besieged Bhindranwale, and supporters, in that same temple, eventually assaulting the premises despite a heavy civilian presence, hundreds of whom were killed in the resulting firefight. The Indian state emerged with a firmer hold on regional sovereignty, and the renewed enmity of a lot of aggrieved Sikhs.

It was these outrages that led to Indira Gandhi’s assassination* later in 1984 … and at slightly greater remove, it led to the murder of the Army Chief of Staff who had implemented the operation, General Arunkumar Shridhar Vaidya. Vaidya well knew that this role might be his own death warrant and took the risk in stride; “If a bullet is destined to get me,” he said, “it will come with my name written on it.”

That bullet arrived in August 1986, a few months after Vaidya’s retirement when motorcycle gunmen assassinated the former chief of staff as he drove back from the Pune marketplace.

Sukhdev Singh Sukha and Harjinder Singh Jinda — both seasoned Khaistani assassins — got clean away at that moment, but Sukha was caught several weeks later when he got into a traffic accident riding the same black motorbike he’d used to ice the general. Both men admitted their involvement but pleaded not guilty, arguing that Vaidya had incurred the “death sentence” that they executed.

They were hanged together at Yerwada Central Jail on the morning of October 9, 1992 amid Sikh protests throughout Punjab. They’re often honored by protests and Sikh nationalist events on this anniversary of their execution.

* Indira Gandhi’s killing triggered anti-Sikh pogroms in India with somewhere around 3,000 killed, which was in turn answered by Sikh extremists bombing an Air India flight in 1985.

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1989: Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh, assassins of Indira Gandhi

On this date in 1989, the last hangings at Delhi’s Tihar Jail dispatched two Sikhs for the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) was the daughter and political heir of Jawaharlal Nehru and one of the postwar world’s more remarkable political biographies.

Never averse to breaking a few eggs, Gandhi led her country (sometimes autocratically) for four terms from 1966 to 1984, sandwiched around a stint under a legal cloud for political corruption.

She backed East Pakistan’s breakaway from India’s neighbor and rival, but also negotiated a Kashmir settlement with her Pakistani opposite number; oversaw the Green Revolution; pushed ahead with a nuclear weapons program; maneuvered between American and Soviet foreign policy.

The omelet that cost her life was the June 1984 Operation Blue Star, when she had the Indian military storm a Sikh shrine that armed militants had turned into a virtual fortress, even using tanks and artillery in the shrine’s residential area.

Although the operation “worked,” hundreds — maybe a thousand or more — lost their lives and the shrine itself suffered heavy damage.

Sikhs were incensed — including, apparently, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, two Sikh bodyguards of the Prime Minister who probably ought to have been reassigned. Maybe that’s just hindsight speaking, after they took the opportunity afforded by an escort assignment on Halloween 1984 to suddenly gun down their charge.

Beant Singh was shot down on the spot by other guards, but Satwant Singh was arrested.

He and Beant Singh’s uncle and alleged inciter Kehar Singh would later stand trial for their lives — but not before the assassination triggered an apparently government-blessed four-day anti-Sikh pogrom. The disturbing orchestration and four-figure body count of this infamous affair remain sensitive subjects on the subcontinent to this day, especially insofar as nobody has ever been punished for it.

The accused assassins were not so lucky — although they were more than content to accept martyrdom for avenging Operation Blue Star.

I have no hatred for any Hindu, Muslim, Christian, neither hatred for any religion. After my Shaheedi, let no Sikh throw any rock at any Hindu. I am not in favor of any retaliation or bloodshed over my Shaheedi. If we do create bloodshed, then there is no difference between us and Rajiv Gandhi. I am proud of the task that I did! I do ardas in front of Waheguru! If I am blessed with a human life, then give me a death of the brave when I am hanged. Forget one life, if I could I would give up a thousand lives to kill dushts like Indira Gandhi, and laugh as I become Shaheed by hanging.

Satwant Singh in court

The killers were then and are still held in high regard by many Sikhs. (Satwant’s fiancee even married his picture.)

Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi followed her as head of state — and followed her fate when he was assassinated by Tamil terrorists in 1991. The Nehru-Gandhi family remains a powerful force in Indian politics.

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