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Anniversary of Sikh Massacre Presents Challenge for Bay Area Parent

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This Saturday there will be a candlelight vigil at California State University in Hayward, marking the 26th anniversary of the attack on the Sikh's holy site, the Golden Temple in India. For Sikh parents like me in the Bay Area, it's a difficult decision as we have to figure out how to tell our children about one of the most traumatic periods of recent Sikh history.

For us Sikhs, the Golden Temple in Amritsar in Punjab is the holiest of holy shrines – it’s our Vatican. In June 1984 the Indian army under the orders of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attacked it to forcibly remove Sikh separatists inside the temple who were demanding a separate homeland for Sikhs. The temple was full of pilgrims because of a religious festival. Thousands of innocent devotees lost their lives, our holy book the Guru Granth Sahib was desecrated, and massive damage was done to almost 40 temple complexes, many reduced to rubble. In October of that year, Indira Gandhi herself was killed by her Sikh bodyguards and bloody riots erupted targeting Sikhs.
 
Twenty-six years later, there will be a vigil at California State University in Hayward. The vigil includes an exhibition, presentations, songs and poems, and a display of gatka, the Sikh martial art. They will screen a documentary on why the attack took place and who was responsible. The program will end with prayers for those who lost their lives in the massacre.
 
The invitation says the event is to keep alive the memory of those who died trying to protect the honor of the Golden Temple, and to think about the future of the community. Bring your kids, it says, so they know and don’t forget what happened to Sikhs in 1984, how thousands of innocent devotees lost their lives.
 
I have not been to any of the annual protests at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, but feel I should pay my respects at this vigil. But I am not so sure I want to take my 12-year-old and 16-year-old, who have grown up here in the Bay Area and went for years to Sunday school at the Sikh Temple in Fremont. I don’t really know what to tell them or how they will take what they hear.
 
So I asked my daughter what she knew about Operation Bluestar, the codename for the Army attack on the Golden Temple. She knows that tanks entered the Golden Temple, a lot of innocent people died and the sacred complex was desecrated.
 
She admits she doesn’t know much about the history, the separatist movement in the Punjab, and is therefore not sure who to blame. But she feels this is something you cannot forget, or what is the point of being a Sikh? She thinks we should get together as a community, to do something about it so we can prevent it from happening in the future.
 
My father, a lecturer, who lived through the 1947 Partition of India and the 1984 riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, has a master's degree in political science and is an avid history student. When I was young, I remember him telling me about the long history of Sikhs in the Punjab feeling discriminated against by Delhi. The list of grievances included broken promises of self-determination, unfair partitioning of the state and allocation of resources, and gross human rights violations for decades. He also believed that the militancy was allowed to grow unchecked for political reasons, that the fortification of the Golden Temple complex by militants should have been nipped in the bud. He says that the Sikh leaders and the militants put the sanctity of our holiest shrine at stake for questionable motives.
 
I remember feeling very hurt when the armed forces stormed the Golden Temple. Our family had always supported Indira Gandhi’s Congress party. I did not particularly like her but had admired her when she represented India abroad. Later that year I was in Delhi when she was assassinated and Sikhs were massacred in revenge. I saw the carnage firsthand.
 
In Punjab these days there is little open discussion about a separate Sikh homeland. People don’t want to talk about it. But you hear those stories still out here in the diaspora. Sometimes I don’t know which side I am on. I do know promises were broken and trust was betrayed on all sides. I think all of us have lost in this struggle.
 
My father has painful memories of what happened to our people. My daughter has some very beautiful ones of visiting the Golden Temple in Punjab. Both of them tell me that we should remember the martyrs but try to put the bitterness behind us. I think I'll take the children after all.

Date: Saturday, June 5, 2010
Time: 5:00pm - 9:00pm
Location: California State University - East Bay (Hayward) amphitheatre

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