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B.C. author Gurpreet Singh’s new children’s book applies lesson of Martin Niemöller to plight of minorities in India

Niemöller
Gurpreet Singh's daughter Shaista launched his newest book, 1984: When they came for the Sikhs.

Normally, people don’t write highly readable children’s books about genocidal massacres. But B.C. broadcaster and author Gurpreet Singh felt compelled to do this after completing an essay about German theologian and Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller.

Singh, also a contributor to Pancouver, wanted to convey how Indians had ignored a lesson from Niemöller, much to their country’s detriment. The result is 1984: When they came for the Sikhs, which Singh wrote in English and which was translated into Punjabi by Boota Singh.

The children’s book includes illustrations by Surrey, B.C. artist Jarnail Singh as well as several photos.

Niemöller, an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler’s Nazification of Protestant churches, spent nearly a decade in prisons and concentration camps from 1937 to 1945. After the war, he famously said: “First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then, they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This quote resonated strongly with Singh, who has written several other books on modern Indian history. On a trip to Berlin in 2018, he began searching for any landmark associated with Niemöller. The author found Niemöller’s home, which had been converted into a museum. Sadly, it was closed due to construction.

But it didn’t deter Singh from applying the message of Niemöller to the country where he was born. Singh maintains that a massacre of Sikhs across India in early November 1984 set the stage for future sectarian attacks in the country’s minorities.

Niemöller
After the Second World War, theologian Martin Niemöller said Nazi tyrants were emboldened by the silence of others. Photo by Daan Noske / Anefo.

Ignoring lesson of Niemöller

Singh’s daughter, Shaista, launched the book earlier this year. She celebrated her 16th birthday on the 132nd anniversary of Niemöller’s birth. Coincidentally, Niemöller died in 1984—the same year that Sikhs were killed en masse in an Indian pogrom.

Sikhs comprise only two percent of India’s population, whereas Hindus account for almost 80 percent. Singh points out in his book that as Sikhs in Punjab agitated for greater rights in the early 1980s—with the majority doing this peacefully. However, the Hindu-dominated Congress government saw an opportunity to consolidate majoritarian support in upcoming elections.

“Any campaign by the moderate Sikh leadership was either ignored or maligned in the mainstream media as separatist,” Singh writes in the book. “There were even allegations that the government secretly patronized a parallel militant leadership to both weaken the Sikh movement and create suitable circumstances to go after the community to please the majority.”

On orders from then prime minister Indira Gandhi, the Indian army attacked the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, where militants had stockpiled weapons. Buildings were bombarded and innocent civilians were killed.

“All other alternatives to make the militants surrender through negotiation, a siege, or cutting the water and power supplies were avoided to make it appear like a spectacular victory over one group of people,” Singh notes.

Four months later, the prime minister’s Sikh bodyguards retaliated by assassinating her. That prompted a pogrom against Sikhs, killing nearly 3,000 in Delhi as police stood by and did not intervene. Attacks also occurred in other cities, believed to be orchestrated by senior Congress Party officials.

Niemoller
Gurpreet Singh’s book launch attracted many supporters.

Majoritarian tyranny continues

But it didn’t end there, according to Singh. The ruling Congress Party, now led by Gandhi’s son Rajiv, won a landslide election. It accomplished this by practising majoritarian politics and stigmatizing the minority Sikh community, even as Gandhi and his ministers claimed to be secularist. Liberal-minded Indians largely ignored the Sikhs suffering.

All of this created a blueprint for future attacks on minorities, such as occurred against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. That pogrom set the stage for Narendra Modi’s landslide BJP re-election win in the western state.

In 2008, BJP supporters targeted Christians in another part of the country after a controversial Hindu preacher was killed by Maoist insurgents. Singh points out that Hindu extremists sometimes target Christian missionaries for converting Hindus.

“The fact remains that most poor and marginalized sections of India, especially Dalits (so-called untouchables) and Adivasis (Indigenous peoples), often become Christians by choice to avoid caste-based persecution within the Hindu society,”

Modi is now the prime minister and attacks on minorities continue in India.

“Had others stood up for the Sikhs in 1984, the fate of contemporary India would have been different,” Singh concludes in his book. “I really wish Niemöller was alive to see this and relate it with this to his own experiences and guide us all.”

Gurpreet Singh new book, 1984: When they came for the Sikhs, is available at India Bookworld in the York Business Centre (#117B, 12888 80 Avenue, Surrey, B.C.). It’s also selling Singh’s book online. Follow Gurpreet Singh on X (formerly Twitter) @gurpreetonair. Follow Pancouver on X @PancouverMedia.

 

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.