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Modi stokes Sikh massacre row as India pays tribute to Gandhi

NEW DELHI: India’s Premier Narendra Modi Friday called the massacre of Sikhs after former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assassination a “dagger” blow to national unity, as his government snubbed a ceremony marking the anniversary of her death.

Modi’s statements drew Congress party opposition charges he had politicised the normally non-partisan commemoration of Gandhi’s killing.

India’s “Iron Lady” was assassinated 30 years ago by her Sikh bodyguards, in revenge for an attack on a revered Sikh shrine to clear separatist militants.

Three days of frenzied killings of minority Sikhs, mainly in New Delhi, erupted hours after Gandhi’s death, claiming nearly 3,000 lives, according to official figures. Sikh leaders say the toll was much higher.

For the first time, Congress officials said, no government representative turned up at the rose-strewn memorial for the annual event Friday, which was attended by Indira’s daughter-in-law Sonia, 67 — who cradled the leader’s head in her lap as she bled to death — and grandson and political scion, Rahul, 44.

Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party toppled Congress in May, tweeted he joined his “countrymen and women in remembering” Indira Gandhi, known for her strong and sometimes divisive leadership.

But Modi alluded in a speech to the massacre of Sikhs after her killing, which he said “shook the country and left it deeply scarred”.

Congress leader Anand Sharma called the way the government marked the anniversary “disgusting” and “petty-minded”, and accused Modi of seeking to score political points.

But, said Modi, “a country that forgets history can’t make history”.

“That incident (the riots) was not a wound in the heart of any community. It was a dagger in the centuries-old fabric of India’s unity,” he said.

“Our own people were murdered,” he said.

Human rights activists accuse Congress of having turned a blind eye to the violence, charges the party has denied.

Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s son who took over from his mother as premier and who was blown up by a suicide bomber seven years later, said after the Sikh bloodbath: “Once a mighty tree falls, it is only natural the earth around shakes.”

A 2004 report tabled in parliament said “credible material” against some Congress leaders indicated “very probably” they were involved in the riots, but none has been convicted.

Sikh leader Onkar Singh Thapar told reporters Friday: “We won’t sit silent” until the orchestrators of the riots are punished.

“The people responsible are still free or have passed on,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told AFP late Friday.

“Thirty years after the horrific massacre, communal violence still breaks out,” Ganguly said, adding: “That’s why we’re pressing for laws making officials liable for failure to prevent and stop communal violence.”

Modi himself was accused by rights groups of failing to stem 2002 anti-Muslim riots that claimed at least 1,000 lives when chief minister of Gujarat state. He always rejected the accusations, and India’s Supreme Court found no evidence to prosecute him.

Instead of highlighting Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)government projected the achievements of Congress leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first home minister,

Patel, who forged a united republic from a patchwork of princely states, was born the same day as Indira Gandhi was slain.

Modi called Patel, who hailed from Gujarat, “architect of modern India” as his government staged a “run for unity” in New Delhi.

Analysts called the shift in focus a BJP attempt to recast the day marked as the assassination anniversary and pry India further loose from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s longtime grip. -AFP

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