Indian PM Modi picks actor accused of inciting 1984 genocide for “secular” propaganda ad

Bollywood’s Bachchan, former Congress politician, enlisted by BJP to speak against division

NEW DELHI: Jan. 2, 2015 – Amidst a raging controversy sparked by his political party’s involvement in forcible reconversions of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the shocking choice to enlist Amitabh Bachchan to star in a propaganda ad encouraging secularism despite a string of accusations and legal cases that the actor incited the 1984 Sikh Genocide in clips broadcast on state-run TV channel Doordarshan.

Clockwise from top: Modi & Amitabh Bachchan, Bachchan with Rajiv Gandhi observing Indira Gandhi's body, Bachchan garlanding Rajiv, Indira with Teji Bachchan
Clockwise from top: Modi & Amitabh Bachchan, Bachchan with Rajiv Gandhi observing Indira Gandhi’s body, Bachchan garlanding Rajiv, Indira with Teji Bachchan

Modi hopes to alleviate a global wave of concern prompted by reports of mass reconversions of religious minorities to Hinduism via intimidation and bribery by affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the social arm of his political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The RSS insists it is not converting people, terming the events “Ghar Wapsi” (“homecoming”) of former Hindus who left the religion; meanwhile, BJP members defending the Ghar Wapsi ceremonies are simultaneously demanding a national ban on religious conversions to stifle non-Hindu religions. Modi’s idea to film a pro-secularism propaganda ad featuring megastar Bachchan leaves many scratching their heads in bewilderment in light of the actor’s alleged involvement in the 1984 Sikh Genocide.

“In October of 2014, thanks to the tireless efforts of Sikhs for Justice in pursuing a legal case, a US court in Los Angeles summoned Bachchan to appear and give account for his blood-guiltiness in inciting the genocide of Sikhs in 1984,” said Bhajan Singh, a director of US-based Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI). “What a sick irony that PM Modi, who is himself guilty of genocide when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, should handpick Bachchan to instruct Indians to embrace secularism. If being an actor means living a lie professionally, then Amitabh is a Brahmin stunt artist of unsurpassed ability.”

The 1984 Sikh Genocide, lasting from the night of October 31 to November 3, took place primarily in India’s capital of New Delhi and surrounding areas after then-PM Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for her June 1984 decision to launch an unprovoked military invasion of the Sikh Golden Temple in northwestern India. The June attack left thousands of Sikh civilians dead, while at least 8,000 Sikhs were reported as victims of the November genocide. The role of Gandhi’s ruling Congress Party in orchestrating the genocide is extensively documented — eyewitnesses recount how members of parliament and political party leaders organized ruffians, distributed weapons, offered cash bounties, passed out liquor to the mobs, and used lists of Sikh-owned homes, businesses, and religious sites as they personally led gangs on a three-day massacre.

Bollywood heartthrob Amitabh Bachchan (a childhood friend of Indira’s son, the late Rajiv Gandhi), who was serving as a Member of Parliament in 1984, is accused by at least four witnesses of appearing on the state-run TV channel, Doordarshan, to incite mob violence immediately after Indira’s death. Shortly after being shot by her bodyguards on the morning of October 31, Indira was taken to the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Rajiv and Bachchan both arrived at the medical facility that afternoon.

One witness, Manjit Singh Saini, who first submitted a written statement implicating Bachchan in 1985, spoke out again in 2011, saying he saw the actor walk out of AIIMS and scream: “Sikhs have killed Indira.” Saini says Bachchan then pointed at a turbaned Sikh in the watching crowd, shouting: “Kill those bastards; they are traitors.” He then began chanting the slogan, “Blood for blood.” Media outlet Sikh Siyasat reports: “The crowd, which was calm prior to Bachchan’s slogans, became violent and attacked a Sikh in the gathering.” Saini states: “I narrowly escaped.”

Bachchan’s outburst was filmed by Doordarshan and reportedly rebroadcast on a loop. As reported in 2011 by The Times of India, another witness, Jagdish Kaur, whose husband, son, and three brothers were killed in the genocide, said: “I watched live relay on Doordarshan and saw Amitabh Bachchan raising his arm and shouting the slogan, ‘khun ka badla khun sae laengae’ (blood for blood) two times.”

Other witnesses on public record include Mohender Singh and Babu Singh Dukhia, who says he lost 40 family members in the massacre. Dukhia, as reported in 2007 by The Hindustan Times, recounted: “We saw Amitabh Bachchan on television telling people that Sikhs had not only assassinated Indira Gandhi, they had killed the mother of the nation. Bachchan raised the slogan ‘Khoon ke chheente Indira ko marne walon ke gharon tak pahunchne chahiye’ (The bloodstains must reach the houses of those who killed Indira).” Doordarshan still refuses to release its broadcast footage from that day, prompting Dukhia to remark, “The people at the helm of affairs, if they want, should see the television clips of the day Indira Gandhi was cremated.”

The Bachchan family was very close with the Gandhi family in the 1980s. Rajiv Gandhi was, at the time, president of the ruling Congress party, and apparently kept Amitabh in intimate confidence. Former joint director of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) Maloy Krishna Dhar, a close associate of Indira, wrote in his memoirs that Rajiv “consented to understudy his mother… [by taking] political and administrative lessons from various experts at his… office, where wizards like… Amitabh Bachchan, etc. managed the show.” Amitabh’s own mother, Teji, a social activist, was “better known as a close confidante of the late prime minister Indira Gandhi.”

Furthermore, a 2007 obituary of Teji Bachchan stated: “Rajiv had earlier convinced his childhood friend, the youthful Amitabh, to join politics. He was given a Congress ticket in 1984 and won from Allahabad with a handsome margin for one term. They were part of the famous youth brigade in Delhi, comprising Satish Sharma, Arun Nehru, Arun Singh, Kamal Nath, and Amitabh.”

Kamal Nath is one of the most infamous Members of Parliament accused of involvement in the 1984 Sikh Genocide. Monish Sanjay Suri, an Indian Express reporter, filed an affidavit in 2001 stating he saw Nath, on the afternoon of November 1, leading a mob of approximately 4,000 people in an attack on Gurdwara Rakab Ganj in New Delhi; a number of Sikhs were burned alive in the incident.

In October 2014, PM Modi fêted Indira Gandhi on the 30th anniversary of her death, while also offering some words about the Sikh Genocide, calling it a “ghastly incident,” saying: “This was not a wound inflicted on one community, but was a knife in the heart of an order that has existed in India for thousands of years.” The meaning of his reference to an order dating back “thousands of years” was not immediately obvious since the Sikh religion was founded in the 15th century. Additionally, in December 2014, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh remarked about the 1984 massacre, “It was not riot; it was genocide.” However, at variance with the data offered by many human rights organizations, which place the number of deaths in the many thousands, Minister Singh further said, “Hundreds of innocent people were killed.”

“The BJP has as little real interest in a transparent and just prosecution of the 1984 Sikh Genocide as the Congress has in pursuing sincere justice for the 2002 Gujarat Genocide,” said Pieter Friedrich, a South Asia expert who focuses on state-sponsored atrocities in India. “The BJP slaughtered thousands of Muslims in the streets of Gujarat in a nearly identical manner to the way the Congress slaughtered thousands of Sikhs in the streets of Delhi. These two parties are doing nothing but playing politics, pointing fingers, and treating justice like a puck to be batted about for Machiavellian ends.”

Friedrich says the only solution for justice is for the United Nations to establish an international criminal tribunal, as it did in the case of 1990s-era genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. Calling India’s ruling party “a gang of hypocrites,” he noted: “The BJP is forcibly reconverting Indian minorities to Hinduism while simultaneously demanding a national ban on religious conversions. Now it thinks Amitabh Bachchan is a serviceable figurehead for its propaganda piece about secularism. Yet Bachchan’s twisted political history with the Congress left him just as guilty as Modi himself. Real justice is not this gang of hypocrites linking arms to parrot lines about national unity. What is real justice? The instigators of these atrocious massacres of minorities need to be hauled before an international criminal tribunal, tried, convicted, and punished.”

Cases have been filed against Bachchan by human rights group Sikhs for Justice in national courts in both the United States and Australia. On October 27, 2014, a US federal court in Los Angeles issued a summons demanding Bachchan respond within 21 days, stating: “If you fail to respond, judgment by default will be entered against you for relief demanded in the complaint.” The actor has apparently failed to respond.

Bachchan’s “secular” ad, reports The Indian Express, “features Bachchan flying a kite and talking about India’s diversity and culture. While comparing the country to a rainbow, with different religions and castes, he asks, ‘But does education have any caste? Does development have any religion? Does progress belong to any particular sect?’” Prime Minister Modi is expected to appear alongside Bachchan in the advertisement.

Update: Apparently dissuaded by the controversy of appearing in such an ad, Amitabh Bachchan on January 2 backed out of any commitment to making the propaganda ad, stating on Twitter: “The news by media that PM and PMO have asked me to be involved in a campaign film, is incorrect.” OFMI, in response, noted that Bachchan’s on again, off again involvement illustrates how he and the Indian State play fast and loose with the truth considering earlier reports said Modi personally phoned Bachchan to invite him to participate in the ad. Regardless, said OFMI, Bachchan’s close political affiliation with the Gandhi family, incitement of the 1984 Sikh Genocide, and intimacy with PM Modi continue to be cause for concern and reason to include him in an internationally-led prosecution of Indian officials involved in genocidal incidents.