Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Indian National Congress party, spoke on campus Monday and was met with hours of protests from the Sikh community.
Gandhi was invited by the Institute of International Studies and the Institute for South Asia Studies for an event called “India at 70: Reflections on the Path Forward,” where he reflected on the history of India and stated that India has the ability to lift its residents out of poverty. Gandhi spoke to a packed auditorium at International House, while tensions between impassioned supporters of Gandhi’s family and Sikh protesters ran high.
Gandhi is a controversial figure in India because of his relation to former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, his grandmother. After Pakistan broke off from India in 1947, disharmony grew between Sikhs and Hindus. In 1984, Indira Gandhi ordered Operation Blue Star — an attack on the Golden Temple, India’s center of Sikh worship. In retaliation, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, which sparked anti-Sikh riots where thousands of Sikhs were killed.
During Gandhi’s speech, muffled yells of protesters could be heard outside. One of these protestors was UC Davis alumnus Punit Khalsa.
“It is our duty to show him that he is unwelcome here,” Khalsa said.
Outside International House, Sikh protesters held up graphic posters describing how their family members had been killed during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Jasbir Singh, a member of Sikhs for Justice, said Gandhi’s family “burned our family alive.”
According to Rana Singh, another member of Sikhs for Justice, no legal action has been taken against the Gandhi family.
Sravanth Poreddy, a member of of the small group of counterprotesters who came to support Gandhi, said the Indian National Congress party had apologized for the violence that occurred during the attack on the Golden Temple and the subsequent riots. Poreddy stated that he supports the Indian National Congress party because he believes it is more inclusive and liberal than Hindu fundamentalists.
Flanked onstage by bodyguards, Gandhi talked at length about the political and economic challenges that India faces. When questioned about the Sikh community, he said if there is anyone who will help the Sikhs get justice for the 1984 attacks and riots, he would be the first person to do it, stressing the importance of nonviolence.
“I absolutely love the (Sikh) community,” Gandhi said. “What a lot of people don’t know is … the people who shot my grandmother — her bodyguards — were my friends.”
While answering questions submitted by the audience on index cards, Gandhi was interrupted by campus student and Sikh activist Sobia Chahal, eliciting gasps from the crowd. Chahal said Gandhi was deliberately avoiding questions from Sikh activists and that he had carefully selected which index cards would be answered.
Chahal was joined by campus students and fellow supporters Arpinder Singh, Simran Thind and Georgie Guitron in protesting inside the auditorium once Gandhi left the stage.
“You’re controlling my free speech by using index cards,” Chahal said. “That’s not free speech.”