This year marks the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the man who founded the Sikh religion and is revered as the first of the ten most pious men who propagated the faith far and wide. For millions of Sikhs around the world, this momentous occasion is the time to celebrate, to pray and to revisit the teachings of Nanak in these tumultuous times. Why then at a time for celebration should we go back to one of the darkest chapters of Sikh history —the Khalistan movement and the terrorism it spawned? The answer could be to demonstrate how far Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who inspired the movement, strayed from the teachings of Guru Nanak and the consequences of this.
Contrary to the teaching of Guru Nanak, Bhindranwale who was head of the centuries’ old Damdami Taksal, incited hatred rather than teaching love. He propagated the separateness of Sikhism rather that Guru Nanak’s oneness of religions. He stressed the importance of the external elements of the Sikh faith, the ritualism that goes with fundamentalism, while Guru Nanak stressed the inner life.
The story of Bhindranwale began with the avowedly secular Congress deliberately provoking religious dissension for political purposes. As the story goes, when Indira Gandhi was out of power, her son Sanjay—along with former Congress chief minister of Punjab Zail Singh—plotted to destabilise the coalition which replaced her government. For this, they planned to undermine the Sikh religious party, the Akali Dal, a member of the anti-Gandhi ruling coalition. Sanjay and Zail Singh planned to create a new, more extreme Sikh party. The wheels of motion in the great game had been set in motion.
The Punjab crisis is further evidence that contrary to reputation, Indira Gandhi was an indecisive PM.
Bhindranwale was chosen from among the Sikh preachers of the time to lead an agitation against the Nirankari sect which had been declared heretical. The Akali Dal government played right into his hands by allowing a convention of the Nirankaris to be held in Amritsar. It was this event Bhindranwale targeted, leading a murderous assault that left twelve Sikhs and three Hindus dead. The dead Sikhs would later provide “martyrs” for Bhindranwale’s violent cause. Soon after, a new party—Dal Khalsa—was born, and despite his claims that he was “a man of religion, not a politician”, the party was known as Bhindranwale’s party. A white paper on Operation Blue Star said the Dal Khalsa was founded with an avowed mission to fight for a sovereign Sikh state. The Congress, which was aware of this fact, supported the party in elections to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the body which manages gurudwaras. As a quid pro quo, Bhindranwale campaigned for the Congress in the 1980 general election when Indira Gandhi returned to power.
In her first year back in office, two assassinations rocked Punjab. Police suspected the hand of Bhindranwale in the murders of Baba Gurbachan Singh, the Guru of the Nirankaris, and Lala Jagat Narain, the proprietor of Punjab Kesari, a newspaper which consistently warned against the danger of the Khalistan movement. By then Zail Singh was the Union home minister and was seen as soft towards Bhindranwale despite growing evidence against the radical Sikh preacher. As pressure mounted on the central government, Bhindranwale was eventually arrested but within a month Zail Singh informed Parliament that police found no evidence against Bhindranwale. He was released soon after.
The day Bhindranwale was arrested, four Hindus were killed and twelve injured when motorcycle-borne Sikh assailants opened fire in a market in Jalandhar, followed by a similar incident in Taran Taran near Amritsar. Three attempts were made to derail trains by tampering with the tracks, one succeeded in toppling a goods train. Then, nine days after Bhindranwale’s arrest, five members of the Dal Khalsa hijacked an Indian Airlines plane to Pakistan. The hijackers, later caught by Pakistani commandos, were demanding the release of Bhindranwale.
Bhindranwale campaigned for Congress in the 1980 general elections when Gandhi returned to power
These incidents marked the beginning of the violent period that unleashed terror in Punjab for some thirteen years and led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the death of Akali leader Harchand Singh Longowal and Bhindranwale as well, and the destruction of the Akal Takht, one of the most sacred shrines in the Golden temple complex. How did it happen that the Indian government failed to maintain peace in one of India’s most prosperous states, dominated by one of its most prosperous communities, not just in Punjab but throughout the country? Who was to blame?
Bhindranwale must bear much of the blame. Terrorism is a loaded word but it is the only word to describe the murders perpetrated by the young men who lived with Bhindranwale when he moved into the Golden Temple complex. He waged war against the state by turning the Akal Takht into a fortress and resisting the army’s attempt to remove him. He incited hatred against Hindus—in sermons he would say they had enslaved Sikhs.
But the blame cannot be attributed to Bhindranwale alone. Leaders of the Congress created him and the party was in power during those years, when the government appeared powerless in the face of Sikh militancy. One of the reasons for this failure in the early days was the Congress tradition of chronic internecine rivalry. Zail Singh was at loggerheads with Darbara Singh, the then chief minister of Punjab. When Bhindranwale defied the government by moving into the hostel complex of the Golden Temple and establishing his headquarters there, Darbara Singh gave orders to evict him only to be overruled by Zail Singh.
The failure to control this rivalry was only one example of the weakness Indira Gandhi showed during the Punjab crisis. There was a national outcry when the DIG of Police, AS Atwal, was shot at the main entrance of the Golden Temple complex after he had prayed in the Harmandir Sahib. Still Indira Gandhi took no action against Bhindranwale. It was only when Sikh militants separated Hindu bus passengers from Sikhs and shot them that she acted.Darbara Singh’s government was dismissed and President’s rule clamped on Punjab. Soon after, Bhindranwale brow-beat the temple high priests and the Akali Dal leaders into allowing him to move into the Akal Takht because he thought that would prevent his arrest.
A T-shirt with Bhindranwale’s photograph.
Some say Gandhi’s was weak because she feared a Sikh backlash if Bhindranwale was arrested. There is also a theory that she deliberately allowed Bhindranwale to create hostility to Sikhs to justify the eventual use of the army and set an example to separatist movements in Kashmir and the Northeast. I think this is one conspiracy theory too far. As I see it, the Punjab crisis is further evidence that, contrary to her reputation gained from the Bangladesh war, Indira Gandhi was an indecisive Prime Minister. That, I would suggest, was why in her three terms in office she let matters drift until they reached a crisis—the split in the Congress, the JP movement, and Operation Blue Star.
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Terrorism is a loaded word, but it is the only word to describe the murders by young followers of Bhindranwale.
Coming to Blue Star, there was clearly an intelligence failure. Although the Golden Temple complex was open to the public until shortly before Blue Star, and the fortification of the Akal Takht was there for all to see, the army severely misjudged the resistance Bhindranwale and his military advisor Shahbeg Singh would be able to put up. The army’s misjudgment and the damage tanks inflicted on the Akal Takht, along with the death of Bhindranwale, fuelled Sikh militancy which lasted another nine years. Those years were marked by indecisiveness too. Only two years after Blue Star, Sikh militants were allowed to occupy the Golden Temple again. The anti-Sikh riots which followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi were the most shocking failure of governance.
Ironically, Narasimha Rao—whose indecision as Home Minister during the riots was calamitous—was decisive in tackling Punjab when he became Prime Minister. He freed chief minister Beant Singh and the head of Punjab Police, K.P.S. Gill from back-seat driving by Delhi, giving them freedom to end militancy. By 1993, they were clearly in control of the situation although there were to be some setbacks such as the shooting of Beant Singh in 1995.
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The leaders of Akali Dal were also to be blamed for the rise of Bhindranwale. They tried to use him for their purposes but lost control of him. They acceded to his occupying the Akal Takht and defiling it. Inevitably, Pakistan stirred the pot by supplying arms ammunition, shelter, and training to Sikh militants. Many of the Sikh diaspora in Britain, America, and Canada were enthusiastic supporters of Bhindranwale, comfortable in the knowledge that they were in no danger of suffering from his activities back home.
But after assigning the blame to so many people, this year it is particularly appropriate to remember that this sorry story started with the distortion of Guru Nanak’s teachings for political purposes, the potentially poisonous mixture of politics and religion.
A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print
(The author is a former BBC bureau chief in Delhi who had extensively reported on Punjab militancy)