July 26, 2020
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Whenever The Hawk Swooped

Religion has seldom been far from the idea of revolution, which contains within it a scope for violence. A three-part study of Sikh history.

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Whenever The Hawk Swooped
Photograph by Alamy
Whenever The Hawk Swooped

This article covers in a way the whole of Sikh history from the viewpoint of a possible relationship between religious ideology and militancy. Three periods appear to be important for this purpose: (a) the early Sikh tradition, (b) the early twentieth century, and (c) the last quarter of the twentieth century. These periods fall under three political regimes: the Mughal, the British and the Indian. The last phase is of special interest to us for the present.

The Early Sikh Tradition

The image of Guru Nanak as a ‘pacifist’ is rather misleading. He did not subscribe to ahimsa. In fact, he saw the valiant warrior as singing the glory of God. Anyone who fights bravely in battle is a khatri (kshatriya). “If you are keen to play the game of love”, says Guru Nanak, “enter my lane with your head on the palm of your hand”. The ‘game of love’ later became a metaphor for martyrdom. There is hardly any doubt that Guru Nanak was not opposed to the use of physical force.

Sword Of Spirit

A statue of Banda Bahadur

In Zafarnama, Guru Gobind Singh wrote to Aurangzeb that “it was ok to grasp the sword when all peaceful means had failed”.

The Sikh Panth made rapid progress during the sixteenth century in terms of its human and material resources and its institutions. This is well ­reflected in the foundation of Ramdaspur as an autonomous town, the construction of Harmandar in the midst of the pool of nectar (Amritsar), the compilation of a Pothi to serve as the scripture, and the organisation of the Sikh Panth by Guru Arjan, the fourth successor of Guru Nanak. Guru Arjan talks of “halemi raj”, or mild rule, having been established by God’s grace, in which there was no oppression and no coe­rcion. Guru Arjan also played ‘the game of love’ to its perfection by his martyrdom in 1606.

Guru Hargobind, the son and successor of Guru Arjan, combined soldiering with spiritual leadership. He carried two swords, one of miri (temporal power) and the other of piri (spirituality). He got the Akal Takht constructed as his court for temporal affairs. He built a fort and kept horsemen and footsoldiers. He fought battles against the official representatives of the Mughal emp­ire. All this leaves no doubt that he was prepared to use physical force in self-defence.

Early Echoes

Assembled at Stockton Gurudwara, California

Guru Tegh Bahadur played ‘the game of love’ to defend the principle of the freedom of conscience. A contemporary writer refers to him as the protective sheet of India (Hind di chadar) and the protective sheet of the world (jagg chadar). His martyrdom can be seen as embodying the Sikh conception of martyrdom.

The idea of martyrdom was built into the institution of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh. The Khalsa Singhs were ­duty-bound to bear arms and to fight, unto death if necessary. The ideal of Raj Karega Khalsa (the Khalsa shall rule) became current in the lifetime of Guru Gobind Singh with the implication that the Khalsa Singhs were to fight not only in self-­defence but also to conquer and to rule. God had commissioned Gobind to create a panth for the protection of the sants and the destruction of their enemies. As Guru Gobind Singh wrote to Aurangzeb in the Zafarnama, “it was legitimate to grasp the sword when all peaceful means had failed”. Injustice and opp­ression could not be tolerated for a long time. Significantly, Guru Gobind Singh’s position in the Dasam Granth is analogous to that of the divine incarnations like Rama and Krishna.

Historians of the Sikhs have missed the point that the eighteenth century Khalsa Raj was a legacy of Guru Gobind Singh. He was carrying on negotiations with Aurangzeb and Bahadur Shah for a peaceful settlement. By September 1708 he was convinced that his neg­otiations with Bahadur Shah would not lead to an acceptable settlement. He commissioned Banda to subvert Mughal rule in the Punjab and to establish Khalsa Raj. The Raj established by Banda was very shortlived. But it served as an example. The ‘Raj Karega Khalsa’ ideal inspired the Singhs to continue their struggle until Khalsa Raj was firmly established in the 1760s. The coin struck by the Khalsa at Lahore in 1765, the seal used by Banda in 1710, and the seal of Guru Gobind Singh have one thing in common: the idea that deg, teg and fateh (free kitchen, the sword and victory) were the gifts received from Guru Nanak.

Militancy under Colonial Rule

During this period, militancy on the part of the Sikhs app­eared in several forms. The Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast, popularly called the ‘Ghadar Party’, was formed in the US in 1913. It started the Ghadar weekly in Urdu and Gurmukhi in the summer of 1914 for revolutionary propaganda. Most of the revolutionaries were Sikhs. They invoked the Sikh tradition for inspiration, but for India’s freedom. Batches of Ghadarite revolutionaries started coming to the Punjab in 1915. Disillusioned with the people, they turned to army units, but their schemes were thwarted by the government. In a series of trials, 42 revolutio­naries were ­sentenced to death, 114 were transported for life, and 93 were given long or short terms of imprisonment. They left a legacy of militancy in the Punjab.

In August 1922, an organisation known as the Babbar Akali Jatha was formed for gaining political independence by use of force. Their publication, called the Babbar Akali Doaba, was meant to mobilise people. They started a campaign of political murders in 1923 in the districts of Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur. Their organisation was dec­lared to be unlawful in August 1923. In about a year, all their leaders were either eliminated, or arrested and tried. Most of the leaders of the movement were former Ghadarites. Six of them were hanged in 1926. The Akalis had their sympathy with the Babbars for their ideal but not with use of ­violence as the means.

The Ghadarites in Canada sent Santokh Singh and Ratan Singh as their representatives to the fourth Communist International at Moscow in November 1922. They came to India in 1923. Santokh Singh was identified and interned in his village for two years. Towards the end of 1925, he moved to Amritsar and started publishing the Kirtī, with the help of Bhag Singh Canadian, for liberating the working class from the influence of the middle-class leaders. In April 1928, a party of workers and peasants, known as the Kirti Kisan Party, was formed with the idea of gaining freedom eventually by use of force. The Kirti Kisan Party was banned in September 1934.

Another militant group, known as the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, was formed by Bhagat Singh. Its declared aim was to organise labourers and peasants for establishing an independent Republic in India. Bhagat Singh and his comrades subscribed to the idea that “a single deed makes more propaganda in a few days than a thousand pamphlets”. In 1928 the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association was activated to work for the freedom of India and to restructure Indian society on socialist principles. A bomb was thrown by Bhagat Singh and his associates in the Legislative Assembly in Delhi in April 1929 to “make the deaf hear”. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Raj Guru were tried and ­executed in March 1932.

What is common to all the four examples of militancy is the concern of their leaders with the freedom of India, and not with freedom of a religious community or some part of India—although, in the first three examples, Sikh ideology was seen as relevant. In fact, appeals were made to Sikh history as well. Consequently, Sikh ideology appeared to be a revolutionary ideology, at least partially, to the Sikh Ghadarites, the Babbar Akalis, and the Sikh leaders of the Kirti Kisan Party. Only in the fourth case were the sources of ­inspiration secular ideo­logies of revolution.

Militancy after Independence

In the 1940s the terms ‘Khalistan’ and ‘Sikh State’ were certainly known in the Punjab. There was also some talk of ­demands based on the idea of a sovereign Sikh State but a sovereign Sikh State or Khalistan was never a political programme of the Akalis, the most important ­political party of the Sikhs. (In the 1980s, the demand for Khalistan was supported by a considerable force. We propose to give more space to this development later in order to place it in a meaningful perspective.)

The Constituent Assembly formed in December 1946 for framing a new constitution for India decided in August 1947 to give no weightage but only proportionate representation to religious minorities. Later on, Sardar Patel persuaded some of the members of the ­religious minorities in the Constituent Assembly to do away with reservations too. No political safeguards for religious minorities were provided in the Constitution adopted on January 26, 1950. The religious minorities reg­arded this as a disadvantage.

Spear Of Fate

Indira Gandhi ­assassinated (left); Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (right)

In May 1950, the Akali Dal Working Committee passed a formal resolution in favour of a state based on Punjabi language and culture. The Akalis fought the elections of 1952 on the issue of a Punjabi-speaking state. The first morcha in connection with a Punjabi linguistic state was launched in May 1955. Within two months, thousands of volunteers courted arrest. Then Punjab chief minister, Bhim Sen Sachar, came to the Akal Takht personally to offer an apology for the way in which the morcha was handled. The morcha was a success but the States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) in its report of September 30, 1955, recommended the merger of Himachal Pradesh and Pepsu with East Punjab to form a new state, setting aside the criterion of language altogether.

The Akalis rejected the SRC report on October 10, 1955. A convention of all the Sikh parties and organisations authorised Master Tara Singh to approach the Government of India on behalf of the Sikh community. A scheme formulated essentially by Hukam Singh—meant to accommodate some of the Akali dem­ands without creating a Punjabi linguistic state—bec­ame the basis of discussion and an agreement was reached before the end of February 1956. It came to be known as the Regional Formula. Only Pepsu was to be merged with East Punjab, and Punjabi in Gurmukhi script was to be the official language of the Punjabi region. In the Punjabi and Hindi regions, committees were to be formed, each with a certain degree of initiative and power to legislate on 14 subjects. On September 30, 1956, the Akali Dal resolved to join the Congress and to have no separate political programme, but to concentrate on religious, educational, cultural, social, and economic interests of the Sikh Panth. The new Punjab state was inaugurated on November 1, 1956.

The Regional Formula failed because it was not meant to succeed. Master Tara Singh ­announced a demonstration march in Delhi in June 1958, and he was arrested. Nearly 18,000 Akalis were arrested ­before the end of July. The morcha continued. Sant Fateh Singh went on fast unto death on December 18 to ­induce the Prime Minister to concede the demand for “Punjabi Suba” purely on a linguistic basis. At this juncture, Master Tara Singh was released and he met Nehru at Bhavnagar on January 7, 1961. On the foll­owing day ­appeared Nehru’s ­public statement which, in his view, met the substance of Sant Fateh Singh’s ­demand. Master Tara Singh persuaded Sant Fateh Singh to give up his fast, and he did so on January 9. All the jailed Akali volunteers, ­officially stated to be 30,000, were released.

In his talks with Nehru in February and May 1961, Sant Fateh Singh found that Nehru was not prepared to let down the Arya Samaj leaders who were strongly opposed to the formation of a Punjabi linguistic state. Master Tara Singh started his fast unto death on August 15. Without any clear understanding with the Congress, Master Tara Singh was persuaded by mediators to give up his fast. He did so on the first of October 1961. A commission was formed on October 31 with S.R. Das as its chairman. In February 1962, the commission gave its verdict that implementation of the regional formula had been merely delayed, which inv­olved no injustice to the Sikhs.

A Punjabi linguistic state was created four years later. A commission was announced on April 17, 1966. The Reorganisation Bill provided not only for a Punjabi linguistic state but also for the state of Haryana. A lame Punjab state was inaugurated on November 1, 1966. A large number of genuinely Punjabi-speaking villages were left out of the new Punjab. Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab state, was made a Union Territory. Power and irrigation projects were taken over by the Union government. The Punjab problem became more complicated.

In 1912, Sikh immigrants to the US ­constructed the Stockton Gurudwara in California. It ­became a focal point of culture and ­society for the Sikhs in the West Coast and it is here that the ­revolutionary Ghadar Party was formed in the year 1913.

On July 9, 1975, the Akalis launched a ‘save democracy’ morcha against the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi. Nearly 40,000 Akalis courted arrest before the Emergency was withdrawn early in 1977. In October 1978, the All India Akali Conference at Ludhiana passed about a dozen res­olutions in the light of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973, covering a wide range of political, economic, religious, cultural, and social issues, ­including Centre-state relations, merger of Chandigarh and other Punjabi-speaking areas in Punjab, control of all headworks, and just distribution of river waters.

After the 1980 elections, the Congress CM Darbara Singh had to deal with a situation marked by increasing violence till the premature end of his ministry in October 1983. The Nirankari baba Gurbachan Singh was murdered in Delhi. Sant Jarnail Singh was a ­suspect. In September 1981, Lala Jagat Narain, editor of the Hind Samachar group of pap­ers, who was sympathetic ­towards the Sant Nirankaris, was murdered. Sant Jarnail Singh as a suspect chose to offer himself for arrest on September 20. A huge crowd gathered at Chowk Mehta and, for some reason, the police opened fire, killing 11 people. Sant Jarnail Singh was ­rel­eased from custody ­on October 15.

Directed to pursue the Anandpur Sahib Resolution at a World Sikh Convention in July 1981, the Akalis presented a memorandum of 15 demands to the prime minister in October. Indira Gandhi did not want to change her arbitrary award of 1976. She was keen to get the SYL canal dug for Haryana. The nahar roko (block the canal) agitation of the Akali Dal in April 1982 failed to produce any effect. Sant Jarnail Singh joined the dharam yudh morcha and it gained momentum. Darbara Singh’s ministry came to an end with the imposition of President’s rule on October 6, 1983.

From April 4 to August 29, 1983, the Akalis organised rasta roko (block the roads), rail roko (stop the trains) and kam roko (stop work) campaigns. On February 8, 1984, a tripartite meeting was held in Delhi which was attended by five cabinet ministers and five secretaries, five Akali leaders, and 15 leaders from the opp­osition parties. It came close to a successful settlement. But anti-Sikh violence was orch­estrated in Haryana to scuttle a settlement.

Sant Longowal gave a call in May 1984 for non-cooperation with effect from June 3, ironically the day on which Operation Blue Star was to start. The final decision in fav­our of army action was taken by Indira Gandhi in April 1984. Punjab was cut off from the rest of the country on June 3. The army opened exploratory fire on June 4. On June 5 the commandos proved to be ineffective. Tanks were used on the morning of June 6. The crucial action in the Golden Temple complex was over ­before nightfall. A large number of pilgrims, including women and children, died in cross-firing. According to one estimate, the total casualties of civilians were about 5,000. The most traumatic event for the Sikhs in free India, Operation Blue Star affected the political, ­social, cultural, and intell­ectual life of the Sikhs.

Indira Gandhi got the Akal Takht rebuilt, but this brought no solace to the Sikhs. Indira was shot dead by her Sikh guards on October 31. Her assassination was followed by orchestrated violence in Delhi and some other cities against Sikhs. Sympathy for Indira Gandhi gave majority to the Congress in the parliamentary elections. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, became the new prime minister. The Rajiv-Longowal Accord was signed on July 24, 1985. Nothing tangible was conceded on any of the major demands of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, but commissions were appointed for various important issues. Sant Longowal was assassinated on August 20, 1985. His mantle fell on Surjit Singh Barnala who was sworn in as chief minister on September 29, 1985.

The first setback to the ­accord came over the issue of Chandigarh, which was not transferred to Punjab on January 26, 1986, the date fixed in the accord.  The report of the Ranganath Mishra Commission on the Delhi massacres came out in February 1987. It made the Sikhs all the more distrustful of the Congress. The Barnala ministry was suddenly dismissed to impose President’s rule on May 11, 1987.

By the summer of 1987 there were more than a score of militant groups. Four of these were really important: the Bhindranwale Tigers, the Babbar Khalsa, the Khalistan Commando Force, and the Khalistan Liberation Force. In view of a great spurt in militancy, Bhai Jasbir Singh Rode, an extremist, was released from detention in March 1988 to work for a settlement short of Khalistan. K.P.S. Gill, Director General of Police, ­organised Operation Black Thunder and obliged the militants in the Golden Temple complex to surrender. But militancy continued to increase.

Up In Smoke

The bomb blast that killed Beant Singh (inset)

The Janata Dal came into power at the Centre in November 1989, and the Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, visited the Golden Temple as a gesture of goodwill towards the Sikhs. He organised all-party meetings to evolve a reasonable political settlement but, as the head of a coalition ministry, he was not strong enough to concede any major demand. Chandra Shekhar replaced V.P. Singh as prime minister in November 1990, with outside support from the Congress. He started secret negotiations with some of the militant groups to exp­lore possibilities of a solution within the framework of the Indian Constitution. As a representative of all the Akali factions, Simranjit Singh Mann met Chandra Shekhar on December 28 and gave him a memorandum demanding the right to self-determination. The Congress leaders were ­opposed to elections scheduled for June 21, 1991. The elections were postponed in the early hours of the polling day by the Chief Election Commissioner. Chandra Shekhar resigned.

On July 9, 1975, the Akalis launched ­a ‘save ­democracy’ morcha against the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi.

The new Congress prime minister was P.V. Narsimha Rao. The elections in Punjab were held in February 1992. Despite alleged heavy rigging in favour of the Congress, only about 22 per cent of the total votes were polled. Beant Singh claimed to have got a popular mandate. In the summer of 1992 the security forces were successful in killing some of the important leaders of the Bhindranwale Tigers Force and the Babbar Khalsa. By the middle of 1993, Punjab was relatively calm. Despite the ­return of normalcy, Beant Singh was killed by a human bomb on August 31, 1995. The Babbar Khalsa ­announced that Beant Singh had been punished for ­betr­aying the Sikh comm­u­n­ity. ­In his anxiety to contain militancy, Beant Singh had not cared about the means and methods employed by the ­security forces. Along with militants, many innocents were killed in anti-insurgency operations. K.P.S. Gill delib­erately closed his eyes to ­police atrocities and illegalities. The chief minister was ­either ­unable or ­unwilling to rein in the security forces.

All political parties began to prepare for parliamentary elections in 1996. The Akali Dal (Badal) declared the establishment of halemi raj (governance of equity and moderation) to be its goal. For the first time, its membership was opened to Hindus and the idea of Punjabiat was projected to create the impression that the Akali Dal was a reg­ional rather than a Sikh party. Elections to the Punjab assembly were held in February 1997. The Akali Dal formed an alliance with the BJP and won 75 seats, while the BJP won 18. The Akali Dal and the BJP formed a coalition with four-fifths majority. The total seats of the Akali Dal were the highest since the creation of the Punjabi linguistic state. After 1997, the moderate Akalis under the leadership of Badal became dominant in the Akali Dal, the SGPC, and the Punjab assembly. At the end of the twentieth century Parkash Singh Badal was the undisputed leader of the Akalis.

The Sikh militancy of 1984-92 was, essentially, the result of a political competition bet­ween the Akalis and the Congress. The contest between the Congress and the Akalis can be traced to the very beg­inning of independence. The measures taken by the Congress created a general feeling of resentment among the Sikhs. In the movement for Khalistan, primacy was given to the aspiration for freedom. The demand for Khalistan was not an Akali demand. The Sikh militants used force not only against the government but also against the Sikhs in certain situations to impose their will. When the militants were no longer in a position to hold out threats, the Sikhs in general began to exercise their own discretion in political matters. On the return of constitutional politics, the majority of the Sikhs voted for the most moderate Akali leaders.

Finally, we come to the question of God and religion for the Sikh militancy after independence. The militants propagated no new religious ideology, but insisted on the norms of Sikhism evolved in the early tradition and the Singh Sabha movement. The major difference between the militants and the Akalis rel­ated to the use of physical force. For the Akalis, the time to use force had not yet come, but for the militants it had. It was necessary to assert Sikh identity with physical force. It seems, therefore, that Sikh ideology by itself does not lead inevitably to violence.

J.S. Grewal is a historian, writer and former Vice-Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University

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