BOOK EXCERPT

The Bhindranwale cult: How politics allowed an obscure preacher to challenge Indian democracy

As Jammu is gripped by tension caused by the removal of posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale on the 31st anniversary of Operation Blue Star, the acclaimed historian revisits the events that left a collective wound in the psyche of the Sikhs.

As Jammu remains tense after posters of separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale were taken down by the authorities ahead of the 31st anniversary of Operation Blue Star on June 5, these excerpts from historian Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy recount the circumstances under which an obscure preacher went on to become a threat for the Indian government. This led Indira Gandhi to order the army into Sikhism's holiest shrine in 1984. The army operation left Bhindranwale dead among 3,500 or so others, the Golden Temple damaged, and a collective wound in the psyche of the Sikhs.

***

In April 1978 there was a mass convention at Amritsar of a religious sect, the Nirankaris. The Nirankaris thought of themselves as Sikhs, but since they believed in a living Guru were regarded as heretics by the faithful. With the Akalis in power, some priests professed shame that the Holy City was being profaned thus. Leading the opposition to the Nirankari meeting was a hitherto obscure preacher named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Born into a family of Jat Sikhs, Bhindranwale had left his wife and children to become head of a seminary called the Damdami Taksal. His was an impressive presence: over six feet tall, slim and athletic, with probing eyes and dressed in a long blue robe. He was an effective and even inspiring preacher, with a deep knowledge of the Sikh scriptures. He claimed that Sikhs ‘were slaves in independent India’, discriminated against by the Hindus. Bhindranwale wanted the Sikhs to purify themselves and return to the fundamentals of their faith. He spoke scathingly of the corrupt and effete Hindu, but mocked even more the modernized Sikh, he who had so far forgotten himself as to cut his hair and consume tobacco and alcohol.

Punjab politics

By some accounts, Bhindranwale was built up by Sanjay Gandhi and the Union home minister Zail Singh (himself a former chief minister of Punjab) as a counter to the Akalis. Writing in September 1982 the journalist Ayesha Kagal remarked that the preacher ‘was originally a product nurtured and marketed by the Centre to cut into the Akali Dal’s sphere of influence’.  The keyword here is ‘originally’. For whoever it was who first promoted him, Bhindranwale quickly demonstrated his own independent source of charisma and influence. To him were attracted many Jats of a peasant background who had seen the gains of the Green Revolution being cornered by the large landowners. Other followers came from the lower Sikh castes of artisans and labourers; they saw in the process of purification their own social advancement. Bhindranwale also benefited from the general increase of religiosity which, in the Punjab as in some other places, followed upon rapid and unexpected economic development.

While the Nirankari convention was in progress at Amritsar in April 1978 Bhindranwale preached an angry sermon from the precincts of the Golden Temple. Moved by his words, a crowd of Sikhs descended upon the place where the heretics were meeting. The Nirankaris fought back; in the battle that ensued, fifteen people died.

Sikh pride took another blow in 1980, when the Akalis were dismissed and the Congress returned to power in Punjab. In June of that year a group of students met at the Golden Temple and proclaimed the formation of an independent Sikh republic. The republic had a name, Khalistan, and a president, a Sikh politician based in London named Jagjit Singh Chauhan. Primarily it was Sikh emigres who were behind this move; the pronouncement was made simultaneously in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and France.

The government in Delhi was not unduly worried by these elements at the fringe. Its attention was focused on the Akalis, who, out of power, had chosen the path of confrontation. Their new leader, Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal, lodged himself in the GoldenTemple, from where he would announce street protests on a variety of themes such as the handing over of Chandigarh, or the greater allocation of canal water. Bhindranwale was operating from another part of the temple. He had acquired a group of devoted gun-toting followers who acted as his acolytes and bodyguards and, on occasion, as willing and unpaid killers.

Politics of assassination

Through the early 1980s the politics of agitation co-existed uneasily with the politics of assassination. In April 1980 the Nirankari leader Baba Gurcharan Singh was shot dead in New Delhi. It was widely believed that Bhindranwale was behind the killing, but no action was taken. Then in September 1981 came the murder of Lala Jagat Narain, an influential editor who had polemicized vigorously against Sikh extremism. This time a warrant went out for the preacher’s arrest. The police went to pick him up from a gurdwara in Haryana, but by the time they arrived Bhindranwale had returned to the safety of his own seminary in the Punjab. The chief minister, Darbara Singh, was all for pursuing him there, but he was dissuaded by the Union home minister, Zail Singh, who was worried about the political fall-out that might result. Bhindranwale then sent word that he was willing to turn himself in, but at a time of his choosing, and only so long as the arresting officers were Sikhs wearing beards. Amazingly, the Punjab government agreed to these humiliating terms. Two weeks after the murder the preacher gave himself up outside his seminary, even as a crowd of supporters chanted slogans and threw stones at the police. At several other places in the state his followers attacked state property, provoking the police to fire on them. According to one report, a dozen people died in the violence surrounding Bhindranwale’s arrest.

Three weeks later he was released for lack of evidence. Two chroniclers of the Punjab agitation write that ‘Bhindranwale’s release was the turning point in his career. He was now seen as a hero who had challenged and defeated the Indian government’. Another says that with the drama of his arrest ‘Bhindranwale had transformed himself from a murder suspect [into] a new political force’.

Throughout 1982 there were many rounds of negotiations between the centre and the Akalis. No agreement was reached, the sticking points being the areas Punjab would give up to Haryana in exchange for Chandigarh, and the sharing of river waters. On 26 January 1983, Republic Day, the Akali legislators in the state assembly resigned, the timing of their action suggesting perhaps an uncertain commitment to the Indian Constitution. The challenge of Bhindranwale was forcing them to become more extreme. The Akalis were now prone to comparing Congress rule to the bad old days of the Mughals. They began organizing shaheed jathas (martyrdom squads) to fight the new tormentors of the Sikhs.

On 22 April 1983 a high-ranking Sikh policeman, AS Atwal, was killed as he left the Golden Temple after prayers. The man who shot him at close range coolly walked in afterwards. Atwal’s murder further demoralized the Punjab police, itself overwhelmingly Sikh. A spate of bank robberies followed. Sections of the Hindu minority began fleeing the state. Those who remained organized themselves under a Hindu Suraksha Sangh (Defence Force). Centuries of peaceable relations between Hindus and Sikhs were collapsing under the strain.

In interviews, Bhindranwale described the Sikhs as a ‘separate qaum’, a word that is sometimes taken to mean ‘community’ but which can just as easily be translated as ‘nation’. He had not asked for Khalistan, he said, but were it offered to him he would not refuse. The prime minister of India he mocked as a ‘Panditain’, daughter of a Brahmin, a remark redolent with the contempt that the Jat Sikh has for those who work with their minds rather than their hands. Asked whether he would meet Mrs Gandhi he answered, ‘No I don’t want to, but if she wants to meet me, she can come here.’

To his followers, Bhindranwale could be even more blunt. ‘If the Hindus come in search of you’, he told them once, ‘smash their heads with television antennas.’ He reminded them of the heroic history of the Sikhs. When the Mughals had tried to destroy the Gurus, ‘our fathers had fought themwith 40 Sikhs against 100,000 assailants’. They could do the same now with their new oppressors. There was also a contemporary model at hand – that of Israel. If the few Jews there could keep the more numerous Arabs at bay, said Bhindranwale, then the Sikhs could and must do the same with the Hindus.

Communal violence

On 5 October 1983, terrorists stopped a bus on the highway, segregated the Hindu passengers and shot them. The next day President’s Rule was imposed in the state. In the last weeks of 1983 Bhindranwale took up residence in the Akal Takht, a building second in importance only to the Golden Temple. The latter, standing in the middle of a shimmering blue lake, is venerated by Sikhs as the seat of spiritual authority; the former, an imposing marble building immediately to its north, had historically served as the seat of temporal authority. It was from the Akal Takht that the great Gurus issued their hukumnamas, edicts that all Sikhs were obliged to follow and honour. It was here that Sikh warriors came to receive blessings before launching their guerrilla campaigns against their medieval oppressors. That Bhindranwale chose now to move into the Akal Takht, and that no one had the courage to stop him, were acts steeped in the most dangerously profound symbolism.

***

The rise of communal violence in the Punjab falsified numerous predictions made about the province and its peoples. In the 1950s it was claimed that the Sikhs would become increasingly ‘Hinduized’, indeed, become a sect of the great pan-Indian faith instead of standing apart as a separate religion. In the 1960s it was argued that, having tasted power, the Akali Dal would become ‘secularized’; that its rhetoric and policies would henceforth be directed by economic rather than religious considerations. By the 1970s conflict had replaced consensus as the dominant motif of Punjab social science, except that the trouble, when it came, was expected to run along the lines of class, with the Green Revolution turning Red.

By the beginning of the next decade, however, the situation of the Sikhs in India was being compared to that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Here, as there, wrote the political scientist Paul Wallace in 1981, ‘language, religion and regionalism combined into a potentially explosive context which political elites struggle to contain’.  Within the next year or two this mixture had been made still more deadly by the addition of a fourth ingredient: armed violence. Hindu-Sikh conflict was, in the context of Indian history, unprecedented...

[...]

***

Meanwhile, the conflict in the Punjab assumed dangerous proportions. The attacks on Hindu civilians grew more frequent. On 30 April 1984 a senior Sikh police officer, a particular scourge of the terrorists, was killed. Then, on 12 May, Ramesh Chander, son of the editor Jagat Narain and inheritor of his mantle, was also murdered. By now Bhindranwale’s men had begun fortifying the Golden Temple, supervised by Shubeg Singh, a former major general of the Indian army, a one-time hero of the 1971 war who had trained the Mukti Bahini.

Under Shubeg’s guidance the militants began laying sandbags on turrets and occupying high buildings and towers around the temple complex. The men on these vantage points were all in wireless contact with Shubeg in the Akal Takht. An attack by government troops was clearly anticipated. The defences were prepared in the hope that they might hold out long enough to provoke a general uprising among Sikhs in the villages, and a mass march towards the besieged temple. Enough food was stocked to last the defenders a month.

The Generals

The other side too was preparing for action. On 31 May Major General RS Brar was summoned from Meerut, where he was in charge of an infantry division, and told he would have to lead the operation to rid the temple of terrorists. Brar was a Jat Sikh, whose ancestral village was but a few miles from Bhindranwale’s. And he knew Shubeg Singh well – the latter had been Brar’s instructor at the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun and they had worked together in the Bangladesh operations.

Brar was briefed by two lieutenant generals, Sundarji and Dayal. The government, he was told, believed that the situation in the Punjab had passed out of control of the civil administration. The centre’s attempts to arrive at a settlement with Akalis had run aground. The Akalis had failed to convince Bhindranwale to dismantle the fortifications and leave the temple. And they were themselves getting more militant. The Akali leader Sant Longowal had announced that on 3 June he would lead a movement to stop the passage of grain from the state. A siege was considered, and rejected, because of the fear of a rebellion in the countryside. The prime minister had thus decided, ‘after much reluctance’, that the militants had to be flushed out. Brar was asked to plan and lead what was being called ‘Operation Bluestar’, with the mandate that it should be finished in forty-eight hours if possible, with no damage to the Golden Temple itself and with minimum loss of life.

The assault

Within twenty-four hours of this briefing the army began moving into Amritsar, taking over control of the city from the paramilitary. On 2 June a young Sikh officer entered the temple, posing as a pilgrim, and spent an hour walking around, carefully noting the preparations made for its defence. Patrols were also sent to study the vantage points occupied by the militants outside, which would have to be cleared before the assault.

On the night of the 2nd, the prime minister spoke on All India Radio. She appealed to ‘all sections of Punjab’ not to ‘shed blood, [but] shed hatred’. The call was disingenuous, since the army was already preparing for its assault. On the 3rd, Punjab’s road, rail and telephone links were cut off, but in Amritsar itself the curfew was lifted to allow pilgrims to mark the anniversary of the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev.

The next day saw sporadic firing in the temple’s perimeter as the army tried to knock out the towers occupied by the militants. That day and the next announcements were broadcast over loudspeakers asking pilgrims to leave the temple. The attack itself was launched on the night of the 5th. Brar’s hope was that the peripheral parts of the temple would be seized by midnight, after which a lodgement would be placed within the Akal Takht, reinforcements sent up and the whole place cleared by the morning of the next day. His plan grievously underestimated the number of militants, their firepower, their skill and their resolve. Every window in the Akal Takht had been boarded up, with snipers placed to fire through cracks from within. Other militants with machine guns and grenades were scattered through the complex, using their knowledge of its narrow passages and verandahs to launch surprise attacks on the advancing troops.

By 2 am on the 6th the troops were a fair way behind schedule. Brar writes that ‘due to intense multi-directional fire of the militants, our forces were unable to get close enough [to the Akal Takht] to achieve any degree of accuracy’. Finally, permission from Delhi was requested to use tanks to break the defences. By dawn, several tanks – the estimates range from five to thirteen – had broken through the temple’s gates and taken up position. Through much of the day they rained fire on the Akal Takht. In the evening it was deemed safe to send troops into the building to capture any defenders who might still remain. They found Shubeg Singh dead in the basement, still clutching his carbine, with a walkie-talkie next to his body. Also found in the basement were the bodies of Bhindranwale and his devoted follower, Amrik Singh of the All India Sikh Students’ Federation.

The aftermath

The government estimated the death toll at 4 officers, 79 soldiers and 492 terrorists. Other accounts place the number of deaths much higher; at perhaps 500 or more troops, and 3,000 others, many of these pilgrims caught in the cross-fire.

‘Notwithstanding the fact that by converting the House of God into a battlefield, all the principle sand precepts of the ten Sikh gurus were thrown overboard’, remarks RS Brar, ‘it must be admitted that the tenacity with which the militants held their ground, the stubborn valour with which they fought the battle, and the high degree of confidence displayed by them merits praise and recognition. It is impossible not to sympathize with the writer of these words, whose own job was, without question, the most difficult ever assigned to an Indian army commander in peacetime or in war. The Sikh general to whom both Brar and Shubeg reported during the liberation of Bangladesh had this to say about Operation Bluestar: ‘The army was used to finish a problem created by the government. This is the kind of action that is going to ruin the army.’

***

The Golden Temple is ten minutes’ walk from Jallianawala Bagh where, in April 1919, a British brigadier ordered his troops to fire on a crowd of unarmed Indians. More than 400 people died in the firing. The incident occupies a hallowed place in nationalist myth and memory; the collective outrage it provoked was skilfully used by Mahatma Gandhi to launch a countrywide campaign against colonial rule. Operation Bluestar differed in intent – it was directed at armed rebels, rather than a peaceable gathering – but its consequences were not dissimilar. It left a collective wound in the psyche of the Sikhs, crystallizing a deep suspicion of the government of India. The Delhi regime was compared to previous oppressors and desecrators, such as the Mughals, and the eighteenth-century Afghan marauder Ahmad Shah Abdali.  A reporter touring the Punjab countryside found a sullen and alienated community’. As one elderly Sikh put it, ‘Our inner self has been bruised. The base of our faith has been attacked, a whole tradition has been demolished.’ Now, even those Sikhs who had previously opposed Bhindranwale began to see him in a new light. For, whatever his past errors and crimes, it was he and his men who had died defending the holy shrine from the vandals.

The view from outside the Punjab was quite different. Many people commended Mrs Gandhi for taking firm (if belated) action against terrorists claimed to be in the pay of Pakistan. The prime minister herself was now prompted to move against elements in other states who were opposed to her.

Excerpted with permission from India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, Ramachandra Guha, Picador India.

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