This month marks thirty three years of the death of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – a fiery Sikh preacher who was accused by the Indian state of being involved in terrorist activities.
He died fighting against the Indian army at the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine of the Sikhs that was turned into a battlefield in June 1984. The army assault was ordered by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to flush out the place of worship from the armed militants who had stockpiled weapons to carry out an armed insurgency in Punjab. They were seeking special rights for the minority Sikh community and their state of Punjab. The peaceful agitation for these rights was repeatedly snubbed by the Congress government in New Delhi resulting into the emergence of Bhindranwale.
His oratory skills, an uncompromising nature and power to convince the youth to take to arms to fight back against injustice made him popular in Punjab. Thanks to the indifference of the Indian establishment, the Sikh youth felt alienated by the mainstream. He encouraged young men to keep arms and resist against repression. His followers indulged in political killings and other violent activities at his command. As a result of his growing influence, the mainstream Sikh political party of the state, Shiromani Akali Dal started wooing him and let him use the Golden Temple Complex as his refuge. Some of his speeches revolved around the subject that how Indian state treat Sikh community as “second class citizens”, were inflammatory against the Hindus for whom he sometimes used offensive language.
By the month of June 1984, Indira Gandhi decided to end Sikh militancy and ordered an infamous Operation Bluestar that resulted into the deaths of many innocent pilgrims and devastation of the buildings inside the shrine. Bhindranwale, who died fighting in the battle, became a “martyr” for many Sikhs while the mainstream media and political parties continue to portray him as a political extremist.
Justifying the military assault the government of India dubbed Bhindranwale and his followers as separatists even though they had never officially demanded a separate Sikh state. The Indian government went to the extent of accusing them of being aided and abetted by the foreign powers to disintegrate the country.
The Sikh community all over India felt humiliated by the army operation and there were angry protests all over the world. On October 31, 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards following which anti Sikh pogrom was organized in different parts of the country. The members of the so called secularist Congress party of the slain leader were seen instigating the mobs targeting innocent Sikhs. The Indian army that was rushed to deal with a handful of Sikh militants during Operation Bluestar was nowhere to be seen when the Sikh civilians were crying for help.
These incidents helped Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi to muster a brute majority in the general election that followed the murder of his mother giving credence to the belief that the army operation was aimed at winning election by “teaching Sikhs a lesson”.
Now fast forward to the year 2012, when a controversial Hindu nationalist leader Bal Thackrey passed away. He was the founder of Shiv Sena – a Hindu fanatical organization that not only wants to turn India into Hindu state but also believes in Maharashtrian nationalism.
Much like Bhindranwale, Thackrey was also popular among the Hindu youth of Maharashtra. Unlike Bhindranwale though, he saw that Hindu majority in India as being deceived by the “secularist Indian state” that was “appeasing” the minority communities. It opposed any affirmative action that was needed to uplift the minorities and the oppressed groups. Muslims were frequently targeted by the Shiv Sena that also terrorized people from outside Maharashtra
Thackrey’s calls for forming death squads to eliminate Muslims and his repeated involvement in anti Muslim violence in Bombay was no less than hate crimes for which Bhindranwale and his community were punished.
Shiv Sena became popular enough during 1980s the time period that saw Bhindranwale emerging as an undisputed Sikh militant figure. Conspiracy theories suggest that both the men were created by the Congress for short term political gains. If Bhindranwale benefitted Congress in Punjab by weakening the Akali Dal, Thackrey helped the Congress in Maharashtra by weakening the communist movement which had a strong influence over the trade union in the state.
However, the state response to both the extremes remained different. After all Bhindranwale got into a direct conflict with the state, while Thackrey got co-opted into the mainstream politics.
During the years to come, Shiv Sena became a powerful political force that had representatives not only in the Maharashtra state assembly but also in the central governments led by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Nevertheless, Thackrey’s anti minority rhetoric continued unchallenged.
When Thackrey died in 2012, he was not just given a 21 gun salute, but his body was also covered with the Indian national flag. Ironically, it was not the BJP, but the Congress party that was in power when all this happened. If this was not enough, a condolence motion on Thackrey’s death was also passed in the house that never apologized for the Operation Bluestar – a blunder that led to more violence in Punjab until mid 1990s and humiliated a minority community.
The Indian state in spite of its commitment towards secularism had bended on its knees to please the supporters of Thackrey. Agree or not Bhindranwale was punished by using state power for representing minority extremism, whereas Thackrey was accepted as a national figure despite his bigoted narrative as he suited the interest of the Hindu majority. Even after their deaths the two figures are treated and seen differently. Any attempt to celebrate Bhindranwale’s birth or the death anniversaries by the Sikh activists is seen as seditious, whereas Thackrey remains holier than thou. This only shows the Indian brand of democracy in bad light as it is more about ruthless and heartless majoritarian democracy and not an inclusive democracy that embraces everyone, including those on the receiving end.
On the occasion of 33rd anniversary of Operation Bluestar, the Congress must take responsibility for setting a precedent for such fake democracy by compromising with the forces of bigotry and giving the BJP a space to grow and acquire the centre stage under men like Narendra Modi – a controversial Prime Minister who is known for his anti Muslim stance in the past.
Gurpreet Singh is a Canada- based journalist who publishes Radical Desi- a monthly magazine that covers alternative politics.