In the first week of June, 36 years ago (1984) Indian army attacked the Golden Temple Amritsar, the holiest shrine of Sikhs for what was propagated to ‘flushing out terrorists entrenched there’. How much truth that official euphemism carried and how much the army action codenamed as “Operation Blue Star” succeeded in chastising the Sikh dissent has been and will remain moot points. But the reckoning impacts of that army action are: it left an indelible impact on the Sikhs that shook them off from their deep nationalistic slumber. And, secondly, it marked the turning point of the fledgling Indian democracy soon to be transmuted into a stark majoritarian and unitary rule as manifested by the Modi regime now.

It is still hard to imagine: how come the Sikhs who were proud Indian citizens representing Punjab as an ‘armed front’ and granary of the country till the 1970s metamorphosed into “anti-nationals posing threat to India’s unity and integrity”. All that happened within a short span of 5-6 years. And, no doubt, a sizeable number of Indians outside Punjab had begun believing the official description of the Sikhs propagated by the then Congress regime headed by Indira Gandhi with the help of embedded (lap dog) and willing media.

The sweep of that propaganda barrage was so astute and encompassing that a good section of Indians, particularly from thickly-populated vast Hindi cultural land had believed what New Delhi fed to them. The main thrust of the government’s publicity against the Sikhs was: “Their protests are inspired by Punjab’s bordering Pakistan out to take revenge on India for the creation of Bangladesh… Sikhs are out to dismember ‘Mother India’…Sikhs are killing Punjabi Hindus … and gurdwaras in Punjab have become Sikh terrorists’ sojourns and militant leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale dispatching killer squads from the Golden Temple, Amritsar.”

That hate-spewing vicious campaign was orchestrated through officially controlled All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan (Television) and by using the willing nationalistic print media with news agencies – UNI, PTI, and Hindi newspapers in the lead. The propaganda blitzkrieg virtually suppressed and obfuscated the reality about ‘what was the Sikh dissent and struggle; and what were their demands. Two main factions of the Akali Dal and Bhinderanwale, representing Damdami Taksal, a prominent Sikh seminary had jointly launched a protest agitation (called morcha) on August 4, 1982 from the Golden Temple, Amritsar to press their religious, economic and political demands of Punjab. There was nothing unusual for the Sikhs in making the Golden Temple, a focal point of their agitation. The venue has been epicentre of all historical Sikh protests and bloody conflicts spanning 400 years during Mughal and the British regimes. Even after independence New Delhi and the Indian political class had never opposed launching of 16-year-long ‘Punjabi Suba morcha’ and later 21-month long anti-Emergency morcha from the Golden Temple. The main demand of the later 1982 Dharmyudh morcha was the acceptance of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution which questioned the centralization of powers at New Delhi and sought their dissolution for making Indian polity truly federal and pluralistic. That demand, however, struck at the nerve-center of Indian-nation building project conceived and nurtured by Congress leaders—Nehru, Gandhi and Patel et al—much before the British wrapped up their colonial rule from India. The project had brought in its wake the Partition, creation of two inimical countries- India and Pakistan while obstructing the installing of a federal polity in sub-continent in 1947.

Against this background, the Indian Establishment had adopted a strong stance against the Akali morcha, painted it as a “revolt and rebellion” against the Indian state and sought the people’s support to “save unity and integrity of Indian nation”. Invoking of such an emotive card carried away liberal intellectuals, democrats and even a larger section of the Left who joined the issue with Indira Gandhi regime. And the Opposition also openly demanded the sending of the army in the Golden Temple to clear it of “ Bhinderanwale and his armed squads”.

A stage was, thus, set for the army to mount an attack on the Sikhs’ holiest shrine. Indira Gandhi had also earned favorable publicity within the country and abroad by holding a series of so-called tripartite meeting with Opposition and Akali leaders in February (1984) to resolve the ‘Punjab tangle’. As planned, each tripartite meeting was made to end in the deadlock and for the failure of talks invariably attributed to the “Akalis intransigence”. When a series of tripartite meetings were being held in Delhi, Congress instigated its organizational set-up in Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi to communalize and polarise the society on religious lines to isolate the tiny Sikh community. Several Hindu organizations- like Hindu Suraksha Samiti et al- floated for the purpose used to give ‘bandh calls’ on the same day of the Delhi meeting to protest against holding negotiations with the ‘anti-national’ Sikh leaders and also to raise the pitch of the street violence in Punjab and Haryana particularly.

With such heightened tempers, a majority of people in and outside Punjab were obsessed with only one thing- the ‘Punjab turmoil’ and rarely bothered about the ongoing nearly two-year-long Akali morcha under which around 3 lakh Sikh volunteers had courted arrest. That was an ideal situation for Indira Gandhi to strike with the vehemence and emerge as “Durga” for the “people’s cause”.

Against such contrived disturbance, the army attacked the Golden Temple on June third night (1984) exuding over-confidence of catching Bhinderanwale and his armed men like sitting ducks. The army had planned to clear the shrine of ‘terrorists’ within two hours before midnight on June 4-5 and to get the routine religious service restored early in the morning thereafter. But, as per the Sikh traditions, the entrenched insiders returned the soldiers’ fire, defeated their initial assaults forcing the generals to send tanks, APC, and more sophisticated weaponry inside the shrine. Poisonous gas, whose use was prohibited after World War two by UNO was also used in the Akal Takht building. It took nearly 72 hours to completely neutralize around 125 Sikh fighters holed in the building. That bloody conflict resulted in the dismantling of the Akal Takht, a temporal seat of the Sikhs built by Guru Hargobind in 1606 to challenge the Mughal held Delhi Durbar. Also, thousands of non-combatant Sikh faithful including women, children, and old assembled there to observe martyrdom day of fifth Guru Arjun Dev were killed in the raging tank and artillery firing.

The official announcement about the death of Bhainderanwale and his lieutenant Bhai Amrik Singh came on June seven with reports of the army simultaneously attacking 38 other historical gurdwaras at various places after putting clamping an unprecedented curfew in entire Punjab state. This proved that the Indian Establishment had a larger scheme of not only capturing Bhinderanwale as publicized before but to crush the Sikh dissent, their exclusive and distinct culture and history for all the time to come.

Leaving aside from the immediate political gains, Indira Gandhi had thought of achieving in terms of consolidating the ‘Hindu vote-bank’ for her party, the whole-sale targeting and suppression of the Sikhs indicated towards a mega design of New Delhi of crushing the deep notion of ‘Sikh sovereignty’ symbolically emanating from the Akal Takht. Right from Ahmed Shah Abdali down to Congress rulers of independent India have been aware of the importance of the Akal Takht as a fountainhead of the Sikh political assertion. Earlier, Abdali reduced the Akal Takht to rubble twice in 1762 and 1764 and later, the British tactically controlled “the Sikh Durbar representing a parallel to Delhi Durbar historically.”

In the modern political idiom, the Sikh dissent spreading several decades of the post-independent period manifested the “unfinished agenda of the Partition of Indian subcontinent”. As the freedom struggle shows the Congress insistence and claim on representing all religious and regional denominations in the sub-continent had obstructed its political settlement with the Muslim League. An exaggerated notion of Nehru and other Congress leaders that India had been a united cultural and historical entity with the civilization stretching beyond 5000 years amounted to the denial of the existence of other distinct nationalities developed in the sub-continent over time. And being impatient to get an early transfer of power from the colonial masters, the Congress leaders had not only agreed to the Partition but also accepted dominion status to smoothly affect the division of assets and the colonial military between India and Pakistan.

The Sikhs have been nursing grouse that they had voluntarily joined India believing in the Congress promises of according a ‘special status’ to their religious and cultural standing in independent country. Otherwise, the Sikhs’ joining Pakistan would have avoided the division of Punjab and their uprooting. On the other hand, Congress rulers being acutely aware of fragility of much diversified India’s unity retained the British administrative set-up intact and operative and attempted to consolidate the country keeping Mountbatten, representative of outgoing British empire as governor-general of the free country for two years. Anxious to build an Indian nation, the Congress rulers reneged on all its pre-independent promises with the Sikhs. Instead of politically accommodating the peripheral dissent, New Delhi chose to suppress that with force. Like some other vocal dissenting people, the Sikhs too became the target of the Indian Establishment as early as in the 1950s. And, the 1984 army attack to be followed by the Sikh massacre after five months and a decade long bloodshed in Punjab not only given the rise of ‘Hindu nationalism’ but also consolidated the larger majority as “Hindu nation” and also furnished a fertile ground for ruling BJP-RSS to concretize their 100-year-old dream of formalizing India as a “Hindu Rashtra”( Hindu State). The majoritarian rule, the travesty of the democracy has already reached midway to ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Now like other minorities, the Sikhs in Punjab also feel as “colonialized people” with police and security forces frequently penalizing the Sikh youth falsely accusing them of advocating “Khalistan” just to keep them subdued. Such a strategy of the police also helps the consolidation of the large majority nationalism- the bedrock of Indian Nation. Now, liberals are listlessly waiting for the return of the issue-based democracy which the sane elders had dreamt of.

Independent journalist Jaspal Singh Sidhu could be reached at
jaspal.sdh@gmail.com


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