By Pav Singh
On 2 November  whilst attending meetings to organize peace committees and safety patrols, university student Aseem Shrivastava noted how the mobs had dissipated from his neighbourhood in the New Friends Colony of affluent South Delhi.
The sudden halt to the violence was inexplicable until a young Congress worker, who lived in the badly hit area of nearby Bharat Nagar, advised Aseem’s father that there was no point in holding the meetings as their property would not be touched. ‘If you lose even a pin,’ the man reportedly boasted, ‘you can get it from me.’ He revealed that ‘they’ had planned on teaching the Sikhs a ‘small lesson’ but matters had ‘got out of hand’.
Putting aside his blatant understatement, the comment tallied with the assessment of many of the survivors interviewed in Delhi’s relief camps: the ‘aggressive’ Sikh community had to be taught a lesson. This was in reference to decades of increasingly embittered political relations between the beleaguered Akali Dal party in the northern border state and the Congress party at the centre.
Yet in Delhi, the Sikh victims of November 1984 could hardly be said to have had a stake in the volatile affairs that had gripped Punjab effectively since the Partition—in the hardest hit areas of the capital, the majority of victims were poor and originally hailed from Rajasthan or pre-Partition Sindh, one of the provinces that became part of Pakistan. Needless to say, neither did they have anything to do with the assassination of Mrs Gandhi—indeed many would have been staunch supporters of her Congress party.
The roots of the issue lay in the distant past—in the Sikh Empire, its annexation by the British and ultimately in the rise of an Independent India. Despite, or perhaps because of their prominent role in the military, political and economic life of the subcontinent, Sikhs have sometimes been regarded as over-achievers, perhaps too successful, strident or demanding for their own good.
And for a community that had, two centuries earlier, forged its own powerful empire that had stretched from the Khyber Pass across the vast plains of Punjab to the Tibetan borders, and almost as far south as Delhi—which had briefly submitted to the Sikhs in 1783—the formation of an Independent India in 1947, with the partitioning of its traditional homeland of Punjab, had been a particularly difficult episode.
A century earlier, the brief but prosperous Sikh Empire had brought about peace and stability in a region that had been beset by centuries of foreign invasions and rulers. A prosperous economy emerged and ongoing development of its army, in part trained by ex-Napoleonic officers, gave rise to a tradition of military success. However, its ambitions for expansion southwards were quashed by the machinations and military might of the East India Company. Ultimately in 1849, after two bitterly-fought wars, the power of the Sikh Empire was extinguished as its territories were annexed by the British, who projected themselves as the rightful successors to the Mughals in the subcontinent.
Despite this, the Sikhs largely reconciled with their conquerors and within a generation would become stalwarts of the British Raj. This was particularly true in the armed forces where they were disproportionately represented—despite comprising only around 1 per cent of the population of British India, Sikhs made up nearly 20 per cent of the Indian Army at the start of the First World War. In the Second World War, six battalions of the Sikh Regiment fought on the battlefields of El Alamein, Burma, Italy and Iraq.
Conversely, the Sikhs would also become standard bearers of the independence movement before, during and after the World Wars. They agitated in large numbers to push for an end to colonial rule, as well as for greater autonomy in their own religious and social affairs.
In these endeavours they often paid the ultimate sacrifice: out of 2,175 Indians who were martyred for freedom, 1,557 (70 per cent) were Sikh. Of the 2,646 Indians subjected to life imprisonment on the penal colony on the Andamans Islands, 2,147 (80 per cent) were Sikh, as were ninety-two (70 per cent) of the 127 Indians who were hanged. They also made up 12,000 (60 per cent) of the 20,000-strong Indian National Army under Subhas Bose.
With the Second World War over, the new Labour government in Britain decided that India was strategically indefensible, and financially burdensome, and decided to withdraw.
As independence approached, Indian politics became fiercely sectarian. Caught between the Muslim League and the mainly Hindu Congress party, the dominant Sikh political party, the Akali Dal, threw their support behind Congress, spurred by Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru’s assurances that Sikhs’ control over their territories would be respected—Sikh political leaders having moved for an autonomous Azad (‘Free’) Punjab in 1942 as a counter to Muslim demands for Pakistan.
The Akali Dal re-floated the idea of an independent Sikh state in 1946 but the departing British showed little interest in their self-styled utopia, variously referred to as ‘Sikhistan’ and ‘Khalistan’. At the All India Congress Committee meeting in Calcutta in 1946, however, Nehru offered assurances that their desire for autonomy would be satisfied:
The brave Sikhs of Punjab are entitled to special considerations. I see nothing wrong in an area set up in the north of India wherein the Sikhs can also experience the glow of freedom.
Later that year, the possibility that the Sikhs would be granted greater federal control was broached when a resolution passed by the Indian Constituent Assembly in December 1946 gave its support, predicting that the new state of India would be an independent sovereign republic, comprising autonomous units with residuary powers.
When independence finally came the following year it ripped Punjab apart. The Land of the Five Rivers, the homeland of the vast majority of Sikhs, was bifurcated. The majority of its fertile territory went to the newly-created Pakistan. Millions of Sikhs and Hindus crossed over the new border into eastern Punjab in Independent India. The final death toll is believed to have exceeded a million. Up to 100,000 women are estimated to have been kidnapped and raped.
The new reality proved problematic for Sikh political interests. In 1949, a new article in the country’s constitution concerned many Sikhs who took offence at being categorized as ‘Hindu’ for the purposes of defining religious freedom. Having already lost an empire, they now feared the loss of identity in the suffocating grip of the Hindu ‘boa constrictor’.
However, this was followed in 1955 with a government proposal to reorganize states on a linguistic basis, rather than on caste or religious lines. This step was welcomed by Sikhs as Punjabi was predominantly spoken by them. But their hopes were dashed when Central government under Nehru reneged on the grounds that states formed on linguistic lines could pose a threat to the secular fabric of the country and thus, national unity. The issue persisted well into the 1960s, leading to protracted talks and protests by the Akali Dal.
But in 1966, Indira Gandhi, the new prime minister who was grateful for the Sikhs’ support during the Indo-Pakistani war in 1965, granted what her father had refused to do. Whilst the decision was hailed a victory for supporters of the Punjabi language, it actually resulted in the further carving up of their state since on the eve of the 1951 census the majority of Punjabi-speaking Hindus actually chose to officially identify with Hindi rather than their actual mother tongue. They had been persuaded by a pro-Hindi campaign led by Congress leader, Lala Jagat Narain, who was head of the influential Hind Samachar newspaper group.
As a consequence, the majority Hindi-speaking state of Haryana was etched out of the south-eastern districts of post-Partition Punjab. It shares its northern border with Punjab and Himachal Pradesh (also formerly a part of post-partition Punjab but declared as union territory, under Central government control, in 1956), and borders Delhi on all but its eastern side.
Since the emergence of this Hindu-majority state, acrimony has existed between it and the much-reduced Punjab, the only Sikh-majority state in India. Two of the prickliest issues were the distribution of Punjab’s river waters and the sharing of Chandigarh as state capital.
The distribution of river waters was problematic for a state whose farmers relied heavily on irrigation in order to produce the wheat and rice the nation depended on—at the time, 60 per cent of the country’s wheat stockpiles originated from Punjab, which was regarded as the ‘breadbasket of India’, having been the first state to take advantage in the green revolution of the late 1960s.
The latter issue of sharing the capital came up when Punjab’s original capital city, Lahore, had been allocated to Pakistan in 1947. A new city named Chandigarh, designed by the renowned Swiss-French modernist and architect, Le Corbusier, was to be the state’s new capital. Located on the border between Haryana and Punjab, it was under the jurisdiction of neither. Instead, it was classified as a union territory, meaning its administration was solely in the hands of Central government.
These issues would come to form the bedrock of Akali Dal demands in the coming years. In 1972, abysmal results in state and national elections saw the Congress party take control of Punjab. Forced into a period of introspection, the Akali Dal came up with an inspired solution in 1973—the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. This contained a series of policies that appealed to Sikh economic and religious sentiments to secure votes. On its release, the battle for resources and perceived injustices reached a new intensity as the demands, which included greater devolution of federal power, better allocation of Punjab’s waters and the abolishment of the limit for the recruitment of Sikhs in the army, were given little consideration in New Delhi.
When Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency two years later, the Akali Dal in Punjab offered a sustained resistance to her decision to suspend the constitution.
On the restoration of democracy in 1977, Mrs Gandhi greatly misjudged her own popularity with a resentful electorate and was roundly defeated. In Punjab, her Congress party was trounced by the Akali Dal, putting the Anandpur Sahib Resolution firmly back on the table. Some argue that she and her closest political ally, her younger son Sanjay, never forgave the Sikhs for the losses they suffered, or indeed for their fierce resistance during the Emergency.
The desire to regain power in Punjab (as well as in other states where Congress lost at the ballot box) saw Sanjay devise a plan to discredit and disrupt the Akali Dal. Key to the strategy was to divide the Sikh vote, and cause consternation to the Akali Dal. Along with Zail Singh, who had recently suffered defeat as Congress’s chief minister of Punjab, Sanjay spotted the potential in an enigmatic holy man or sant.
Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a tall, wiry Sikh preacher with a fiery oratory. Coincidentally, in 1977 he had also been selected to head his traditional Sikh seminary, the Damdami Taksal. He had been passionately campaigning from village to village in an effort to uphold Sikh orthodoxy, in particular rallying his audiences against the evils of the caste system and the dangers of alcohol consumption and illicit substances, which had blighted the Sikh peasantry.
His star was on the rise and the Congress party saw their chance to capitalize on his growing popularity.
Though not officially inducted into the Congress party, and with Zail Singh as his effective handler, Bhindranwale was carefully positioned (unknowingly according to some commentators) against the Akali Dal. The seemingly rustic, plain-speaking preacher ‘seemed too uneducated, too unsophisticated to pose any threat’ to those who had sought to direct and utilize him. However, as he gained an increasingly larger following, power and influence came, but so did the violence, including murders, bombings and even an aircraft hijacking in protest against his arrest in connection with the murder of the highly critical newspaper baron, Lala Jagat Narain, on 9 September 1981. Although a warrant was issued for his arrest in 12 September, such was his power that Bhindranwale chose when and how to hand himself in to police. He was released a month later without charge—something that could not have been done without the intervention of the recently appointed Home Minister Zail Singh. With the police still keen on arresting him, he was by August 1982 living within the sanctuary of the Golden Temple complex.
By mid-1983, Bhindranwale was clearly no longer under any control by Congress and was the most influential religious figure in Punjab. As part of a wider front of Sikh groups agitating for greater religious, political and economic demands, no political settlement was likely without his agreement. Tension between the Central government and the varying Sikh factions including the Akali Dal were at a high and Punjab was engulfed in violence, which threatened to tear it asunder.
Indira Gandhi, who had returned as prime minister in 1980, finally took action. She dismissed the ruling Congress party in Punjab and declared president’s rule—as Zail Singh had become President in 1982, in theory, this meant Bhindranwale’s former advocate was now back in charge. But by then, Bhindranwale and his militarized followers were already ensconced in the temple complex. If anything, the violence was only set to escalate. The scene was set for an ever-growing escalation of hostilities. The potential for military action was high and, by early 1984, Indian Army commandos were poised to invade the Sikhs’ holiest site.
Excerpted with the permission of Rupa Publications from the book, 1984: India’s Guilty Secret by Pav Singh.
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