India & the Sikhs since Bluestar: mapping the fault-lines

Over thirty years after one of the most contentious events in India’s history, Professor Pritam Singh considers its ongoing consequences.

In order to grasp the epochal significance of Operation Bluestar in understanding the Sikhs’ relationship with the Indian state and Indian nationalism since 1984, understanding some key issues relating to the founding of the Sikh faith and Sikh-Hindu relations is of pivotal importance.

When Guru Nanak (1469-1539) appointed Guru Angad (1504-1552) as his successor to lead the new Sikh faith, the seeds of institutionalised Sikh identity were sown. The world view articulated in Shri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, is universal in character and Guru Nanak sought, through the appointment of Guru Angad as his successor, an institutional foundation to give shape to that universalist world view. Had Guru Nanak not institutionalised his succession, his followers would have remained in the same status as Kabir and many other Bhakti saints – a group primarily given to religious meditative practices. The roots of the conflict between the majority Hindu faith in India and the Punjab-based Sikh faith that led to Operation Bluestar lie in Guru Nanak’s appointment, in his own lifetime, of Guru Angad as the second Guru of the Sikhs. Guru Angad’s appointment as Nanak’s successor is the key to understanding the dynamic of the Sikh-Hindu relationship and eventually to the Sikhs’ relationship with the Hindu-majority, formally secular, Indian nation state.

The Sikhs, in their over five-hundred-year history, have engaged with three state forms: the Moghul monarchical state, the British colonial state and the post-colonial Indian nation state. With each of these state forms, a period of harmony has been eventually punctured by violence – Guru Arjan’s martyrdom in 1606 and two ghallugharas (holocausts/genocides) in 1746 (10,000 deaths) and 1762 (30, 000 deaths) during the Moghul period, the Nankana Sahib massacre in 1921 (130 deaths) during the British period, and Operation Bluestar, the third ghallughara, in 1984 (5,000 deaths) during the Indian nation state rule.

Operation Bluestar is the first major violence inflicted on the Sikhs since the Hindu-majority nation state came into being.

All previous violence against the Sikhs happened under non-Hindu state forms. Therefore, the ramifications of this violence have direct bearings on Sikh-Hindu relations, although it also changed the Sikh-Muslim relationship in reversing, to some extent, the earlier hostility between the Sikhs and the Muslims.

SAINTS OR SINNERS?: Beant Singh (l) and Satwant Singh elicit vastly different reactions from Sikhs and Hindu nationalists
SAINTS OR SINNERS?: Beant Singh (l) and Satwant Singh elicit vastly different reactions from Sikhs and Hindu nationalists

The fault-lines mapped here between the Sikhs and Indian/Hindu nationalism are political fault-lines. There is a whole arena of social, cultural and even religious life where the Sikhs and Hindus, especially Punjabi Hindus, have a shared universe. I have linked Indian/Hindu nationalism not because there is no difference between the two but because, despite crucial differences, an essential unity exists between them on the question of sharing a vision of unified one-nation Indian statehood.

The fault-lines relate to those events/individuals that are viewed positively by the Sikh nationalists and negatively by the Indian/Hindu nationalists. These include the Operation Bluestar memorial, Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, General Shubeg Singh, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, Jinda/Sukha, Balwant Singh Rajaona and Sikh army rebels.

The importance of constructing the Operation Bluestar memorial needs to be understood in the context of the significance attached to memory in the Sikh tradition.

The Sikh ardaas (prayer) is perhaps a unique religious/political tradition in the history of world religions where the history of the community, from the time of Guru Nanak to the present day, is invoked in capsule form at every important event in the day-to-day life of the Sikhs. In many gurdawars, the daily ardaas has incorporated Operation Bluestar as the third ghallughara, one of the memorable events in Sikh history. The Indian/Hindu nationalist response has been very hostile to the project of this memorialisation of Operation Bluestar, either in the form of a memorial in the Golden Temple complex or in the form of its incorporation in the Sikh ardaas. Leading Indian/Hindu politicians have been urging the Sikhs to forgive and forget Operation Bluestar, but this has further reinforced Sikh insistence on memorialisation. The memorialisation of Operation Bluestar has become a permanent fault-line between Sikh political aspirations and the Indian/Hindu nationalist political project.

Operation-Bluestar2Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who led the resistance against the Indian army attack on the Golden Temple, has become the best known symbol of opposing political positions between the Sikhs and Indian/Hindu nationalists. He is overwhelmingly celebrated as a national hero by the Sikhs, while being maligned as a terrorist/secessionist by those with mainstream tendencies in Indian politics. It is important to mention here that certain non-Sikh political factions in India, such as Dalits and some Naxalite groups opposed to Indian nationalism, do view and celebrate Bhindrawale positively as a significant representative of resistance to Hindu and Indian nationalism. Mr V Rajshekar, a prominent Dalit intellectual and the editor of Dalit Voice, has argued consistently that Sant Bhindranwale has been one of the most important leaders of the anti-caste movement in India. Similarly, a Maoist tendency in Andhra Pradesh (People’s War Group) had publicly hailed the Bhindrawale-led resistance against the Indian army in the battle at the Golden Temple in 1984.

General Shubeg Singh, a retired Indian army general, who assisted Bhindrawale in leading the armed resistance against the Indian army’s entry into the Golden Temple complex, is widely respected and honoured by the Sikhs, but the Indian nationalist establishment condemns him as a traitor.

Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, the assassins of Indira Gandhi, have become folk heroes in Sikh imagination. I have personally heard young singers at Sikh festivals celebrating their bravery and sacrifice in avenging the attack on the Golden Temple. Beant Singh was killed shortly after the assassination by Gandhi’s bodyguards and Satwant Singh was sentenced to death and hanged. Both of them are severely condemned by Indian/Hindu nationalist as traitors. In contrast, Sikh admiration for them can be gauged from the fact that both Beant Singh’s father and widow were elected to the Indian parliament by Sikh voters in Punjab. Both Beant Singh and Satwant Singh have been honoured by having their portraits placed in the Sikh museum.

Harjinder Singh Jinda and Sukhdev Singh Sukha (popularly known as Jinda and Sukha), who assassinated the Indian Army Chief General Vaidya during the army attack on the Golden Temple in 1984, are celebrated heroes of the Sikh community, while the Indian establishment punished them by hanging them. Their families have been honoured by Akal Takhat, a move that has attracted sharp criticism from Indian/Hindu nationalist political tendencies.

Balwant Singh Rajoana has proudly admitted to being involved in the plot to assassinate Beant Singh, a Congress Chief Minister of Punjab (1992-95) who had presided over the Indian state’s campaign against Sikh militancy. Rajoana was sentenced to death but the court order to hang him had to be postponed indefinitely due to a popular upsurge in Punjab against the court decision. This upsurge was so massive that even Beant Singh’s family was forced to appeal for clemency for Rajoana. The fault-lines are sharply drawn between the Sikhs and Indian/Hindu nationalists on the question of whether he should be hanged or not.

The Sikh soldiers who mutinied from the Indian army after hearing about the attack on the Golden Temple draw sharply polarised reactions from Sikhs and Indian/Hindu nationalists. The Sikhs venerate these soldiers by calling them Dharmi Fauji (righteous soldiers), while the Indian/Hindu nationalist position calls them deserters who deserve severe punishment.

How these fault-lines will be visualised and recorded in history books in another 25-50 years from now remains to be seen.

If there is a genuine apology in the Indian parliament over Operation Bluestar and the Delhi genocide, there is a likelihood that these fault-lines will become less pronounced. On the Sikh side, calmer introspection, leading to a more critical evaluation of Bhindranwale, especially about some very objectionable speeches by him concerning the threatened killing of Hindus, will help to bridge the gap between contrasting sentiments.

Residual fault-lines will, however, remain on the Operation Bluestar memorial, and honour paid to Bhindranwale, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh in the Sikh museum. If Rajoana is hanged, the fault-lines will again widen; if his sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, the fault-lines will lessen to some extent.

Operation Bluestar has opened wide fault-lines whose future trajectory remains to be observed. At the moment, these fault-lines seem completely unbridgeable but history has a strange way of taking unexpected turns and twists.

(Pritam Singh is a Professor of Economics at Oxford Brookes University in the UK and is the author of Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab economy.)


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