Army Attack on the Golden Temple Emboldened Hindutva in India
Thirty-seven years ago in June 1984, the entry of the army into the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith, has undoubtedly encouraged the Hindutva ideology which gradually upstaged the secular discourse in India. On Independence in 1947, India had opted for and became a secular and democratic polity when Pakistan and Nepal and Maldives, and others in the subcontinent chose to be theocratic states. With neighboring China becoming a totalitarian state governed by the single communist party, India was applauded as a multi-party democracy in Asia. When the outgoing British empire transferred power to Congress, RSS sympathizers and Hindutva elements within the Congress desperately scrambled for making India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. But they failed to deviate Nehru and his senior colleagues from the secular and democratic path. Ironically, his daughter Indira Gandhi whom Nehru had groomed to become a statesman and virtually bequeathed his power to her, turned the tables and forsook the secular-democratic path to be fully exploited by her rival Hindutva forces later on. Thereafter, India gradually drifted away from the secularism. Even her direct descendent and presently Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been forced to publically affirm his allegiance to the majority community’s religious ethos by claiming that he “is a sacred thread wearing (jeneudhari) Hindu”.
A few years after the army operation, codenamed ‘Operation Blue Star’ the emboldened Hindutva forces demolished the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya when Congress was ruling the country. They whipped up the ultra-nationalist sentiments to reach the seat of power at New Delhi with the avowed goal of turning India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The story goes back to the days of the early 1980s when Indira Gandhi regime, instead of negotiating with the Akali demands chose to suppress the Sikh dissent to appease and consolidate the majority community behind Congress. In run-up to the army attack on the Golden Temple, New Delhi propagated that they had no other option but to ‘flush out terrorists entrenched there’. How much truth that official euphemism carried and how much the army action succeeded in chastising the Sikh dissent has been and will remain a moot point. But the reckoning impacts of that army action were: it left an indelible impact on the Sikhs that shook them off from their deep nationalistic slumber. And, secondly, it marked the turning point in the future course of fledgling Indian democracy soon to be transmuted into a stark majoritarian and unitary political dispensation 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 after Sikh-Nirankari clash in April 1978. And, no doubt, a large number of Indians outside Punjab had begun believing the official version about the Sikhs and Punjab as the embedded (lap dog) and willing media was at the beck and call of the then Congress regime.
The impact of that official propaganda was so sweeping and swayed a good section of Indians, into believing the government version. The main thrust of this government’s publicity against the Sikhs was: “Their protests are inspired by Punjab’s bordering Pakistan which is 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’ safe havens and militant leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale dispatching killer squads from the Golden Temple, Amritsar.”
That hate-spewing vicious campaign against the Sikhs 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. This 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 Sikh seminary had jointly launched a protest agitation (called morcha) on August 4, 1982, from the Golden Temple, Amritsar to press for their religious, economic, and political demands of Punjab conceded.
As the history goes, there was nothing unusual for the Sikhs in making the Akal Takht, a focal point of their agitation. The venue has been the epicenter of all historical Sikh protests and bloody conflicts spanning 400 years during Mughal and the British regimes. Even after independence, the Indian political class had never opposed the launching of 16-year-long ‘Punjabi Suba morcha’ and later 21-month long anti-Emergency morcha from the Akal Takht. The main demand of the morcha named as Dharmyudh morcha was for the acceptance of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution to devolve the centralization of powers at New Delhi thereby making the Indian polity truly federal and pluralistic as enshrined in India’s Constitution. That demand, however, struck at the nerve-center of mono-ideological nation conceived and nurtured by Congress. The project had, no doubt, gained strength with the Partition and the creation of two inimical countries- India and Pakistan which had already stalled the installing of a federal polity in sub-continent.
Against this background, the Indian Establishment had adopted a strong stance against the Akali morcha, officially projected as a “revolt and rebellion” against the Indian nation, and sought the people’s support to “save unity and integrity of Indian state”. Invoking such an emotive card carried away even liberal intellectuals, democrats and even a larger section of the Left who joined the bandwagon of Indira Gandhi. And the Opposition raised the chorus for sending of the army in the Golden Temple to “restore religiosity there”.
At a stage when the army was about to mount an attack on the holiest shrine, Indira Gandhi had held a series of “tripartite meetings with Opposition and Akali leaders in February (1984) to resolve the Punjab tangle”. As planned, each of those meetings was to end in the deadlock as to shift the blame for the failure of talks on “Akalis’ intransigence”. Rather, when those meetings were on, Congress instigated the Hindu organizations in Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi to “communalize and polarise the society to isolate the tiny Sikh community”. Several Hindu organizations had cropped up in the region and enjoyed official patronage. With the creation of such a vicious atmosphere, the Akali demands got eclipsed as the nearly two-year-long morcha was crushed in which around 2 lakh Sikh volunteers had courted arrest. Instead of listening to genuine and ligitimate Sikh demands and reaching a negotiated settlement, a calculated hype was created to brand this genuine morcha as a secessionist movement. This created an ideal situation for Indira Gandhi to launch an army operation with the aim of emerging as “Durga goddess” in the “people’s cause”.
So, on the night between June 4 and 5, the army attacked the Golden Temple exuding over-confidence in catching Bhinderanwale and his armed men like sitting ducks within two hours. But, as per the Sikh traditions, the entrenched Sikhs returned fire and defeated their initial assaults forcing the generals to send armoured tanks, APC, and more sophisticated weaponry inside the shrine. Poisonous gas, use of which 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, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs built by Guru Hargobind in 1606 to challenge the Mughal-rule. Also, thousands of non-combatant faithful Sikh pilgrims including women and children who had 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 morning along with reports that the army had simultaneously entered 38 other historical gurdwaras at various places in Punjab after putting the state under an unprecedented curfew. 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 times to come.
No doubt, Indira Gandhi had thought of achieving consolidation of the ‘Hindu vote-bank for her party and also to crush the Sikhs’ deep notion of ‘sovereignty. The building of the Akal Takht, the fountainhead of the Sikh political assertion lay crumbled after the army operation. Earlier, Abdali had reduced the Akal Takht to rubble twice in 1762 and 1764. Later the British, however, tactically controlled “the Sikh Durbar representing a parallel to Delhi Durbar historically.” Indian State, once again, repeated the Afghan experiment with the avowed aim of crushing the Sikh identity with almost similar consequences.
The Sikh dissent grew after 1947 as Partition of the Indian subcontinent actually represented the “unfinished agenda of Independence”. During the freedom struggle, the Congress insisted on the claim of representing all religious and regional denominations in the sub-continent which 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. As Nehru’s contemporary and eminent opposition leader Ram Manohar Lohia wrote that Congress leaders who were impatient to secure power from the colonial masters first agreed to accept the dominion status two decades after adopting programme for “pooran swaraj’’ (complete freedom) in early 1947 thereby paving way for an agreed Partition.
The Sikhs voluntarily joined India believing in the Congress promises of securing a ‘special region’ to them where their religion and culture could flourish unhindered. The Sikh leaders had resisted Jinnah’s overtures for joining Pakistan which would have avoided the division of Punjab and their uprooting. On the other hand, Congress rulers, being acutely aware of the fragility of much diversified India’s unity, retained the British administrative set-up intact and operative and attempted to consolidate the country keeping Lord Mountbatten, representative of the outgoing British empire as governor-general of the free country. Anxious to build an Indian nation, the Congress rulers reneged on all their pre-independent promises with the Sikhs and declined to accommodate their aspirations. They shamefacedly refused to honour all the solemn assurances given by their tallest leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and others that the Sikhs would be given a place where “they could feel the glow of independence”. All those promises were negated as early as 1950 even before the adoption of Indian new Constitution. Like some other vocal dissenting people, the Sikhs too became the target of the Indian Establishment as early as in the 1950s. The 1984 army attack and the subsequent Sikh massacre and bloodshed in Punjab has further given the rise to ‘Hindu nationalism’. It furnished a fertile ground for the BJP-RSS to usurp power and to concretize their a century-old dream of formalizing India as a “Hindu Rashtra”(Hindu State).
The majoritarian rule, the travesty of democracy, has already come to stay in India. Now like other minorities, the Sikhs in Punjab also feel like “colonialized people” with police and security forces frequently penalizing the Sikh youth falsely accusing them of advocating “Khalistan” just to keep them subdued. Even the most All India secular farmers agitation, currently going on against anti-farmer laws passed undemocratically by the Central Government has been tagged as movement led by Khalistani elements which, however, has misfired. Such a strategy of the State also helps the consolidation of the large majority nationalism. Now, liberals are listlessly waiting for the return of the issue-based democracy which the founding fathers had dreamt of.
ਸੰਤਾ ਨਾਲਿ ਵੈਰੁ ਕਮਾਵਦੇ ਦੁਸਟਾ ਨਾਲਿ ਮੋਹੁ ਪਿਆਰੁ ॥
– Guru Granth Sahib, p. 649