Sunday, June 8, 2014

HARTOSH SINGH BAL: The Shattered Dome // Elizabeth Roche: Operation Blue Star - physical, psychological scars remain

HARTOSH SINGH BAL : The Shattered Dome
The story of the Gandhis’ biggest mistake, and how it still haunts Punjab
NB: This is the best summary I have read of Operation Bluestar and the events leading up to it. For readers interested in civic actions following the Delhi carnage of 1984, here is one place to begin: SVA’s 1986 Appeal to the National Integration Council. The story post 1984, of the tortuous years of terror and resistance to communalism of all hues, would have to include names of stalwarts such as comrades Satyapal Dang and Gursharan Singh. (For the record, both of them attended the foundation convention of the SVA in Delhi in January 1989). The Punjab has suffered huge tragedies on account of communalism. Let us hope that a more optimistic spirit will emerge in the next chapter of its history: DS

Over the last thirty years, the debate over Bluestar has played out between two extreme points of view: that of radicals in Punjab and abroad, who dwell on the Congress’s role while overlooking Bhindranwale’s complicity, and that of people in the rest of India, who tend to focus on Bhindranwale with little sense of the Congress’s contribution to the tragedy. Many Indians may believe the events of that June can be consigned to the history books, but their memory remains alive in Punjab. Many Sikhs continue to view the operation, and the figure of Bhindranwale, in a markedly different light from the rest of the country. Without understanding how such distinct perspectives came to exist, it may be impossible to come to terms with the history of Bluestar...

Outside Punjab, the conventional understanding of the alliance between Bhindranwale and the Congress assumes the party was making use of a small-time preacher for its own ends, and propelled him to a position of significance by doing so. But as head of the Taksaal, Bhindranwale already had a certain standing among orthodox Sikhs; with or without Congress support, he was anything but small-time. In truth, the arrangement was one of mutual convenience, and lasted only as long as it served Bhindranwale’s interests..

EVERY SUMMER FOR THE FIRST FIFTEEN YEARS of my life, my family would travel to our village of Khankot. It lay on the outskirts of Amritsar amidst pear groves, now almost subsumed by the march of suburbia. The Golden Temple—or, to use the name most often invoked by the faithful, the Darbar Sahib—lay barely ten kilometres away. A visit soon after arrival was obligatory.

Even allowing for nostalgia, its memories evoke a rare tranquility. The chant of the gurbani rises and settles over the pool that surrounds the shrine, and gives the city its name—the sarovar of Amrit, or Amritsar. As the early morning light shimmers on the water, a sprinkling of pilgrims walk on the parikrama, the pathway that surrounds the pool, heading to the causeway leading to the central shrine encased in gold, the Harmandir Sahib.

The Darbar Sahib is central to the Sikh faith. A common version of the Sikh ardaas, or plea to god, which is recited at the end of the morning and evening prayers, and on every religious and social occasion, birth, marriage and death, includes the lines: Sikha nu Sikhi daan kesh daan rehit daan bibek daan purosa daan naam daan Sri Amritsar Sahib de ishanan (Bestow to the Sikhs the gift of Sikhism, long hair, the correct code of conduct, divine knowledge, firm faith, belief, the divine name and a bath in the sacred pool of Amritsar).

Following the Punjab insurgency, which extended from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s, the number of pilgrims to the Darbar Sahib has increased rapidly. The queues to enter the shrine now extend beyond the causeway; but the sense of quiet calm remains, though it is at odds with the shrine’s history. Perhaps no place of worship so central to a major religion in India has seen as much violence within its premises.

The sarovar was constructed in 1581 by Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru. The tank was lined and the shrine completed by the fifth guru, Arjan Dev, in 1601. By that time, the Sikh congregation had grown large enough for the Mughal emperor Jehangir to see Guru Arjan as a threat to his sovereignty. He was arrested in 1606, and tortured to death when he refused to convert to Islam. For his followers, this first martyrdom in their incipient faith would become the paradigm for Sikhism’s relationship with the durbar in Delhi.

The sixth guru, Hargobind, donned two swords to represent a change in the nature of his leadership—he would be not only a spiritual guide to his disciples (piri), but also a preceptor in their temporal lives (miri). The weapons form Sikhism’s central symbol, the khanda—a pair of linked swords. The guru ensured the same symbolism was reflected in the architecture of the Darbar Sahib. Across from the causeway, facing the central shrine, which represents spiritual authority, he constructed the building known as the Akal Takht, the timeless throne, from where he administered justice like any temporal authority.

Once the line of living gurus ended with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, this authority over the Sikhs came to be vested in the jathedar, or custodian, of the Akal Takht. Through the eighteenth century, as centralised authority broke down in the Punjab, the Sikhs grew in strength. Dispersed, led by various men, groups of Sikh warriors would gather periodically at the Akal Takht to plan and direct their course of action. Those seeking to contain them would target the Harmandir Sahib and the Akal Takht.

Each person who has desecrated the shrine occupies an oversize space in the collective memory of the community. Every Sikh can recount the story of Massa Rangar, who was appointed the kotwal or ruler of Amritsar in 1740 and proceeded to host nautch parties in the Harmandir Sahib, having first removed the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, from its place. He was beheaded by two Sikhs, Mehtab and Sukha Singh, who claimed to be revenue officers coming to deposit a large sum of money.

Even better known is the story of a defender of the faith, Baba Deep Singh. In 1757, the Afghan emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali, having sacked Delhi for the fourth time, was waylaid by a Sikh contingent near Kurukshetra. Angered, he left his son Taimur Shah behind as the governor of Lahore to take care of this menace. Taimur demolished the Harmandir Sahib, but the seventy-five-year-old Deep Singh led a contingent of five hundred Sikhs to take back the complex. By the time he neared Amritsar, their number had swelled to five thousand. Clashing with a much larger Afghan army, Deep Singh was injured by a blow to the neck, but continued to fight his way to the Darbar Sahib, eventually succumbing to his injuries by the sarovar. On the parikrama, the spot where he is believed to have fallen is marked by a portrait of him carrying his decapitated head in one hand, still holding a sword aloft in the other.

The martyrdom of Baba Deep Singh resonates through Sikh history. Two centuries later, in June 1984, when the Indian Army went into the Darbar Sahib on orders from prime minister Indira Gandhi, it was to disarm and dislodge Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who according to tradition was the fourteenth head of the Damdami Taksaal, an orthodox Sikh seminary once headed, it is said, by Deep Singh. In the mythology of a faith where the stories of Massa Rangar and Deep Singh arouse intense and contrary emotions, Sikhs memorialised both Bhindranwale and Gandhi in accordance with the roles they had assumed—one the defender, the other a desecrator.

The trajectory of those two lives, both of which ended violently thirty years ago, intersected for the first time in 1977, when Bhindranwale assumed charge of the Damdami Taksaal, and Gandhi was swept out of power after the Emergency. Nowhere was Gandhi’s decision to suspend the constitution as strongly contested as in Punjab, and no party resisted it with quite the ferocity of the Akali Dal, which represented Sikh interests in the state. Over the next seven years, Gandhi, Bhindranwale and the Akali Dal would lead three fronts in a battle in which they faced off, realigned with and schemed against each other until the very end.

From the moment an Akali Dal government, in alliance with the Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), took charge of Punjab in 1977, Gandhi’s politics were guided by her desire to cut the Akalis down to size. The execution of her wishes was left to her son, Sanjay Gandhi, and her loyalist, the canny Sikh politician Giani Zail Singh, who chose Bhindranwale as their weapon. Bhindranwale saw no reason to refuse their aid; any support for his brand of Sikh orthodoxy was welcome.

By the time the Congress returned to power in the state in 1980, Bhindranwale was well on his way to becoming a popular icon, accumulating so much power that the Akalis, whom he was supposed to be undermining, ended up turning to him for help. He became the dominant political force in Punjab: by 1983, he was running a parallel state from within the Darbar Sahib complex, handing down death sentences and dispensing rough justice before adoring supplicants. Even the policemen in Punjab tasked with arresting him were reduced to seeking his protection.

Bluestar, the military operation to remove Bhindranwale from the Darbar Sahib, ended this regime—but at the cost of hundreds of lives, and the credibility of the Indian Army, which subsequently had to deal with mutinous troops for the first time in the history of independent India... read more:

Elizabeth Roche -Operation Blue Star: physical, psychological scars remain
Amritsar: It’s often described as a watershed moment in Indian history—the government of the day ordering a military assault on Sikhism’s holiest shrine, unleashing a chain of events that included a rare revolt in the disciplined Indian Army and the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi followed by sectarian violence. On the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star—the military code name for the mission to reclaim the Golden Temple in Amritsar city bordering Pakistan—from a group of armed Sikh militants led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had called for the creation of a separate Sikh state of Khalistan.
Three decades on, a visit to the temple reveals the existence of physical and psychological scars that seared the psyche of the Sikh minority in India. Deep holes created by high-velocity bullets and shells slamming into marble and brick still pockmark some walls and stairwells of the temple complex that sees thousands of visitors walking through its portals every day.
Kulwant Singh, a 25-year-old volunteer at the Golden Temple, readily points out the bullet holes and parts of a collapsed façade as reminders of the army assault. Though born five years after Operation Blue Star, Singh has heard innumerable details of the assault from his elders. “Each detail I have heard is etched in my mind,” he says. When asked if he has forgiven the state for the assault, he shrugs.
Sixty-eight-year-old Sohan Singh, in-charge of a museum inside the temple complex, says he lived through the moments that still evoke a complex mix of emotion that include grief, anger and humiliation. In 1984, he was a member of the All India Sikh Student Federation (AISSF), which also supported the call for a separate Sikh state. On 5-6 June, Sohan Singh says he was in the langar (community kitchen) area. He brushes off questions about how he survived those heart-stopping hours. “The main thing is I survived; it’s all thanks to the almighty.”
The community kitchen is a long rectangular building that lines one side of the amrit sarovar (pool of nectar) that surrounds the Golden Temple, also known as Harmandir Sahib. The devout reach the temple following theparikrama, or square pathway, that circumscribes the sacred pool in a clockwise direction. Connecting the pathway with the Hari Mandir is a marble causeway. The other buildings that line the sides of the sarovarinclude the museum, a library which had old texts and manuscripts and the Akal Takht (throne of the immortal) that stands in front of the causeway leading to the Harmandir Sahib.
Sohan Singh recalls that Bhindranwale and some of his supporters moved into a sarai (hostel) in the temple complex some time in 1982. Bhindranwale was not yet regarded as a terrorist though his influence was growing across Punjab. He was a “charismatic preacher” with an arresting personality, “over 6ft tall, with mesmerizing eyes, a fiery preacher who could draw crowds,” says Sohan Singh. “When he set out to do something, he did it. There were some bus drivers who he heard were under the influence of alcohol in Sirhind (in Fategarh district). The sant (Bhindranwale) called them in and spoke to them. They immediately quit, such were his persuasive skills,” he recalls.
“We will always be proud of him,” says Gurpura Singh. That there is a cenotaph inside the temple complex dedicated to Bhindranwale is testimony that Gurpura Singh is not alone in his beliefs. The museum that Sohan Singh is in charge of has among its exhibits a portrait gallery of martyrs of the faith. The line up includes Bhindranwale, Bhai Amrik Singh, head of the AISSF, and major general Shabeg Singh, a veteran of the 1971 India-Pakistan War, dishonourably dismissed from the Indian Army and who later joined Bhindranwale...