By Harsumit S.
Edited by Brendan S.
Centre - The central government of India
Khalistan - The homeland of the Sikh nation, spanning across the Punjab region of the Indian and Pakistani states
The state of Punjab saw one of the bloodiest insurgencies in South Asia. The Sikhs were at war with India. The community which bore the brunt of sacrifices for Indian independence was now at odds with the Indian state. It was indeed the inevitable clash of ideology and belief, the result still yet to emerge. Many contemporary historians and social scientists provide immediate causes for the rise of conflict in Punjab. They may include economic conditions of the Jatt peasantry and of Punjab as whole, centre-state relations, dispute on the river waters, unfulfilled political aspirations of the Sikh polity, sense of betrayal felt by the Sikhs after the partition, the reorganization of states on linguistic basis, unemployment, challenges to the authority of state, communal distrust after the reorganization of Punjab due to the question of mother tongue, activities of Jan Sangh, Mahasha press, the Akali Dal itself, and mishandling of the situation by the central government.
All of the above issues may have been important in the immediate time period in the escalation of the Punjab conflict, but ideological differences between the centre and the Sikhs were also vast, as was the perspective to the conflict. Therefore the interests of the Sikh nation and the centre converged.
While watching from the surface we can say that the Sikh and Hindu polity had coexisted for many centuries. But what led to the bloody confrontation between these two, causing them to become belligerents? Actually the Sikh ideologue had been in conflict with the brahmanical polity contemporary to the Sikhs right from its invention. We can understand this by observing the Sikh history from ‘beneath the surface.’ We can see its underlinings in the Veena Das’s postulation of ‘Hindu-Sikh-Muslim Triad’ in reference to Sikh history. Thus the rejection of the ritualist brahmanical tradition was the direct challenge to the Hindu polity. This latent conflict became overt during the battles between Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji and the Hill Rajahs. After the demise of the Sikh Empire it again reached the surface as a tussle between Singh Sabha Movement and the Arya Samaj.
There is clear line of cultural difference between the Sikh culture and the culture believed to be standard by the polity of the Indian state (though not officially). The culture which Indian state postulates is virtually nonexistant. What is known as Indian culture is the collection of independent ethnic cultures. The brand of Indian culture advertised by the state is that which is clearly under the assimilating policies of the Hindutva ideology. The Sikh culture is clearly in contrast to the assimilation demanded by the so-called Indian culture constructed by Hindu nationalists. This paradigm can be easily put into writing by using the very words of Max Arthur Macauliffe which were also felt by the Singh Sabha Movement that, “Hinduism is the the boa constrictor of the Indian forests. When a petty enemy appears to worry it, it winds round its opponent, crushes it in folds and finally causes it to disappear.”
This leads to the clash of interests between the Sikh nation and the Indian state. The Sikh cultural ideology lays sovereign importance to the authority of Sri Akal Takht Sahib. On the other hand, in the Indian political system, like any other modern state, the state holds forced sovereignty at the expense of self-determination. This clash of sovereignties leads to conflict, as the existence of Sri Akal Takht Sahib’s authority as sovereign for Sikhs leads the centre to perceive it as a direct challenge to the state of India.
In the period under British rule, the Sikh polity was clearly competing to claim power in competence to Hindu and Muslim polities. And Sikh polity often allied with Hindus at the cost of their own sovereignty. Thus, in independent India, Sikh polity always strived to rectify the mistakes made in the pre-partition era. Now the Muslim polity was out of the context in post-partition Punjab and the only competitor was the Hindu polity, which was completely working as a satellite for the centre in Punjab.
The Sikh psyche has always and will always believe itself as the rightful owner of the homeland of Punjab. It was ruled by Sikhs before the British rule and it always has been the launching pad of Sikh activism and campaigns. Sikhs believe themselves to be the true the sons of Punjab. Objectively, this is the true Sikh homeland. Not just theologically, but historically. After relinquishing their claim of over more than half of the Punjab (west Punjab) during partition (as the Sikh polity gave their lot to India), Sikhs were only left with the other half to consolidate the claim of what they believed to be theirs within the Indian state. But the response of the centre was disappointing for Sikhs, and the upcoming peaceful Sikh campaigns were beginning to see their fate (Punjabi Suba morcha).
On the other hand, the state of India, clearly manifesting the perspective of the Hindu majority based on the intention to assimilate, saw these demands and later the Anandpur Sahib Resolution as invalid secessionism. This difference of perspective is due to the inability of the majority in India to comprehend the Sikh doctrines on politics as they are in contrast to what the majority holds. There is clear, visible and fundamental difference between the Sikh ideology and the Indian Hindu nationalist perspective on the notion of statehood, politics and religion.
Next comes the notion of social change. Punjab was immediately to rejuvenate its economy even after the bloody disaster of partition. But this was acquired at a cost. The Green Revolution (which is now proving itself to be black) was considered a success in Punjab. But this success also brought social change. The process of urbanization started. Among these developments, the Sikh identity was threatened due to incoming cultural infusion from the West and India as well. Two attacks of assimilation hitting Sikhs simultaneously, one indirect and the other direct. The Sikh farmer again started to come under debt. Malcolm Darling’s statement that, ”the farmer of Punjab borns, lives and dies under debt” was again becoming true. The social structure of Punjab was also dwindling. Drugs and narcotics were increasing (the current situation in Punjab is surprisingly similar). Therefore, some felt insecure and unsure about the future of Sikh tenets in Punjab. Moreover, ignorance of centre over Sikh demands and other disputes like that of distribution of river water escalated the situation. This is what sociologists refer to as a latent conflict, but this was more overt than usual.
So this standoff takes us to the fragile years preceding Sikh militancy.
Course of Insurgency
Among these developments, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale appears on the sociopolitical landscape of Punjab. A charismatic authority, he was the ‘Che Guevara’ for the Sikhs of Punjab. His religious campaigns throughout Punjab rejuvenated the actual Sikh tenets again. But he was seen as far too extreme by both Sikh opponents and the centre. The incident of the massacre of 13 Sikhs by Nirankaris on 13 April, 1978 kindled the commencement of insurgency in Punjab. The centre created a false propaganda which later became the official line of the state and the Hindu majority, that the Sikhs and Sant Bhindranwale in particular were persecuting the Hindus of Punjab on a large scale. The Indian centre made the Sikh-centre problem into Sikh-Hindu problem.
Then comes the Dharam Yudh Morcha and another series of confrontations between Sikhs and the centre, including the arbitrary arrests of Sikhs during 1982 Asian Games. Sant Bhindranwale personified the Sikh image of a saint-soldier. The saint part was reluctantly accepted by the government, but the soldier part was totally perceived as the challenge to the authority of the Indian state. According to Sikh theology, one must defend one’s right to sovereignty when needed, even through legitimized use of violence. But this comes in conflict to the Indian Hindu-centric mindset.
Sant Bhindranwale condoned the use of weapons to defend oneself. It was right according to the Sikh doctrines, but the Indian polity unsurprisingly ruled it out as anti-state statements. Even the persons killed by Sikhs before 1984 were those who had perpetrated the anti-Sikh acts like that of Nirankari Gurbachan Singh, upon whose orders 13 sikhs were massacred in 1978. So this all led to the intent of the centre to teach a lesson to the Sikhs. It was the invasion of Sri Darbar Sahib. As anthropologist Joyce Pettigrew puts, ”The army went into Darbar Sahib not only to eliminate a political figure or a political movement, but to suppress the culture of a people, to attack their heart, to strike a blow at their spirit and self-confidence.”
But the glorious defense in Darbar Sahib complex, provided by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhidranwale and other Sikh militants, proved fatal to the government’s intent. The government understood Sant Bhindranwale’s position but underestimated him. This sacrilegious attempt to rob Sikhs of their honor and identity served as a catalyst for the militancy in Punjab. The Battle of Amritsar and other sieges to the Gurudwaras across Punjab were direct manifestation of war between these differing ideologies.
Consequently, Operation Woodrose was put into action, in which Punjab’s countryside was swept with arrests of young Sikhs, labeling them as militants. These were watershed moments in the history of Punjab and India. Sant Bhindranwale claimed neutrality over the issue of Khalistan, a separate sovereign Sikh state. But he once stated that if the army enters the Darbar Sahib complex, Khalistan will be reality. Ghani Jafar also states similar connotations in his book ‘The Sikh Volcano’ published in 1985 that, “Khalistan is now a reality; not in a geographical sense yet- But thanks to new Delhi, the Khalsa has never since the loss of Ranjit Singh’s empire been so close as today to the vindication of the litany promising him raj in his homeland.”
The Sikh nation felt shaken and loss of honour at the invasion of Sri Darbar Sahib. Then it went on to vengeance, the assassination of the prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards. India saw the first mass Sikh mutiny since 1857, and later the assassination attempt on Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, then the assassinations of Army Chief A.S. Vaidya and Chief Minister Beant Singh. In the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, India saw the deliberate genocide of Sikhs across India. This was another blow to the Sikh psyche. These developments led the Sikh youth to take up arms and to defend their honour. About this armed militancy we hear a vast plethora of statements, but anthropologist Cynthia Keppley Mahmood concisely states that “only Sikhs could understand Che’s idea of a ‘loving revolutionary’” in her paper ‘Why Sikhs Fight.’
In 1986, Khalistan independence was declared by the Panthic Committee in Sarbat Khalsa. In the aftermath, there was a total war in Punjab from 1986-1995. The militants enjoyed vast popular support among Sikhs as they were ‘fighting for faith and nation’ (Cynthia Keppley Mahmood). But the support gradually declined as the government had started to infiltrate the militant ranks by 1988, and started a campaign of terror (Ram Narayan Kumar- Reduced To Ashes). Rape, extortion etc., and blaming all attacks on Sikh militants. Extrajudicial killings were a common phenomenon in Punjab. The militant leadership enjoyed popular victory in the 1989 parliamentary elections. Khalistan was becoming a reality. But the Sikh nation’s decision to boycott the 1991 state legislative elections became a fatal error. Government infiltration was at so high a level that this decision was actually put forward and embraced by the Indian agencies. The Congress (I) won the elections with only 16% voting. Then started the reign of state terror, more brutal than the previous years. And the militant leadership also failed to keep popular support because of the absence of civilian leadership. The brutal counter-insurgency measures were directed mainly toward Sikh civilians by the government. Meanwhile, the militant groups converged into infighting, killing each other because of the confusion created by the ‘cats’ or the infiltrators. Some militant traitors also participated in the campaign of plunder.
This turbulent militancy then declined, leaving deep scars of unresolved conflict completely unchanged. Then what was the outcome of this short but hard-fought bitter war?
But both parties in this conflict were unable to achieve their respective goals. The Sikh militants weren’t able to achieve their political objectives of official sovereignty for Khalistan and other issues. But their struggle gave back the honour, or, as Sikhs state, their ‘lost turban.’ On the other hand, some claim that the Indian State emerged victorious, but this was not the case. The Indian state was unable to assimilate the Sikh nation through militaristic actions, nor make it submit in any form. We can clearly see today, the politics and culture of Punjab still differ widely from that of the Hindu-centric Indian state. Despite barbaric campaigns of assimilation, the Sikh nation still holds true to itself. Sikhs cannot be militarily defeated into submission as the Indian state attempted in Operation Bluestar and numerous other failed operations. The difference in core ideologies remains the same, and nothing will ever change this. The Sikh militancy created a sense of honour retrieved for the Sikh nation, which they considered lost in the immediate aftermath of Operation Bluestar. The Sikh nation, instead of assimilating, became more alert about its unique identity, and held on to it even stronger. However, the sudden demise of militancy due to the treacherous role of moderate Sikh leaders led Punjab into a state of shock. The core issues at the root of Sikh disunity remain unchanged.
Punjabi society was largely affected by the demise of militancy. It sent the whole Sikh nation into a state of confusion, much like Russian communists after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. A hard fought battle was left because of treachery. It was the same feeling after the loss in the Anglo-Sikh wars, due to treachery of the command, and inability of leadership in 1846 when the Khalsa won the battle but lost the war. Tej Singh, at the very moment when the Sikhs were winning, crossed the Sutlej River then broke the pontoon bridge, cutting the supply and preventing retreat. This traitorous action left thousands of Sikh and Punjabi warriors to die. Similarly now, moderate Punjabi leaders have sold out the Sikh struggle for traitors like Tej Singh and left the brave sons of Punjab to die in battle. This loss led Punjab to its current situation: a fragile peace, but with tons of lava beneath. This situation is eerily similar to that of the pre-militancy years.
On the other hand, Indian policymakers relieved the overt intent of conflict with Sikhs for a short time to save themselves from complete dishonour. How a small minority was able to nearly topple a powerful state with the world’s fourth largest military sent shivers into the Indian polity. This was not what they had planned for when the army entered The Darbar Sahib Complex. They had underestimated the the Sikh power. So, the Indian opposition to Sikh polity became covert and started a policy to undermine from within. On the Sikh part, the conflict wasn’t resolved, but put to an abrupt brake. The Sikh parties weren’t able to achieve all ends they intended with militancy, but the Indian government likewise wasn’t able to meet its objective of assimilation, which instead strengthened the Sikh identity and backfired in the Indian state’s face.
So, if we observe closely both parties after nearly 25 years of relative peace, it can be seen that they are again coming at each other’s throats. With Hindu- nationalist BJP on the forefront in India, minorities are in a fragile situation. As of now, the situation in Punjab is that of calm before the storm. We are beginning to see a separation from the policy of peace and compromise from both parties in the last 25 years, largely due to the BJP’s aggression.
Sociologists state that conflict stiffens the morale, and promotes internal solidarity among the parties involved. It was seen in the quick aftermath of Operation Bluestar that the Sikh nation was united at a level not seen before in modern times. It showed that the Sikh spirit had not died yet. The government was forced to reassess its policies. A tiny minority had shaken the whole state. India was successful in curbing militancy but at a high cost, one higher than it had ever imagined.
After a conflict, both parties reassess their value systems. This was clearly seen in Punjab and India. The tone of Hindu state policy of ‘Sikhs are part of Hindus’ became somewhat mild after militancy and strong opposition from the Sikhs. The meaning of India as their own state also changed for the Sikhs, who had seen barbaric assimilation operations from the state meant to destroy Sikh identity and replace it with Hinduism. The colonial behavior of the state was also put into light. Legislations like that of the Terrorist and Productive Activities Prevention Act (TADA) in 1987 were clear successors of the colonial laws full of injustice. The issue of Sikh identity has become central to the Sikhs. Khalistan is a topic of Sikh existence which was dormant before the onset of Indian assimilation operations.
The current situation of Punjabi and Indian polity is also to be observed keenly. The ultimate form of accommodation in the eyes of the Indian state is assimilation. So this play of accommodation by both parties cannot function without the destruction of Sikh existence. The only option for the Indian state to implement these policies is direct conflict, as Sikhs are becoming more and more prepared to defend themselves.
It is likely that the future under Indian nationalist rule will hold more attempted assimilation of Sikhs, and potentially conflict between Sikhs and the Indian State. But it is clear that Sikh identity is immortal, and that the Indian state will never be able to change that.
- Sociology: Principles of sociologywith an introduction to social thoughts.- C.N. Shankrarao
- Max Arthur Macauliffe, quoted from Hindu-Sikh relations Ram Swarup & Goel
- The Punjab Peasant in Proserity and Debt- Malcolm Lyall Darling
- Nation's Tortured Body- BK Axel
-Unheard Voices of State and Guerrilla Violence in Punjab- Joyce Pettigrew
- The Sikh Volcano- Ghani Zafar
- Why Sikh Fight- Cynthia Keppley Mahmood
- Fighting for faith and nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants.
- Reduced to Ashes- Ram Narayan Kumar
- S.G.P.C. White Paper on The Punjab Problem- Prof. Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon
- White Paper on Punjab Agitation- Government of India
-“Veehvin Sadi Di Sikh Rajneeti (Sikh Politics of 20th Century)” - Ajmer Singh
-My own experiences and observations as a Sikh from Punjab