It is 36 years since the ill-fated Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi ordered India’s Army to attack one of the holiest and iconic places in South Asia, Sri Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple). The attack exposed more about 1984 India, its Army, its lack of self-confidence, its intellectual bankruptcy and the hollow nationalism of Congress party than the Sikhs. It was a junctural moment as the Indian colonialist worldview and institutions came face to face with the still unfinished simmering indigenous Swaraj movements that had brought the mighty British Empire down.
The Nehruvian vision of post-colonial ‘westernised’ India began to crumble on the day of the attack as it took on the institution (Golden Temple) that had given impetus to the decolonisation movement in British India in 1920s. The colonial ideological rot that had infected every sphere of Indian institutional, academic and literary life was to unravel.
There were bigger than life personalities. Leading the post-colonial State was Mrs Indira Gandhi, daughter of the first Indian Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru and a formidable lady who brought in the Emergency in 1976 to secure her power, overthrew the Pakistan Army from Bangladesh and outwitted all her opponents in the Congress. Her last act was to order an attack on Sri Darbar Sahib on 1st June 1984. She paid for it with her life on 30th October 1984.
Leading the challenge to the westernised Indian State was Baba Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a charismatic personality and steeped in the knowledge of traditional Indian discourses and driven by Sikh aspirations. He died in the attack in June 1984.
Few if any of Indian analysts saw the attack and subsequent civil unrest in Punjab in historical terms. The narrative propagated by the State was echoed without critique by the intellectuals. The State’s story was that a religious fanatic based secessionist movement pursuing its aim through terrorism was threatening the ‘unity’ of mother India. Critique, if any, was around human rights rather than the conflict of ideas, expectations and visions in post-colonial India.
The Indian intellectual was fed and bred on the idea of the perfect country and civilisation to be the secular, liberal and socialist entity in the image of the post-enlightenment European States and political culture. In this worldview, other cultures had to embark on this trajectory to progress from their primitive pasts.
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In this ‘future’, there was little of 5,000 years of Indian civilisation, its philosophies or its worldviews in the foundations. India had to be Europeanised whole sale, root and branch. India set itself to become a ‘modern developed country’ both industrially and intellectually, whatever that meant.
What remained of native India was cultural idiosyncrasies such as language, dance and religious rituals. The public sphere post-1947 was the triumph of western concepts as if 5,000 years of intellectual thought in India had only saree and curry to offer.
On 1 June 1984, this colonial ingrained India attacked the India that had survived thousands of years, tens of invasions and Empires and several attempts at changing its core pluralist civilisation. What the Mughals and the British could not achieve, the Congress Party had set its mind to accomplish. It was determined to destroy the past, the fabric of South Asian civilisation and transform it. The mission for India is revealed in Nehru’s book, Discovery of India, and it is writ large in the Constitution of India.
The Constitution, drafted from German, Irish, American and British sources, to this day puts its belief in secularism, despite thousands of years of history of pluralism or Bahuda. The modern Indian State obediently carried on the colonial strategy of marginalising indigenous Indian philosophical and political thought into the bracket of personal religion, thus making their thoughts irrelevant to the political public space. The inevitable tension between an alien political theory without hinterland in Indian thought and indigenous ideologies, first came to fore violently in 1984 at the doors of Sri Darbar Sahib.
It was the willingness of the Army to attack its own people and institutions that bewildered Sikhs around the world and many India observers. At least one to-be Chief of Army refused to indulge in Mrs Gandhi’s fantasy. In 1983, Lt General Srinivas Kumar Sinha advised gravely against it. He was bypassed and General AS Vaidya obliged becoming Chief, only later to pay with his life.
An Army is a trained killing machine, fed on the idea of hostile invader enemies. The Indian Army was established by the British to treat the Indian as the enemy in order to protect the British from Indians driven by ideas of usurping the Crown in India. Post 1947, little was done to re-educate the Army to see itself as a force to defend Indians from invasions alone. It has been a pliable instrument to use in the hands of Indian political masters.
Even the Chinese Army refused to attack its own people in Tiananmen Square episode. Currently, the US army has indicated its unwillingness to carry President Donald Trump’s orders to crackdown on domestic protests. Armies don’t solve political issues, they just kill. That’s what happened in 1984. Perhaps the Indian Army has changed now and become truly nationalist protecting borders rather than acting as the Praetorian Guard for an ineffectual governing elite.
In 1984, the political class and the bureaucracy was also on a rollercoaster colonial train with no brakes. It was simply new management running a defunct system that had been rejected by the Sikh uprising in Punjab and Gandhi’s Swaraj movement. Incredibly, like the evil character in a horror movie, it survived intact after 1947. The political class and bureaucracy had loads of instruction sheets left by colonial masters augmented by Oxbridge educations on running a colonial Governance but had no access to a repair manual when things went wrong.
Consequently, the system threw the same set of tools at every problem including the challenge from Bhindranwale. This was a cocktail of detention laws, police excesses, Central rule and then emergency powers bringing in the Army. The solution was run on automatic memory from colonial days when the British saw Indians as the enemy. No originality or creative political solutions have emerged in a post-colonial state badly in need of major institutional and constitutional change by engagement with people after the violence of colonialism.
In this state of an alien governance system run by an indigenous elite, a leader from one of the natural community of the many communities in India was seen as a primitive village preacher turned terrorist challenging the ‘post-colonial enlightenment vision’. Bhindranwale was called a feisty preacher turned delusional politician until February 1984 in almost all of the Indian Press and by Indian Congress politicians.
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As his appeal and his hold on the people of Punjab, particularly the Sikhs, grew and grew, a shaken Indira Gandhi decided to label him a terrorist in February 1984. No new action or legal charges had taken place to justify that label, nor was there a warrant for his arrest. But it was a story that the scribes obliged as did some of the western liberal media to prepare the grounds for an attack on Sri Darbar Sahib. No Indian editor asked, where is the warrant of arrest?
The story of Bhindrawale as an illiterate village preacher threatening India’s rapid advance towards becoming a mirror image of a Germany or United States was also promoted by Indians around the world. These were Indians desperately aping their white role models caricatured brilliantly in the 1990s British sitcom ‘Goodness Gracious Me’. The irony was that Mrs Gandhi herself was only a Matric pass. The difference was one could speak English and the other could not, the only criterion by which a literate Indian from an illiterate Indian was judged by post colonial Indians.
Bhindranwale was a brilliant orator who could command the attention and awe of the Punjabi masses, especially the Sikhs. He was head of the DamDami Taksal, an influential Sikh seminary. Brought up in the best traditions of Sikh chivalry and fearless courage when faced with great odds, he had gained a huge following. Like Mahatma Gandhi, he knew how to articulate the hopes and expectations of the masses. In Punjab they did not want to become Brown Sahibs as fading copies of the white sahibs who had left, but to remain part of the Dharmic tradition of Sikhi and to find expression within the system of governance denied to indigenous political ideologies. This has never been analysed by Indian academics whose work often at best resembles polished journalism rather than exploration of deeper currents of history and ideas. Journalists and writers have concentrated on the personality and actions rather than the clash of visions and hopes in a narrative set for them by western academics.
Bhindranwale, like many Sikhs, was disturbed by the recurrent political campaigns in Punjab around economic and political autonomy to restore Sikh values in the regional system. This had been going on since 1947 and rearticulated in the 1971, then the 1976 Anandpur Sahib resolution. He felt the Akalis were either too weak or had been using the Anandpur Sahib resolution as an opportunist political manifesto to harvest the Sikh vote in Punjab without wanting to resolve it.
The Anandpur Sahib Resolution was based on a 1929 Lahore Agreement between Sikh leaders and Congress. Having witnessed the successful Gurdwara campaign in Punjab, Congress sought to get Sikhs on board for its struggle. The agreement was that Punjab would be autonomous in a Federal India and Sikhs would have a veto on drafting of Constitutional articles that concerned them. the resolution was passed every year by Congress until 1947.
In 1931, Gandhi had advised Sikhs that if his party ever betrayed the 1929 agreement, Sikhs were morally justified to take up arms against the State. This agreement was reneged by Congress in 1949.
Bhindranwale decided to take control of the unsuccessful rallies around Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Astutely he first used Congress to rise to prominence, then distanced himself from it and took it head on having found his base among Sikhs and other Punjabis.
The campaign under Bhindranwale’s leadership was met by State excesses such as extrajudicial executions, illegal detentions, torture of detainees and mass shootings into rallies. The Punjab is one state in India where such measures have always backfired from Mughals, the British to modern India. And it did. The result was a cycle of State and counter State violence that culminated in the attack on Sri Darbar Sahib. That precipitated a new chapter of violence and deep political chasm.
When asked about Khalistan, Bhindranwale said he wasn’t campaigning for one but if the Indian State offered it, he wouldn’t say no this time. This was making a reference to an alleged offer by Lord Mountbatten’s secretary offering a separate State to Sikhs around 1947 but Sikhs apparently didn’t take it seriously.
However, Bhindrawale did say that an attack on Sri Darbar Sahib would lay the foundations for a Khalistan. Thirty six years later, these words continue to fuel political aspirations in the world of Sikhs. The attack marked a substantive turn in Indian history.
In a provocative interview by BBC Asian programme in July 1984, I said that secular India does not need to worry too much about Sikhs. The real movement that will destroy it now is resurrection of Hindu fundamentalist nationalism because metaphorically the State has taken on the Church. Its effects will be far ranging. Neither he nor Indian academics understood the conceptual frameworks on which this statement was made. About 20 years later, the BJP was in power. Rest is history.
For many Sikhs the idea of Khalistan, a land where Sikhs can establish a system of governance formed from Sikh political theory, continues. In the flow of history, significantly, on 6th June 1984, the adulterated vision of a secular westernised India started dying at the gates of Sri Darbar Sahib and a new history began.
In that fated year, the death of two powerful personalities marked a crossover of Indian history. One, Bhindranwale, whose death started the resurgence of quest for a state based on thousands of years of indigenous concepts of Dharam. The other, Mrs Gandhi, died five months later whose death signified the end of the colonial project in the Indian subcontinent.