A Defiance That Refuses To Die

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.

Lt Gen Srinivas Sinha advised Indira Gandhi against Operation Blue Star but he was snubbed.

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.

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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.

Sikh 2020 Referendum, India Shares Responsibility

th August, to hold a rally in London and declare the referendum. The Government of India has been reacting to it and accusing Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI, to be behind the exercise. The campaign has been called a waste of time, a gimmick or opportunist by many Sikhs, since it has no authorisation from any State or UN or other legitimate authority. Ironically most serious Sikh Khalistani (Sikh State) groups have opposed it.  However their response has been muted because they don’t want to be seen to be on the same side as the more aggressive opposition by the Indian government to this referendum campaign. Nevertheless, the fact that it has reached such proportion of debate in Indian press and within Sikhs is a victory of sorts for SFJ, even if nothing else may be achieved. It is also symptomatic of the frustration and resentment that has continued to fester among worldwide Sikhs since 1984. The issues that have arisen recurrently between Sikhs and the Indian State are well known. The foremost is that the holiest place of the Sikhs, Sri Darbar Sahib was entrusted to Indian protection. But in 1984, the Indian Government, under Mrs Gandhi, sent in the Indian Army to invade the most powerful and influential seat of authority in the Sikh world, thus declaring a form of war without realising it.  The attack led to calls for a separate State so that the Akal Takhat Sahib and Sri Darbar Sahib can be protected by a State of the Sikhs instead. Closely following this and for many years were the unconstitutional methods adopted by the State in eliminating large number of Sikh youth to prevent a civil uprising. Over 60000 Sikhs have been executed extrajudicially and many tortured grotesquely. Some unique methods were developed by Punjab police, now copied by dictatorships around the world. The other major incident was the organised massacres of Sikhs by the Congress party that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister in November 1984. New Delhi’s contribution to world civilisation was the invention of burning alive of people with tyres around their necks.  Over 4000 Sikhs were massacred with iron bars, long knives, axes and burning alive in a free orgy of violence over four days. The police looked the other way and the Army, stationed only half an hour’s distance away, remained in its barracks. The Sikhs of Punjab responded to the attack on Darbar Sahib by executing Mrs Gandhi, the Chief of Army (Gen Vaidya) who ordered the attack and the Chief Minister (Beant Singh) who gave the police carte blanc unconstitutional powers to kill as many political activists as it could. The Sikhs of Delhi put their trust in the Indian judicial system. 34 years later they have been fed 11 Commissions of Enquiry but no incarceration of any senior Congress member. It should not surprise any analyst why 34 years after 1984, resentment and hurt festers below the surface among Sikhs, leaving the community susceptible to those who imagine themselves as wannabe messiahs on a mission to lead Sikhs to freedom from this pain or worse prey to political and economic opportunists. Even the Akali Dal regularly exploits Sikh issues when in opposition but goes quiet when in power. However it is simplistic for victimhood within Sikhs to see Hindu India as a hostile, cruel inhuman country and hope for justice and restoration of mutual respect. The Indians themselves are imprisoned in a Kafkesque nightmare from which they don’t know how to step out.  Physical colonialism came to an end in 1947 in India but the institutions and political concepts of colonialism remain intact even 70 years after the British transferred power. [caption id="attachment_29480" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Presidents of India have been trapped in ceremonies left by the British.[/caption] India is a colonial edifice, to the last brick of its foundation. All modern Indian institutions were established by the British to govern ‘over Indians’ and protect themselves from the natives or promote interests of the occupying colonialists. Whether it is the constitution founded on the 1935 Act which the British enacted to rule ‘over’ Indians with some punitive accountability to ‘natives’, or the police which was to keep the natives in check while applying different rules for the Sahibs, or the Army which was orientated to protect the British from Indian mutinees and rebellions, to the legal system which was meant to usurp indigenous value systems and implant British Victorian values and system of rule or whether it is the civil service which was established to administrate Indians on behalf of the British. Nothing has changed in the founding frameworks of these institutions. The Indian State follows the blue print left by the British colonialists to rule India as conquerors. The British didn’t leave behind a repair manual nor sent revision sheets or updates, and so to date Indians haven’t found a way to solve any of the regional or cultural conflicts. Strengthening colonial era laws on detention, making colonial era torture methods even more painful and sending in the Army to protect the ‘rulers’ against the ‘natives’ is a recurring pattern of response to challenges, where politics should seek solutions instead. The political class behaves like managers. The institutional framework of British India was enacted for the British in India to act as managers on behalf of the Crown or rather British Parliament. They were not meant to govern. Government was in UK. [caption id="attachment_29482" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The Viceroy’s Carriage pre-1947. Little has changed except the logos.[/caption] Unfortunately the Indian political class acts as managers and has been managing the edifice since 1947 waiting for guidance from some mythical power above it.  India has been in management mode since 1947. 70 years later it has yet to start governing and take bold decisions, such as a new contract with the people, change of colonial era laws, overhaul of an imperialist constitution, and instil in the army that it is there to protect the borders, not kill Indian citizens etc. This is the intractable dynamics in which Sikhs and the Indians are locked in. The Sikhs are hoping India will give justice. Individually Indians weep when told about stories, the massacres, the tortures etc, but Indians as the State simply don’t know how to untangle the shackles of colonialism and transfer that empathy with minorities into solutions. Like all such scenarios, in which those in power are powerless, there is recourse to diversion such as calling secessionists as ‘dreaded terrorists’ and blaming others, such as ISI for troubles of India’s own inadequacies. The Sikhs like some other regional minorities do not expect Congress to address the issues that divide them from the State. Congress after all was the Government that attacked Sri Darbar Sahib. Congress is in fact the penultimate party of WOGS if there is such a creature. Since 1947 it has been managing a failed colonial mission, to change Indians into a poor image of European society.

RSS vision is to make India a Hindu Rahstra.

  There was hope when Modi came to power that he will bring in a fresh and bold approach to solving issues such as those of the Sikhs. But his own party has been riddled with conceptual ideologies which have little to do with Indian civilisation. The identity Hindu and the name of the country, Hindustan, was given by Muslim invaders. Both RSS and the BJP have internalised these as missions, to make India a Hindu State and take pride in calling it Hindustan. Pakistani Muslims must be smug that their forefathers gave identity both to the people and the country. If the Congress is peddling a bastardised ideology developed from nineteenth century European political theories calling it Indian secularism (if ever there was a word more nonsense), the BJP and RSS are hell bent on promoting concepts inherited from radical Islam strongly similar to Hassan al-Banna’s ideas of Muslim Brotherhood packaged in the nomenclature given by Muslim invaders, Hindu and Hindustan. The trouble is that neither the Sikhs nor the Indians have introspection of their situation. Neither seems to be aware of the time warp they remain in, frozen in 1947. The Indians are caught in a Goldfish bowl, unable to break through it. The Sikhs expect empathy and solutions that the colonial  institutional framework of post colonial India is not constructed for, hence unable to deliver. This is why 34 years after 1984, Sikhs cannot make sense of the attack on Sri Darbar Sahib, the extra-judicial executions, the massacres of Sikhs in Delhi and this is also why India has not been able to move an inch forward towards addressing the resentment festering within Sikhs. Until one or the other side understands the dilemma and weakness of the other and starts to help the other come out if its crises, the Sikhs will continue to be victims of excitable gimmick like rallying calls such as Referendum 2020 and India will continue to make enemies of its own people with the political class acting as managers of an edifice and the Army gingerly killing the very people it is meant to protect. Neither side knows how to move forward.]]>