Seeds of Trouble in the Punjab
The Sikhs are a brave people. They will know how to safeguard their rights by the exercise of arms if it should ever come to that …’
– Mahatma Gandhi, March 1931.
The great soul of India was speaking to a large Sikh congregation as his movement to spear-head India out of the British Raj gained momentum. But even as he spoke that day, Mahatma Gandhi knew of the peril India would face in the coming years as he slowly edged the jewel of the British Crown towards freedom. That peril was the conflicting interests of multitudes of different cultures and religions which formed, at that time, the united nation of India under the Raj. And the Mahatma was aware that once the British left India, the polarization of religions and cultures would tear at his country like at no other time since the whip had been held by London.
Gandhi’s vision of a free India was a country where Hindus, Moslems, Christians and Sikhs could co-exist without friction. He wanted a secular country where religion would play no part in the nationhood of the infant nation-state just finding its feet.
But the Raj had already made plans for splitting the country on the basis of religion. At the time the partition of India was being contemplated, the option had been made available to the Sikhs to go their separate way if they chose. But Sikh leaders of the time opted to stay within India. Gandhi, already appalled at the thought of his country being split along religious lines, was relieved that Sikhs, the third largest power-block, did not demand a separate state of their own. That was something Gandhi could not allow to happen. Therefore, when he spoke on that March day in 1931 to a congregation of Sikhs, Gandhi, the man who advocated peace, was assuring the Sikhs that their sword would be the great equalizer should the Congress party double-cross them following the Independence of India.
It was clearly recognized by the leader of the new state of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, that Sikhs deserved special rights within a united India. But successive Indian administrations dragged their feet when it came to keeping the promise of the father of the nation that had been made in 1921 and reiterated several times later. As the doctrine of secularism matured with the administrations in New Delhi it was becoming more and more clear that giving special status and self-governing power to one of India’s numerous cultures and religions would erode the ability of the central government to keep the country together. However, the central government finally bowed to pressure and formed the state of the Punjab in 1966, although leaving out pockets of Punjabi-speaking people in a neighboring state called Haryana which was predominantly Hindi speaking. The formation of Indian states was along linguistic lines generally.
The Sikhs, whose military prowess is admired around the world, would continue to exert profound loyalty to their country and make sacrifices for India far out of proportion to their numbers even as their leadership pressed religious and economic demands. However, the balancing effect of the large segment of Moslem population having gone with the creation of Pakistan, Sikh religious leaders began fearing that their faith would slowly be eroded in a country which has a massive Hindu majority. In those fears lies the answer to the recent turmoil in the Punjab, which has shaken India right down to its foundations. And in the vicious circle of events in the Punjab lies also the answer to why 331 people died in the bombing of Air India Flight 182 and the blast at Narita.
In the beginning, though, Sikh agitation in the Punjab centered on greater regional economic power. The basic demands in the beginning were essentially religio-economic concessions, until extreme fundamentalists exploited the situation and inflamed religious feelings to plant the seeds of violent protest.
Sikhism is one of the youngest and noblest of the religions of the world, having been given momentum by the tenth Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. The religion came into existence from both Moslem and Hindu elements embracing the new faith of the Khalsa, the pure ones. Gobind Singh gave the Sikhs a new identity, galvanizing them into a people enjoined with the task of sharing with one’s fellow-man, exerting manliness and achieving spiritual and temporal supremacy. He ordered his male followers to bear the middle name Singh, meaning the Lion, and the womenfolk to bear the middle name of Kaur, meaning princess.
There were also other tenets, such as the five basic principles of wearing unshorn hair and beard, a metal bracelet on the hand, special shorts, a kirpan (small ceremonial knife) and carrying a comb. The baptized Sikh is forbidden to touch alcohol and tobacco and by the nature of his religion is enjoined to be kind to those who seek refuge with him. That is why, on any given day, a stranger can go to a Sikh temple in any country and find refuge and food.
The newly-formed religion also taught valor, which has been amply demonstrated by the martial prowess of Sikhs both while fighting against the British Empire as it set foot in New Delhi and while fighting on the side of the colonial master in the World Wars. They proved their battle-hardiness in India’s three wars against Pakistan too. Less than 100 years after Gobind Singh galvanized the Sikhs, they conquered Lahore and threw out the afghan ruler, proclaiming their own king, Ranjit Singh. The Kingdom ruled for over 50 years across territory that included Lahore, which is now in Pakistan, and stretched north to the Khyber Pass, including the areas of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, the Kingdom of Punjab was overtaken by the superior armor of General Dalhousie after the second Anglo-Sikh war in 1849. The Khalsa Raj had ended and the British Raj had begun. The Sikh royal heir, Duleep Singh, was exiled to England at the age of 15, lest this boy grew to become another Lion of the Punjab. Duleep Singh died in England at the age of 55 in 1893. The British Raj now exerted supremacy over the whole Indian sub-continent, bringing together a nation of such cultural diversity that it is unparalleled in the world.
The rise of Sikh militancy, particularly in the years following 1981, was due to the rapid progress the Punjab was making in food production, industry and other aspects. Vast numbers of Sikhs had already established themselves in Western countries such as Canada, Britain and the United States, with smaller pockets in countries like Germany. The settlements abroad also brought unexpected benefits for those left behind in the Punjab. Sikhs living in their new countries had done tremendously well because of hard work and an enterprising spirit. These settlers abroad became one of the largest sources of foreign exchange for India. Many Sikhs living in the West, for example, still own massive tracts of land in their homeland. The Punjab, where Sikhs form a slight majority over the Hindu Punjabis, has prospered rapidly particularly because of the miraculous green revolution which made India not only self-sufficient in food production for the first time in many years, but also an exporter of food. This newfound prosperity brought fresh demands for greater attention to the Punjab by the central government in New Delhi.
In September 1981, the Akali Dal, the mainstream political party in the Punjab, forwarded a set of 45 demands to the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Some of the demands had their origin in what is known as the Anandpur Sahib resolution, adopted in 1973, which had asked for the merger of several Punjabi-speaking areas in the next-door Haryana State with the Punjab to form one administrative state. But the resolution also had another element: namely, greater freedom from central control. The situation was not too different from what Canada faces in the tug between Ottawa and the provinces.
The resolution read: ‘in this new Punjab [formed by the merger with neighboring territories], the Central intervention should be restricted to defense, foreign affairs, posts and telegraphs, currency and railways.’
It was just the beginning of the tug of war between New Delhi and the Akali Dal. New Delhi now faced a major problem: If it gave in to these demands from the Punjab, how would it stop other States of India from demanding similar rights?
The set of 45 demands handed to New Delhi in 1981 asked for sweeping reform in several areas. They fell generally into three categories: religious, economic, and relations between the central government and the Punjab administration. The chief religious demands were that Amritsar, the seat of the Holy Shrine of the Golden Temple, be granted Holy City status, which would result in banning the sale of alcohol, tobacco and meat within the walled city, and that a radio transmitter is installed at the temple to relay kirtan (the Sikh name for prayer) outside of State control. Radio stations in India were at the time State-owned. Further, the Sikhs wanted to be able to wear the kirpan or ceremonial dagger on domestic and international airline flights, and they wanted a new law to bring all historical Sikh temples in the entire country under one administration.
Quite clearly, some of the demands could be met easily, but others were hard to swallow for New Delhi. It was pointed out, for example, that declaring a city a Holy City would not be in keeping with the secular policies of the nation. However, the government would agree to ban the sale of offending items in an area close to the Golden Temple and a sacred Hindu Temple. The Indian constitution allows Sikhs to ware the ceremonial dagger, but carrying the kirpan was banned on domestic flights after a hijacking in 1981. It was explained that international airline regulations would not permit the carrying of a dagger. Another demand, also of a religious nature, was the centralized control of all Sikh temples under an umbrella organization. There was fierce resistance from Sikhs living outside the state to such centralization of authority, said Mrs. Gandhi’s government.
Further disputes arose between the central government and the Akali Dal on the basis of the distribution of river water, demands for which were increasing as the flourishing agricultural industry grew. In the 1970’s Mrs Gandhi had promised the transfer of the city of Chandighar to the Punjab, so long as agreement could be reached to transfer some Hindi-speaking areas in the Punjab to Haryana.
The hardest thing to negotiate, said Mrs. Gandhi’s government, was the demand for watering-down of central government control of the provinces, which she said went against the grain of national unity.
As negotiations stumbled and the Akali Dal began a series of agitation movements, including stoppage of work, stoppage of railways and demonstrations aimed at clogging the jails and courts, another element was creeping in to exploit the situation. Among the chief proponents of a hard-line approach was the All India Sikh Students’ Federation and a man called Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was at first courted by New Delhi, until he became an uncontrollable rebel.
Fueling those elements of lawlessness that would overtake the Punjab in the coming years were repeated killings generated by a sectarian feud between fundamentalist Sikhs and a sect called Nirankaris, an offshoot of Sikhism who believe in a formless God who can only be realized by the presence of living Guru. Sikhs felt that the New Delhi government was actively supporting the Nirankaris to deliberately erode the Sikh faith as it had been preached since the days of the first Guru. Various clashes occurred in 1978 between fundamentalist Sikhs and the Nirankaris which finally climaxed with the killing of Gurbachan Singh, spiritual leader of the Nirankaris, in 1980.
It was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who virtually began an undeclared war with New Delhi and subsequently plunged the Punjab into vicious circle of violence that would shake India and pose a threat to its national security worse than at any other time since its birth and the partition with Pakistan. The saint-soldier, who would later turn the Golden Temple into a fortress, made proclamations to his small but loyal band of followers that openly incited communal violence between Sikhs and Hindus in the prosperous State of Punjab. Bands of his followers would roam around the province, shouting slogans like ‘Khalistan Zindabad’, meaning Long Live the State of Khalistan, a name coined by rebel Jagijit Singh Chauhan who now lives in England (Chauhan has recently moved back to India). At about the same time, a newspaper editor who had criticized the killings of Nirankaris was himself murdered.
Bhindranwale was arrested by police in connection with the murder of Lala Jagat Narain, prompting massive violence in the streets of the Punjab, which in turn prompted the police to fire on a crowd of people. The scene had been set for a fire in the Punjab which would be fueled from both within and outside India by small pockets of militants living in Western countries. But at this time the vast majority of Sikhs living overseas remained unaffected by the turmoil that was embroiling their home province.