Flames of Hatred
The Punjab was overtaken by serious violence beginning in early 1981. As the Akali Dal continued it s series of agitations for greater religious and economic independence, Bhindranwale and the All India Sikh Students’ Federation were consolidating their position, establishing a solid and loyal group of supporters who were willing to lay down their lives. The men surrounding Bhindranwale had already decided to take the advice given by Mahatma Gandhi in 1931. Bhindranwale advocated the use of the sword, openly and defiantly.
When Indian authorities release him from jail after dropping the earlier charge of murder, he promptly moved his headquarters within the boundary of the Golden Temple. At about the same time, roving gangs of extremists riding motorbikes carried out widespread killings in the Punjab, while nervous police officers often resorted to firing on crowds of protesters when things got out of control.
The vicious circle of brutality had begun. In May of 1982, India declared both a militant group called Dal Khalsa and Dr Chauhan’s National Council of Khalistan unlawful organizations. Shortly thereafter, Amrik Singh, president of the Sikh Students’ Federation, was taken into custody and this prompted another wave of violence. When things finally began to go out of control with New Delhi still unable to satisfy the demands of the moderates, direct presidential rule was imposed in 1983. The Punjab government resigned because of the scale of violence that had gripped the province. There were virtually daily incidents of shootings, despite deployment of massive contingents of the army and police in the State.
Bhindranwale had now moved into the sacred Akal Takth within the Golden Temple and directed his operations from the holy site. Things were coming to a head in the Punjab now. In January 1984, the Akali Dal, already swamped and taken over by extremist groups, decided to burn copies of the Indian constitution. By now Hindu extremist organizations such as the Hindu Surakhsha Sumiti, in essence a Hindu defense committee, in turn began sacrilegious actions against the Sikh religion. In one instance the militant Hindu unit damaged a model of the Golden Temple and defiantly burned a picture of a Sikh Guru. That led to a divisive conflict between Hindus and Sikhs, who had for generations lived side by side in the Punjab.
The gravest crisis would follow shortly after 2 June 1984, when New Delhi sent in troops armed with plans for Operation Blue Star. A day later, the entry of foreigners into the Punjab was banned and the border with Pakistan sealed up. The Siege of the Punjab had begun. A 36-hour curfew was announced as troops moved into position around the Golden Temple, where Bhindranwale had already made preparations for battle. Fortifications were built around several areas within the temple, with sandbagged battle stations manned with machine guns and an assortment of other weapons. The Indian Army would find that incredible preparations had been made, including effective military type communication between Bhindranwale’s various forces deployed within the temple. The stage was now set for turning the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs into a battlefield.
On the evening of 5 June, the army addressed the militants within the temple to surrender, but only 129 came out with their arms raised. By nightfall Operation Blue Star was in full motion and the temple became a slaughterhouse, for both army units and the Sikhs holed up in it. In the first few hours of the operation, as a battle raged for control of the periphery of the temple area, moderate Akali Dal boss Harchand Singh Longowal was arrested by the army with over 300 others. But Bhindranwale was determined to stand his ground.
Early on the morning of 6 June, as the world watched in awe, the army moved in heavy armor, including an armored personnel carrier. But this was immobilized by anti-tank rockets fired from within the Akal Takth fortification. Then the army moved into the Akal Takth itself, using the searchlights of a tank to blind militant gun positions. Even then Bhindranwale would not give up. There was room-to-room fighting and by morning the superior training and armor of the Indian Army had overcome major resistance.
Mopping-up operations continued the next day. Bhindranwale’s bullet-riddled body was discovered in the basement along with that of Amrik Singh, president of the Sikh Students’ Federation. Also killed in the action was former Indian Army General Subheg Singh, who had teamed up with Bhindranwale. The main seat of the Sikh religion, the Akal Takth, was badly damaged. Simultaneously with the operation against the Golden Temple, other raids were launched against other Sikh temples.
The casualties were enormous. The army itself had suffered almost 80 dead and over 250 wounded. The casualties on the side of the men defending the temple were much, much higher. Official government figures indicate a death toll of 500 with 86 injured. But Sikhs who witnessed the assault swear that the loss of lives was in the thousands. Hundreds of militants were taken into custody and arms and ammunition of all descriptions were seized. Inside, the army also found a crude hand-grenade factory.
Mrs. Gandhi had won the battle but had lost the hearts and souls of her Sikh countrymen. Sikhs worldwide were reduced to tears by the attack on the Golden Temple. The soul of the Sikhs had been violated. The question was being asked in every Sikh household: Was it really necessary to send the army in? Was it necessary to drag out the negotiations on Sikh demands until they reached such a tragic climax?
The wounds created by the attack on the Golden Temple would take a long time to heal, but just when it looked like the brave saint-soldiers were beginning to forgive, another tragic event occurred. Two Sikhs, acting in isolation, had made up their minds to avenge the attack on the Golden Temple.
Early on the morning of October 31, 1984, Mrs. Gandhi’s trusted Sikh bodyguards opened fire on the Prime Minister after first saluting her as she walked down the path towards her office. The most powerful woman on earth, who had vowed to die rather than see her country split up, fell to the ground, her frail body jerking violently as she was riddled with dozens of bullets from machine guns. Like Mahatma Gandhi, she too had fallen prey to religious fanatics. The on who killed the Mahatma was a Hindu. He did it because Gandhi was giving away too much to the Moslems. Mrs. Gandhi was cut down because she wanted to give too little to the Sikhs.
Her departure left an immense power vacuum in the country, and the moment the country recovered from the initial daze over her assassination, there followed three days of hell for Sikhs living in the Indian capital, New Delhi. There is no excuse for what happened for three days after her death. As the reigns of power fell into the hands of the young, charismatic Rajiv Gandhi, angry mobs bent on vengeance over his mother’s death carried out a systematic massacre of innocent Sikhs, sometimes right in front of police. Sikhs were burned alive, their women raped, and their homes ransacked.
Granted, the country was in a state of profound shock during the days that followed Mrs. Gandhi’s death and her heir was torn between grief and taking his first steps towards exercising power. But there was no reason for the lack of police intervention in many spots where the atrocities were being committed against Sikhs who had played no role in the assassination. The mobs had made the mistake that is so easy to make – the mistake of generalization. A Sikh is a Sikh. Therefore, because her assassins were Sikhs, the rest of the Sikhs were just as guilty. The bloodshed would not stop until the army moved in and peace groups, formed by Hindus and Sikhs grieved by the scenes of cruelty, marched on the streets of New Delhi chanting ‘Hindu-Sikhs Bhai Bhai’, meaning Sikhs and Hindus are brothers. Again, it became clear that the lives of many Sikhs were spared because Hindu families, at great risk to themselves, gave Sikhs shelter in their homes as fellow countrymen.
Such are the entrapments of religious strife. That story is the same where religions and cultures clash – In Ireland, in Lebanon, between the Israelis and the Arabs and in India. Each time the vicious circle goes on and on, and the ones who pay a price are usually the innocent who want no part of the fanatical ideologies of the few. But they are the few who hold the guns and Billy clubs and iron bars. Intimidation works wonders. And that’s the trick of the terrorist trade.
As Rajiv Gandhi became the power broker in New Delhi he recognized that the situation in the Punjab was the greatest challenge India has had to face in modern times. He knew the time was running out to stop the flames of secession. The new Prime Minister is a man of modern times, not having the handicaps of the old school of thought that had plagued successive administrations in dealing with legitimate Sikh demands that stopped short of autonomy. One of the first things he did was to appoint a commission of inquiry to look into the riots that had ripped through New Delhi following the assassination of his mother.
He also moved with amazing speed to begin negotiations with moderate leader Harchand Singh Longowal to defuse the crisis that had created so much bloodshed in his country. On 24th July 1985 he reached a wide-ranging accord with Longowal, answering many of the demands that had been made for years by Sikhs.
The accord offered compensation to the families of all innocent victims of the Punjab turmoil since 1982, abandoned a previously enforced quota on the number of Sikhs who could enroll in the armed forces and made merit the only criteria for selection, extended the inquiry into riots following Mrs. Gandhi’s death to other areas besides Delhi and offered to rehabilitate those Sikh soldiers who had defected form the army in protest against the raid on the Golden Temple. Further, Gandhi promised to consider legislation to put in place an act of parliament to form a unitary body to manage temples throughout India.
Another deal he offered with the olive branch was the transfer of Chandighar to the Punjab and other territorial issues to a commission. Longowal in turn agreed to abandon any talk of a separate Sikh State and, further, that all considerations of more regional power would only be given when they did not clash with the need for the unity of the country. Agreement was also reached on some of the economic disputes concerning river waters.
Gandhi ordered the end of direct rule for the Punjab and called State elections. The Congress party was handed a stunning defeat, but democracy had won. An unprecedented 60 per cent of the voters would turn out to send a message to those who were preaching turmoil.
Sadly, though, as the Akali Dal boss Surjit Barnala romped to victory, Longowal was not present to see it. He was gunned down on 20th August 1985 by militants who called him a traitor to the Sikh cause.
Overseas, when Longowal died, there was little show of grief among hard-liners. But at least they did not perform a pitiful dance of death as some had done in London and Vancouver when Mrs. Gandhi died.