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Punjab crisis revisited: Lessons from the insurgency

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
June 03, 2014 13:18 IST
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'It is time for all Indians to understand the truth that led to a 10-year long bloodbath in Punjab and not attempt to glorify the terrorists under the garb of human rights violations or scratch old wounds,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd), on the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar.

It is by now widely accepted that it was the Congress-Akali Dal rivalry that led to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's rise and began the cycle of violence in Punjab. Are we witnessing a similar pattern, where the Congress party, licking its wounds from an electoral drubbing is again engaging in a dangerous game? Whatever the truth, it is time to bring out some other aspects of the recent history of Punjab to forestall this possibility.

On the eve of the 1971 India-Pakistan war this author was posted in Punjab. My battalion was located at Ambala and had the task to defend a section of the border north of Amritsar. One had never been to the Golden Temple before and the author took the first opportunity to visit the shrine. Being a compulsive smoker, I had a packet of cigarettes on me, a taboo in Sikhism. At the entrance itself, without any fuss and in a matter of fact manner, I was told to deposit the packet at the locker and then go ahead. Those were the days.

During my first visit to this holiest Sikh shrine, I heard the shabad kirtan (devotional songs) being sung from the first floor of the Harmandir Sahib. Being an avid fan of Indian classical music, for me it was a treat listening to some of the finest music. From this time onwards whenever I was passing through Amritsar, I made it a point to visit the Golden Temple and spend some time there; it was always a rewarding experience. The sense of peace one got was overwhelming.

It was quite common to see, at that time (and again now), that Hindu visitors to the Golden Temple far outnumbered the Sikhs on any normal day. In my army days most of my close friends were Sikhs, and therefore one was quite familiar with the Sikh rituals and often visited gurdwaras as a matter of course on Sundays.

But in less than 13 years, in 1984 to be precise, I found myself again in Punjab, this time on the unpleasant duty of dealing with terrorists who thought that pulling out Hindus from buses and gunning them down mercilessly was their highest religious duty. As a participant in the painful Operation Blue Star, I can vouch that when General Krishnaswami Sundarji said that the Indian Army entered the Golden Temple with a prayer on our lips, he echoed the sentiments of all of us.

As time has healed some of the wounds of the 'Blue Star' tragedy, some seem hell bent on re-opening the old wounds. Filmmaker Gulzar did that quite effectively with his film Maachis.

It is time for all Indians to understand the truth that led to a 10-year long bloodbath in Punjab and not attempt to glorify the terrorists under the garb of human rights violations or scratch old wounds.

Most analysts agree that the troubles in Punjab began with the Nirankari-Sikh clash that took place on April 13, 1978, in Amritsar. Forty protesters died in that clash and a feeling spread that the government was supporting the Nirankaris. It is noteworthy that at that time Punjab was ruled by the Akalis. The violence that began initially as an anti-Nirankari movement soon turned against the government and later Hindus.

The origins of the Punjab crisis and Sikh separatism goes back to the British days. As in the case of Muslims, giving Sikhs a separate identity, not religious but political, was a part of the British divide and rule policy. But the trauma of the partition of Punjab did much to wash off that myth and Sikhs got into the Indian mainstream. The Akalis often used the slogan of 'Sikh Panth in danger' (not unlike the Muslim League's equally false and disastrous slogan of Islam in danger) to garner votes but consistently failed in their attempt.

The Sikhs by the dint of sheer hard work prospered and came to occupy dominant positions in many fields, including the armed forces. A distinction needs to be clearly made between a distinct religious identity and political separatism based on religion. Then why did Punjab erupt in 1980s?

Several explanations were offered, some attributed it to the deprivation of the masses in spite of the Green Revolution, others felt that the Jat Sikhs-dominated Akali Dal's frustration at the inability to attain political power (as the scheduled caste/scheduled tribe Sikhs and Hindus combined to support the Congress) was at the root of violence.

The machinations by then prime minister Indira Gandhi, where she was credited with having deliberately created Sikh militancy in order to gather frightened Hindu votes was also floated as a serious theory. But none of these explanations suffice to understand the widespread support that militancy enjoyed at its peak. To understand this phenomenon one has to go back to the 1960s and the Green Revolution.

In 1965, when the US effectively used food aid to browbeat India, Indira Gandhi and her dynamic minister in charge of food and agriculture C Subramanian fashioned a strategy to attain food self-sufficiency in the shortest possible time-frame. The irrigated lands of Punjab, Haryana and western UP were targeted for application of miracle seeds, fertilisers and mechanisation. The strategy succeeded and India became self-sufficient in food grains.

Rising incomes and mechanisation brought in its wake social tensions. In the hard work that intensive agricultural operations involved, the turban and beard were seen as a hindrance. Sikhs in large numbers took to trimming beards and even smoking.

A district like Amritsar that has a majority Sikh population, became the highest revenue earning district for cigarette companies. 'Pani piyo pump da te cigarette piyo lamp da was a catchy slogan that linked the smoking of 'Red Lamp' cigarettes with water from the 'pump', subtly linked this symbol of the Green Revolution with smoking.

The long hair and beard were not merely external symbols for the Sikhs, but a major part of their religious identity. In travels through Punjab as an army officer, one was always welcomed with open arms. It was also common to share the charpoy and lassi with farmers. During these encounters one frequently heard a lament from the elderly Sikhs that at the rate people were deserting the faith, in a few years time there will be no Sikhs left in Punjab.

The relationship between Sikhs and Hindus is such that the moment a person shaved off his beard and cut off his hair he automatically became a Hindu. Sikh society felt insecure at the assault of this 'modernisation' and feared for the survival of its identity. This feeling was not confined to villages alone, but was commonplace even among the Sikh intelligentsia.

In this situation of fear and foreboding arrived Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale with his single point programme of strict adherence to external Sikh symbols. His campaign against trimming of hair and shaving off beard found a groundswell of support among the Sikh masses. He enforced his diktat with ruthless force. His violent methods brought him into direct confrontation with the State and soon militancy began in Punjab.

But 'modernisation', the real threat, is a formless entity so the violence first targeted the Nirankaris, then the government machinery and then the Hindus.

In the final stages the terrorists turned increasingly against the Sikhs themselves and became predatory. It was at this stage that the militants lost support and were finally overcome towards 1993.

This was a tailor-made situation for Pakistan. It intervened with a generous supply of arms and ammunition, and mayhem in Punjab began in right earnest. The US and UK also saw in this an opportunity to destabilise India, their long term goal during the Cold War. The West also used the expatriate Sikhs as instrument of their policy and gave shelter and support to all manner of terrorist groups.

Indira Gandhi saw this as a direct challenge to the very existence of India and decided to act, leading to Operation Blue Star. The rest, as they say, is history.

There is an uncanny resemblance to Islamist terrorism that the world is witnessing today. Like Sikhism then, Islam today is afraid of modernisation and Westernisation. Like Sikh terrorism, the current wave of Islamist terror will also subside once the terrorists turn predatory (like their recent attacks in Syria, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and lose popular support. Only then would the world be able to deal with this scourge.

Image: A soldier in a bunker outside the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale is a military historian and student of insurgency.

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