The Knights of Falsehood
THE MASK OF FAITH
We are still in the wake of a vast and unforgivable tragedy. For fifteen years Punjab, and much of India, was tormented by a terror inflicted upon its people in the name of the faith of the Gurus. Echoes of that torment have not yet ceased.
The present marks the end of one of the greatest moral crises to confront the Sikh Panth [community] in its entire history. In the past, it had come close to physical annihilation; but never to the moral compromise that terrorism inflicted. How did this crisis come about? Who were its architects? What was the role of the larger Sikh community? And, critically, has the challenge and the danger it represented disappeared?
These questions continue to agitate the minds of every Indian, as the nation seeks to protect itself against a recurrence of the long-drawn tragedy in Punjab, and to develop defences against its replication in other states. But for the Sikh, these questions are overwhelming. Acts of random terror still mar the peace in Punjab; a significant terrorist leadership still survives in safe-havens in Pakistan; an inimical neighbour and its covert agencies will exploit every opportunity to inflict anarchy and ruin on any part of India, and Punjab, by virtue of its location, remains a prime target. For the Sikhs, however, the most oppressive fact is that the terrorism that wreaked havoc in the lives of the people of Punjab was inflicted in the name of the Sikh faith and, within it, of the brotherhood of the Khalsa. A stain on its honour, like a festering wound, torments the Panth; and it is only through deep and brutally honest introspection, through an understanding of the true teachings of the Gurus, through a re-examination of this period of its history and its collective experience, that the community can declare, unequivocally, that the many voices that claimed to speak for Sikhism, and for the Khalsa - and to kill in their name - did not, in fact, speak for them; that these voices abused the great faith, the universal message of the Gurus, and their final testament, the Guru Granth Sahib.
At the level of a generalisation, such a declaration would be simple; for the Guru Granth Sahib is explicit: the Sikh is "He who inspirith no fear, nor is afraid"2. Those who sought to "kill one in order to terrorise thousands" - whatever their motives - betrayed this faith; they could claim for themselves neither the title of Sikh, nor of Khalsa.
This answer, however, is insufficient. Even today, in the Golden Temple - the holiest shrine of the Sikhs - elected representatives of the Panth present Saropas to honour the families of those who inflicted this terror; and who they still describe as the martyrs of the Panth. In Gurudwaras in rural Punjab, there are still a handful of stragglers who preach a creed of unadulterated hatred and vengeance, though few attend to them. From across the borders, the remnants of the terrorist leadership speak of a shift in strategy - the adoption of what they describe as ‘peaceful’ tactics to promote their objectives - even while they reiterate that these objectives remain unchanged.
The attitudes of a large number of Sikhs, and particularly of the Sikh religious and political leadership has, at best, remained ambivalent in the face of these activities. Among the common people, there is little support for such antics; but indifference alone cannot suffice. Even today, a mythology of oppression, of torment and of martyrdom is being invented in the Punjab around those who spoke only with the Kalashnikov and the bomb. And while the Government scampers to restore properties to the families of terrorists in order to ‘heal the wounds’, no one speaks of the wounds of the tens of thousands who were victims of terror in the state. It is in the midst of such ambivalence that the malevolent creed of the terrorist took birth. It is such ambivalence that makes the Sikh people vulnerable to its seduction again.
It is the Sikhs themselves who must guard against this seduction. Democracy and liberalism are not a sufficient defence and this is a fact that the ideologues of ‘freedom’ need, equally, to comprehend. There is a fatal flaw in the liberal mind. Having established, in structure and form [though seldom in substance], a system of governance that corresponds to its conception of democracy, it feels that nothing more needs to be done. The ‘Truths’ of the liberal ideology are, as the American Declaration on the Rights of Man expresses it, ‘Self Evident’. They require no proof, no reiteration, and no defence - certainly no defence by force of arms. Once democracy [or even the ritual of quinquinneal elections] is established, according to liberal mythology, the mystical ‘invisible hand’ keeps everything in place; the ‘superior wisdom of the masses’ ensures order and justice.
This is just so much rubbish. As we should know after living with falsehoods for fifty years now. Truth does not triumph; unless it has champions to propound it, unless it has armies to defend it.
But while the ideologues of ‘freedom’ wrap themselves up in complacent superiority, irrational cults are actively, and passionately, advocated; virulent doctrines are insidiously planted in the pervasive confusion, both among the young who find the opportunities of the world inadequate to meet their expectations, and among the old who mourn the disintegration of familiar values and institutions. Democracy is an imperfect institution; it has numerous flaws, and perhaps only a single virtue - all its alternatives are manifestly worse. But the disparities, the injustices, even the monumental inefficiency and corruption that democratic systems tolerate and appear to breed are more than adequate, if selectively highlighted and skilfully manipulated, to create an immense reservoir of frustration; if the subjective sense of deprivation or of discrimination within a community - irrespective of realities - can be sufficiently heightened, it is not difficult to convince the susceptible that violence offers the only solution; and that the indiscriminate violence of terrorism is the most efficient of the available options.
Once a certain religious and communal fervour is introduced into this incendiary compound of half truths, the liberal ideology has no defence. The Rights of Man, even if passionately advocated, stand only a poor chance against the awful might of what is claimed to be the revealed Word - though it be distorted beyond recognition - of God; especially among the believers; especially among masses of illiterates; especially among those whom modern - or democratic - society has dispossessed.
And not only among these. In the early Eighties, well before the tragic farce of Operation Blue Star and the unforgivable slaughter during the anti-Sikh riots could justify a sense of insecurity among moderate Sikhs, I remember the sense of shock I experienced on encountering the prevailing mind-set of educated and successful Sikhs in the drawing-rooms of Chandigarh. Recall that a surprising number of well-educated and well off Sikhs, including University Professors, senior retired Army, Police and Administrative Services’ officers became active Bhindranwale supporters; and the number who privately espoused his cause while maintaining a public - and expedient - posture of indifference, was many times greater.
This, indeed, is the case with all extreme doctrines. Today, the implicit support for Hindu, Muslim and Sikh fundamentalism in the country is substantially higher, even among the educated middle classes, than one would be led to suspect on the basis of its public manifestations. The case of Punjab is consequently critical for our understanding of the circumstances that give rise to millennial militant ideologies. If peace is to last in that state, and if the nation is to create defences against a recurrence of what transpired there, we must first understand how terror prevailed.
For the Sikhs, however, such an understanding is not only necessary because of the threat of terrorism, both past and present; an insidious constellation of forces that constitutes a persistent threat to their faith still prevails in the Punjab. The essential universalism, the humanism and dynamism of Sikhism is, today, being progressively distorted and circumscribed by the emerging patterns of both secular and religious politics in the state. The crisis of terrorism has, no doubt, been contained; but the crisis within Sikhism is far from over.
And this crisis is their greatest in history; greater, even, than the time when the entire Panth was confronted with the prospect of physical annihilation. The Sikhs had been the targets of gradually escalating violence throughout the seventeenth century; this campaign culminated, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, in a concerted effort by the Mughal rulers to exterminate the faith in its entirety. Their temples were barred or demolished, and a price was placed on every Sikh head. Sikh men, women and children were butchered wherever they were found; thousands were hanged, drawn and quartered. They fled their homes and sought shelter in the hills and forests. The oppressive measures against them went to an extent that would be ludicrous if it were not tragic: the use of the word Gur [jaggery] was banned lest it remind people of the Sikhs Gurus; books were not to be called granth, since this suggested the Guru Granth Sahib of the Sikhs, and had to be referred to as pothis. The sacred pool at Amritsar was filled up with the debris of the temple that had stood in its middle since the time of the Fifth Guru. Sikh shrines everywhere were being reduced to rubble.
Yet, such was the refulgence of the faith, so great its inspiration, that even at this hour of its greatest physical danger, and despite the fact that the line of the living Gurus had come to an end with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, Sikhism continued not only to attract new converts, but to spur them to acts of the greatest courage and sacrifice for their new found creed. The moral force of its teachings was the only inducement it could offer in this hour of darkness.
Sikhism, today, has arrived at its greatest numerical strength ever; and despite the artificial posture of martyrdom some of its prominent political and religious leaders seek to project, it is in no danger of annihilation by ‘genocide’ or by ‘ethnic cleansing’ - phrases that have been borrowed unthinkingly from the international arena and applied by the wilder imaginations among the Sikh ‘intelligentsia’ to the Punjab situation. But the message of the Gurus, today, is no longer carried abroad by those who call themselves the Gurus’ ‘sikhs’ [disciples]. And this is despite the immense institutional structure that has grown around Sikhism and its temples over the past century. If Sikhism still wins converts, it is because of the work of anonymous, dedicated lay preachers - not of those who claim to ‘represent’ its greatest force. The latter, over the past decades, have sought only to incarcerate it within the narrow geographical bounds of fictional nation-states, and the confines of parochial mindsets obsessed with the external manifestations of the ‘Sikh identity’. These ‘representatives’ today project themselves as the "one exclusive manifestation of the corporate will of the Sikh community", and insist that any individual who does not subscribe to their ideology has no right to speak for the Panth.3 Those who oppose these ‘guardians of the faith’ are automatically condemned as ‘enemies’ or ‘traitors of the Panth’.
Nothing could militate against the spirit of Sikhism as this does. The history of the Sikhs is replete with the struggle, led at one time by the Gurus themselves, against all those who sought to establish themselves as the arbiters of the faith. Sikhism is a defence of the claims of conscience against all external interference; between the devotee and God, there are no intermediaries. In the seventeenth century Guru Gobind Singh had himself set about to destroy the power usurped by the masands or deputies of the Sikh faith; and his harsh condemnation of the unacceptable mediacy of the masands is familiar to every Sikh.4
Closer in time we have the case of the mahants or temple priests who were driven out of the Gurudwaras in 1925, after a five-year-long peaceful mass movement spearheaded by the Akalis, in which hundreds of Sikh lives were lost and tens of thousands of Sikhs jailed.5 This campaign expelled a corrupt and venal clergy which had transformed the Gurudwaras into hereditary family fiefdoms and distorted Sikh religious practices and beliefs.
Today, however, the institutions of the Sikhs, both religious and political, have been hijacked by a small clique, a self-interested oligarchy, representing a particular ethnic cluster, a small endogamous segment of Punjab’s social fabric; a narrow caste group that seeks to define Sikhism and Sikh identity in terms of its own constricted vision. This straitjacketed vision cannot accommodate the great faith of the Gurus.
The Sikh community does not, in reality, conform to the simple undifferentiated image that has been imposed on the public mind - an image essentially defined by the prescriptions and standards of the Khalsa and associated with the five mandatory symbols of that order, the five ‘Ks’: kesh, kada, kirpan, kangha, kaccha [unshorn hair, the steel bracelet, the short-sword, a comb, and loose breeches that do not go below the knees]. This, however, is a misconception energetically promoted by the leadership of the dominant section of the community. Those who strictly follow the discipline of the Khalsa in every aspect of their lives, would, in any event, be a small minority; even among those who wear its external symbols, the majority would consist of "the liberal, the lax, and the ambivalent."6 A number of sects exist within Sikhism, such as the Nanakpanthis, the Udasis, the Seva Panthis and the Namdharis; and a large proportion of the Panth is comprised of what are described as the Sahajdhari Sikhs: individuals who do not conform to the strict discipline of the Khalsa, and do not wear the five symbols of the militant order, but who are, nonetheless, inspired in their daily lives by the teachings of the Gurus. The title ‘Sahajdhari’ is associated with Guru Nanak’s use of sahaj to designate the condition of ultimate spiritual bliss which climaxes the nam simran technique [meditation on the names of God]. Those who emphasise Guru Nanak’s practice of nam simran thus came to be known as ‘those who affirm sahaj’ or Sahajdhari Sikhs in contrast to the Amritdhari Sikhs who undergo Guru Gobind Singh’s baptism of the sword and wear all the external symbols of the Khalsa order. Amritdhari Sikhs today tend to apply the appellation Sahajdhari to all Sikhs who cut their hair, and interpret the term sahaj to mean ‘slow’ or ‘natural’; the sahajdharis, in this sense, are thought of as ‘slow adopters’ of Sikhism, or ‘a Sikh who is still on the path to full Khalsa membership.’7 If the Sahajdhari Sikhs are being isolated from the Panth today, it is because of the activities of the very people who claim to represent Sikhism; for they are denied a place of honour in the community, denied representation in the religious institutions that define and govern it; indeed, even denied their identity as Sikhs.
It is important, in this context, to understand the position of the Khalsa order. Even during Guru Gobind Singh’s time, it was not obligatory for every disciple [the literal meaning of the term ‘sikh’] to undergo the baptism of steel, and Sahajdhari Sikhs have coexisted with Amritdharis throughout the three centuries since the creation of the Khalsa order. The baptism of the sword, traditionally, was seen by those who underwent it as a final commitment; a coming of age, a dedication of every aspect of the individual’s life to the faith. Today, however, it has, in large part, been reduced to a mere ritual - one that the children of Amritdhari Sikhs may undergo as a matter of routine. The ‘five Ks’ - the external symbols of the Khalsa - have now been transformed into inherited elements of a communal identity that have little connection with conduct or conviction. Those who wear them are no longer the ‘warrior saints’ of Guru Gobind Singh’s conception; they are worn merely as marks of communal pride, or as the contemporary Sikh leadership is fond of expressing it, of ‘Sikh identity’. Devoid of the spirit of absolute sacrifice and commitment that characterised their acceptance in the past, they are now indistinguishable from the caste marks of the Brahmanical order, their tufts of hair and their janeus [sacred threads].
And this has happened within a system of beliefs that rejected all such ritual distinctions. At the tender age of nine, when the child Nanak was told by the family priest that he must wear a janeu, to distinguish him from the casteless and the ‘Shudras’, he replied;
It is the misfortune of our age that the teachings of this enlightened soul, in their contemporary institutional incarnation, have been transformed into a mirror image of the very religious formalism that his original mystical insights sought to destroy. The "religion of gesture and symbol"9 is easier to practice than the meditational disciplines and moral codes the Gurus imposed on their community; communal identities are easier to secure than the essence of faith.
This, however, is not our only affliction. The temples of Sikhism, many of them with important associations with the history and martyrs of the faith, have acquired immense sanctity and authority among the devout; and these sentiments are transferred almost automatically to those who control these temples. Among these, the Golden Temple has a position of paramountcy, and a significance far greater than any individual priest, priesthood or leader. Any movement - and here we are speaking of political movements, though they may be couched in the language of religion [there have been no religious movements in recent times] - that originates from, or is associated with the Golden Temple, is automatically assumed to enjoy the support and sanction of the Sikh people, and of Sikhism. Recent Sikh history has been an almost continuous internecine, often fratricidal, battle to control this holy sanctuary; and through it, the minds of the Sikh people.
All this, however, still cannot explain how a deeply religious people - or even a significant segment among them - could resort to the inhumanity of terrorism. The social and economic disparities between the urban and rural sectors in Punjab; the flood of rural educated unemployed who could find no constructive role in the system around them; the interminable sequence of political machinations and betrayals that created the conditions for mass disaffection; all these are factors that contributed to widespread public anger - and I am sure a battery of social scientists is even now analysing reams of data to define their relative significance in Punjab’s troubled years. Many of these factors, however, are to be found in most other states of the Indian Union, and while they provide the ground for discontent, these are not the seeds of terror.
The heart of this darkness is located in a long and continuous manipulation of the Sikh psyche through the institutions and symbols of religion. But before we examine this tainted core, it is necessary to discover the relationship of the average Sikh to his scriptures and his faith.
The Sikh scriptures are a living voice for those who believe in them and the Granth Sahib embodies the mystical person of the Gurus. The Granth is deeply revered, but few Sikhs will have read it in its entirety. The degree of their familiarity with its contents, however, is unusually high. The daily prayers comprise important, and fairly extensive parts of the Granth Sahib; they may include the Japji Sahib of Guru Nanak; the Rehras that follow immediately after in the Holy Book; the Jaap Sahib of Guru Gobind Singh; the Ardas, a prayer that recounts the great sacrifices and suffering endured by heroes of the Faith; extracts from the Dasham Granth, the Tenth Guru’s testament. For the devout, at least five Banis or hymns must be read every morning; another five Banis with some supplementary prayers and verses, are prescribed for the evening. And before they retire at night, the pious will recite the Kirtan Sohila, ending it, once again, with the Ardas.
Recordings of the Gurbani can be found in virtually every Sikh home. Children hear these prayers, hymns and legends from the earliest age. More importantly, a visit to the Gurudwara is not only a ritual visitation; it is usually a gathering of the community, where the scriptures are read, recited and sung, and tales of Sikh valour and sacrifice are reiterated again and again till they become an integral part of the mindset of every member of the Panth.
The Punjab countryside is dotted with the deras [abodes] of lay preachers and itinerant Sikh sages, many of them well versed in the scriptures and deeply committed to the task they have undertaken - though some of them may well be charlatans out to make a little money. They attract a steady stream of villagers, and on religious festivals, large congregations may gather to hear their discourses. In the villages, they are a major and vibrant source for the dissemination of the message of the Gurus.
A large and integral part of the religious teachings that are so variously communicated consists of the martyrology of Sikhism. The Sikhs were persecuted by the Mughals, and by successive waves of Muslim invaders - including the Afghans - throughout their history till shortly before the British period. Confronting onslaught after onslaught they came within inches of complete annihilation on many occasions. The torments inflicted on their forbears, the brutal tortures they were subjected to, the martyrdom of two of the Sikh Gurus, and of four of the Tenth Guru’s sons, at the hands of Mughal Emperors and governors, and the almost incredible acts of self-sacrifice by numberless Sikh heroes create the sense of a palpable wound in the heart of every Sikh. Many of the stories they believe in absolutely may, no doubt, be apocryphal; in history, however, "what is believed to have happened can commonly be more important than what actually happened."10
This is the truth that has been manipulated without end by those who seek to exploit the heightened sentiments of the Sikhs for their own political objectives. The sense of wrong, of grievous injustices that is ingrained in the psyche of every Sikh as a result of the tyranny of the ruling classes and the barbarity of invaders in the past is transferred seamlessly to the present, through metaphor and symbol; through the invention of a litany of supposed wrongs, of presumed conspiracies, of ostensible oppression.
To understand how this was possible we must see how the political message has been communicated in the past decades. The Gurudwara, deeply revered by the average Sikh, has, in this, become an adjunct of politics. It does not, however, motivate, form or shape the pattern and content of politics, guiding it towards what is right and just. In this, the Sikh doctrine of spiritual and temporal authority of the Panth has been turned on its head. The Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind had enunciated this doctrine, symbolically carrying two swords, piri and miri, to assert his authority in both the spiritual and temporal spheres. But the temporal authority he assumed was intended to protect and further the interests of Dharma, to defend the Faith against the relentless onslaught to which it was being subjected. The principles and institutions of the Faith, the inexorable puissance of Dharma, were not to be subordinated to secular ambitions. Today, however, the messages communicated through the intricate network of Sikh religious institutions are defined exclusively by the petty designs, the conspiracies and shifting loyalties of a venal and unscrupulous leadership that has discovered the advantages of adopting a religious posture, a quasi-religious garb and image, and of expressing all its demands in a communal idiom.
In thousands of Gurudwaras that dot the Punjab, sangats listen with rapt attention to readings from the scriptures; after this, dhadis, martial singers, recall deeds of sacrifice and heroism, detailing the tortures that the martyrs of Sikhism were subjected to, the continuous and cruel trials of the Faith. Their are innumerable verses, in the Janam Saakhis or lives of the Gurus, in the folklore, in epic poetry connected with Sikh history and warfare, that detail these horrors in the most evocative language possible. In an atmosphere surcharged with religious fervour and a deep sense of injury, preachers and political activists harangue the assembled faithful on the wrongs of the present regime; on the ‘oppressive Brahmins who rule from Delhi’ and ‘seek to destroy the Faith’, through cunning and cruelty, even as the Mughals had done. No evidence is needed here; no concrete cases of persecution; no martyrs. All the emotions aroused by the preceding drama are simply transferred to the present; ambiguous, but strangely tangible wounds suppurate in the mind; and when the time, the opportunity, and the final prompting comes, explode in putrefying violence.
This process went on for over forty years - without any effective resistance or effort by saner elements in the community to counter it [the educated Sikh would absorb the scriptural message with devotion, and reject the rest as the ranting of semi-literates which were never meant to be taken seriously] - before it culminated in the terrorism of the Eighties. I personally witnessed the changing rhetoric of the Gurudwaras, as the nation attained Independence. My parents would take us, my sisters and me, to the Gurudwara every Sunday, and on all major festivals. In the winter of 1947, we were in Simla and I recall the family’s visits to the Gurudwara near the bus stand. The Gurudwara rhetoric, which had been consistently anti-Muslim before Partition, took on an unconcealed anti-Hindu tone almost immediately, targeting Nehru and ‘Brahman India’ as a regular feature.
The Gurudwara tirades found their echo in the highest echelons of State politics as well. Master Tara Singh, acknowledged as one of the ‘moderate’ Akali leaders, and the man who dominated Akali politics - both in the secular State apparatus and the religious forum of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee [SGPC] - before the party split in 1962, expressed one of his recurrent themes at the All India Akali Conference of 1953:
This is comparatively gentle language compared, for instance, to the invective resorted to by Kapur Singh, an ICS officer dismissed from service on charges of embezzlement. He claimed in a pamphlet, for instance, that Prime Minister Nehru had issued a directive in 1947 to all deputy commissioners in the Punjab that "Sikhs in general ... must be treated as a criminal tribe. Harsh treatment must be meted to them to the extent of shooting them dead so that they wake up to political realities [sic]."12 Condensing the story of the suffering that the Sikh Gurus were subjected to by the Mughals, Kapur Singh came to the startling conclusion that "The Mogul king Bahadur Shah had ordered, ‘Followers of Nanak [should] be executed on sight’. I, being a declared Sikh, fell a victim to this Mogul firman."13 The destruction of the Sikh kingdom established by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and of the continuing suffering of the Sikh people was a result of "The Brahmanically oriented forces within and without Punjab," who "co-operated in destroying the Sikhs who alone held out a promise of the early redemption of India."14
These shades of opinion find their way easily into what masquerades as ‘Sikh academics’. Pritam Singh Gill, a former Principal of Lyallpur Khalsa College, Jalandhar, writes, "Indians got freedom, but not the Sikhs. Hindus left the enemy country and migrated to a country of their brothers. So did the Muslims. But the Sikhs left the enemy country and migrated to [another] enemy country." The essentials of the Hindu conspiracy against the Sikhs, he added, was, "Kill the language, kill the culture, kill the community."15
Or again, one finds reflections of the same paranoia in what passes itself off as ‘Sikh journalism’. As far back as 1973, the Spokesman declaims, "Now a days the Hindus are thirsty of Sikh Blood [sic] and would love to bury the Sikhs fathoms deep beyond any hope of resurrection. To achieve these nefarious designs, they consider no means too mean or too foul." And, "Scratch any Hindu and behind his skin you will find an anti-Sikh maniac who is sneaking his lips [sic] to finish off the Sikhs."16 In this, we are only a short step away from Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s declaration that, in Hindu India, the Sikhs had to "give a cup of blood to get a cup of water".17
In the Fifties, the Sixties and the Seventies such statements could conveniently be dismissed as the ravings of the lunatic fringe in the community, as indeed they were. That, however, was the error. The ‘lunatic fringe’ had already begun to prevail upon at least part of the community. Those who expressed these shades of opinion were already winning elections and holding offices of significant power. Despite his apparent paranoia, Kapur Singh became a member, first of the state legislative assembly, and subsequently, of Parliament. Master Tara Singh dominated Akali, and consequently SGPC, politics for over a decade after independence, and for more than two decades before, and his memory is still revered in Punjab.
The fact of the matter was that Sikh politics had inexorably been thrown into the mould of competitive communalism ever since the constitution of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee [SGPC], the elected body responsible for the management of Gurudwaras in Punjab, in 1925.18 The SGPC today administers well over 700 Sikh shrines; it controls enormous funds, a well organised bureaucracy, a large staff of preachers, priests, musicians and sewadars, functions as an autonomous body, and has often been described as a ‘State within a State.’ Control of the SGPC implies control over the very shrines that command the absolute devotion of the Sikhs, in addition to the vast material resources within them. Such power offers the opportunity, moreover, of capturing the State Government as well.
The Akali Dal has held the SGPC under its sway from the time of its constitution, though this fact may give a deceptive picture of the actual situation. Within the party, various factions have struggled constantly for domination; and the grouping representing the more extreme or ‘fundamentalist’ positions has tended, over time, to prevail. It was precisely this spiral that culminated in terrorism; and it is precisely for these reasons that the Gurudwaras were the centres of militancy, and among them, the Golden Temple its axis.
It was in the wake of Operation Black Thunder that I personally encountered the degree to which, and the cynicism with which these shrines, and with them the sentiments of the Sikhs, were being manipulated for political ends. On 18th May 1988, the last batch of terrorists in the Golden Temple surrendered to the police, bringing the Operation to a successful, and relatively bloodless close. A search was conducted within the temple premises the next day, primarily with the intention of disarming any explosive devices that may have been planted by the terrorists. Instead, we discovered fourteen rooms around the Parikrama, previously occupied by some of the hard-core terrorists in the complex, which had been converted into torture chambers. From these we recovered apparatus to deliver electric shocks; a wide variety of sharp edged weapons, leather straps, and chittars - large rubber spatula used to beat up victims - some of them still covered with coagulated blood and shards of disintegrating flesh. Documents, including correspondence between the terrorists in the temple and their associates operating from Pakistan, threatening letters, and a variety of notes and papers that provided details of extortion and torture were recovered from these rooms. They provided sufficient evidence to reconstruct the torture and murder of at least 75 victims - ‘police informers’, ‘government agents’, alleged violators of the ‘militant code’, group enemies and ‘enemies of the Panth’. 41 mutilated bodies were recovered from the debris of the Akal Takth near Manji Sahib; they had been treated with rock salt to arrest the decomposition process - and the consequent stench.
The stench of death, nevertheless, pervaded the Temple complex. Red Cross volunteers removed the bodies recovered from the debris. Blood stains on the Parikrama and in many of the rooms were cleaned. But nothing we could do was sufficient to wipe out the sense of desecration, of defilement. Any Sikh, indeed any person with even a suspicion of religious sensitivity, would, under the circumstances, have done everything within his power to restore at least a semblance of the sanctity that the Golden Temple merited. The Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, Sarabjeet Singh, and I felt that worship within the Temple should be resumed at the earliest, and the first step in this direction was the restoration of the Maryada - the ritual washing of the Parikrama with milk and water, and the revival of traditional religious ceremonies.
For the SGPC, however, this was just another opportunity to extract political concessions. Bhan Singh was its Secretary at that time; and Ujagar Singh Rangreta its Vice-president; Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the SGPC President since 1973, was at that time in jail as a result of his activities in the period preceding Operation Black Thunder.
The Deputy Commissioner met Bhan Singh and Rangreta on the 20th itself at Bhan Singh’s residence, and they initially agreed that the authorised priests would be brought together and that Maryada could be restored. At a second meeting at the Circuit House the next morning, Bhan Singh reiterated his assurance to the DC. I had flown to Delhi, and on my return, met the DC at the Brahmboota Akhara, which served as our command post throughout Operation Black Thunder. Bhan Singh, shortly after his meeting with the DC, had called him up and told him that only Bhai Mohan Singh, who had courted arrest during the Operation and was being held at Patiala Jail, could, according to the tradition, officiate over the ceremonies. The SGPC representatives were called in for a third meeting at 6:00 p.m., and thereafter necessary arrangements were immediately made to secure the release of Bhai Mohan Singh, and he was brought to Amritsar at 10:30 the same evening. On his arrival at the circuit house, he said he would do nothing until he had spoken to Bhan Singh. The DC failed to contact the latter over the phone, and consequently proceeded to his residence along with Bhai Mohan Singh. It was 11:00 p.m. when they arrived, and Bhan Singh’s residence was in darkness. He was, however, roused and emerged to open the door. On entering the house, the DC noticed that Bhan Singh had deliberately removed his phone from the hook. What followed was a complete volte face. The SGPC Secretary became stubbornly evasive, and eventually insisted that Tohra be released on the grounds that he alone could authorise restoration of the Maryada.
At this point, Sarabjeet Singh informed Bhan Singh that he would proceed with the ceremonies without SGPC support, with the ragis and the granthis who had accompanied me from Delhi, and he joined me at the Brahmboota Akhara with this proposal. I, however, was not in favour of this course of action. The DC had earlier spoken to several eminent Sikh scholars in Amritsar, and they had assured him that, according to the tenets of Sikhism, anyone could clean up the temple and restore worship, and doing so, would be rendering a service to the Panth. By this time, however, I had realised that, in the disturbed circumstances prevailing, the SGPC would seek to extract maximum mileage out of any act that could be distorted to appear to be ‘high handedness’ or a ‘usurpation’ of religious functions by the government or government ‘sponsored’ priests. Bhai Mohan Singh was brought to the Akhara and requested to proceed with the ceremonies. He refused on the ludicrous excuse that his clothes were dirty, and he had not brought another set. He was assured that necessary arrangements would be made. He rejected the offer. At this juncture, I intervened and told him that members of the national and the international Press were still present in Amritsar, and since he refused to restore worship in the Temple, he could explain his reasons for doing so to Sikhs all over the world. His resistance suddenly crumbled.
The next morning, hundreds of Hindus and Sikhs from the families that have traditionally washed the Parikrama and the sanctum sanctorum of the Harmandir Sahib for centuries, gathered long before dawn and set about their task with eagerness. Then, long before the first light of dawn brushed against the dome of the Temple, at the Brahmvela, the holiest hour, the Granth Sahib was brought out of the Kothi Sahib and carried across the Parikrama with great ceremony. A procession followed the Guru Granth Sahib, and, after it had been installed in the Harmandir Sahib, Bhai Mohan Singh opened it to select the Vak for that day. The Vak is selected by opening the Guru Granth Sahib at random, and the last lines of the first hymn on the left page constitute the morning Vak. Sarabjeet Singh and I had decided to remain outside the Temple Complex during the ceremonies, and we were watching from the roof of a building nearby. The words of the Vak carried across to us, and their memory is still with me.
The severe castigation of the self-willed and their eventual downfall seems to me in the nature of a prophesy of what would prevail in Punjab in the years to come.
The absolute cynicism, the deviousness with which the SGPC and its employees treated the question of the restoration of the Maryada, seeking to convert it into a political issue was symptomatic of the manner in which a deliberate debasement of Sikh institutions has been brought about by the very organisation that was created to protect and maintain them.
To define the extent of this degeneration, it is essential to understand how the average Sikh looks upon the Golden Temple. In many Sikh homes you may find pictures, painted in the somewhat florid style of calendar art, of a decapitated Sikh, his head held in one hand, a sword in the other, as he fights his way through massed enemy soldiers towards a distant Harmandir Sahib. This is a representation of one of the most revered of Sikh martyrs, Baba Dip Singh Shahid, a Jat from Lahore who was a trusted devotee of Guru Gobind Singh, and who fought alongside Banda Bahadur. Later he became one of the principal leaders of the Khalsa resistance against the Afghans and the Mughals. In 1757, after Afghan invaders had captured and desecrated Harmandir Sahib, Dip Singh took a solemn vow to reclaim the Temple and restore its sanctity. He was an old man, in his eighties, by this time. He led a small armed contingent towards Amritsar. But he was confronted, near Tarn Taran, by an overwhelming Afghan force and in the ensuing action, his head was cut off. Clutching it in one hand he is said to have continued to fight his way forward for another fifteen kilometres before succumbing to his injuries within the bounds of Amritsar. The ‘historical’ veracity of this incident, or of its composite details, is irrelevant. This incident or legend, as it may be, has inspired millions of Sikhs for centuries, and is perhaps the single episode that reflects the essence of his sentiments towards the Temple. The Golden Temple can never be treated as mere coinage in political transactions; whosoever violates its sanctity is an enemy to Sikhism; whosoever restores it, unconditionally, honours the faith.
Cynicism, however, has not been the exclusive preserve of the SGPC in the Punjab. Another incident, again connected with the Golden Temple, exemplifies the perfidy of at least a section of the Congress (I) leadership - and the SGPC and the Shiromani Akali Dal were, on this occasion, its intended victims. More than seven years had passed since Black Thunder, and the maelstrom of militancy had been quelled. Beant Singh, however, had fallen victim to its rearguard, and Harcharan Singh Brar presided over Punjab as its ineffectual and progressively compromised Chief Minister. While some time still remained for the state elections, a Congress (I) rout was becoming more of a certainty with every passing day. Good government and a fulfilment of electoral commitments has never been thought of as a relevant strategy to win votes by Indian politicians. So another, predictably insidious, scheme was hatched.
At this time the SGPC had organised the celebration of the anniversary of Guru Hargobind’s release from Gwalior Jail. This is an incident of some significance in Sikh history. Briefly, the Emperor Jehangir, alarmed by reports of the militarisation of the Nanakpanthis by their sixth Guru, ordered Guru Hargobind to be detained at Gwalior Fort. Here he was imprisoned for an extended period of time [according to one estimate, almost twelve years] with a number of Indian princes from different parts of the country. The royal prisoners were deeply influenced by the Guru. Eventually, Jehangir relented, but the Guru refused to leave the fort until his fellow prisoners were allowed to leave with him. Jehangir is said to have allowed the release of as many prisoners as could ‘clutch the robes of the Guru’; and more than 50 princes gained their freedom in this way. From this day, the Guru was known as Bandichhor, the Deliverer.
It was this event that the SGPC sought to commemorate with a march from Gwalior Fort to the Golden Temple. Arrangements were made well in advance and requisite permissions secured. A procession carrying the Guru Granth Sahib was to arrive at the Temple on Diwali; and, according to tradition, after due ceremonies, the Head of the Akal Takht was to address the gathering at 7:30 in the evening.
Unfortunately, the jockeying for positions within the Sikh religious leadership continued unabated, despite the lessons of the past decade and a half. The rump of militant organisations still present at the Damdami Taksal at Chowk Mehta [Bhindranwale’s headquarters before he moved to the Golden Temple] was encouraged by the then Chief Minister to stir up trouble in a bid to upset the SGPC apple cart. The prize, in this case, was control of the Akal Takht. Whoever delivered the ceremonial address on Diwali would have a superior claim to its control; and Jasbir Singh Rode was keen to be recognised as the Jathedar of Sikhism’s symbolic axis of temporal power. Just a few days before Diwali, the Damdami Taksal under his leadership, announced a rival procession from Fatehgarh Sahib Gurudwara to the Golden Temple.
If the two processions came face to face, a bloody clash was inevitable. But Chief Minister Brar met the Governor and assured him that the processions would be completely peaceful. The local administration and police in Amritsar were directly instructed to allow both processions to converge at the same time on the Golden Temple. The conspiracy was as simple as it was ingenious. If the march somehow, against the odds, passed off peacefully, the Government could parade its success; and wait for another opportunity to score against political opponents. On the other hand, if a clash did occur, if a few lives were lost in the hallowed precincts of the Golden Temple, the SGPC and the Akalis could be roundly blamed, the spectre of militancy could be disinterred, and the Congress (I) could once again be projected as the only defender of a peace that was, in fact, assured. As an electoral strategy for a politically and morally bankrupt leadership, it was a winner all the way.
I had in all this, been diligently excluded, from the entire decision making process. Those who were handling the case failed to realize that I would inevitably learn of the affair from my own sources. I did so, however, virtually at the last moment. Nonetheless, I was able to intervene. I was aware of the decades-old enmity between the Damdami Taksal and the SGPC, and immediately sought the opinion of the DIG Amritsar, the SP and the District Collector; they confirmed my opinion that a clash was inevitable. I then issued orders that the Damdami Taksal procession should be delayed, and should be allowed to enter the Golden Temple only after the SGPC had finished its scheduled programme. I did not prevent the Damdami Taksal procession, since I believe that no Sikh, indeed, no professed devotee, whatever his beliefs, motives or intentions, can or should be prevented from going into the Temple; it is only after an individual’s actions threaten or desecrate its sanctity that action can be initiated.
Despite these precautions, and despite elaborate police bandobast, clashes did eventually occur that evening. The Rode group was permitted into the Temple late in the evening [at about 10:30 p.m.], well after the SGPC ceremonies had ended and the crowds had dispersed. Nonetheless, a clash immediately ensued. A Bir of the Guru Granth Sahib had been brought with the procession, and the Taksal group insisted that it should be kept in the Kothi Sahib. This was prevented by the SGPC sewadars, since, traditionally, it is only the Bir that is placed in the sanctum sanctorum of the Harmandir Sahib that may be kept in the Kothi Sahib. A little later, the Taksal Group gathered in front of the Kothi Sahib and tried to force its way in. Another clash occurred. Eventually, the Taksal Group decided to return to Chowk Mehta well after midnight.
One can well imagine what would have happened if the SGPC and the Taksal processions had been allowed to arrive at the Temple at the same time. What amazed me most about this whole conspiracy was that less than two months had passed since Beant Singh’s assassination; that the political leadership should have risked destabilisation of the peace that had been won after such a long and arduous battle was shocking; it laid bare the consummate venality of those who manipulate the minds of the people of Punjab.
Every political group in the Punjab has been trying to hold the authority of the Golden Temple captive - because whoever controls the Temple controls the minds and the hearts of the Sikhs. This strategy is backed up by the manipulation of a variety of other symbols of what is described as ‘Sikh identity’. But the essential objective is to hold the Sikh ‘vote bank’ in thraldom. The Akalis, of course, do this openly through the SGPC. Other parties are confined to more devious stratagems, to a process of infiltration of the SGPC and to the creation and orchestration and manipulation of a variety of crises. This competitive communalism is what gave rise to terrorism in the late Seventies. Terrorism has, of course, been contained. But so long as the structure and system that assigns such overwhelming political significance to religious symbols persists, the danger of its revival will always be upon us.
The Akalis have often cloaked their duplicity behind the claim of the inseparability of religion and politics in the Sikh faith. Guru Hargobind’s assertion of piri and miri, the construction of the Akal Takht opposite the Harmandir Sahib, are evidence to the incontrovertibility of this thesis to the Sikh mind. But what is being done is an utter and complete corruption of the original intent of the Sixth Guru. His thesis cannot have implied that religion, its institutions and its power could be subordinated to the personal political ambitions of a petty clique utterly lacking in vision, either for the nation or for the community.
That the Akalis and the SGPC have no religious or spiritual intent in their manipulation of the symbols of Sikh identity is evidenced by the manner in which their rhetoric changes with changing political compulsions. In the Fifties and the Sixties, when the mildly rabid Master Tara Singh was president of both the Shiromani Akali Dal [SAD] and the SGPC, the SGPC’s political demands were clamourously projected as the demands of the ‘Sikh people’; the Punjabi Suba was to be a ‘Sikh Homeland’; the failure to settle river water disputes was a denial of justice to the Sikhs. When the more moderate Sant Fateh Singh assumed leadership of these bodies, the very same demands were projected, by both the SGPC and the SAD, as the demands of the State of Punjab and of the entire population living there [Punjabis].
The SGPC recently published a White Paper on the Punjab situation,20 presumably as a counter to the official White Paper that the Government of India published.21 It contains many gems, but in the main it is little more than a justification of terrorism in Punjab, and in many parts an unashamed glorification of the most prominent terrorists. I, however, will restrict myself to the grievances of the ‘Sikh people’ in the post-partition era that are listed in the SGPC document. In four chapters titled, ‘Post-partition Scenario: Monumental Betrayal of the Sikhs’; ‘Struggle for Punjabi Speaking State’; ‘Loot of Punjab Waters: Punjabi Suba Sabotaged’; and ‘Dharam Yudh Morcha: Causes’ the SGPC records its litany of ‘Sikh’ suffering in ‘Hindu India’. I searched in vain for a single instance of a grievance that could even remotely be described as ‘religious’, or uniquely ‘Sikh’. The nagging problems of Centre-State relations that afflict every single state in this country are the problems enumerated here - except that they are cloaked in a vituperatively communalised language: outstanding inter-state territorial and riparian disputes; quarrels over the devolution of powers and resources, including the sharing of taxes; the slow and inept implementation of centrally sponsored developmental projects, including the construction of Dams; some early squabbles over linguistic pre-eminence in the administration; and repeated protestations against the de-stabilisation of ‘elected governments’. Had these been contained in a White Paper brought out by the Akali Dal, and not the SGPC, had such a report been couched in terms of constitutional evolution towards a more federal political structure, had it been devoid of the rhetoric of the ‘oppressed Sikhs’ vs. the ‘tyrannical Hindus’ [and had it not contained the shameless justification of the very militants who had terrorised the SGPC and the entire leadership of the Akali Dal for more than a decade] it could have merited the attention of political analysts, as well as of the intelligentsia in the Punjab. As a document brought out by the organisation whose obligation is to look after Sikh Shrines, and perhaps as a corollary, after the religious interests of the Sikhs, it is a complete betrayal of trust, an attempt to use the authority and respectability it derives from its association with these revered sanctuaries for the partisan purposes of securing power for a specific clique of professional politicians.
This is really the crux of the matter. Virtually all strife in the entire country today flows from an unabashed and unscrupulous struggle for the cakes and loaves of political office. The peace of Punjab, and the lives of thousands of its people - both Hindu and Sikh - was sacrificed over a decade and a half in the name of the Sikhism. As in every violent mass movement, the greatest sacrifices, the greatest suffering, was borne by the relatively poor, the deprived and the oppressed, predominantly among the Sikhs in whose name terror was incited. The entire process of mobilisation through the exploitation of religious institutions and idioms, was intended only to serve as an instrument to secure power for a small clique that had no interests, either in Sikhism, or in the welfare of the people of Punjab. Despite all the killing, all the agony over the intervening years, this clique persists.
The nation must guard itself against a recurrence of a tragedy in Punjab. Above all, however, it is the Sikhs who must defend themselves, their faith and the nation, against the future designs of this conscienceless cabal. It is their faith that will give them the strength and the wisdom to do so; but it must be a faith in the teachings of the Gurus; not a blind faith in those who have usurped the right to speak in their stead.
NOTES AND REFERENCES