Punjab: The Knights of Falsehood
All the evil they did was in the name of God. And they did all that was evil. The murder of innocents, torture, rape, extortion, the desecration of temples, the abuse of sanctuaries, and a limitless host of other crimes that do not bear mention next to these.
They did it, they said, to avenge the ‘injustices’ done to the Sikhs by the Hindus; to defend the Faith against the machinations of the ‘evil Brahmins’ who were out to destroy it; to protect the lives and liberties of ‘persecuted Sikhs’ against an inimical and communalised State.
They had simply borrowed their contemporary mythology from the Akalis. But the creed of hatred that had been propagated for decades was suddenly translated into action. Its source and centre remained in the Gurudwaras; but its idiom was now the bullet and the bomb.
Every instrument and strategy was adopted to perpetuate the myth, to authenticate it: selective killings; the alternating desecration of Hindu and Sikh religious places; sermons of a malevolent rage - anything that could drive a wedge between communities; anything that could incite a slaughter of the Hindus in the state, and a retaliatory pogrom against the Sikhs in the rest of India. That could have fulfilled their ambitions.
Like the Akalis, however, they found only a few who could be swayed by their psalms of terror. To most, their falsehood was apparent from the outset. But those who did not believe them remained silent. Those who believed them, killed for their convictions. And many more joined in the slaughter, for profit, for greed, for power, for lust, for drugs, or for the opiate of the sheer freedom from moral restraint that terrorism represented.
Some of the believers still survive; they will, eventually, seek to revive and extend their fraternity of strife. As long as the myth persists, it will find its votaries. It is the myth, consequently, that we must contend with.
Who were the victims of these ‘defenders of the Sikh Faith’? Of a total of 11,694 persons killed by terrorists in Punjab during the period 1981-1993, 7,139 - more than 61 per cent - were Sikhs.
The most dramatic killings, the ones that were projected to the greatest extent by the terrorists themselves, were always of the Hindus, or of other ‘enemies of the Faith’, such as the ‘apostate Sant Nirankaris’. But the most consistent victims, and perhaps the most dreaded opponents of the terrorists, were Sikhs. The terrorists claimed to speak for the entire Panth. Thus, any Sikhs who questioned their authority to do so, who questioned their actions, who exposed the immorality of their methods was a far greater danger to them than the Hindus could ever be. They threatened the credibility of the great myth. And they, above all others, had to die for it.II
The incident to which the genesis of the terrorist movement in Punjab is traced, occurred in April 1978. The SGPC White Paper gives the Akali version of the background against which violence occurred. "....the Nrinkaris of Delhi," it observes, "were clandestinely supported and promoted by the Government in pursuance of its policy to create a schism and ideological confusion among the Sikhs."2 And further, "The provocative utterances and activities brought the Nrinkaris into open clash with the Sikhs. In 1951, at Amritsar, the then Nrinkari Chief Avtar Singh, held a Satsang attended by his about two hundred followers [sic]. Some Sikhs clashed with the Nrinkari chief as he had committed an act of sacrilege by proclaiming himself a Guru in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. These bickerings continued and ultimately the two important Sikh organisations known as the Damdami Taksal and the Akhand Kirtni Jatha also came forward to confront the attack of the Nrinkari."3 "The tension that had been building up for quite some time, resulted in clashes at Batala, Sri Hargobindpur, Pathankot, Qadian, Ghuman and Gurdaspur between the Nrinkaris and the followers of Sant Kartar Singh.4 Clashes were also reported from Tarn Taran, Ludhiana and Ropar."5 The circumstances of the actual clash are then described:
The SGPC version is interesting, both in terms of what it attempts to conceal as of the mind-set it exposes. Given their own evaluation of the background, violence could easily have been predicted. The ‘Government’ they refer to when they speak of the encouragement given to the Nirankaris is the succession of Congress governments that had ruled at the Centre. However, this ‘villain for all occasions’ was, in April 1978, out of power both in Punjab and in Delhi. The state, at that time, was under the command of the Akali Dal-Janata Party coalition; and the Centre was ruled by the Janata Party, with the Akali Dal both supporting and participating in the Government. The ‘place, date and time’ of the Nirankari Convention, ‘chosen by the Nrinkaris in connivance with the Congress’, were sanctioned by the Akali Dal Government in Punjab, with full knowledge of the history of conflict that the SGPC document outlines. The role of both the Damdami Taksal and the Akhand Kirtani Jatha in this conflict was also known to the Akali Government. Yet no attempt was made to prevent, shift, or change the schedule of, the Nirankari Convention.
This is not all. Shortly before the ‘totally unarmed’ protesters set out for the venue of the Nirankari Convention, they had assembled in the Golden Temple, where the then Akali Dal Revenue Minister, Jeevan Singh Umranangal tried, unsuccessfully, to explain away the Government’s decision to allow the Nirankari Convention to take place. Bhindranwale interrupted the proceedings, shouting "We will not allow this Nirankari convention to take place. We are going to march there and cut them to pieces!"7 No precautionary measures were taken in response.
A procession of a few hundred agitated Sikhs, led by Bhindranwale and by Fauja Singh of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, then left the Golden Temple and set out for the Nirankari Convention. On the way, in what was perhaps the first act of gratuitous violence by the future terrorists of ‘Khalistan’, they hacked off the arm of a Hindu sweetmeats seller. On arriving at the convention, they rushed the stage on which the chief of the Nirankaris was seated; Fauja Singh drew his sword and tried to behead the Nirankari leader; he was shot by a bodyguard. In the skirmish that followed, two of Bhindranwale’s followers, another eleven of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, and three Nirankaris were killed [Bhindranwale himself is said to have fled the scene just as the violence broke out, and this was a sore point between him and the Akhand Kirtani Jatha. Fauja Singh’s widow often described Bhindranwale as a ‘coward’ for running away on this occasion, and blamed him for her husband’s death]. Throughout the march, the vandalism and violence en route, and the clash at the Nirankari Convention, the state’s forces made no attempt to intervene. Instructions for such a response, or lack of it, could only have originated from the highest echelons of the then [Akali] Government. This assumption is reinforced by the fact that no action was even contemplated against any official for this obvious and grave breakdown of law and order.
Over the next six years, until his death on June 6, 1984, Bhindranwale propagated and practised a creed of unadulterated hate. Under the guise of Amrit Prachar, the propagation of the tenets of the Sikh Faith, he mixed a fundamentalist canon with rabid incitement to violence. Khushwant Singh has captured the essence of his ‘revelations’ well.
The first, and predictable, targets of his campaign of hate, and eventually of his violence, were the Sikhs who failed to conform to his interpretation of the Faith, the patit Sikhs, who could, however, escape his ire by submitting to his version of Sikhism, undergoing baptism, and wearing all the five symbols of the Khalsa. His second and irredeemable targets, were the Nirankaris, who, as heretics, quite simply had to be liquidated. The third were the Hindus, contemptible but numerous, who could, nevertheless be eliminated; Guru Gobind Singh had proclaimed that a single Sikh was equal to sava lakh [a hundred and twenty five thousand]. Given the population of Sikhs and Hindus, however, a few calculations led Bhindranwale to the conclusion that a mere 35 Hindus fell to the portion of each Sikh. He exhorted his followers to procure a motorcycle, a gun, and to set about their task in earnest.9 These were to be his "storm troopers who would trample their foes under their bare feet like so much vermin."10
It took Bhindranwale some time to evolve and establish this ‘complex religious doctrine’. He used this time to dabble, inevitably, in the snakepit of Sikh politics, the SGPC. In the SGPC elections of 1979, Bhindranwale, propped up by the Congress (I), put up forty candidates. Despite the fiction of his ‘immense popularity with the Sikh masses’, he was trounced, with just four of his candidates scraping past the post. He meddled with electoral politics on one more occasion, when, in the General Elections of January 1980 he campaigned actively for three Congress (I) candidates. Since he moved around at all times, with a phalanx of heavily armed men, his ‘support’ would obviously prove useful to the electoral prospects of his favoured candidates.
Meanwhile, the 62 Nirankaris, including the head of the sect, Baba Gurbachan Singh, charged in connection with the killing of 13 Sikhs in the clash of 1979 had faced trial and were acquitted on the grounds that they had acted in self defence. This was evidently an unsatisfactory resolution of the issue, and in April 1980 Baba Gurbachan Singh was shot dead in Delhi. The FIR named twenty persons for the murder, including several known associates of Bhindranwale, who was also charged with conspiracy to murder. After these events, his experiments with democracy came to an abrupt end.
It was at this juncture that Bhindranwale made his first experiment with the sanctuary of the Golden Temple. Fearing arrest, he moved into one of the sarais [rest houses] the Guru Nanak Niwas. But he was now a significant pawn in the Congress (I)-Akali political tangle, and the then Home Minister of India, Giani Zail Singh, saw fit to announce in Parliament that Bhindranwale was ‘not involved’ in the Gurbachan Singh murder. Without investigations or trial, Bhindranwale was once again free; so were his killer squads. A year later, the prominent journalist Arun Shourie wrote, "though the CBI has solved the murder case of the Nirankari guru, Baba Gurbachan Singh, and his aide last year, it is almost certain that the killers will never be arrested because they are alleged to be in the protection of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, in the Amritsar district of Punjab. Besides, the State police is not prepared to involve itself in the case by arresting the culprits."11 The Government, both at the Centre and in Punjab, had now passed back into the hands of the Congress (I).
Evidently encouraged by the apparent political immunity it enjoyed, the killer squad struck again, this time against another proclaimed ‘enemy of the Panth’, Lala Jagat Narain, the proprietor of the Hind Samachar Group, publisher of the popular daily, Punjab Kesri, and a bitter critic of Bhindranwale. What followed was a flurry of deceptive moves apparently to arrest him, countered by a succession of manoeuvres to help him escape his actions. During this sequence he barely escaped arrest, possibly with the collusion of at least a section of the administration, at Chando Kalan in Haryana. He was forced to abandon his private bus when he fled, and this was subsequently burnt in a clash between the police and his followers. Copies of his precious ‘sermons’ and a Bir of the Guru Granth Sahib were destroyed in this fire. He lost faith in his political protectors and barricaded himself inside the heavily fortified Gurudwara Gurdarshan Parkash at Mehta Chowk.
The Gurudwara was surrounded by the police, who, however, made no effort to arrest him. Instead, senior officials went in to ‘negotiate a surrender’, and Bhindranwale declared he would ‘offer himself for arrest’ at 1:00 p.m. on September 20, 1981, after addressing a ‘religious congregation’. All his terms were meekly accepted. At the appointed hour he emerged to harangue a large crowd of his followers, armed with spears, swords and a number of firearms; among those present were prominent Akali leaders such as Harchand Singh Longowal, Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Jathedar Santokh Singh of the Delhi Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee. Bhindranwale ranted against the Government, against the injustices done to him and to Sikhs at large. Having aroused the rabble to a pitch, he ‘surrendered’ to the police. Even as he was taken away, the mob opened fire on the police, a pitched battle ensued, and 11 persons were killed.
The very same day three motorcycle-borne ‘storm troopers’ opened fire in a market in Jalandhar, killing four Hindus and injuring twelve. The next day, one Hindu was killed and thirteen people injured in Tarn Taran. Five days later a goods train was derailed at Amritsar. On September 29, an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Lahore. A series of explosions followed in Amritsar, Faridkot and Gurdaspur districts.
For 25 days, while violence exploded all over Punjab, Bhindranwale was lodged, not in Jail as he should have been, but in the ample comfort of the Circuit House. The Akali Dal, meanwhile, appeared to have decided to throw in its lot with him. Addressing a Diwan [assembly] at Manji Sahib, Longowal announced that the "entire Sikh community supported Bhindranwale." Similar support came from Gurdial Singh Ajnoha, the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, and from Tohra, the President of the SGPC.12
Whether or not Bhindranwale had the support of the "entire Sikh community," he nonetheless found a defender, once again, in India’s Home Minister, Giani Zail Singh, who announced to Parliament that there was no evidence that Bhindranwale was involved in Lala Jagat Narain’s murder. Once again, the investigations were scuttled; political expediency prevailed over the exigencies of the law. October 15 saw Bhindranwale a free man.
Among his first public statements was an enthusiastic approval of the murders of the Nirankari Chief and of Lala Jagat Narain. "Whosoever performed these feats," he declared, "deserves to be honoured by the Akal Takht. If these killers came to me, I would have them weighed in gold."13
No wonder the killings did not end. Bhindranwale had experienced absolute power; he had humbled the government; he was invincible. Soon after, an ominous warning was delivered to all who attempted to check him. A bomb exploded in the office of the DIG, Patiala, who had been sent to arrest him at Chando Kalan - no one was hurt, but the message was unmistakable; not even the highest officials of the Police, were beyond his reach. From this point onwards, violence became an integral part of everyday life in Punjab.
Bhindranwale stormed across the Punjab with truckloads of men, armed to the teeth, no longer with swords and spears and primitive 12-bore guns, but with sophisticated automatic weapons; no one challenged him. In December 1981, Jathedar Santokh Singh of the DGPC, one of his supporters, was killed by a political rival. Bhindranwale attended his Bhog ceremonies; also present were Rajiv Gandhi and two prominent Ministers of Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, Zail Singh and Buta Singh; they were fully aware of the killings in Punjab; of Bhindranwale’s role; and of his presence at the Bhog. Yet they chose to attend.
A few months later, Bhindranwale challenged the might of the Centre, as his armed gangs swept through the nation’s capital with impunity.
The myth was constantly reiterated wherever he went; the baptismal ceremonies that had obsessed him in the past were forgotten; a baptism of blood now bound all who adopted his creed of carnage with greater strength. But this alone was not enough; the number of his followers grew, but slowly; until mass violence was instigated between the communities, the myth would not prevail.
Suddenly the heads of cows began appearing in temples; some retaliation was, apparently, provoked: cigarettes and tobacco was thrown into Gurudwaras. A few idols in Hindu temples were broken; some copies of the Granth Sahib in Gurudwaras burnt. But this ‘game’ failed abysmally; not a single riot or communal clash resulted in Punjab.
Eventually, the government chose to act, albeit hesitantly. On July 19, 1982, Amrik Singh, the President of the All India Sikh Students Federation [AISSF], was arrested. Amrik Singh was one of Bhindranwale’s closest associates, the son of his erstwhile mentor and teacher, Sant Kartar Singh of the Damdami Taksal. Under Amrik Singh’s leadership, the AISSF had become the striking arm of Bhindranwale’s storm troopers, responsible for many of the continuous succession of murders, dacoities, bank robberies and cases of desecration in the state. It was in connection with one of these crimes, the attempted murder of a Nirankari leader, that he was arrested along with two other members of the Damdami Taksal, Thara Singh and Ram Singh. Bhindranwale’s own arrest was now imminent, and he realised this.
He left the Damdami Taksal at Mehta Chowk and moved the very same day into the Guru Nanak Niwas, east of the Harmandir Sahib, within the Golden Temple complex itself.III
What followed was a continuous sequence of sacrilege, of profanities, of desecration, through word and deed, of the holiest sanctuary of Sikhism.
In the past, the Akalis had captured and manipulated the authority of the Golden Temple, no doubt by exploiting religious sentiments, but through an electoral process. The terrorists fled into the Temple out of fear of arrest, and then, as the security forces held back, awed by the sanctity of that hallowed ground, their power and audacity grew, and they secured it by naked force.
It mattered little how it fell into their hands. The mystical authority, the sacred, indefinable power, the inviolate sanctity of the Temple attached itself, in the minds of thousands of the devout, to those who held the seat and the symbol of the spiritual and temporal authority of the Sikh faith in their custody.
But Bhindranwale and his cohort of criminals were not the only ones who sought to command the power of the Temple. Well before him, another - relentlessly inimical - terrorist group had already established its base within its consecrated bounds. The Akhand Kirtani Jatha which had lost 11 of its members in the clash with the Nirankaris in 1978, had been led by Fauja Singh. His widow, Bibi Amarjit Kaur, and another member of the Jatha, Bibi Harsharan Kaur, had immediately entered the sanctuary of the Golden Temple; from there they led the Babbar Khalsa, a terrorist group responsible, over the next decade and a half for a multitude of heinous crimes, including, according to the boast of its chief assassin Sukhdev Singh, the murder of 35 Nirankaris. Bibi Amarjit Kaur had not forgiven Bhindranwale his cowardice in abandoning the protesters at the Nirankari Convention, and blamed him for her husband’s death. When Bhindranwale entered the Temple a taut and troubled entente between their armed followers was established.
The SGPC was, of course, in formal control of the Temple. And as killers swaggered around the Parikrama, guns slung casually on their shoulders and belts of ammunition across the chest, they made an attempt, pathetically inadequate, to protect at least a share in what was, till then, their monopoly; a third armed force, or group of forces, thus came into being around the faction ridden SGPC offices near the Guru Nanak Niwas.
It was from here, then, that the kingdom of terror was run; and from here, the chaos of the Akali Morchas spread out. The SGPC far from attempting to protect the sanctity of the Golden Temple, which was its primary duty, far from condemning the spate of bombings and murders that was being orchestrated from the Temple, preferred to betray the legacy of the men who had fought and died with such nobility to free the Gurudwaras from corruption and misuse. The SGPC and the Akali Dal decided to synchronise their own agitation with the campaign of terror.
The Akalis had been carrying out a nahar roko agitation in Patiala to prevent work on the SYL canal. And among the first of Bhindranwale’s acts once he had secured the protection of the Golden Temple was the announcement of his own Morcha, or movement, demanding the release of Amrik Singh and his associates; each day, he proclaimed, voluntary jathas would march out of the Temple and court arrest till the state’s jails overflowed. But while Bhindranwale could command men to the most bestial acts of violence, he could not assure the success of his Morcha; only a handful of volunteers offered themselves for arrest. Evidently his following among the Sikh masses was nowhere near what he - and for that matter the Press - believed it to be. The Akalis threw in their lot with him, beginning what they described as a Dharam Yudh. To their usual list of grievances they now added Bhindranwale’s most urgent demand: the release of Amrik Singh and his associates.
The ‘Dictator’ of the Dharam Yudh Morcha, Harchand Singh Longowal now declared, "He [Bhindranwale] is our danda [stave] with which to beat the government."14 Bhindranwale, however, had his own agenda. "Every Sikh boy," he said, "should keep 200 grenades with him."15 And again, "I had earlier directed that each village should raise a team of three youth with one revolver each and a motorcycle. In how many villages has this been done?"16 In one of his sermons to the assembled devout, he exhorted, "Those of you who want to become extremists should raise their hands. Those of you who believe that they are the Sikhs of the Guru should raise their hands, others should hang their heads like goats."17 This, then, is what the Sikh faith had been reduced to by those who claimed all authority to speak for it.
Far more than words, however, was the propaganda of the deed. Two Indian Airlines planes were hijacked; there was an attempt on the life of the Chief Minister, Darbara Singh; hand grenades were thrown at a Ramnaumi procession in Amritsar; police posts, government offices and residences, and, inevitably, the Nirankaris, continued to be targeted for murderous attacks; hardly a day passed without violence.
While the killer squads swept the Punjab countryside Bhindranwale gradually evolved a new image. The exploitation of religious symbols and sentiments was carried far beyond anything that had ever been dared in the past. He already spoke from the platform of the Golden Temple; he was Santji, a saintly spirit, approached with awe and submission by all who came before him; he spoke constantly of the Khalsa, of the five symbols of the brotherhood; he flattered the primitive self-image of the rural Sikh, preaching a crude ethic of vengeance and violent aggrandisement of the ‘Faith’; the Khalsa was the lion, his enemies bleating sheep; he was no longer the protector of the weak; he was the hunter and the destroyer.
But these were only the preliminaries; the master stroke was to follow.
With breathtaking audacity he adopted the practice of carrying, at all times, a steel arrow in his hand, imitating the Tenth Guru; rumours were set afloat that the ‘baaz’, the holy falcon, another symbol associated with Guru Gobind Singh, was sighted hovering protectively over him. It was whispered that the ‘spirit’ of the Tenth Guru had descended upon Bhindranwale; that he was an incarnation; even, among the more reckless, that he was the ‘Eleventh Guru’ of Sikhism.
This was the power of the Golden Temple, and of the symbols of the Faith. They conferred an aura of sainthood, almost of divinity, on this semi-literate evangelist of hate.
It is a measure of their cynicism that the SGPC and the Akalis failed to respond even to this heretical posture. It is not that they were ever taken in by it; they knew well enough what Bhindranwale actually was - and they plotted to weaken him whenever they felt they had a chance of success; but they also knew that he had somehow captured the imagination of at least a section of the rural masses; it remained convenient, consequently, to play along.
And they played along to the very edge of hell. Violence escalated and defiled the sanctuary itself. On March 16, two members of Bhindranwale’s killer squads engaged with the police at Manawala, just outside Amritsar. One of the extremists was killed, and the other injured; but the latter managed to drive back to the Golden Temple with his companion’s body. The SGPC handed over the body of the dead terrorist to District authorities more than 24 hours later. And then, in apparent retaliation to the ‘murder’ of his ‘follower’, Bhindranwale ordered a brutal ‘execution’ within the Temple precincts itself. In April 1983, A.S. Atwal, a Deputy Inspector General of Police, came to pray at the Temple; after receiving prasad at the Harmandir Sahib, he walked out towards the marble steps near the main entrance of the Complex where he was shot dead in broad daylight, with scores of witnesses standing by, including his own bodyguard and a police contingent posted a hundred yards away. Such was the terror of those days, so great the demoralisation of the police - crippled and constrained as they were by the political leadership - that his bodyguards simply fled; the police outpost was also abandoned, and the policemen ran and hid in the shops. The shopkeepers pulled down their shutters, and no one dared to approach the body. The killers danced the bhangra around the felled DIG, and then sauntered back into the Temple. Atwal’s body, "riddled with bullets, lay in the main entrance to the Sikhs most sacred shrine for more than two hours before the District Commissioner could persuade the Temple authorities to hand it over."18 It was actions like these that provided the greatest filip to violence, and to the acceptance of violence as a legitimate political weapon.
I was subsequently put in charge of the inquiry into the Atwal killing. I discovered that, at that point of time, there were over a hundred policemen in the vicinity and more than half of them were equipped with firearms. Among the officers whom I examined, each one was at pains to explain that he was not at the spot when the killers struck. I wondered how a police force noted for its gallantry, its fighting spirit and the adequacy of its responses in situations of violence was brought to such a point. One of the critical factors, I discovered, was a confusing order that the ‘precincts’ of the Golden Temple were to include not only the Temple compound, but also the buildings attached to it. The policemen and the administration, in a crisis situation, could never determine whether they were authorised to act, or whether they needed to seek clearance ‘from above’. Under the circumstances, inaction was usually deemed to be the safer option.
The Atwal incident always remained at the back of my mind, especially when the security forces were confronted with a situation in or around the Golden Temple. I realized how essential it was that the policemen on duty should know exactly what was expected of them.
Four years later, I was confronted with another situation remniscent of this tragedy. A few days prior to Black Thunder, the terrorists, fully armed, had staged a march within the area but outside the building of the Golden Temple. After this I visited Amritsar and clearly told the officers that while the entry of the police into the Golden Temple would require the clearance of the political leadership because it was an issue of a politically sensitive nature, the movement of men armed with AK 47s outside the premises of the Temple should be tackled as an ordinary law and order problem, and immediate action taken to disarm and arrest the culprits. The correctness of this approach was proved a few days later, on the day when the terrorists shot at and grieveously injured S.S. Virk. The terrorists had started building bunkers, and had blocked a street outside the Temple. Virk was supervising the demolition of these structures when the terrorists shot him. The police reacted immediately, and the militants were forced to flee into the Temple. Had the terrorists been permitted to build defences in the streets around the Temple, the task of the forces during Black Thunder could have been infinitely more difficult.
Ugly as the Atwal murder was, however, it was only a beginning. On May 4, 1984, a badly mutilated body was found near the Golden Temple Complex. Less than twenty days later, another body was discovered from a gutter behind Guru Nanak Niwas - Bhindranwale’s ‘temporary residence’. Both the victims had been severely tortured. From this point on, this became a regular feature; bodies, mutilated, hacked to pieces, stuffed into gunny bags, kept appearing mysteriously in the gutters and sewers around the Temple.
The shrine, whose image can be found in every Sikh home, in every Sikh heart, had been transformed into a place of torture and of execution.
Never before had a Sikh spilt blood on this hallowed ground; never before had a Sikh raised a hand in anger, in vengeance, even in just retaliation, in this sacred place. It had been desecrated before, no doubt; but only by the declared enemies of Sikhism. In 1762, Ahmad Shah Abdali had reduced the Temple to rubble and filled up the sarovar, the sacred pool, with the blood and entrails of kine; even today, he is one of the most hated figures among all the enemies of the Faith. The Panth did not rest till it had rebuilt the Temple and restored its sanctity two years later; since then, though the history of the Sikh people has been marked with constant struggle and warfare, though they have suffered long periods of the most brutal persecution, no stain of blood had ever soiled this revered site.
In 1846, a single incident had threatened this untainted peace. A group of armed Nihangs had occupied the burjis [towers] of the Temple in a dispute over its custodianship. When the Khalsa Durbar, under Maharaja Dalip Singh sent an army detachment to clear them by force, they had immediately abandoned its sanctuary and surrendered saying that they could not make the "holiest of holies" a battleground.IV
No such compunctions constrained the ‘warriors’ for ‘Khalistan’. To them, the Golden Temple, like so many other Gurudwaras all over Punjab, was just a safe haven from where they could conduct their criminal activities with impunity, since the police would not pursue them there for fear of hurting the religious sentiments of the larger community. And if, after the Atwal murder, the government did contemplate the possibility of entering the Guru Nanak Niwas, a building that lay outside the actual bounds of the Golden Temple, across a public road, Akali Dal leaders thwarted them at the outset, issuing a fervent appeal to Sikhs all over the world to ‘resist entry of the police’ into the hostel complex.
This unholy covenant was not disturbed even by the selective and cold blooded slaughter of Hindus travelling in a Punjab Roadways bus that was hijacked by the militants on its way to Moga in November 1983. If anything, this incident produced a major ‘victory’ for the Akali-terrorist combine, since it provoked the dismissal of the Darbara Singh Government. Punjab was brought under President’s rule, but the chaos, instead of ending, deepened.
But all was not well in the fraternity of convenience within the Golden Temple. Internal politics within the Akali Dal, and the erosion of its authority in the face of Bhindranwale’s growing terror, created a widening rift between some of its leaders and between the extremist groupings. A protective alliance emerged between the dominant Akali factions and the Akhand Kirtani Jatha-Babbar Khalsa. Tensions within the Complex grew, confrontations mounted, scuffles broke out, and the mutilated bodies in the sewers outside the Golden Temple provided an index of the increasing hostility between these various ‘soldiers’ of the ‘Faith’. It mattered little that they were all supposedly fighting for the same objectives, battling against ‘injustice’ and ‘oppression’. This was, in actual fact, an unashamed battle to ‘protect their turf’. Torture and murder, even within the confines of the Temple, were perfectly ‘legitimate’ implements of war. As the ‘disappearance’ of members of the competing forces increased, a very real danger of open combat for control came into being.
This, however, did not suit Bhindranwale’s temperament. Hit squads, torture and executions were all very well, but he had never shown much nerve for a direct engagement. Unfortunately for him, the sanctuary of Guru Nanak Niwas, though it was sufficient to protect him from the police, could not shield him from the Babbar Khalsa’s wrath. In a surprise move, the Babbar Khalsa had forcibly occupied some of the rooms previously held by his men in the Guru Nanak Niwas; instead of fighting for control, Bhindranwale abandoned the Niwas entirely, fleeing into the safety of the Akal Takht, right in the middle of the Temple Complex. Not even the Babbar Khalsa would dare to scar this, the sacred seat of the Temporal Power of God, with an attack against him. In any event, thousands of devotees who came to pray at the Golden Temple every day constituted a protective barrier between him and his enemies.
The move was not without its difficulties. The Jathedar, or High Priest, of the Akal Takht objected strongly. No Guru or Sikh religious leader had ever been allowed to live in the Akal Takht, he pointed out. Moreover, Bhindranwale’s presence in the upper floors of the building was an act of sacrilege; the Guru Granth Sahib was placed in the main hall on the ground floor, and at night the Bir from the Harmandir Sahib itself, the most sacred copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, was placed in a room in the Akal Takht. No man could be permitted to stand above the Guru Granth Sahib; but Bhindranwale and his men would be living in quarters above these places. These niceties, however, mattered little to Bhindranwale, or to those in the SGPC who had made it possible for him to move into the Akal Takht. Nor, in fact, was Bhindranwale the first to occupy the building for his own ends. Sant Fateh Singh, the then President of the Akali Dal had done so during the grand charade of his threatened self-immolation and the construction of the Agn Kunds in 1965. Once again, Bhindranwale was adopting distortions created by the Akalis themselves; and as usual he carried them to the limits dictated by his own perversity.
The Akal Takht was thus transformed into his personal ‘Court’. He held his darbars here, or on the roof of the langar across the Parikrama. Surrounded by heavily armed henchmen, he would lie, half sprawled, on a mattress, and expound on his malevolent doctrine of vengeance against all those whom he held responsible for the fictional ‘slavery’ of the Sikhs. And here he would receive petitions and intercede in disputes, dispensing a somewhat unequal ‘justice’. Those who submitted to his will, swore allegiance, acknowledged his ‘suzerainty’ to the exclusion of all other powers, and, of course, paid him their ‘tribute’, received his ‘protection’; their ‘rights’ would be upheld. The opposing party died. Hit lists were drawn up; those who sought the opportunity to ‘serve’ the ‘Sant’ were given a name and a gun. The hit squads flourished.
Despite the campaign of hatred that had been going on for close to five years by this time, however, few purely communal complaints were brought up at these darbars. Land disputes, quarrels over possession of properties, betrayals of trust, and the inevitable family vendettas that are so much a part of the Jat Sikh’s life. Of course, the occasional Sikh complained against his Hindu neighbour; such actions, however, were prompted by a purely secular greed; they had little, if anything, to do with communal passions. The ‘Brahmin’ or the ‘Bania’ were no villains here; the same motives that provoked complaints against fellow Sikhs motivated petitions for vengeance against Hindus.
Murder, of course, was not the only business transacted; though it was the fountainhead of power that created opportunities for diversification into organised extortion and protection rackets. In these operations, as in the murders he sanctioned, Bhindranwale was absolutely secular in his dealings; he accepted money from Hindu and Sikh alike; and his ‘boys’ served collection notices on businessmen, shopkeepers and industrialists from both the communities - those who failed to pay, as usual, faced the only penalty in Bhindranwale’s book - death.
Unsurprisingly, the devout were becoming an increasingly insignificant minority among the men who gathered around Bhindranwale. Criminals on the run, professional guns for hire, smugglers, as well as police and army deserters enjoyed his protection - and did his bidding.
The government still showed no inclination to act; though it did try to prevail upon the SGPC to ‘clean out’ the Temple. They gave them lists of criminals known to be in the Complex, and details of the armoury that had been accumulated. The SGPC repeatedly ‘denied knowledge’ of the presence of the men who swaggered fearlessly around the Parikrama, and the arms that no one made any attempt to conceal. Worse still, despite their growing differences with, indeed, the visible hostility between the dominant Akali faction and Bhindranwale, they continued with their game of brinkmanship, announcing agitation after agitation, openly inciting the Sikhs, burning the Indian Constitution, exhorting farmers to stop the movement of foodgrain from Punjab to other states by force, calling upon the people to stop all payment of taxes and other dues to the government, and drawing the entire state to the precipice of anarchy.
This chicanery, however, was not approved of by the entire religious leadership. A few brave voices did speak up, both within the Golden Temple and from many of the Gurudwaras across the state. Among the most powerful of these voices was the venerable Giani Partap Singh, an old man of eighty by that time, one of the most revered spiritual leaders and a former Jathedar of the Akal Takht, who had openly attacked Bhindranwale for stocking arms and ammunition in the Akal Takht and described his occupation of the shrine as an act of sacrilege. He was shot dead at his home in Tahli Chowk. Other voices were raised; and swiftly silenced. They included Niranjan Singh, the Granthi of Gurudwara Toot Sahib; Granthi Surat Singh of Majauli; and Granthi Jarnail Singh of Valtoha. All those who spoke against Bhindranwale were his enemies; and all his enemies were enemies of the Faith. The Sikh religious leadership heard and understood the message; and they succumbed to their fear.
The violence rose to a crescendo in the months preceding Operation Bluestar; and the Golden Temple was defiled by horrors still unimagined. A great arsenal had been built up within the Akal Takht; for months, trucks engaged for kar seva, supposedly bringing in supplies for the daily langar, had been smuggling in guns and ammunition. The police never attempted to search these vehicles entering the Golden Temple, apparently on ‘instructions from above’. But when one such truck was randomly stopped and checked, a large number of sten guns and ammunition were discovered. The terrorists, it was discovered after Bluestar, had even set up a ‘grenade manufacturing’ facility, and a workshop for the fabrication of sten-guns within the Temple Complex. Meanwhile, the killing rate had risen sharply all over the state, and there were many days when the ‘death count’ rose above a dozen.
By this time, the war within the Golden Temple had escalated; the tortures and killings constantly fed the sewers around the Complex. A single incident exemplifies the pattern of violence and brutality that had been established in the shrine. Bhindranwale’s main ‘hit man’, Surinder Singh Sodhi was shot dead just outside the Temple in April 1984. Sodhi had a number of important ‘kills’ to his credit, including H.S. Manchanda, the President of the Delhi Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, Professor V.N. Tiwari, a Congress (I) MP, and Harbans Lal Khanna of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Sodhi was shot dead in broad daylight by a criminal enrolled in Bhindranwale’s own band of thugs, Surinder Singh ‘Chinda’ and a woman associate, Baljit Kaur. Baljit Kaur immediately ran to the Akal Takht and tried to justify the killing claiming that Sodhi had ‘misbehaved’ with her. But soon enough a ‘confession’ had been rung out; she admitted that she and Chinda had been paid for the killing; Gurcharan Singh, Secretary of the Akali Dal and a prominent member of the Longowal faction, and Malik Singh Bhatia, one of Bhindranwale’s own gang, were implicated. Bhatia was summoned immediately; he confessed to having provided Chinda with a vehicle to flee the site of the murder; he begged forgiveness and Bhindranwale instructed him to make an offering at the Harmandir Sahib. Bhatia, believing that he had been forgiven, prayed at the Temple and returned with prasad, which he offered Bhindranwale. After this he was permitted to leave; but as he went down the stairs, he was attacked with swords; badly injured, he began to run towards the safety of the Guru Nanak Niwas, but long before he could get there, a single shot in the back sent him hurtling, lifeless, to the marble tiled floor of the Parikrama. Vengeance had begun. Soon after, a tea stall owner outside the Temple was shot dead. Baljit Kaur was tortured brutally, her breasts cut off, and then killed, within the Akal Takht itself. Her hideously mutilated body, bundled into a gunnybag, was found more than 24 hours later on the Grand Trunk Road. Near it was a second body: her associate and lover, Chinda. The day after Sodhi’s killing, notices on the walls of the Temple boasted: "Within twenty-four hours, we have eliminated the killers and two of their accomplices." The only one to escape immediate retribution was Gurcharan Singh, who was locked into a room in the Guru Nanak Niwas, and provided an armed guard of over fifty men by the Akali Dal President. He was to die on the 6th of June, when the terrorists opened fire and hurled grenades on a group of some 350 persons, including Longowal and Tohra, who surrendered to the Army near the Guru Nanak Niwas.
There are three other acts of documented barbarity that bear mention. The first of these was the attack during which Gurcharan Singh died; 70 people were killed with no other purpose than to prevent their surrender to the security forces, including 30 women and 5 children. Two Junior Commissioned Officers of the Army who were captured by the terrorists were subjected to the most inhuman tortures, and then brutally murdered; the terrorists strapped explosives on to the body of one of these JCOs after having skinned him alive, and then blew him up as he was thrown from the upper floor of the Akal Takht. And on June 8, 1984, they hacked to death an unarmed army doctor who had entered a basement to treat some civilian casualties.
It was not only their acts of savagery that defiled the Temple. Long before the first Army shells were to hit it, Bhindranwale’s men had already begun the process of disfiguring the Akal Takht. They smashed through its marble walls to create positions for their guns; from the basements in the Takht and from the rooms around the Parikrama, they broke through onto the tiled courtyards to establish near impregnable machine gun ‘nests’. Sandbags and hastily constructed brick walls protected every one of these ‘positions’. The entire Akal Takht had been transformed into a large reinforced pillbox with weapons facing all directions. In fact, virtually every strategically significant building in the complex, excluding the Harmandir Sahib located at its very centre had been similarly fortified - and defaced. The fortifications included 17 private houses in the residential area around the Temple as well. Ex-army veterans and deserters, under the leadership of the cashiered Major General Shahbeg Singh, provided weapons training to Bhindranwale’s men in the Temple Complex itself.
Throughout this period the police and the security forces positioned all around the Temple Complex, though beyond a sanitised area of more than 200 yards - lest the Temple was ‘desecrated’ by their presence -, did nothing. No effort was made to conceal these activities, indeed, it would have been impossible to do so; the government, the administration and the police were fully aware of what was being done, not only within the Temple, but also in the private residences commandeered by the terrorists beyond its walls. But a politically imposed paralysis had crippled the forces to such an extent that, far from enforcing the law of the land, they were not even capable of defending themselves against the depredations of the terrorists. A single incident epitomises their impotence. On February 14, 1984, a group of militants attacked a police post at some distance from the entrance of the Temple. Six policemen, fully armed, were ‘captured’ and dragged inside. The ‘police response’ came twenty four hours later in the form of a senior police officer who went to Bhindranwale in the Akal Takht and begged him to release his men and return their weapons. Bhindranwale agreed only to hand over the corpse of one of the policemen who had been killed. He later relented and released the remaining five men who were still alive. Their weapons, including three sten guns, and a wireless set, were not returned. No one asked for them. No action was ever taken in the case of the murdered policeman.
Eventually, however, the tide of blood rose too high. In June 1984 a reluctant and still confused government gathered up its courage, though evidently not its wits, and reacted.V
Over the entire period of the terrorist movement in Punjab, the two most significant victories for the cause of ‘Khalistan’ were not won by the militants, but inflicted - through acts both of commission and omission - upon the nation by its own Government. The first of these was Operation Blue Star; the second, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.
Blue Star, coming at the end of an extended period of stupefying inaction, constituted the worst possible form of overreaction that could have been contrived. Certainly, what had been happening all over Punjab over the preceding years was unforgivable; but it was not only condoned, there is evidence to suggest that, at least on occasion, it was even encouraged, by those who held the power of the State captive to their own petty ambitions. Even after all this, after all the distress the terrorists had inflicted, after all the damage the politicians had done and the almost complete demoralisation of the police, the scale and nature of the operation launched to contain terrorism and to ‘clean out’ the Golden Temple was by no means justified by the objective circumstances then prevailing. In the twenty two months preceding Operation Blue Star and after the Akali Morcha began, violence had claimed a total of 410 lives, of which 298 persons were killed in the last phase, between January 1, 1984 and June 3, 1984. Tragic though this loss of life was, the toll of violence in the later phases of terrorism was to be much greater, and the State’s responses, nonetheless, were much more measured. In 1987, the year preceding Operation Black Thunder, for instance, 910 persons had been killed by terrorists alone. By 1988, the terrorists were killing, on the average, 160 persons per month, and they were once again in complete possession of the Golden Temple. The comparatively bloodless action in the Temple on this occasion is itself an indictment of the lamentable State response in 1984.
The crucial responsibility for this botched action lies, once again, on its political planners and not, as has often been suggested, on the military command. After months of dithering, the Centre suddenly deployed the Army in Punjab and around the Golden Temple on June 3, 1994. The Operation itself commenced less than three days later under political pressure, indeed, in a state of political hysteria, long before the Army could dig in and make a realistic evaluation of the situation. It was this undue haste that resulted in both the unnecessary loss of life and excessive damage to various buildings within the shrine. The Army was sent in with needless haste, virtually blind, and, once again, with crippling restrictions on what they could and could not do within the Temple. There was a complete lack of information; no realistic intelligence existed on the actual strength of the terrorists, of the quantity and deployment of arms available to them, or even a sufficiently detailed layout of the Temple Complex itself. The result was that the most inappropriate tactics were initially adopted, and when the casualties in the Army became unbearable, overwhelming military hardware, including tanks and the artillery, were employed - with devastating impact on some of the most sacred buildings. What could well have been won by strategy and planning had to be seized by brute force.
Irrespective of what had preceded the Operation, it is with reason that the Sikhs were offended by what was done to their holiest shrine. Indeed, those who hastily planned and rashly precipitated this action owe an explanation not only to the Sikh community but to the entire Indian nation, to the Army, and to the families of almost a hundred officers and jawans who sacrificed their lives to free the Golden Temple from the malevolent of the crew of murderers who had installed themselves there, as also to the families of more than 550 innocent civilians who were killed in the cross fire.
Nothing, however, can explain or exculpate the complete collapse of the State during the three day-long politically sponsored slaughter of the Sikhs which followed in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination less than five months later. The manifest bad faith of all subsequent regimes in this context is reflected in the disgraceful record of investigations, prosecutions and convictions relating to the November 1984 massacre.
These two events, in combination, gave a new lease of life to a movement which could easily have been contained in 1984 itself. It was a lease of life which was to inflict a toll of thousands of deaths over the next nine years.VI
The ‘regrouping’ of extremist forces started immediately after these events, and was not affected by the Rajiv-Longowal accord, or by the installation of the Akali Dal Government headed by Surjit Singh Barnala in 1985 - if anything, it may well have been accelerated by these developments. The exceptionally high turnout in these elections, at 67 per cent, was witness to the sentiments of the people who were eager for the restoration of the democratic process and who, despite the evident delinquency of the national leadership, overwhelmingly rejected the cult of extremism.
Their elected representatives, unfortunately, had learnt little from the protracted tragedy of the preceding seven years. With 73 seats out of a total of 115 [elections to 2 seats were countermanded as a result of the death of candidates], the Akalis had, for the first time, a clear majority in the House. But the enemy, once again, was within. Barnala’s was "the first Akali ministry not reliant on any other political party: with some justification he described it as a Panthic government. Ironically, it was ambitious elements within the Panth who conspired to pull him down."19 The Akali leaders began squabbling for power among themselves and created a vacuum which was promptly filled up by the extremists.
In 1986 alone, 512 persons were killed by the extremists, and terrorists activities accelerated even further in 1987. The Barnala government’s response, throughout the less than two years that it remained in power, was worse than inadequate. On the one hand, instead of initiating strong steps to counter these developments, the Chief Minister continued to ignore the gravity of the situation and to deny the terrorist threat was escalating, and on the other, he released, en masse, over 2,000 terrorists, accused of a variety of heinous crimes, who had been arrested from the Golden Temple and from some 42 other Gurudwaras during Operation Blue Star. Most of them immediately rejoined the extremist ranks, and the movement picked up momentum rapidly. By January 1986, they were already strong enough to eject the SGPC from the Golden Temple. They hoisted Khalistani flags there and immediately began to demolish the Akal Takht which had, by now, been reconstructed by the Government. The guns were back in the Temple. A five-member ‘Panthic Committee’ of militant leaders was created; on April 29, 1986, they passed a formal resolution proclaiming Khalistan and again hoisted the Khalistani flag in the Golden Temple. The killings, the torture, and now, increasingly, rape once more defiled the sacred shrine. A large number of kidnapped women were kept captive in the Temple, to be ‘used’ when and how the ‘warriors of Khalistan’ pleased; and then to be killed in cold blood; almost without exception, these were Sikh women.
The horror of the intolerable desecration of the shrine on this occasion was experienced by the entire nation. Operation Black Thunder had been executed in the full glare of the media, with both Indian and foreign representatives, and continuous television coverage which made it impossible to hide even the minutest detail. It became impossible for the terrorists and their political front men to explain away these hideous offences against the sanctity of the Temple, and the terrorists lost a great deal of their support as a result.
The strategic advantage of orchestrating terrorist activities from within the Golden Temple, furthermore, was discounted once and for all by Operation Black Thunder. After 1988, the sanctuary of this and other Sikh shrines no longer offered the militants immunity against the law; and the sanctity ascribed to their actions as a result of their association with these holy places was also lost.
Their rhetoric, and the pattern of their crimes, nevertheless, remained the same; what changed was the intensity and effectiveness of their operations. Immediately after Blue Star, a new generation of weapons, the Kalashnikov rifles [AK47 and AK57] were injected into the conflict by a helpful Pakistan. Large numbers of terrorists continuously crossed over into Pakistan for training in the use of an increasingly lethal range of weapons and explosives, and their ability to inflict damage multiplied manifold. After Black Thunder, a panicky militant leadership met with the authorities in Pakistan, and an unprecedented flow of weapons commenced all along the unfenced border.
The movement, however, had lost its ideological moorings at this stage, and a number of splinter groups emerged, defined, not by any specific doctrinal differences but essentially by a clash of egos between the various leaders. The initial grouping was around two ‘Panthic Committees’; the Old came to be dominated by Gurbachan Singh Manochahal and Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, and the New, commanded by Gurjant Singh Budhsinghwala, Kanwarjit Singh, Charanjit Singh Channi, and later, Dr Sohan Singh. There were various subsequent reorganisations, and no clear line of authority could ever be established over the more than 160 gangs that went on a rampage all over the state.
Efforts, nevertheless, continued to be made to give the movement a religious tone; when Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh were hanged for Indira Gandhi’s murder, 10 Hindus were hanged in a ‘retaliatory action’ in Batala, Tarn Taran and Ferozpur in January 1989. Various ‘Panthic Codes’ were promulgated imposing restrictions on the consumption of alcohol, on marriage rites and practices, in the consumption of meat(!), on the patterns of dress to be worn by Sikh men and women, and on a range of ‘immoral acts’. The public reaction was far from what had been expected by the militants, and by June 1989, Manochahal had directed his camp to discontinue the ‘social reform movement’ as it had resulted in ‘alienation from the people and a dilution of the Khalistan movement’. The new Panthic Committee, dominated by the professedly puritanical Babbars, however, continued to lay great emphasis on imposing ‘moral’ discipline on the Sikhs.
Unfortunately for them, this was an increasingly difficult posture to sustain. Radical structural transformations had occurred as a result of Operation Black Thunder; the most significant of these was the loss of the Golden Temple and the Gurudwaras as shield and sanction. Rape, extortion and murder had been the business of the terrorists from the very beginning of the movement; but in its initial phases, and right up to the pre-Black Thunder period, the top leadership was apparently distanced from these activities, concentrated as they were in the Golden Temple. Their depravity and vice in that hallowed place remained unknown to the larger mass of Sikhs; and while lesser terrorists were often seen to ‘stray from the path’, the highest motives could still be ascribed to the militant leadership.
Divested of the sanctuary of the Golden Temple and the Gurudwaras, the leadership was forced to live life as fugitives in the Punjab countryside; on the one hand, their own deeds exposed them, and on the other the deeds of their followers compromised them even further, since they were now believed to be condoned, even encouraged, by these leaders.
Unsurprisingly, they made several unsuccessful attempts to regain ‘religious sanctions’ for their activities. In a bid to recover lost ground, the Old Panthic Committee called for a Sarbat Khalsa, a congregation of the entire Sikh Community, at the Akal Takht on April 13, 1989. The call received almost no response, and the Sarbat Khalsa was ‘postponed’ indefinitely. Similarly, a splinter ‘Federation’ led by Bhai Manjit Singh called for the constitution of Khalsa Panchayats operating from Gurudwaras in every town and village all over the state. A Chief Khalsa Panchayat was to be established at the Akal Takht. Once again, the scheme died out due to a palpable lack of response.
The reasons were not far to find. The movement by this time had acquired a virulence that had affected the life of every Sikh. The death toll inflicted by the terrorists between 1988 and 1992 stood at 9693; of these, 6280, close to 65 per cent, were Sikhs. So many Sikh families had witnessed the gratuitous and often senselessly brutal murder of their loved ones that the myth of a war for the defence of Sikhism and of Sikh interests was wearing thin.
This was not all; the fear of death was pervasive, but terror reached into the homes of tens of thousands of other Sikhs in the guise of shame and dispossession. As fugitives, the terrorists and their leaders constantly sought shelter in the homes of common Sikhs across the countryside; and it was while they did this that their worst traits were exposed. Gradually, the myth of ideological driven ‘holy warriors’ was supplanted by an image of licentious criminals with a strong weakness of liquor, for women, and for easy money. The terrorists not only demanded food and shelter, but forced sex with the young women of the families they stayed with. Abduction and rape became commonplace. Compounding these was widespread extortion and, predictably, given the Jat Sikh’s obsession with land, massive land grabbing.
At this point the media also began projecting certain peculiarities in the ‘recoveries’ that were being made from the hideouts of terrorists or after encounters. They included pornographic literature, a variety of intoxicants, the inevitable contraceptives, and, perhaps to complement these, ‘medicines’ believed to increase sexual prowess. ‘Love letters’, such as those of Gurdip Singh Deepa, one of the top terrorists of the Khalistan Commando Force [KCF], revealed the degree and depravity of their sexual adventurism. Moreover, recovered documents increasingly exposed the acquisition of massive movable and immovable properties by terrorists.
The hypocrisy and cynicism of those who were trying to impose ‘Panthic codes’ on the Sikh masses on the threat of death can be judged by the example of some of their most important leaders. The Babbar Khalsa projected itself as the most severe, intensely disciplined, indeed, puritanical Sikh organisation among the militant groupings. Its chief, Sukhdev Singh Babbar, however, was discovered living in a palatial bungalow in Patiala under an assumed identity as a contractor, Jasmer Singh. Babbar had a wife and three children at his village in Dassuwal, Tarn Taran. But he shared his ‘White House’ in Patiala with Jawahar Kaur, herself a member of a group of devotional singers, the Nabhe Wallian Bibian Da Jatha, famed equally for their talent as for their piety; an illegitimate son had been born out of this liaison. The White House was estimated to have been constructed at a cost of over Rs 30 lakh in the end Eighties. Air conditioners, dish antennae, VCRs, colour televisions, sophisticated cameras, a micro oven and an expensive cooking range were some of the ‘modern amenities’ in the Patiala house. A substantial amount of jewellery and expensive clothes belonging to Jawahar Kaur, were also recovered. If further evidence of the ‘holy warrior’s’ inclinations was needed, video copies of blue movies were also found in the house. Sukhdev Singh owned another bungalow, the Pink House at Rajpura, and a third one in the Model Town area.
In early 1991, Madha Singh, a "Lt. General" of the Babbar Khalsa, and his associate Inderjit Singh Sakhira, raped Sarabjit Kaur and Paramjit Kaur, the daughters Harbhajan Singh Jat of Sirhali and subsequently abducted and forcibly married them. This was Madha Singh’s third ‘marriage’.
Jaspal Singh Bhuri, a "Lt. General" of the KCF, abducted an 18 year old girl, Beant Kaur of Manochahal village in December 1990. She was kept in captivity for over four months, and was ‘used’ to satisfy the lust of various gang members. In April 1991 she was released. However, Bhuri followed her to her village and forced her to consume cyanide, because he felt she would damage his group’s reputation.
Sukhdev Singh ‘Sukha Sipahi’, alias ‘General Labh Singh’, the then KCF Chief, had developed a relationship with a married woman, Surjit Kaur, the wife of Gurdip Singh Thekedar. In July 1988, suspecting her ‘fidelity’, he and his associates gave her a severe beating and set her house on fire. Sukhdev Singh was later killed in a police encounter. His nephew, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, and an associate, Jagjit Singh Billa, believing the woman had acted as a police informer, killed her in October 1989.
Panjwar subsequently became the Chief of the KCF [Panjwar] group. He acquired a large bungalow in one of Delhi’s upmarket colonies and took up residence there under an assumed identity as Partap Singh. He had also acquired a brick kiln in Ghaziabad, and had invested a large chunk of looted money in the transport business. He ‘owned’ a half share in a rice shelling mill in Jhabal, and had forcibly occupied some 20 acres of land in the same area. One of his close associates, Harminder Singh Sultanwind, a member of Dr Sohan Singh’s ‘Panthic Committee’, had ‘kept’ a married woman, the sister of another top terrorist Baghel Singh Dehriwal who had been killed, at a bungalow in Chandigarh. He owned a fleet of cars and had ‘invested’ Rs 10 lakh with a brick kiln owner of Majhita.
Satnam Singh Chinna, chief of the BTFK, had ‘acquired’ a 50 acre farm in the Puranpur district of Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, and had a large kothi constructed at Delhi. He had killed half a dozen of his close associates when they had demanded a share in the money looted by the group. He had two wives, and illicit relations with the wife of a certain Roshan Lal Bairagi, another girl named Pinki, and a third woman in Mannawala village in Ajnala.
A particularly brutal character was Sukhinder Singh ‘Gora’, the Deputy Chief of the KCF[W], who, in the first quarter of 1991 alone, raped and murdered Jatinder Kaur, the wife of Jagir Singh Mazhbi, Satya, the wife of Ajit Singh Jat, both residents of Enkot village. In the second quarter of 1991, he abducted and raped Anup Kaur, the daughter of Surjit Singh, a retired Subedar living in Dialgarh village. In October the same year, he and his associates kidnapped two girls, Paramjit Kaur and Pinder Kaur, from Bujian Wali village and raped them. Some time later, they kidnapped a young girl, Sukhi of Manan village, and raped and killed her.
Another prominent terrorist, Balwinder Singh Shahpur, the Chief of the Dashmesh Regiment, virtually made rape his primary occupation and had ravished more than 50 girls in the Sathiala-Batala area.
These are only a handful of instances of the more prominent terrorists, based only on reported offences; most crimes by these men, however, will never have been mentioned by their victims - that is the essence of terror. Inevitably, their example was enthusiastically followed by what was at one time up to a three thousand strong terrorist force backed by an even larger number of unlisted criminals ravaging the entire Punjab countryside. As early as January 1989, their activities were causing deep alarm even within militants ranks, and the Old Panthic Committee issued a statement that those who were killing people in connection with land disputes and extortion, and who were committing ‘other acts’ that brought the movement into disrepute were in no way helping the Khalistan movement. They also appealed to Sikh masses not to give shelter to ‘such elements’ as they were ‘defaming the struggle started by the Damdami Taksal.’ But given their record of its own top leadership, this call had a hollow ring. In any event, the real power was in the hands of those who had the guns; there was no organisational authority above the roving terrorist gangs in Punjab.
In 1991 a confidential survey of the socio-economic profile of terrorists, including 205 hard-core terrorists, indicated that a majority of those who joined voluntarily did so for the lure of easy money and the ‘benefits’ attached to being a terrorist; more than a third of the non-hardcore terrorists, however, were recruited coercively. A previous criminal background was seen to provide a distinct advantage in climbing the terrorist hierarchy. Families of hard-core terrorists, such as Gurbachan Singh Manochahal, Dharam Singh Kastiwal, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, Resham Singh Thande, Mahesh Inder Singh, Nishan Singh Makhu, Yadwinder Singh Yadu, Baghel Singh Dehriwal, among others, were identified as having amassed great fortunes. Even the lesser terrorists gained immensely in social significance and status once they had a Kalashnikov in their hands. Heads of their families were respectfully addressed as Baba in their villages. They were approached for assistance in settling private disputes. Fathers of some of the better known terrorists set up an independent ‘business’ of extortion, mediation in cases of kidnapping, and a variety of other acts of coercion. They also became beneficiaries of forcible acquisition of lands and other properties. Even if their sons died, they acquired the halo of martyrs; they families were called shaheedi parivars, and received substantial financial support.
These findings have now received further corroboration in a recent study by three sociologists of Guru Nanak Dev University. The main causes identified for the terrorists joining the Khalistan movement had nothing to do with religion or ideology: "At least 180 of the 300 terrorists we sampled joined ‘out of fun.’ The phrase that was often used was ‘shokia taur se’. They were happy if they had a motorcycle (Hero Honda; the 350 cc Enfield Bullet had been banned) and an AK-47 and if they got to eat almonds." Women, according to the study, were another big draw. Paramjit Singh Judge, one of the authors of this study, asserts, "I know one doctor in Majitha who terminated 10-15 pregnancies every Thursday. No one openly told you of the rapes. But in the villages, you often heard comments like, ‘Itna badaam khayenge to kahin to nikalenge hi.’ [If they eat so many almonds, they have to find an outlet for their energies]. Often terrorists would enter a house just before dinner, have dinner, and then force all the family members except the young women up to the terrace... The majority of the terrorists died within a year. In that time they had access to 50 to 55 women."20
These were the ‘armies of Khalistan’, the ‘defenders of the Faith’, the men who claimed to speak for the Sikh Panth and to fight to establish an order based on the teachings of the Gurus.VII
And who defeated them?
No ‘great Brahmanical conspiracy’, no cynical political combine out to crush the ‘freedom and identity of the Sikhs’, no armies of militant ‘Hindus’; it was, overwhelmingly, the Sikhs themselves who fought the terrorists, and who eventually prevailed over them.
It was Sikhs themselves, no doubt; but it was not those Sikhs who claimed to represent the religious leadership of the community; it was not those Sikhs who had been playing political games with the lives of the people of Punjab for over a decade. Despite the experiences of Blue Star, of Black Thunder, and of the unrestrained depredations of the terrorists thereafter, this ‘Sikh leadership’ never diluted its complicity with, or implicit support to, the strategy of religious manipulation that the terrorists had extended from word to deed.
In 1988, the Punjab Police was as an utterly demoralised force. Shortly before Operation Black Thunder, a police party had been engaged in an encounter at Daheru; they simply abandoned their weapons and fled. People in Punjab’s villages spoke of a situation where the police refused to move out of their barricaded police stations after dark; the force’s will to fight terrorism, it appeared, had been completely broken.
The appearances were deceptive. What had been lacking was a clear mandate, and a freedom to carry on the battle without crippling political interference. Throughout the era of the ascendancy of terror, virtually every hard-core terrorist had a political patron; police responses were distorted to such an extent that effective reaction was precluded even in cases where policemen and their families had been specifically targeted by the terrorists. But the will was far from lacking.
Within five years, this very force was to spearhead one of the most dramatic victories in the history of world terrorism. The men who were said to have been cowering in their police stations chased the terrorists deep into their own territory; and chased them to their deaths. Everywhere in the world, when terrorism goes beyond a point, the police has ordinarily been withdrawn from the battle, and armies engage with the militants. In Punjab, the Army was cast into a supportive role, forming outer cordons during raids and ambushes on militants; the police were the actual combatants.
And more than 65 per cent of the personnel in the Punjab Police were Sikhs.
After 1989, massive recruitment took place, as the force expanded strength from its existing 35,000 men to 60,000 men. It was Sikhs from all over the state, from deep within what had virtually been abandoned as the ‘terrorist heartland’, who came in overwhelming numbers to join the war against terrorism. They paid a terrible price for their resolve. To wear a police uniform in the era of militancy in the Punjab was to proclaim yourself a wilful target for preferential terrorist attack. And between 1988 and 1992 alone, 1566 police men were killed by terrorists. It was a risk they willingly took. More distressing, however, was the vicious targeting of their unprotected families.
August 1992 saw the most vicious wave of these murders. Over just a few days in rapid succession, more than 60 persons from the families of Sikh policemen were killed. I drove from village to village to offer what little consolation I could to the survivors. In a village in Barnala, 18 persons had been herded into a small enclosure, and had been shot at point blank range. Even after their last rites had been completed, their congealed blood, with swarms of flies, marked the place where they had fallen. The survivors, mostly women and young girls, were too stunned by the tragedy to say anything; but on every face, in every tear-filled eye I saw an expression, at once of entreaty and of accusation. From village to village, that expression was to follow me for many days.
But these murders only strengthened the resolve of the survivors to rid their people of the scourge of terror.
And the people responded. For years there had been no effective resistance to the militant dictat; the State it seemed, had abdicated all responsibility, and the people could only suffer in silence under the tyranny of the Kalashnikov. But once the State displayed a resolve to combat, the groundswell of popular support was simply immense. The popular revulsion was transformed into actual resistance, inspiring many a heroic deed. In June 1989, terrorists hijacked a bus and forced 10 Hindu passengers to disembark near Talwandi Ghuman; as the terrorists prepared to execute them, two Sikhs - Avtar Singh and Rajwant Singh - resisted; they were killed, only to become heroes and models in the eyes of the long suffering villagers. The terrorists could no longer find shelter as easily as they did; even those who had submitted to their rapine for years explored the possibilities of resistance. Sukhwinder Singh ‘Sukha’, a listed terrorist had been coercing Kapur Singh Lubana of Basoya village to provide him ‘hospitality’; he had then taken to raping his daughter-in-law when he pleased. In May 1991, Lubana informed the police; Sukhwinder Singh and two of his accomplices were killed in an encounter.
The floodgates opened. But that was not all. The Punjabi villager was willing and eager to engage directly in the battle. When the police offered the opportunity through a scheme accepting volunteers as Special Police Officers who would be provided a weapon, ammunition and a small daily allowance, large numbers of Sikhs responded, and the battle lines were drawn within the villages.
Among the most noble sagas of this resistance was the dauntless courage of the families of comrade Balwinder Singh and his wife Jagdish Kaur, and of Major Singh. Fired by ideology, these active members of the CPI(M) transformed their homes on two ends of Bhikiwind village, one of the areas worst affected by terrorism, into solitary fortresses. Here they fought through and survived dozens of terrorist attacks, including two in which rocket launchers were used.
The Army, the central security forces, each played their role. But the war against terror in theatres all over India is, today, witness to the fact that this pestilence cannot be eradicated by a force imposed from without. The victory over terrorism in Punjab was a people’s victory; the people were common policemen, courageous villagers, men and women inspired by an assortment of ideologies and motives.
One thing, however, is certain: those who fought the terror - whatever their beliefs or motives - were true to the teachings of the Gurus; those who perpetrated terror betrayed Sikhism.
NOTES & REFERENCES