ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂਜੀਕਾਖ਼ਾਲਸਾ ॥ ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂਜੀਕੀਫ਼ਤਹਿ ॥
This week marks the end of the academic year as we prepare for May Week celebrations. Congratulations to everyone for persevering through this tough exam season, your hard work deserves the extended period of relaxation to come!
To celebrate, we’ll be hosting a student and alumni Kirtan Darbar as well as a BBQ. Check the Facebook and Instagram pages for more details.
Harh – 1984
Last month, the significance of Guru Arjan Dev Ji’s shaheedi was roundly emphasised. As we move into the month of Harh, the necessity of remembering the sacrifices made by our shaheeds only grows in importance. Largely, this is a consequence of the events that took place from 1st -10th June 1984 during which the Indian Government carried out a military campaign, termed ‘Operation Bluestar’, targeting Harmandir Sahib. During Bluestar, and subsequent official and unofficial operations, the Sikh reference library was torched to ruins, the Akal Takht was destroyed and anti-Sikh pogroms ensued in October-November 1984. Given the accompanying loss of lives, it is arguable that the collective Sikh psyche has never truly recovered from this moment. As a result, the annual diasporic discourse of this period opts to ‘#Neverforget84’ by recounting the horrors endured by our forefathers. However, this means that little attention is paid to the underlying causes of tension between Panjab’s Sikh population and the central government which ultimately led to the eruption of such brutal violence. In recent years, some organisations have started to reject ‘Operation Bluestar’ as a label and opting for ‘Battle of Amritsar’. This newsletter aims to briefly comment on the social, economic and political issues which catalysed the popularity of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the communal tension between Hindus and Sikhs, both of which contributed to Operation Bluestar and the subsequent loss of innocent Sikh lives.
Importantly, this newsletter does not hope to provide/imply any justification or condemnation of the controversial issue of ‘Sikh militancy’. It is submitted that any commentary on this topic is beyond the scope of this piece.
In the diasporic consciousness, distinctions between Hindus and Sikhs are eminently clear. Yet, in India, these divisions are not as discrete. Traditionally, there had been high levels of respect between the two communities with Hindus revering Sikh beliefs and vice versa. For instance, it was common for the eldest son in a Hindu-Panjabi household to be raised as a Sikh. The consequent divisions which emerged between the two communities are therefore important to recognise as they justified a vehement resentment by Panjabi Sikhs against, what they believed to be, a Hindu-orientated central government. Thus, it is important to note two of the most pertinent causes of the escalation of these tensions.
Firstly, the failure of the 1951 Panjabi Suba must be noted. The Suba movement hoped to realise Panjabi as Panjab’s official language, taking a step towards realising Nehru’s promise of a place where Sikhs could, “experience the glow of freedom”. However, a large portion of the Hindu population, who spoke Panjabi as their mother tongue, betrayed the movement in a census by declaring Hindi as their first language. This betrayal seeded a deep communal tension between the Hindu and Sikh communities in Panjab.
Secondly, the effect of the ‘Green Revolution’ was marked. The Green Revolution began in 1965 and led to an unrivalled period of improving agricultural efficiency. Ultimately, this made Panjab the ‘breadbasket of India’, allowing the country to become self-sufficient in food production. As a result, India’s dependence on food aid was ended. Given the importance of Panjabi farmers to India’s economy, the farmers desired higher levels of autonomy in the agricultural sphere. This manifested in demands made in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973. Simply put, the key demand was an ability to control the price at which grain was sold to the central government. The government continually resisted these demands since the Indian economy had taken a deeply protectionist stance post-independence, thus, unhindered internal trade was considered a necessity. Consequently, this fostered resentment of the centre by the farming classes. Yet, this resentment was felt most acutely by Sikh farmers given the lack of opportunities for their newly-educated offspring. Many Sikh farmers unlocked financial freedom through the Green Revolution and were able to better educate their children. However, traditionally, Panjab’s industrialists and white-collar workers had derived from the Hindu strata of society. This led to a disconnect between the educated Sikh youth and the opportunities available to them. Statistics from the time demonstrate the magnitude of this issue. In 1966 the number of Panjabis seeking white-collar employment was 2,713 whereas in 1981 this number had reached 45,708. In the same period, unemployment sky-rocketed from 50,578 to 486,081. It was felt by the affected Sikh youths that the under-investment in urban centres was a conscious attempt to gatekeep prestigious professions for Hindu communities. This population of discontented youths later translated itself into a pro-Bhindranwale community which stood in opposition to the central government.
During this period, Indian politics had become infused with a religious undertone which had not been seen since before partition. By analysing some of the actions of Panjab’s two main political parties at the time, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress Party, it will be highlighted how political opportunism was intrinsically linked to the increasing instability in Panjab throughout the 1970s and 80s.
Historically, the Congress identified itself as India’s secular party. However, the party’s leader, Indira Gandhi fundamentally shifted this attitude in the 1970s. In the mid-1970s, Gandhi’s secure position as Prime Minister became increasingly under threat. This led her to enact a 19-month emergency from 1975 to 1977, cancelling democratic elections, suspending civil liberties and permitting a spree of mass sterilisations to control population growth. These inhumane and anti-democratic measures caused her popularity to plummet leading to heavy losses in the 1977 elections. In a fit of desperation, she attempted to capitalise on a wave of religious revivalism that seemed to be sweeping Indian politics at the time. In Panjab, this led her to recruit Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who campaigned for the Congress Party in 3 constituencies. However, Indira underestimated the appeal that Bhindranwale could generate. She assumed Bhindranwale was similar to the self-professed gurus, mystics and general holy men that Indians have a proclivity toward following. Yet, men in this image were usually involved in endless scandals that stymied their ability to penetrate through an uneducated, rural support base and into the educated, powerful members of society. Bhindranwale was different in this sense. Even Tavleen Singh, a vocal critic of Bhindranwale’s political beliefs and interpretation of Gurbani, noted that he was “sincere that the Sikh religion’s tenants be followed to the letter and remain unpolluted”. Thus, when the Congress deemed Bhindranwale to be surplus to requirements, he was able to combine the publicity afforded to him through the Congress’ endorsement and the disconnect felt by a disenfranchised body of educated Sikh youths to propel forward support for his movement. Consequently, Indira’s focus on religious politics worked to establish the career of a preacher whom she characterised as the biggest threat to India’s unity.
Yet, it would be unbalanced to solely attribute the escalation of tensions to the Congress Party. Indeed, the Akalis, who explicitly identified themselves as representing the Sikh electorate, were also perpetrators of a similar brand of religiously-guised political opportunism. Before their success in the 1977 elections, the Akalis promised that, if elected, they would mount a drive to see a full implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Upon electoral success, this promise was undermined on two planes. Firstly, the Janata Sangh was a constituent element of the Janata coalition to which the Akalis became a party. The Janata Sangh was a Hindu fundamentalist organisation which directly opposed many of the Sikh tenets the Akalis purported to uphold. Secondly, not only did the Akalis fail to implement any demands outlined in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, they were complicit in plans that directly opposed it. For instance, the protection of Panjab’s water supplies was one of the Resolution’s paramount concerns, yet, whilst in power, the Akali government approved the construction of a canal link from Panjab’s river Sutlej to Haryana’s River Jumna. Therefore, the Akalis were as guilty as the Congress Party of making politically opportunistic moves in order to improve their present political position. This meant that the underlying issues faced by the Sikh community were left unheard, thus, strengthening the attraction of Bhindranwale’s religiously-focused message.
This brief summary is in no way a conclusive account of the causes of the violence which ensued in 1984. Indeed, this newsletter has aimed to briefly highlight the wider socio-economic and political context that our panth tends to neglect. Nonetheless, in the years from 1947 to 1984, the situation in Panjab can be summarised through a few key developments. Foremostly, there was a rise in an educated class of Sikh youths who endured an increasingly fractured relationship with Panjab’s Hindu populace. Simultaneously, the political demands of their fathers fell upon deaf ears as the region’s main political parties provided the illusion of commitment to Sikh politics but provided little in the way of practical reform. Among this backdrop of desperation and rising communal tensions arose Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. To some pockets of the disillusioned Sikh electorate, Bhindranwale symbolised a legitimate and viable alternative to the inertia and falsehood which plagued mainstream Panjabi politics. To this day, the central government maintains that it was this development – the rise of Bhindranwale’s brand of Sikhism – which ultimately provoked Operation Bluestar.
Notes of Sovereignty (https://mahvra.substack.com/p/notes-on-sovereignty?s=w)
Reflections on Sidhu Moosewala: From a Fan, JungNihang (https://jodhsingh.medium.com/reflections-on-sidhu-moosewala-from-a-fan-i-62a46aba6c37)