Reviving Bhindranwale cult: Another disaster in the waiting?

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Recently, retired Lieutenant General KS Brar was seriously injured in an attack in London by some unidentified men, whom he said were pro-Khalistani. The 78-year-old Brar was one of the commanders of Operation Blue Star against the Sikh militants during the mid-1980s in Punjab.

The former lieutenant general said after the incident that the current Punjab government led by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) was backing the extremism of the early 1980s, which had resulted into independent India's one of the most deadly internal crisis and even claimed the life of an Indian prime minister in late 1984.


Resurrecting Bhindranwale

Brar's claims are not entirely misplaced. A few months ago, it was decided that the deadly militant leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had led the Sikh separatist movement in the 1980s and was killed along with his armed men during Operation Bluestar in June 1984, would have a memorial set up in his name. The monument is positioned inside the Golden Temple complex, which had witnessed a grave assault during the military action, and has been named 'Shaheedganj'. The construction is said to complete in 18 months time.

The foundation stone for the memorial was unveiled on Ghallughara Diwas (Sikh Holocaust Day) on Jun 6 this year and 3,000 Sikh men and women were present at the Golden Temple on the occasion. Sons of Bhindranwale and one of his slain colleagues Bhai Amrik Singh along with the mother of Satwant Singh, one of Indira Gandhi's assassins, were also present among others, who are related to Sikh separatism in some form.

Radical Sikhs have welcomed move

Radical Sikh groups have welcomed Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee's (SGPC) decision to build the memorial. The SAD has a big majority in the SGPC. Various organisations have hailed the deification of Bhindranwale as a 'martyr' who had fought for Sikhism and perished while protecting the Sikhs' holiest shrine. The SGPC authorities said the memorial would be a symbol of resistance against oppression.

But not all are happy

Former minister Manoranjan Kalia, for example, said it was not a wise move to resurrect a bitter memory after nearly three decades.

This resurrection of the Bhindranwale cult is a classic case of revival of history's legacy after generations. The Sikh crisis of the 1980s was perhaps the first crisis of nation-building in independent India. Both the Indian state and a religious nationalism besides common people had paid the price and today, a game is on to politicise the issue without taking into consideration what it could lead to.

Terrorist or a martyr?

The story of Bhindranwale is like any other 'enemy of the state'. To New Delhi and the secular media, Bhindranwale is a terrorist while for his own clan, he is a martyr. But whatever it may be, the fact is that he had indeed orchestrated murders and fuelled violence, which can not be supported under any circumstances. It is true that even after sixty-five years of independence, the modern Indian nation witnesses internal differences and problems but that does not mean that we go back to the past and elevate the stature of a separatist.

Political games?

Political equations have played their part in the 'Iconisation of Bhindranwale' episode. The Damdami Taksal, a seminary which was once headed by Bhindranwale and looked after the construction of the monument, is believed to have helped the SAD to win the SGPC polls in 2011 and the latter, as a sign of gratitude, approved the memorial. The SAD leadership, however, refused to be present on the occasion that saw Bhindranwale being deified. Even the BJP, which is an ally of the SAD in the government, said it was not a wise move.

BJP leader slams SAD leadership

Firebrand BJP leader from Amritsar Lakshmi Kanta Chawla and a former state minister even directly charged CM Parkash Singh Badal and Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal, saying it was not surprising to see the SAD leadership backing such a move. For it is this same leadership that had appealed for the presidential mercy of Balwant Rajoana, the Babbar Khalsa militant who is awaiting death sentence for the assassination of Punjab CM Beant Singh in 1995. Rajoana's scheduled hanging was stayed in March this year following the appeal.

The state Congress also favoured the clemency. The Taksal, on the other hand, hit back at the Congress and BJP saying the latter were playing communal politics over something which is 'pure'.

Former Punjab police chief KPS Gill, who commanded Operation Black Thunder against Punjab militancy in the late 1980s, however, was not ready to attach the Bhindranwale monument much of importance. According to him, any response on behalf of the government would only aggravate the situation as it had done in the 1980s.

A new identity politics on the rise?

But the problem might not be so simple. In this era of globalisation, terrorism has a much bigger chance of flourishing, thanks to the Diaspora and its funding. There are already a number of organisations working abroad who back the idea of elevating Bhindranwale's status. Senior police sources in Punjab say violence could revive in the state and the number of criminals related to militancy is increasing even more when compared to that of late 1970s and 1980s.

Change in Indian federal structure?

What can be inferred from the latest trend in Punjab is that the Indian federal structure is undergoing a change. New Delhi should take note of the growing trust deficit between the states of the Union vis-à-vis the Centre. Recently, we have seen problems over ethnic issues in Assam and Tamil Nadu, exodus of north-eastern people and river-water sharing in Karnataka, 'outsiders' issue in Maharashtra, Telangana issue in Andhra Pradesh and reforms in rural governance in Jammu and Kashmir.

All these problems show that the Centre has not been able to handle pressing localised issues with success. There is a clear lack of leadership mechanism and there is no denying that more the authority of the Centre erodes, the tendency to erect an alternative identity of sub-nationalism (ethnic, regional, religious) will only increase. Today, there is a move to deify Bhindranwale, tomorrow there might be a demand to deify another terrorist in Jammu and Kashmir, who is considered a freedom fighter by his clan or sect.

Political solution is required to a crisis of nationhood

The problem is that more the state loses its capacity to rule and more there is a counter-force ready to challenge it, the more will be the need to seek a military solution to an emerging problem. And military solution, as we all know, is actually no solution to any problem pertaining to nationhood. Resurrecting Bhindranwale is a pointer to that. The MEA has warned the Punjab administration against allowing the revival of militant tendencies but only that is not sufficient. A political will is required to counter the undercurrent, if one is really flowing.

The Congress-led Indian state was equally at fault in the 1980s by helping a Bhindranwale rise for it had tried to use him to undermine the Akali influence over the SGPC and soon he turned into a Frankenstein. Is it ready today to nullify his strengthening legacy?

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