It will remain one of history's great puzzles why a man
who lived by hatred and violence should have become a
legend in his own lifetime. Prophet of hate for some,
messiah for others but legend all the same. When Sant
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's body was found lying amid
the debris of the Akal Takht on the morning of June 6,
1984, his followers refused to believe he was dead. Even
as the Indian Army took control of the Golden Temple,
rumours spread through the villages of Punjab that Bhindranwale
had escaped and would return at the appropriate moment
to once more lead the movement for Khalistan.
legend grew to mighty proportions when word also spread
that the fighting had destroyed the Akal Takht which,
since Mughal times, had been the symbol of Sikh resistance
against the throne of Delhi. It was here, in the white
marble forecourt that separates the Akal Takht from the
Golden Temple, that they found Bhindranwale's body. Following
press censorship and a secret cremation, the rumour was
perceived as truth and the legend grew larger still. Eyewitnesses
who claimed to have been with him till the end said he
could have escaped had he wanted. But when he saw how
badly the Akal Takht was damaged he chose to die with
his loyal lieutenants, Amrik Singh and Shabeg Singh, the
former war hero who helped him turn the Golden Temple
into a fortress.
legacy of hatred between Sikhs and Hindus survived his
death with many of those responsible for the Sikh pogroms
that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination admitting
that they were only taking revenge for what Bhindranwale
had done. They had heard, they said, that he made mincemeat
out of Hindu babies and ordered the rape of Hindu women.
The stories were untrue as were those about him ordering
assassinations by picking names, lottery style, out of
myth of Bhindranwale was so much bigger than the man that
it always came as a shock to actually meet him and discover
that he was only a semi-literate village preacher. If
it had not been for the intervention of politics he would
probably have remained a village preacher.
in the late '70s he began making a name for himself in
the villages of Punjab for his aggressive approach to
enforce what he considered pure Sikhism. He would wander
about telling youths not to trim their beards, ordering
them to give up intoxicants for studying the scriptures.
Abstinence was the essence of his own philosophy and,
unusually for a Jat Sikh, he was even a vegetarian. His
followers took pride in telling people that their Santji
did not even drink tea because in his view it fell into
the intoxicants' category.
was in his pursuit of pure Sikhism that he first caught
national attention. On April 13, 1978 there was a violent
clash between his followers and a group of Nirankaris
whom he considered untrue Sikhs. Several people were killed
and Bhindranwale approached a group of amateur politicians
who claimed proximity to Sanjay Gandhi. Through connections
in the All India Sikh Students' Federation, they managed
to persuade him to set up his own candidates against the
Akali Dal in the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee
elections of 1979. He was badly defeated but by then other
important politicians made the mistake of thinking they
could also use him.
1981 Lala Jagat Narain, owner of the Punjab Kesri group
of newspapers, was shot dead in the first of a series
of assassinations in Punjab. Bhindranwale was wanted for
questioning but was allowed, for unexplained reasons,
to choose the moment of his arrest. So, he drove through
Delhi with a busload of armed followers till he arrived
at Chowk Mehta in Punjab, and only allowed himself to
be arrested after a gun battle with the police.
reputation as an upholder of Sikh rights grew and was
enhanced when in 1982, ostensibly to prevent terrorist
acts disrupting Delhi's Asian Games, respectable Sikhs,
including senior army officers, were stopped from entering
Delhi and mistreated in the process.
1982 Bhindranwale had moved himself, and a large group
of his followers, into a guest house called the Guru Nanak
Niwas, in the precincts of the Golden Temple. It was from
here that he began to build himself into a media star.
International television crews began to descend on him
as the violence in Punjab grew and took a communal turn
with innocent Hindu travellers being targeted.
reporters asked Bhindranwale what he had to say about
the massacres he would make it clear that he did not think
there was any harm in killing Hindus. When Darbara Singh
resigned as chief minister of Punjab after the first massacre
on October 6, 1983 he said that it was obvious that Hindu
lives were more important than Sikh ones. "Hundreds of
Sikhs have been killed," he told reporters, "but the government
only falls when six Hindus get killed."
also made his contempt for Indira Gandhi clear by referring
to her disparagingly as "that daughter of a pandit". His
original anger may have been against the police and the
state government but he converted it into a rage against
Hindus in general and from this was bred the idea that
Sikhs had always been discriminated against in India and
so needed their own country. He never made the mistake
of actually making a secessionist remark himself but the
Sikh youths, who constituted his main following, had no
hesitation in admitting that their fight was for Khalistan.
biggest political victims of Bhindranwale's emergence
were the Akalis. In a half-hearted attempt to win more
autonomy for Punjab they had started a dharamyudh morcha
(religious fight) from the Golden Temple and appointed
the mild-mannered sant Harchand Singh Longowal as their
leader. Bhindranwale hijacked the movement and announced
that it would not end until all the demands in the Anandpur
Sahib Resolution were met.
document, which contained religious demands as well as
demands for more autonomy, was adopted by the Akali Dal
in 1977 but had been ignored since. Bhindranwale made
it fundamental to his cause because the autonomy demand
was worded in such a way that would have given Sikhs more
authority than Hindus in Punjab.
irony is that it was through his death that Bhindranwale
succeeded in achieving his objective. Not by dying but
because in order to win their battle against him the Indian
Army had to destroy the Akal Takht. After Operation Bluestar
soldiers targeted Sikh youths in Punjab villages in a
mopping-up exercise codenamed Operation Woodrose. It was
after this that a large number of Sikh youths fled to
Pakistan. Bhindranwale remained their hero and leader
just as to Hindus he remained a prophet of hate.
a columnist and author of Lollipop Street and Kashmir:
A Tragedy of Errors.