Prophet of Hate

J S Bhindranwale
J S Bhindranwale

By Tavleen Singh

1947: Born in Malwa region, Punjab 1970s: Preacher in pursuit of pure Sikhism.
1978: Clash with Nirankaris results in his entry into politics.
1979: Defeated in SGPC elections. 1981-83: Leads terrorist, subversive activities.
1984: Operation Bluestar. Is killed in Golden Temple which he had turned into his fortress.

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.

The 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.

Bhindranwale's 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 earthen pots.

The 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.

Sometime 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.

It 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.

In 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.

His 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.

By 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.

When 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."

Bhindranwale 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.

The 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.

This 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.

The 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.

Tavleen Singh is a columnist and author of Lollipop Street and Kashmir: A Tragedy of Errors.



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