‘Bluestar’ will remain etched in the Sikh psyche for generations (Comment)

June 4th, 2009 - 2:18 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh By Jaideep Sarin
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently asked the Sikhs to move on with the cataclysmic events of 1984. Though the comment of the country’s first Sikh prime minister were in the context of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and other places, the reference was also obliquely linked to the other, and bigger, happening of the same year - the June 6, 1984 military assault on the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple.

Codenamed ‘Operation Bluestar’ by the army to flush out heavily armed militants from inside the Golden temple complex (which houses the sanctum sanctorum, Harmandar Sahib), the operation left an agonising mark on the complex and also the Sikh psyche as the complex was pounded by mortar guns and thousands of bullets from both sides.

The army operation, ordered by then prime minister Indira Gandhi, left over 400 people dead. Gandhi paid for it with her life when two of her Sikh bodyguards killed her at her residence in New Delhi in August 1984. Following her death, the Sikh community was targeted in anti-Sikh riots that left over 3,000 dead and tens of thousands of Sikhs scarred for life.

Twenty-five years have passed since the operation concluded June 6, taking the army three days to neutralise those inside. Among those who fell was separatist preacher, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a firebrand leader who almost made many believe that the idea of a separate, independent Sikh homeland, ‘Khalistan’, meaning land of the pure, was a reality and would mean an end of repression of the Sikhs in India.

Though terrorism continued in Punjab for over a decade after his death, the movement for a separate homeland got lost along the way. Terrorism in Punjab died a slow death - the assassination of Punjab chief minister Beant Singh, the man credited with bringing the state out of the phase of terrorism, in August 1995 being the last big event in the bloody trail.

The damage caused by Operation Bluestar has now been replaced by a renovated complex attracting hundreds of devout every day. The scars of 1984 seem to have been painted over from outside. But the agony within remains.

The complex itself, inside and outside, is bubbling with activity at all times. The roads to the complex, which once saw fear and curfew for days and months together, are now chock-a-block. Shops outside do good business and hundreds line up every day to pay obeisance. Many among them witnessed the events of 1984.

While the moderate Sikh leadership, including the bosses of the Sikh mini-parliament Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) who had been relegated to the sidelines during the peak of militancy in Punjab between 1981 and 1995, has control of the shrine, even radical thinking leaders seem to be now much more subdued in broaching subjects like ‘Khalistan’.

Radical organisations like the Dal Khalsa and Damdami Taksal and radical politicians like Simranjit Singh Mann, a former police officer who heads a breakaway faction of the Akali Dal and still espouses the cause of ‘Khalistan’, approach the separatist ideology with restraint.

Much of that is forced out of the fact that the majority population of Punjab, the country’s only Sikh-dominated state and home to one of the most progressive communities, has got over with the thinking of a separate Sikh state.

Even though posters, stickers and other accessories of Bhindranwale are back in vogue in the state, especially among the younger generation, some of whom were born after 1984, there are no signs of revival of the bloody phase of terrorism in the state. Those buying these accessories and putting them on their cars and homes seem to be doing it to honour the pride that they associate with Bhindranwale.

The moderate SGPC, which is controlled by the ruling Akali Dal, may have controversially installed a portrait of Bhindranwale in November 2007 inside the Sikh museum of the complex, but the demand of having a memorial for those who died in June 1984 has still not been fulfilled.

Since 2009 is the 25th anniversary of Operation Bluestar, the SGPC, earlier this year, launched a calendar with a photograph of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh religion, devastated in the army operation. The move was clearly aimed at keeping the issue alive after a quarter of a century.

The Akal Takht building, which faces the all-gold Harmandar Sahib, is now a gleaming white structure as hundreds throng here too to pay obeisance.

June 6 this year will be almost similar to observing the day in previous years. There will be functions and speeches. And of course, the radicals will raise pro-Khalistan slogans to show that they are still around.

Though the talk about healing of the wounds of the Sikh community in these 25 years will always remain a subjective matter in the present and the future, the community itself has moved ahead. Bhindranwale may be labelled a terrorist by government agencies saying that he waged war against the state, but his fight and death have certainly left an indelible impression in the minds of a large section of Sikhs that the community was the victim of state repression.

Many in the younger generation, who have only heard or read about him, hold him as a hero and take pride in his “sacrifice” for the Sikh cause. And addressing this sense of collective hurt is what the government and the prime minister still needs to address. Merely asking them to move on is not enough.

(Jaideep Sarin has covered Punjab for over 15 years. He can be contacted at jaideep.s@ians.in)

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