Punjab is seeing the emergence of a new cult of the revanchist preacher

He has returned, as the faithful always claimed he would: not, perhaps, as his iconographers imagined — riding a white horse at the head of an army — but as a simulacrum that peers out of street-corner stalls and online stores. For a modest $15.99, Los Angeles residents can buy t-shirts bearing the unsmiling visage of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, “the most determined, charismatic and valiant great General of the 20th century.” In Ludhiana, the same t-shirts sell for Rs 200. Posters go for Rs 50, possibly less if one bargains.

It is 30 years (on June 3) since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to end Mr. Bhindranwale’s reign of fear inside the Golden Temple — setting off a tide of blood that coloured an entire decade.

For the generation that lived through those years, those events have been pushed to the margins of memory, having little bearing on politics today. The cult of Mr. Bhindranwale, though, is undergoing a bizarre revival. YouTube is awash with home-made music videos eulogising Ms. Gandhi’s assassins: one rendition, possibly comprehensible only to semiologists and adolescent males, features bodybuilders with turbans and a promise that Khalistan police officers will be equipped with BMW sports cars. In another Khalistan anthem, images of Ms. Gandhi’s assassins are followed by advertisements seeking Sikh models.

The new cult of Khalistan isn’t about politics or religion; it is enmeshed, instead, with anxieties about masculinity and agency born of a State that is mired in a profound cultural dysfunction.

Remembering Bluestar

It has been two years now since the five high priests of the Sikh faith unveiled the foundation of a memorial to Mr. Bhindranwale and the terrorists who died with him. When built, the three-floor monument will be positioned on a 30 square foot plot that lies between the sanctum sanctorum, the Harimandir Sahib, and the Akal Takht, the supreme seat of the faith’s temporal authority. For generations of believers to come, the memorial will be the principal source of historical knowledge on men who placed the assault rifle at the centre of their faith.

“Sikhs have paid for this most precious piece of earth with their blood,”said Tarlochan Singh, the only son of Bhai Amrik Singh, who died alongside Mr. Bhindranwale.

There were Sikhs on the other side of the guns, too. Late in the evening of June 3, 1984, troops under the command of Lieutenant-General K.S. Brar surrounded the complex. Ever since April 1983, when top police officer A.S. Atwal was assassinated, Ms. Gandhi had contemplated military action against Mr. Bhindranwale — a man the Congress party had once patronised in an effort to marginalise its right wing rival, the Shiromani Akali Dal. Fearing the consequences of attacking a place of worship, though, Ms. Gandhi held back.

Meanwhile, from inside the temple, Mr. Bhindranwale continued unleashing assassins against political rivals. K.P.S. Gill, Punjab’s former Director General of Police, has said that Mr. Bhindranwale’s hit squads killed 298 people between January 1, 1984 and June 3, 1984 — the majority of them Sikh. The British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, recently declassified documents show, was consulted on plans to evict the terrorists, but no workable scheme emerged from the discussions.

General Brar’s troops, we know from his own authoritative book, arrived in Amritsar unprepared. “The only plans we had were drawn up on the fly,” recalls Brigadier Israr Khan. “Major Jasbir Singh Raina, one of my officers, infiltrated the temple dressed as a pilgrim, scouting out hardened defences inside the temple on June 2, just one day before operations to clear the complex began.” Later, Brigadier Khan remembers, his troops broke open the shutters of stores near the Golden Temple, looking for photographs meant for pilgrims in order to develop operations maps.

It went horribly wrong. Prepared by former Indian Army officer Major-General Shahbeg Singh, a decorated hero of the Bangladesh war, the temple’s defences were robust. The attack, which began on the evening of June 4, 1984, was soon bogged down. The next morning, when troops attacked from three sides, they were pinned down by carefully-sited machine-gun nests. General Brar’s troops eventually called in armour. On the morning of June 7, Vijayanta tanks opened fire with 105 millimetre high-explosive shells at the Akal Takht.

The Indian Army says 492 civilians were killed in Operation Bluestar, 136 soldiers were killed, and 220 injured. There is a welter of other estimates of varying authority, involving numbers of zeros added to the end of the official numbers. There are memorials to mark the assassination of Ms. Gandhi and the anti-Sikh pogrom that claimed thousands of lives in Delhi and other cities in 1984. There are none for the 21,631 people, 11,783 of whom were civilians, who died in the war that followed.

Little of this lives in the mass culture of Punjab today. There is little quality literature, almost no art and not a single serious historical film to transmit the lessons of those years to a new generation. It is, for the most part, as if the carnage-like Partition before it never happened. Though politicians from the Shiromani Akali Dal have periodically tried to capitalise on the memories of 1984, the issue has never gained significant political traction. Figures like Isher Singh, Mr. Bhindranwale’s son, have tried to rebuild his memory, but to little effect.

The cult of Mr. Bhindranwale, though, is growing, and in that cult lie some lessons.

A changed State

Punjab has changed beyond recognition in the three decades since Operation Bluestar. Its young people face enormous challenges. The State is relatively affluent, but jobs are hard to come by. Few opportunities exist to make a meaningful living off the land, and poor political leadership has ensured that the State’s industrialisation has been retarded. The State has among the highest levels of drug addiction: by some estimates, every third male student is a substance abuser. The cult of Mr. Bhidranwale offers young people an icon who represents their craving for agency and their rage against authority, which the political system cannot accommodate.

In one interview, the historian G.S. Dhillon perceptively attributed the crisis to the “lack of genuine heroes in Punjab today.” For a generation which never saw the 1980s, Dr. Dhillon argued, the idea of a violent anti-establishment hero was seductive, not his actual ideology. It is no coincidence that the Aam Aadmi Party did so well in Punjab, while failing dismally elsewhere.

For young Sikhs in the diaspora, often at the receiving end of racism, the idea of a homeland where they can belong also continues to seduce — just as it did their parents in the 1970s and 1980s when funding from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States gave birth to the Khalistan movement and sustained it long after its death in Punjab.

In a trash yard somewhere in the U.S., a young man pushes up his spectacles, flexes his less-than-impressive biceps, and fires a Kalashnikov assault rifle to the lilting sounds of a Khalistan anthem. “That was loud,” says a voice off-camera in the YouTube video recording the moment.

“Damn.”

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

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