The government is both unable and unwilling to prevent radical organisations from exploiting the continuing anger over the storming of the Golden Temple
Every year when it happens, the country sits up with concern. In Punjab though, the death anniversaries of the assassins of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the attack on the Golden Temple, or those of General A.S. Vaidya — he was the Indian Army chief in 1984 and executed Operation Blue Star — are routinely observed at the temple. This, because nearly three decades after the operation to flush terrorists out of the holiest of Sikh shrines, there still exists a sharp difference between how the Sikh community and the rest of the country view these men.
This January 6 too, the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) held a quiet early morning prayer ceremony and offered siropas, or scarves, to the relatives of Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh, the two Delhi Police sepoys who shot Mrs Gandhi in 1984. It was their 24th death anniversary; both were hanged in 1989. A similar ceremony was held at Agwan, the village of Satwant Singh in Gurdaspur district. The Jathedar of Akal Takht was there at both places.
Three months ago, on October 9, the SGPC held a bhog and paid tributes to Harjinder Singh and Sukhdev Singh, who were sentenced and hanged for assassinating Gen. Vaidya. And each year on October 31, the death anniversary of Beant Singh, the third assassin of Mrs Gandhi who was shot dead soon after she was killed, is observed in a similar manner.
Honoured as quami shaheed or martyrs of the community, the portraits of the men, along with that of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, adorn the Sikh museum in the Golden Temple complex. “Just like the government honours its police and army officers and hands them bravery awards, we do it for our heroes,” says Manjit Singh Calcutta, who was the SGPC secretary for more than a decade, after Operation Blue Star.
Discomfiting as it must be, the Indian state is both unable and unwilling to respond to the public honour that the leaders of the Sikh community bestow on these men. The security establishment knows well that these men have gone down in the annals of Sikh history as heroes — who laid down their lives for the faith. But most in the Sikh community have a sneaking admiration for them, which is why no government has taken the risk of putting an end to these annual rituals in the Temple. The fear of a violent backlash holds the government back from any move against this. The unwritten policy is to ignore things and hope that with the passage of time, the community’s angst will wane. Though there are few takers for Khalistan in Punjab today, the anger over the attack on the Golden Temple is another thing.
“Till the mid-1990s, it was very difficult to hold these ceremonies because the government was opposed and used to either put us in jail a few days before it, or stop key people from entering the Golden Temple complex,” recalls Calcutta. Some years later, the crowds were more, and some sloganeering too did take place. At other times, they were muted, hurried ceremonies, like this year.
No leader of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) attended the two ceremonies honouring the assassins held in the last three months, and the SAD dominated SGPC sent a junior functionary to mark its attendance. The Akalis discreetly dissociated itself from the bhog ceremonies of the assassins this time, only because of the furore, even in Punjab, that resulted after it gave its approval to the construction of a memorial dedicated to those who died defending the Golden Temple complex. The foundation stone of the memorial was laid on June 6, observed as Ghallughara divas (Sikh holocaust day) last year, amid widespread consternation that it would give a fillip to the extremist fringe that had been pressing for its construction since many years. Instead of a conventional monument, it is coming up in the shape of an innocuous gurudwara, which no one can object to.
The SAD has traditionally drawn strength from its Sikh religious moorings but of late has tried to adopt a more inclusive image, reaching out to the Hindus and other communities in Punjab. Its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a tightrope walk that compels it to cave into hardliners within the Sikh constituency. It is no secret that the SAD relied on the radical organisations for support during the SGPC elections in 2010.
“By appeasing the hardliners for political gains, the Akalis are playing with fire,” says Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, who authored the SGPC white paper on Operation Blue Star.
Radical organisations are playing on the still strong passions over Operation Blue Star to promote the larger agenda for a separate Sikh nation of Khalistan. Last August, the Dal Khalsa a militant outfit from 1982 to 1994, which has been spearheading the memorial project, held a prayer service for Dilawar Singh, the human bomb who killed Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh in 1995. The Dal Khalsa also released a directory of 220 “martyrs” killed by the Army during Operation Blue Star. The directory carries a message from Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, in which he has written that Sikhs and Kashmiris have been brought together because of their “suffering at the hands of a common oppressor.”
Two weeks ago the State’s Director General of Police, Sumedh Singh Saini, warned that intelligence from the “highest quarters” indicated that there was a strong move to destabilise the State. Ominously, there is a growing cult around the militants Bhindranwale and Rajoana who are emerging as religious icons for sections of the youth. Stickers and posters of them can be seen on cars, T-shirts and at village corners. These may be straws in the wind, but there is no telling where they will settle.