Haunting legacy

For the ruling Akali Dal, Bhindranwale even as a symbol epitomises competition. SARABJIT PANDHER on the political churning in Punjab.

WHILE RECENT events in Punjab indicate that militancy has come full circle, an absence of violence does not necessarily mean the re-establishment of everlasting peace. Conditions and symbols still exist on the basis of which right wing elements could attempt expression.

It would be improper to infer from the recent ``arrest'' of a top terrorist, Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, and the quest of the Khalistani protagonist, Dr. Jagjit Singh Chohan, to return home, that the separatists have given up. However, they seem to have realised, from the reaction of the people, that violence may not be an appropriate weapon to achieve their ``goal''.

While analysing these subtle changes in the political arena, it is also vital to assess the developments related to the much- debated ``Sikh identity'' and the hurt inflicted to the ``Sikh psyche''.

These were highlighted by the controversy over the whereabouts of the firebrand militant leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, which has become an annual feature associated with the observance of the anniversary of ``Operation Bluestar'' in the first week of June. But this year, it generated more heat.

While the front-running political parties, especially the main factions of the Akali Dal, preferred a silence on the issue, the Akal Takht Jathedar, Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, directed the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to constitute a ``fact-finding'' committee.

On the other hand, the Damdami Taksal, continued with its claim that Bhindranwale was alive and in high spirits, while some radical outfits wanted him declared a martyr.

What does Bhindranwale symbolise for the different interest groups? For the Taksal, which he headed at the time of the Army action, he was a religious reformer who took up the challenge of ``protecting'' the Sikh identity against modernisation.

It is in the Taksal's interest to carry on with the belief that he is alive, as it wants to carry on with this struggle. However, the outfit is yet to have another leader of the stature of Bhindranwale, who created a ``mass movement'' of baptising Sikhs - the youth gave up apostasy and took pride in sporting visible symbols of their faith.

For the radicals and the pro-Khalistan elements, Bhindranwale politicised the religious reform process; and they would like to use this symbolism to propagate the issue of Sikh identity as a struggle for a separate and autonomous political entity. Nearly 15 such organisations held a prayer meeting in a courtyard facing the Akal Takht.

These elements hope that by projecting Bhindranwale as a ``martyr of the Sikh nation'', they could create an opportunity to build a movement based on revenge. In Punjab, where sacrifice is a great mobilising factor, it may not be tough to cash in on such sentiments.

The silence of the ruling and other Akali factions can be explained in that for them Bhindranwale even as a symbol epitomises political competition. As they can neither own nor oppose his legacy, the sooner Bhindranwale is erased from public memory, the better.

But the Chief Minister, Mr. Parkash Singh Badal, adopted a slightly different tactic. He remained silent despite having used the issue of Operation Bluestar in the Majitha byelections and having passed a resolution to condemn it in the previous session of the State Assembly. His silence was more for tactical reasons than positional.

Interestingly, a faction of the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) owing allegiance to the ruling party raised ``spirited'' slogans in favour of Bhindranwale at the anniversary, just preceding the function by the radicals.

Apparently, Mr. Badal seems to be pursuing an agenda to emerge as the undisputed leader of the Sikh spectrum. With elections round the corner, Mr. Badal can ill-afford to annoy the urban Hindu voters, while he may not like the hardliners to unite into a political force and create fissures among rural Sikh voters, who are his mainstay.

Though a considerable section of the Sikh community may not find it difficult to accept Bhindranwale as a ``martyr'', it may not be swayed to either side by the ongoing controversy between the radicals and the Taksal. Meanwhile, observers are of the opinion that Bhindranwale as a symbol cannot be ignored.

However, as long as the people are interested in peace and in accelerating the development process, the symbolism around Bhindranwale may not find major expression.

This was evident from the fact that the number of devotees to the Golden Temple increased after the various ceremonies for observing the anniversary were over.