History is simple. It is a story of friends and enemies. Conflict is history’s main protagonist, with politics writing the script. This is an immutable truth, from pre-Biblical wars to modern-day strife. In all folklore, which forms the romantic sediment of long-forgotten wars, destroyed races, fallen nations and vanished civilisations that is the essence of humanity, the perennial hero is the warrior who meets a martyr’s death. The difference between a martyr and a victim is that the former dies for the sake of the latter. Often, like in the case of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, this division is blurred by politics and patriotism.
Two incidents have brought the Sikh gestalt into the public eye. The first was Rahul Gandhi’s ambivalent response during a television interview to a question about the 1984 riots, which happened after Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards soon after Operation Bluestar. The second was the surfacing of declassified documents about Indira seeking a British military adviser’s help to tackle the Golden Temple problem. If Rahul’s response wasn’t bad enough, the Sikh community is enraged that a foreign power’s involvement was sought to control a religious, but domestic, crisis. Especially when you consider that 1,557 of the 2,175 Indians (75 per cent) who died fighting British rule were Sikhs. Out of 2,646 imprisoned in the infamous island prison in the Andamans for life, Sikhs constituted 2,147 (80 per cent). Of the 127 Indians hanged during the freedom struggle, 92 (80 per cent) were Sikhs. So were 70 per cent of Punjabis arrested during the freedom movement.
Sikhism is a religion born out of sacrifice; their gurus exemplify great humanism and patriotism. The efforts of the Congress to come of age politically were helped in no small amount by this community fighting the British. Ironically, the same British Army— whose General Dyer had ordered 1,650 rounds to be fired into a mainly-Sikh crowd that had gathered in peaceful protest in Jallianwallah Bagh, Amritsar, in April 1919—was called in to advise Indian forces 68 years later on how to attack the Golden Temple.
The Congress is a habitual victim of its own sectarian politics. Sanjay Gandhi created Bhindranwale to counter the Akali Dal, which had defeated the Giani Zail Singh government in the 1977 Punjab Assembly polls. “We gave him money off and on, but never expected him to be a terrorist,” recalled a Sanjay acolyte-turned powerful Congress minister in Kuldip Nayar’s account of the insurgency. Congress leaders were even part of the group that drafted the Anandpur Sahib resolution—which the Indira government later saw as an instrument of secession—that said “in Punjab and other states, the Centre’s interference would be restricted to defence, foreign relations, currency, and general communications”, and “Punjab and other states contribute to central funds in proportion to their representation in Parliament” for these departments. By then Bhindranwale had realised that his popularity among the Sikh youth had soared, and the evangelist politician in him came to fore. Yet he remained ambivalent on Khalistan—‘if the Sikhs get it, they won’t reject it’ was his stand, leaving it to the “Queen of India” to decide. “Indira should tell us whether she wants to keep us in Hindustan or not. We like to live together, we like to live in India,” academic Ranbir S Sandhu quotes the militant leader in a book. As the octaves of sectarian politics rose in the fight between Akalis and Congress, Bhindranwale became the icon of a separate Sikh nation— a spiritual revival of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s mighty empire that straddled three nations. This vision had tragic consequences—martyrdom for one man and thousands of victims in 1984. Through this disastrous political engineering, the Congress too got its first martyr—Indira Gandhi. For the party to admit its involvement in the 1984 Sikh pogroms would be to deny her sainthood.
Martyrs are the conscience-keepers of a nation. It’s time to acknowledge that those who died in the 1984 riots were martyrs whose memory puts a democracy to shame, and not just victims of a great tree falling.