Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a charismatic Sikh preacher, who became a symbol of militant religious fundamentalism and anti-establishment fervour in the early 1980s — but whose committed band of followers held him in high regard — was born a few months before India’s independence. His death on 6 June 1984 during the Indian army’s storming of the Golden Temple — the Sikhs’ holiest shrine — marked a bloody end to a sordid episode in India’s history.
But the abyss which Punjab found itself in during those fateful days would only get deeper and swallow among its many victims the woman who ordered troops into the Golden Temple — Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Bhindranwale was born in a village in Punjab’s Moga district in a farmer’s family on 2 June 1947, one of several siblings.
Towards the latter part of his teenage years he joined a Sikh religious school in Moga, the Damdami Taksal. When the head of the Taksal died in an accident, Bhindranwale, a favourite student, took over the reins. He later married Pritam Kaur, who was from Bilaspur. The couple had two sons. He, however, left his family to devote himself to the life of a preacher.
Describing Bhindranwale, the eminent historian Ramachandhra Guha writes in his book India after Gandhi: “His was an impressive presence: over six feet tall, slim and athletic, with probing eyes and dressed in a long blue robe. He was an effective and even inspiring preacher, with a deep knowledge of the Sikh scriptures. He claimed the Sikhs ‘were slaves in independent India’, discriminated against by the Hindus. Bhindranwale wanted the Sikhs to purify themselves and return to the fundamentals of their faith.”
The Punjab ‘problem’
The modern Indian state of Punjab came into being in 1966. Political Sikh groups like the Akalis were unhappy with certain aspects of the new statehood, among these the sharing of the capital Chandigarh with Haryana and control of river waters. In 1973 the Akali Dal passed what came to be known as the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which was essentially a list of demands addressed to New Delhi. But in the following years there was not much movement on the demands. Subsequently, there was great political mobilisation in Punjab leading to the Congress’ defeat at the hands of the Akali Dal in the 1977 elections.
By then Bhindranwale had acquired a reputation for being an orthodox but charismatic preacher, and a dedicated following in rural pockets of the state.
According to some accounts, the Congress leadership, in its wisdom, tried to divide the Akalis’ Sikh base by propping up Bhindranwale — thus bringing him to the centrestage of Punjab’s politics. Initially he played along, but not for long. Bhindranwale had plans of his own.
The security and law and order situation in Punjab took a turn for the worse. In 1978 following an angry speech by Bhindranwale, his supporters clashed with a procession of Nirankaris, a Sikh sect. Fifteen people were killed in the clashes. By 1980, Bhindranwale had made a part of the Golden Temple his base. He would address his followers, many of them armed, from here. Incidentally, another part of the temple was occupied by the Akali Dal leader Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal, who would reiterate the demands of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution.
After 1980 Punjab was rocked by assassinations of important figures — Sikhs and Hindus — known to be unfavourable to Bhindranwale’s cause. The Nirankari leader Gurcharan Singh and Lala Jagat Narain, a prominent newspaper editor who had consistently written against Bhindranwale’s brand of politics, were among those killed. Following Narain’s murder, the authorities set out to arrest Bhindranwale but then hesitated. Finally, he was arrested, only to be released a few weeks later for lack of evidence. Some experts believe that his release from prison turned him into a hero of sorts, and from then on there was no looking back for him. An alarmed Congress realised too late in the day that Bhindranwale’s demands were much more extreme than the Akalis’.
There were more targeted assassinations, allegedly carried out by Bhindranwale’s men, including that of A.S. Atwal, a Sikh police officer who was brazenly shot outside the Golden Temple in April 1983. Towards the end of that year, Bhindranwale shifted to the Akal Takht, one of the most sacred sections of the Golden Temple complex. As the situation in Punjab reached boiling point, Bhindranwale’s men started piling up arms and ammunition inside the temple. Helping them in the fortification was former major general Shubeg Singh, now allied to Bhindranwale’s cause. Meanwhile, in a top-secret plan known only to her inner circle, Indira Gandhi had asked the army to prepare for a possible operation to flush out Bhindranwale and his men from the Golden Temple. It was given the name of Operation Blue Star.
On 30 May 1984, Indian troops started surrounding Amritsar. The city was placed under all-night curfew. On the night of 3 June, the prime minister in an address to the nation said: “The Punjab is uppermost in all our minds. The whole country is deeply concerned. The matter has been discussed and spoken about time and again. Yet an impression has been created that it is not being dealt with.”
In the late afternoon of 5 June, army personnel called upon armed men inside the Golden Temple to surrender and for the civilians to come out of the premises. While more than a hundred civilians stepped out, no Bhindranwale supporter followed suit.
The troops started moving in. First, they focussed on the part of the Golden Temple where Akali leaders such as Longowal were holed up. He and others were brought out. But incessant firing by Bhindranwale’s men, who were well entrenched, claimed dozens of security forces lives.
The next morning the troops first tried to force their way into the compound, but were repulsed by the gunmen. Finally — in a move which continues to be extremely controversial — Indian army tanks rolled in and directly fired at the Akal Takht, the hiding place of Bhindranwale and his most ardent followers. Operation Blue Star was over by the night of 6 June. Bhindranwale’s body was recovered soon after.
Indira Gandhi had been hoping that the military operation would use minimum force and inflict as little damage on the temple as possible. Tragically, that was not the case. While the exact toll has been a matter of debate, estimates suggest that besides Bhindranwale and his men, more than a thousand civilians and at least 500 Indian troops died in Operation Blue Star. And the Golden Temple was severely damaged.
More damagingly, the image of tanks firing on the place dearest to the Sikh community, left a gaping hole in the Sikh psyche. Punjab — and India — would pay a steep price for years to come. It was only after the mid-1990s that Punjab — ravaged by militancy and the sadly inevitable strong response by the state — slowly started coming out of its traumatic past.
As for Bhindranwale, though he is remembered by large sections of popular opinion in the rest of India as everything from a fanatic to a militant and terrorist, in some parts of Punjab he is still looked upon with affection.
Looking back at his legacy, the senior journalist Chandan Mitra wrote in December 2011 in India Today magazine: “Bhindranwale brought out the worst in us. He was gone by the mid-1980s, but his legacy lived long enough to damage the fabric of India’s evolving nationhood. Terrorist killings don’t startle us anymore. We have become sufficiently blasé to say that unless it’s in double digits, such mass murders don’t merit Page 1 treatment in newspapers. Bhindranwale shook India out of its comfortable somnolence that had been merely jolted a few years earlier by the Emergency.”
Also on this day:
1929 — Sunil Dutt, leading Indian film actor and MP, was born
1970 — Sunil Joshi, Indian cricketer, was born
1973 — Nikhil Chinapa, Indian video jockey and TV presenter, was born