This year we are commemorating the 31st anniversary of the massacre of Sikhs at the hands of the Indian state who gave the event the code name of Operation Blue Star. A lot has been written in India and abroad about that crucial episode of Sikh history. A lot of blood has also been shed after that time. The analysis of embedded intellectuals and journalists is focused around the rational reasons of this phenomenon – it is portrayed as the personal conflict of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Indira Gandhi. I think this is a very cheap analysis of that historical phenomena. As Kirpal Singh Dhillon has said, the Indian state and its actors such as politicians, intelligence agencies, journalists and historians do not accept even today that there was and is a Sikh problem in Punjab. According to Dhillon they are doing so deliberately to undermine the genuine case of the Sikhs.
Although this historical event has become a serious part of Sikh psyche and memory, it has not yet become a part of intellectual Sikh historiography. There are very serious and intellectual questions which need to be addressed while we are commemorating the 31st anniversary of the 1984 phenomena. The questions are as the academic Anthony D Smith put them: why is it that so many people remain deeply attached to their ethnic communities and nations? Why do the myths, memories and symbols of a nation command such widespread loyalty and devotion? And why are so many people prepared to make considerable sacrifices even of life and limb, for their nations and cultures?
Operation Blue Star should be analysed on these historical lines to feel and understand the deep rooted attachment of Sikhs with their religious heroes, with the myths and memories of their shared values, and with the attachment to their homeland. A lot of intellectual work has been done globally in this field that we can use to interpret the Sikh story of 1984. Walker Connor, Elie Kedourie, John Armstrong, Hugh Seton-Watson, and the previously quoted Anthony D Smith are some of the prominent historians who have tried to tear apart the State’s version of historical events. According to Smith, to trace the roots of these kinds of national and cultural conflicts, we must trace the origins and formations of nations, as well as their possible future course, as nations embody shared memories, traditions and the hopes of the population. A central theme of historical ethno-symbolism is the relationship of shared memories to collective cultural identities. Ethno-symbolism claims that most nations, including the very earliest, were based on ethnic ties and sentiments and on popular ethnic traditions, which have provided the cultural resources for later nation formation.
In this process names, symbols, languages, customs, territories, rituals and vernacular texts play an important role in the nation building of an ethnic minority. The common name Singh and Kaur given to us by Guru Gobind Singh Ji is a very important part of Sikh nation building; our different and sacred symbols of Panj kakaars, the Nishan Sahib, langar, nagara, dastar, Sikh bol (responsive utterances) Sat Sri Akal and Waheguru ji ki Fateh are vital to Sikh identity. Different languages and rituals make Sikhs a distinct nation with the Sri Guru Granth Sahib there as the vernacular text of this Sikh nation.
Smith tried to explore the historical aspects of conflict and social consciousness. He stressed upon the ‘Myth of Ethnic Descent’ which provides an eagerness to know who we are and from where and whence we came. No national movement and no persisting ethnic identity can emerge without this bedrock of shared meanings and ideals. These strengthen the potentialities of group identities and collective action. No aspirant ethnic group can be without its myth of descent, if it is to secure any recognition from competitors. Since the late eighteenth century, spokesmen for every ethnic community have made frequent recourse to their ancestry and histories in the struggle for recognition, rights and independence. In this historical analysis of Smith’s we can assess the role of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He regularly tried to explore and interpret the uniqueness of Sikh descent and the responsibility of Sikhs in the modern era to attain their recognition, rights and independence. He tried to inject the revolutionary element by taking pride in Sikh history and the sacredness of the collective identity of Sikhs.
Myths of the heroic age and heroes provide models of virtuous conduct, their deeds of valour inspire faith and courage in their oppressed and decadent descendants. The age in which they flourished is the great age of liberation from foreign yoke. After locating ethnic origin and historical golden ages, ethnic communities seek pride in their possession or loss of homeland. As Smith puts it, Ethnics also possess common codes and shared symbols and myths of common descent from a putative ancestor. These codes, symbols and myths and the associated historical memories of common past experiences, albeit selectively remembered, are the main features of collective cultural identities in most societies; and they serve to differentiate ethnic groups from other types of human groups and social bonds.
With this definition of the uniqueness of ethnic identities we can understand the root cause of the conflict between Sikhs and the Indian state. The latter is dominated by the majority Hindu community and so the symbols and codes of the State coincide with Hindu practices. The dominant majority tries and has tried to impose its culture and practice on the Sikhs. Thus the Sikh struggle should be viewed not from the myopic vision of the Indian States’ law and order problem, but as the reactions of an identity under threat.
One of the most important analyses of these ideological conflicts is defined by Smith with the term ‘Sacred Territories’. This relates to historic territories and more specifically an ancestral homeland. In general, a specific geographical area or space becomes associated with a particular collective, in the eyes of its members and of those around, in so far as it provides the location and arena for, and is felt to contribute uniquely to, key moments or turning points in the past experiences of the collective. The mountains, rivers, lakes and forests of a particular area have afforded a special place and provided the scene of historic events – battles, treaties, revelations, oaths, shrines, migrations and so on. The relationship between people and the land is the product of continual myth making and the recitation of shared memories. Through the elaboration of folktales and legends and the performance of rituals and ceremonies, successive generations are reminded of various periods of their ethnic histories, and above all of their golden ages.
So according to Smith the function of the ideal of a golden age is the sense of regeneration which it stimulates. Just as ‘our ancestors’ created a great culture or civilization, so surely can ‘we’. The heroic acts of our forefathers fill us with a sense of dignity and stimulates the need for freedom. As G Mosse and A Hertzberg conclude, the ancestral land also links memory to destiny. For it is in the reborn land, the homeland which is renewed, that national regeneration takes place. The sacred land of our ancestors is also the promised land of our descendants and posterity. It is only on our ‘native soil’ that we can realize ourselves, that the nation can become truly free again. Hence the liberation of the land from oppressors is not simply a political or economic necessity; it is demanded by a unique history that requires fulfilment in a glorious destiny through the rebirth of a community on its own terrain. These are some ideological aspects of Sikh conflict with the Indian state. It was not the lonely act of 1984 that caused this conflict to erupt as is so often mistakenly put; it has many historical and ideological leanings which need to be debated and interpreted. While commemorating the 31st anniversary, we have to analyse the events of 1984 from ideological aspects, not from mere political ones.