Every year I wait with bated breath for the 7th of June to arrive. For as long as I have known, this day marks the decline in conversation, remembrance and discourse of the Indian invasion of Darbar Sahib, Amritsar in 1984. It has almost become a bi-annual ritual (the other occasion falling in November to mark the Genocide instigated in Delhi) and one that follows from a mere seven preceding days of discussion. Every year I hope that the saying ‘never forget 84’ which passes through the lips of millions will be taken to heart and provide the catalyst for a way forward in which Sikhs, Punjabis and Indians alike can usher in solutions to problems that have only gotten worse in the time since. For many years I have encountered disappointment as the events of 1984 increasingly become like their proverbial namesake, the churasi-lakh*: misunderstood and misrepresented. Even today there only seems to be opportune sloganeering and political jostling from almost all sections of Sikh leadership, whilst it can only be concluded that those whom they lead take solace in living without thinking for themselves. But none of this should come as a surprise. Any civilised society is directed, wittingly or unwittingly, by its intellectual class – those who inspire through cultural pursuits, academic research and social servitude. The Punjab and Sikhs across the globe have been denied such personalities for the last thirty years; men and women who otherwise forged paths anew and harnessed reason where chaos pervaded, have been exterminated in a campaign to remove the learned. What is more, this is not a happening of our past, but of our present and hastens to be of our future too.
A multitude of events over decades in South Asia culminated in the battle of Amritsar in June 1984. Following the partition of the Punjab, social upheaval and Machiavellian manoeuvring transcended on both sides of the border. But it was on the Indian side where the bread-basket of the nation had the greatest claim to feel aggrieved. Language, identity and investment policies had left Punjabis feeling isolated, but it was ecological and environmental decisions which would see them challenge the authority of the State. River waters were redirected, multi-national corporations introduced the covertly diabolical Green Revolution and territory was Unionised including the nominated Punjabi capital Chandigarh. That these issues were ultimately at the heart of what led to the Army invading Darbar Sahib should surely be the basis of the dialogue that flows from 1984. But it is not. That these issues remain as they were 30 years ago (or worse), with no advancement to the benefit of Punjab or its people should surely be our focus when we speak of the Punjab today or when a Sikh considers the place of their ideological origins. It is not. Why is this? For me the overriding factor has been the diminishing of our scholars and thinkers, our playwrights and poets, our authors and scientists. For 30 years, an educated person in Punjab has been treated as a potential threat and unsurprisingly Universities and colleges have suffered the greatest loss. Those who were not made to disappear, migrated of their own accord, were resigned to a life of ignominy or handed themselves over to do the bidding of the State. Outside of Punjab it has been a similar story where Sikhs who speak with eloquence and rationale have more often than not been threatened, discredited or bought.
The Government codename for the invasion of Darbar Sahib is widely known and referenced. But less is known of the sister to Operation Bluestar, an action codenamed Woodrose. In fact so little is known about Woodrose that we can’t be certain of what it entailed, although most writers are of the consensus that it involved Bluestar-type incursions into major-Gurdware and institutions across the Punjab and India. Launching simultaneously in June, the Armed forces wanted to prevent other citizens from making their way to Amritsar which they did with preventative action. There were numerous Sikh leaders and activists outside of Amritsar whom had been identified and would come to meet a similar fate as their brethren in the besieged complex. But more than all this, Woodrose is intimated to have continued for months that followed and provided cover for the attack on intellectuals. By ridding society of these people and denigrating the means of public discourse and civic engagement, the vacuum for any meaning to what was happening was left wide open to be filled with propaganda. The polarising opinions that we see of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale have been engineered in this way to deflect attention from the real issues at hand. He has been made into a scapegoat, reviled by those who have bought into the propaganda and un-welcomingly revered by others who make an empty obeisance to his cause. Even a rudimentary knowledge of Sant Jarnail Singh through his speeches and an analysis of his proven deeds shows him to be a man of moral character and the highest principle. His dedication was to the problems that faced the Punjab and the Sikh Panth, and he worked tirelessly toward resolution. Today, those who besmirch his name provide fodder for the agonising demise of the land of the five rivers, whilst those who hide behind his name but refrain from engaging in resolutions stoke the fire that burns his reputation.
It annoys me that what holds us back from readdressing the real issues at hand are simple myths that could and should be dispelled with ease. Time and again the question is asked, ‘what was Sant Bhindranwale doing in the complex?’ To answer this, one need look no further than the Dharam Yudh morcha of the early 1980s led by the Shiromani Akali Dal. When Sant Jarnail Singh merged his agitation (encouraging Sikhs to refrain from intoxicants) with that of the leading Sikh political party, he became one of a few men who was leading the Panth in its cause to enact the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Those leading the campaign alongside him were based within the complex at Amritsar which has been a customary base of operations for the custodians of the Sikh people for centuries. His arrival at Amritsar in 1982 was at the invitation of the President of the Akalis himself, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, and was made with the complicity of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) who control the complex – then under the stewardship of Gurcharan Singh Tohra. As head of the Dam Dami Taksal, the premier Sikh seminary, Sant Jarnail Singh was already widely known of, but as a leading figure in the Dharam Yudh morcha his name came to be known internationally and with it came the responsibility and workload that required him to remain in close proximity to his peers in Amritsar.
His residence in the complex is all too often coloured by journalists and commentators who should know better as being of a fugitive cowering behind the golden walls of Harimandir Sahib or the lofty chambers of the Akal Takht Sahib, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. He remained until the early days of June 1984 in public accommodation within the broader complex, accommodation that is available to all who visit. More importantly he walked freely around the buildings in full sight of all and sundry. The eminent scholar Gurtej Singh recalls that on an occasion when he went to visit Sant Jarnail Singh, they met on a rooftop from where he could clearly see into the eyes of Indian Police Officers posted on two separate towers nearby with their guns aimed at the Darbar Sahib, they were that close! He rightly postulates that were Sant Jarnail Singh the target for an Indian invasion into Amritsar, they had ample opportunity to remove him without making such an expensive and costly move.
The question of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s residency is almost always followed in quick succession by that of why he fortified the complex. Although I have mellowed with age, I still find this question relatively intolerable from those who claim to be knowledgeable about the Sikh way of life. The Guru Granth Sahib holds court much in the way that a ruler does, be that a Chief, a Monarch or an elected official and as anyone who has ever visited a Gurdwara can attest, the throne of the Guru is adorned with protective weapons just as bodyguards standby to protect their rulers. However, these weapons protect not a physical authority, but the treatise which it contains; Guru Nanak was the greatest revolutionary to have ever graced the soil of South Asia and his concept of justice on Earth and freedom from oppression was grounded in the ability of a society to stand up for itself. It is on this basis that the Amritsar complex is walled by fortresses and towers used in times of defence over the last three hundred years – areas that required little fortification at a foundation level, more bringing into a modern era of protecting against weapons of mass destruction. The very notion that the Darbar Sahib is some sort of religious sanctuary where Sikh principles are exempt and arms should not be tolerated is belied by the sheer presence of the ever-ready Khalsa who welcome the whole World, regardless of caste, race or religion to its four doors each day.
That being said, there is a more pertinent answer to the question posed. Sant Jarnail Singh was not responsible for the fortification of the Darbar Sahib, nor was he solely responsible for the procurement of arms that reached Amritsar before the June invasion. In December 1982 and January 1983, two separate meetings were held at Darbar Sahib at the behest of the Shiromani Akali Dal. The first invited ex-servicemen and officers of whom some 10,000 responded, whilst the second extended an invitation to a wide range of Sikh intelligentsia. It was following these two meetings and the escalation of events at the Asian Games held in Delhi that the fortification of the Amritsar complex began to emerge. Sant Jarnail Singh, as a leader of the morcha, and it should be noted a proud servant of the Panth that had comprised these meetings, used his acumen to do what he could alongside his fellow Sikhs, but how this transpires into the annihilative portrait depicted of him alone is a mark of the successful propaganda that has been waged both at the time and since. It is now incontrovertible that Indian Armed forces had built a replica of the complex away from prying eyes in the hills of Chakrata-Mussoorie over a year earlier and there is evidence to suggest that this had become known within Sikh intelligence circles, which would explain the decision to improve defences for an invasion that was inevitable.
The 7th of June has arrived and ordinarily I await the re-emergence from hibernation of the masses in late October. But my bated breath has begun to steady and I have cause to see that discussion of the very real problems and their solutions might arise all year round as a small but promising new breed of intellectuals have tentatively held their heads above water. It is neither important nor pertinent to name such characters, all who have conducted their own research, drawn their own conclusions and opted to join the path less trodden, but exist they do which is a cause for celebration. The long arm of the oppressor has shirked the collar of so many leading Sikhs that for 20 years at least they have controlled the output of those who dare to question beyond the annual remit of demonstrative gatherings. But there is hope in this new global village shown by those who are drawing road maps of how these events are of importance to them and in what way they fit into their lives. Some have begun to write, whilst others think and create; all avidly read. It is a breath of fresh air from that which we have seen in the years gone by. The forced disappearance of Punjabi intellectuals is the unspoken war that has been fought since Indian Armed forces invaded Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. That orchestrated campaign by those in power to permanently silence key thinkers has denied our society of those who might have helped it to advance. Men who called themselves Sikhs sat alongside others who merely don the garb, to abduct targeted people as they walked in broad daylight. It must be shocking to witness, let alone endure. We might never know what Woodrose entailed. Perhaps a growing class of intellectuals might find out.
*Churasi-lakh is a reference to the cycle of 8.4 million lifetimes from which emancipation is an aim of the Sikh.