The Return of Bhindranwale

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How Punjab’s politicians and hard-line outfits collaborated in resurrecting the Khalistani chieftain.

IN June 2012, just days after the SGPC (Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee) unveiled the foundation stone of what is now a grand cenotaph to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers, Lt Gen Kuldip Singh Brar, the man who led the controversial June 1984 assault on Amritsar’s Golden Temple, made this observation: “We don’t have a national war memorial to honour fallen Army men and here we have a memorial being built to honour criminals and militants.”

A year and three decades since the Khalistani chieftain was gunned down – a direct hit to his left temple according to soldiers who saw him dead – Bhindranwale lives on in public memory.

The events in Jammu, the violence, the tragic death of bystander Jagjit Singh (he was reportedly out to get medicines for his ailing grandfather) and the near-fatal injuries to three J&K Police personnel, are testimony to this.

And quite like General Brar said, the 136 soldiers who fell rescuing Sikhism’s holiest shrine are lost in the amnesiac fog of popular recall. And no one really seems to care.

Keeping the myth of Bhindranwale alive has central to a concerted campaign. The Dal Khalsa, an overground separatist Sikh outfit whose Amritsar headquarters – Freedom House – was surrounded by police fearing a spill-over from Jammu on June 6, has worked overtime to bring things to their present pass.

Proscribed as a separatist, militant group from 1982-94, the Dal Khalsa staged an overground revival on August 6, 1998 professing to employ political means to achieve Khalistan.

Spearheaded by its former militant general secretary Kanwarpal Singh, used generous cash contributions from sympathisers across the UK, USA, Canada and other Western nations to mount an unprecedented propaganda campaign.

“We employed every trick in the book,” Kanwarpal admitted shortly after the foundation of the Bhindranwale Memorial in June 2012. Seminars, commemoration ceremonies, relentless reminders through social media, stickers, decals, Bhindranwale T-shirts – the group, joined by other hard-line Sikh factions, families of slain militants and several former militants pressed on.

Evidently, the instant repercussions the very mention of “Khalistan” would have attracted a decade and a half ago, were no longer a fear.

The crusade to canonise the “martyr” includes in its vanguard the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh seminary once headed by Bhindranwale located at Chowk Mehta 30km outside Amritsar. Besides construction of the memorial within the Golden Temple Complex, the incumbent taksal chief Harnam Singh Khalsa rather cleverly aligned with the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal even helping the party in the September 2011 SGPC elections.

And in a quid pro quo that continues to raise eyebrows, the state government headed by chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son deputy CM Sukhbir Badal not only approved the construction of the Bhindranwale Memorial but also, through the SGPC (the SAD has an overwhelming majority in the Sikh Committee), endorsed annual rituals to honour slain militants.

Besides Bhindranwale and his followers, the SGPC has hosted several functions to eulogise assassins – Beant Singh and Satwant Singh who killed Indira Gandhi in October 1984, Sukha and Jinda who gunned down the former Indian Army chief Gen AS Vaidya in Pune.

In fact on June 5, 2012, Dal Khalsa even published a directory of “martyrs” – a 422-page almanac significantly carrying a message from the Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani that lists 220 militants.

More recently, the Badal government chipped in with Rs 1.17 crore to raise a sports stadium commemorating Bhindranwale at his ancestral village Rode in Moga District. Villagers are abuzz with the possibility that Sukhbir Badal may host some matches of the Kabaddi World Cup here this winter.

But the SAD leadership is not alone in trying to politically benefit from the fanatic fringe. Barring leaders like the former BJP minister Lakshmi Kanta Chawla who is seen as a “Hindu hardliner”, most Congress men as also the entire retinue of the incumbent BJP ministers have been muted in their response to the insidious campaign to resurrect Bhindranwale as a “hero of the Sikh quam (nation)”.

As the violence in Jammu as well as the need for massive security deployments in Punjab ahead of Ghallughara Divas (Sikh Holocaust Day) on June 6 amply demonstrate, hard-line groups like Dal Khalsa may just have succeeded in what they set out to do.

Perhaps with their political leaders failing them, more and more Sikhs – radical activists as well as common householders – are beginning to look for their heroes elsewhere.

Close to 40,000 lives were lost in Punjab over the decade-and-a-half ending with the Beant Singh assassination in August 1995. These included nearly 2,000 police and security personnel and more than 8,000 militants and Khalistani sympathisers. Of the civilians more than 60 per cent were Sikhs.  ———Courtesy Daily O.

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