The Ghost of Bhindranwale
This year sees the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star – the storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian military. The assault was a bid to flush out radical Sikh militants, whom, led by charismatic figure Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, were occupying the temple with large stashes of weapons, anticipating a fight. The situation escalated and the Indian military sent tanks into the temple after finding the militants to be better armed than originally thought. Official records claim that 492 civilians were killed during Operation Blue Star[i]; they had been attending the temple to celebrate the martyrdom of Sikhism’s fifth guru – Arjan Dev Ji. The consequences of the assault include violence between Hindu and Sikh Indians and the assassination of India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.
But what are the long term consequences of Operation Blue Star? At first glance, it appears that tensions between Hindus and Sikhs have settled; violence against Sikhs has dramatically decreased since the anti-Sikh riots in the 80s that caused thousands of deaths[ii]. There has been a resurgence of anti-Hindu attacks in the last decade, but it has come from militant Islamists – not Sikhs[iii]. Despite these mass reductions in religiously inspired murder, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale remains a celebrated martyr – even a saint, amongst many Sikhs living in India and around the world.
Bhindranwale was a hyper pious Sikh from the Punjab region of India. During his youth, he could be distinguished by his stern and uncompromising dedication to scripture. Surjit Singh Sodi, a teacher who encountered Bhindranwale as a young man, said “he was calm and he used to read the scriptures more than other students. He would not tolerate anybody insulting the religion and if they did he wouldn’t stand for it. Then he would get angry. If they couldn’t be persuaded he would stop talking and associating with them”[iv]. Eyewitness Giani Puran Singh described Bhindranwale as “loading the guns, piling them up with no sign of regret on his face, although he realised this was happening because of him”, during the militants’ last stand in the Golden Temple[v]. Singh also describes him as being “a man of truth” who “never did anything immoral”. He further claims to have seen Bhindranwale laughing during the siege.
Controversy has not hindered his popularity within India’s Punjab region. A memorial for the martyrs of Operation Blue Star, Bhindranwale included, drew in “unprecedented” crowds to the Golden Temple in 2012[vi]. A prominent online forum for Sikhs published an article entitled “Sant Bhindranwale Did Nothing Wrong by Defending the Golden Temple”[vii]. “Sant” is a Sikh word for “saint”.
It is difficult to see why Bhindranwale holds persistent inspiration in some Sikh communities, particularly considering he walked side by side with a bloody time in India’s recent history. One possible explanation is that he is not only a religious symbol, but an ethnic one for the Sikhs of India’s Punjab. Some of Punjab’s more radical Sikhs have, in the past, argued for the annexation of that region and the birth of a new state – Khalistan – a state designed for Sikhs[viii]. Thus, Bhindranwale has the effect of bringing together national and religious identity for Punjabi Sikhs who are already embroiled in a tense relationship with the rest of India – particularly Hindus. The efficacy of this lies in the fact that one need not be both nationalist and religious in order to see Bhindranwale as a unifying figure.
India has hopefully survived its worst period of religious violence, but one would do well to remember the tragic events of Operation Blue Star and the omnipresence of Bhindranwale. His sphere of influence is not limited to the fanatical.