How the Congress propped up Bhindranwale

The Akali Dal hardliner Gurcharan Singh Tohra (left) with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (right). SATPAL DANISH
08 June, 2019

Around thirty five years ago, the Indian Army carried out Operation Bluestar, the military operation to disarm and dislodge Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, from the Darbar Sahib in Punjab’s Amritsar. Bhindranwale, who according to tradition was the fourteenth head of the orthodox Sikh seminary Damdami Taksaal, was running a parallel government from within the Darbar Sahib complex, wreaking havoc on law and order and the state machinery. While the operation was carried out on orders from Indira Gandhi, the prime minister at that time, the Congress itself was responsible for propping up Bhindranwale for electoral gains.

In the following extract from “The Shattered Dome,” a May 2014 story of The Caravan, Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of the publication, explores why Bhindranwale appealed to the Jatt Sikh peasantry and the Sikh orthodoxy. Further, he traces how the Congress contributed to Bhindranwale’s ascent to power and his subsequent demise. “Outside Punjab, the conventional understanding of the alliance between Bhindranwale and the Congress assumes the party was making use of a small-time preacher for its own ends, and propelled him to a position of significance by doing so,” Singh wrote. In truth, the arrangement was one of mutual convenience, and lasted only as long as it served Bhindranwale’s interests.”

Jarnail Singh, born in 1947, was a Brar Jatt from the village of Rode in Faridkot district, and his family had long been associated with the seminary. Ram Singh came from a similar background. This was no coincidence. The Green Revolution had brought prosperity to rural Punjab, but it had also exacerbated inequalities among Jatt Sikhs, the predominant landowning community in Punjab state, as differences in landholding sizes multiplied into differences in wealth and status. Both Bhindranwale and Ram Singh’s families had to struggle for a living. (This was also the background of many of the young men who took up arms against the Indian state in Punjab after Bhindranwale’s death.)

According to tradition, the Damdami Taksaal traces its lineage back to the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who while living at the Damdama Sahib gurdwara committed from memory the text of the Guru Granth Sahib, and taught a select band of Sikhs the correct forms of reciting and understanding the holy book. The Taksaal developed a reputation for spreading the orthodox understanding of Sikhism; until the SGPC established a number of missionary colleges in recent years, it remained the source of many jathedars and ragis—singers—at major gurdwaras. It provided room for many young men, whose families were attracted to the organisation by the thought of having one less mouth to feed. The training that awaited them was rigorous. “We started by learning the proper recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib,” Ram Singh said of his extensive education. “We would learn the meaning of each word in the text, the meaning of each verse, and then would move on to the study of Vedanta. The whole process would take seven to ten years.”

By the time Ram Singh arrived at the seminary, Jarnail Singh had become, for the time being, a part-time resident, because Gurbachan Singh insisted that he return home to be married and live as a householder. The young man left reluctantly, married in 1966, and made ends meet by working his meager share of the family land.

The journalist Dalbir Singh, who worked for The Tribune newspaper, became part of Bhindranwale’s inner circle in the 1980s. In his book, Nediyon Dithe Sant Bhindranwale (Sant Bhindranwale Seen Up Close), he relates a story that Bhindranwale once told him about life on his farm. He told Dalbir that he got the worst share of both the land and cattle when they were divided up between the family. One winter, he ran out of fodder for the cattle. “I went to my brother Jagjit Singh’s sugarcane field, picked up a bundle of dried sugarcane leaves and put it before my cattle,” Bhindranwale told Dalbir. “Soon my brother came and said, ‘Oy Jarnail, who did you ask before you picked up the dry sugarcane leaves?’

“I answered, ‘Brother, I did not ask anyone.’

“My brother told me to pick up the leaves and scatter them in the same field from where I had picked them up,” Bhindranwale continued. “With due respect, I went and scattered them in the field I had gathered them from.”

Years later, Dalbir recounted, Bhindranwale was sitting with some of his followers in the Darbar Sahib complex when the door to their room opened and Jagjit Singh peered inside. “The Sant said, ‘Oy, what have you come here for?’ Jagjit began to say, ‘For the sake of your darshan.’ The Sant said, ‘Get out. The darshan is over.’”

Jarnail Singh was not one to forgive an affront; perhaps those in Delhi who attempted to make use of him never understood this. In the Jatt society he was born into, the merest slight could trigger a cycle of bloodshed descending through the generations. This was a culture mediated by the idea of honour; a man who could not stand by his word and back it up with violence did not count for much. Journalists who saw only an unsophisticated rustic in Bhindranwale overlooked the fact that his bluntness of speech and overbearing manner appealed to the Jatt Sikh peasantry.

Without his theological training, however, his manner would not have been enough to appeal to the orthodox. Whenever Jarnail Singh visited the seminary, Ram Singh recalled, he kept to himself, speaking, eating and sleeping very little. “His mastery of the recitation of the gurbani and the daily prayers stood out.”

In August 1977, Jarnail Singh was called back to the Taksaal. Gurbachan Singh’s successor, Sant Kartar Singh, had been killed in a road accident. Even as a part-timer, the appeal of Jarnail Singh, Kartar’s favoured disciple, was so strong that he was chosen to head the Taksaal over Kartar’s son, Bhai Amrik Singh, who went on to become one of his closest associates. The Taksaal had once been located at Bhindran village in Sangrur district. Like a number of his predecessors, Jarnail Singh, the impoverished farmer who could not afford fodder for his cattle, took on the name of that village, and became Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, head of one of Sikhism’s most prominent seminaries.

Less than a year after Bhindranwale was appointed to his chair, he became enmeshed in a religious battle which would gain him attention both in Punjab and in Delhi, and establish a pattern of action that would be repeated in subsequent years; first an outbreak of violence apparently instigated by his rhetoric, then his taking refuge in the Darbar Sahib complex, and eventual acquittal by the authorities.

On Baisakhi day in spring 1978, a heterodox Sikh sect known as the Sant Nirankaris took out a procession through the streets of Amritsar. Baisakhi is of special importance to Sikhs: on this day, according to the faithful, Guru Gobind Singh founded the khalsa, the term he used to denote all baptised Sikhs who keep the symbols of the faith. The Sant Nirankaris believed in a living guru—blasphemy to orthodox Sikhs—and their procession on this day amounted to an act of provocation.

The ruling Akali Dal had permitted the march in spite of being aware that it would anger the orthodox. Sure enough, at an impromptu meeting called by Bhindranwale and his supporters near the Darbar Sahib, Bhindranwale made a fiery speech against the Sant Nirankaris, stoking tempers. He led a march towards the procession with kirpans drawn; but the Sant Nirankaris were armed, and shot down thirteen men marching with Bhindranwale.

Following this, the Sant Nirankari chief, Gurbachan Singh, was arrested, along with several of his followers, but their trial was shifted outside the state, to Haryana. As Sikhs erupted in anger at the murders, Bhindranwale became the lightning rod for their outrage. He let neither the Akali Dal nor its leader, the Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, forget the incident. For the first time in their fifty-year history, the Akalis were outflanked by someone who spoke on behalf of Sikh orthodoxy.

This earned Bhindranwale the attention of the Congress party in Delhi. In his book Tragedy of Punjab, co-written with Khushwant Singh, the veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar describes how this came about. Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay, “knowing how extra-constitutional matters worked,” suggested a “sant” be put up to challenge the Akali Dal government. Two Sikh priests were shortlisted for the task, and the final selection left to Sanjay. One did not look “the courageous type.” The other was Bhindranwale. Sanjay’s friend, the MP Kamal Nath, told Nayar, “Bhindranwale, strong in tone and tenor, seemed to fit the bill. We would give him money off and on, but we never thought he would turn into a terrorist.”

A few months after the Baisakhi clash, a new political organisation called the Dal Khalsa held a press conference in Chandigarh. It would soon become clear that the group’s purpose was to support every demand made by Bhindranwale, and to take the overtly political positions that he did not. The Dal Khalsa allowed Bhindranwale to maintain the fiction, meant largely for the media in Delhi, but meaningless for an orthodox Sikh, that he was a man of religion who had nothing to do with politics.

In Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, Mark Tully and Satish Jacob claim the tab of Rs 600 for the Dal Khalsa press conference was picked up by Zail Singh, soon to be Indira Gandhi’s home minister. A veteran of Punjab politics, Zail Singh’s patronage of Bhindranwale was of a piece with his own political approach. He had trained as a preacher himself; as chief minister of Punjab between 1972 and 1977, he had confronted the Akalis on their own terms with his overt shows of Sikh religious symbolism.

Jacob told me that, years later, Zail Singh, then the president of India, asked for an explanation of the claim that he had paid for the Dal Khalsa event. “I replied, ‘Gianiji, I still have a copy of the bill,’” Jacob said. “He didn’t say anything after that.’”

Outside Punjab, the conventional understanding of the alliance between Bhindranwale and the Congress assumes the party was making use of a small-time preacher for its own ends, and propelled him to a position of significance by doing so. But as head of the Taksaal, Bhindranwale already had a certain standing among orthodox Sikhs; with or without Congress support, he was anything but small-time. In truth, the arrangement was one of mutual convenience, and lasted only as long as it served Bhindranwale’s interests.

By January 1980, when Indira Gandhi was voted back into power, Bhindranwale had grown in stature and influence. During the election, he canvassed for some of the Congress candidates in Punjab, and once even shared a dais with Gandhi.

But the denouement to the story of the Baisakhi clash made it evident that he was a difficult man to keep in check. Just days after election results were declared, Gurbachan Singh and his followers were acquitted. Immediately, Bhindranwale’s rhetoric against the Sant Nirankaris escalated, and in April, Gurbachan Singh was murdered at his residence in Delhi. Nayar writes that the Central Bureau of Investigation, in reconstructing the murder, found that seven people, “‘either close followers or members of the jatha of Bhindranwale,’ and three person [sic] were directly involved in the ‘finalisation and execution’ of the plan to kill the Nirankari chief.” The murder weapon was licensed in the name of one of Bhindranwale’s brothers, who claimed he wanted it for his bodyguard.

When Bhindranwale’s name appeared in the police report, he sought, for the first time, shelter in the Guru Nanak Niwas within the Darbar Sahib complex. Until the 1980s, the Indian police had made only one attempt to enter the precincts, and the consequences had been disastrous. In 1955, as demands grew for a separate Punjabi-speaking state, Akali Dal volunteers, sheltering in the Darbar Sahib, began marching out to court arrest. The state government grew desperate, and on 4 July police entered the temple precincts and used tear gas to disperse the assembled volunteers. The backlash was immediate; so severe were its effects that the chief minister, Bhim Sen Sachar, presented himself before the Akal Takht to apologise for the trespass.

Bhindranwale stayed within the sanctuary of the Darbar Sahib until Zail Singh bailed him out. The home minister stood up in parliament to declare that Bhindranwale had no hand in the murder of the Nirankari chief, thus ending the possibility of a trial. The Darbar Sahib had proved a safe haven for Bhindranwale; in hindsight, it seems impossible that the police did not anticipate that he would return to it.

Once she returned as prime minister, Gandhi dissolved several state governments ruled by her opponents, including that of Punjab. This was one of several major mistakes on the path that led to Operation Bluestar, as it changed the dynamics of the state’s politics. Bhindranwale quickly became a problem for the new Congress chief minister, Darbara Singh; and Zail Singh, unwilling to loosen his grip over the state’s politics, attempted to control Bhindranwale for his own purposes.

The Akalis, pushed out of power, came to seek help from their foremost opponent. The party was ruled by a triumvirate with differing political approaches. Of these men, Bhindranwale hated Parkash Singh Badal, and found little common ground with the ostensibly non-violent Harchand Singh Longowal; but Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the SGPC head and the third and most hard-line of the Akali leaders, was instrumental in creating an alliance between his party and Bhindranwale, and matters improved steadily between them over the next few years. From a battle over religious issues between Bhindranwale and the Akalis, the conflict now became a game of political one-upmanship, in which the target was the Indian state.

This is an extract from “The Shattered Dome,” the cover story of The Caravan’s May 2014 issue by the publication’s political editor Hartosh Singh Bal. It has been edited and condensed.