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.