On Tuesday, Sikhs will gather at the Golden Temple, as they do every year on June 6, to mark the anniversary of Operation Blue Star. Thirty three years ago, tanks and troops had fired at the Akal Takht to get at Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The militant secessionist preacher was holed up there, in the most important of Sikhism’s five seats, and he was killed that day along with many of his followers.
I attended the 2015 anniversary at the Temple. From the early hours of the morning, people streamed in, reverentially, crowding under a canopy in front and all around the Akal Takht. A frisson of anticipation ran through the crowd when the head of the Damdami Taksal, the same seminary that Bhindranwale headed in his time, entered and climbed up the marble steps to the Akal Takht. The setting, opposite the Harmandir Sahib, could not have been more serene, the mood could not have been more one of outrage, injury and anger.
When the huzoori ragi finished his reading of the bani, the verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, he handed over to the Jathedar of the Takht Keshgarh Sahib who, in the course of a short ardas, eulogized Bhindranwale, his comrade Bhai Amrik Singh and the “thousands” of others, including “small children”, who died as martyrs; he spoke harshly about the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Indian Army.
Next, Giani Gurbachan Singh, the Akal Takht chief, read out the “message”. He spoke about how the wounds inflicted on Sikhs by Operation Blue Star were so fresh as if they had been inflicted yesterday. Sikh warriors, he said, had made supreme sacrifices for Indian independence, but the community had been beaten up and killed as if “we were residents of an enemy country”. Describing the first week of June as “shaheedi hafta”, he said Sikhs would mark this day with sadness as long as the world existed.
When the speeches were done, groups of young Sikhs suddenly began raising Khalistan slogans. It caught on, and soon everyone in the gathering was shouting Khalistan Zindabad. A large group of young Sikhs wearing Bhindranwale T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “NEVER FORGET 1984”, “Move the Revolution…the Fire is still Burning” then went around the temple’s parikrama, shouting the same slogans.
An official of the SGPC who was standing by laughed and said: “Lo ban gaya ji Khalistan, do ghantey ke liye (And here is Khalistan, for two hours)!”
As statecraft goes, permitting this commemoration to go ahead, year after year for the last several years, is perhaps the most sophisticated and confident response that India has fashioned to any sub-nationalist challenge to its sovereignty, even though it came only after the Indian state put down the militancy in Punjab with brutal and extraordinary force.
The event began to be held regularly from 1990, and in all these years, those who have been observing it testify that it has lost none of its fervour. If anything, in the last two years, the slogans have only got more strident and radical elements more confident, but the show goes on.
Last year was particularly fraught. The Assembly elections were still eight months away and the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal was feeling the heat. Punjab was shaken by several incidents of sacrilege in the latter months of 2015. People had taken to the streets demanding that the perpetrators be caught. Several extremist groups came together to hold a Sarbat Khalsa, or an “assembly of the Sikh community” in November 2015. The last time this had happened was in 1986, during the height of militancy. Then, the Sarbat Khalsa had declared an independent Khalistan.
In November 2015, the Sarbat Khalsa declared K P S Gill, the former Punjab DGP who passed away last month, and another police officer, Kuldip Singh Brar, as tankhaiya for ‘anti-Sikh genocidal activities”; denounced the SAD leadership, including then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, and his son and the SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal, for misusing and undermining Sikh institutions. It also demanded the “unconditional release” of all political prisoners in India, not just Sikhs – Kashmiris, Nagas, Naxalites, among others. Such was the mood in Punjab, with a large numbers of Sikhs attending it, rattling the government. The Sarbat Khalsa also appointed its own jathedars to the five seats. There were allegations that Congress and AAP workers had participated in the event.
When the 2016 Blue Star anniversary came around, the government poured police into Amritsar, arrested the Sarbat Khalsa’s jathedars, and packed the Golden Temple with Shiromani Akali Dal ministers to outnumber the hardliners. The Dal Khalsa, an extremist Sikh outfit, shut down Amritsar for the anniversary. But unlike in 2015, when a Khalistani group clashed with SGPC officials inside the temple, drawing blood, the event was entirely peaceful. There were some slogans, and some heated exchanges, but no violence.
Every anniversary, Bhindranwale T-shirts and other memorabilia are sold openly around the Golden Temple. On the white marble top outside the Golden Temple, young volunteers distribute secessionist literature. Inside the temple, people pay their respects at the Operation Blue Star Memorial, visit the museum, where the portraits of the Indira Gandhi’s assassins — Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, Kehar Singh — are on display alongside the rest of the pantheon of Sikh warriors.
It is not as if the State is in retreat. The presence of the State is seen and felt at all times. Police, and contingents of paramilitaries guard the city from days before. Policemen in plainclothes and those working for intelligence agencies swell the crowds inside the temple.
At Mehta, some 40 kms from Amritsar, the home of the Damdami Taksal that Bhindranwale used to head, the commemoration is bigger. Thousands of people arrive in buses to listen to the speeches, many teenagers among them. Along the road from Amritsar to Mehta, teenaged Sikh boys man chabeels, stalls that distribute sweet water, to the remixed sounds of Bhindranwale songs.
The police are all over the place but restrict themselves to directing the traffic.At both places, the whole effort on the part of the law and order machinery, and officials of the Golden Temple and state government, is to make everything seem ‘normal’ and asrun of the mill as possible.
With more than 25 years of practice, what is on show every June 6 is a complex choreography that balances the interests of the Indian state, with the continuing anger of the Sikh community. Mediating this are the mainstream political parties, especially the Akali Dal, and the SGPC, a body that is controlled and micro-managed by the Akalis.
This time, with the change of government and the Congress holding the reins, it is being taken for granted that the Akalis are likely to push the boundaries a little. Sukhbir Badal has already attended a Blue Star anniversary function at the Damdami Taksal, which he would not do when the Akalis were in power.
For its part, the police under the new Congress government has carried out arrests of several alleged “Khalistani terrorists”, and claims to have busted “terror modules” being directed from Canada, Europe and Pakistan. But the Sarbat Khalsa appointed jathedars are to get a free pass. They will be present inside the Temple alongside those whom they challenge, the official SGPC –appointed jathedars , on June 6. The chances of a confrontation cannot be ruled out though the two sides have held a meeting and resolved to keep things peaceful. Overall, there is no panic that things will get out of hand.
What happens at the Golden Temple every year is an acknowledgement by the Indian state that steam is better released than built up. The State watches while the party in power plays the game of running with the hare and hunting with the hound, and the day passes without much incident. There are no nation-wide protests, no blood vessels burst on television channels about the June 6 commemorations in Punjab. In this laissez-faire, in which a Bhindranwale T-shirt can flutter on a hangar with phulkari dupattas in an Amritsar shop, is where India comes across as a confident democracy.