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First Person, Second Draft: Once upon a bloody time

There lived and died a man called Bhindranwale.

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: June 3, 2014 11:28 am
Bhindranwale at the Golden Temple sarai. Bhindranwale at the Golden Temple sarai.

There lived and died a man called Bhindranwale. Charismatic and chilling, he wrote this country’s present and future as no one has done post-Independence. A little footnote: once, he pulled my leg and I needed to check his arm-length.

At the many events to mark the release of my latest book, Anticipating India, one question I am inevitably asked is to name the three most interesting people I have met in my life as a journalist. At one of these, a very young member of the audience, pushed me to go beyond the mainstream politicians of today. “Tell us about some others we may not be so familiar with,” she said. I let my mind slip backwards into the past. The most interesting? Why not Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. “But who was he, sir? Was he a nice guy?” was the follow up.

Now, I understand that this is the era of the post-Google generation. Why should it bother about anything that preceded Google, and even the internet? More importantly, why recall the bad dreams, in fact one of the the worst nightmares, of our country’s recent history (yes, 30 years is recent, too)? Why blame a bright 19-year-old, even I had forgotten the man who defined my working life for an entire year (summer of 1983 to ’84), gave me many scoops, stories, memories and old reporter’s tales, but also wrote this country’s present and future as no one Indian has done in our post-Independence history. Good or bad, evil or nice.

Though I was tempted to read out to my curious young questioner the injunction that my old friend and colleague Shailaja Bajpai holds out to her wards at our little but wonderful Express Institute of Media Studies (EXIMS), where she tells batch after batch that “Nice” is a brand of biscuits, not an adjective for reporters to misuse.

But why did I think of Bhindranwale when pushed on that question? Maybe I was influenced by the fact that I had visited the Golden Temple twice in recent weeks, during the election campaign, so three-decade-old memories were refreshed. It struck me — sadly — that it was the first time since early childhood that I was visiting a peaceful Golden Temple as a humble devotee and getting that ultimate benediction, a kada (steel bangle) blessed at the Akal Takht. All my memories and references so far had been from the 1978-89 period of various degrees of violence. I start at 1978 because that was when, on Baisakhi (April 13), a clash took place between Bhindranwale’s supporters and a congregation of the Nirankari sect. Thirteen of his followers were killed, and suddenly an unknown young preacher became a name known nationally. I also became conscious that we were now heading for the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, not only one of the most traumatic events in our history but also one with the longest-lasting consequences. And I apologise for sounding like such a cynical, insensitive newshound, but it was also the biggest story of my career, made so particularly by the fact that when the army banished the entire rabble of domestic and foreign press on the evening of June 3, filling them into buses that dropped them off directly in Delhi under armed escort, I was among the three reporters who managed to stay back to chronicle and later tell the story. One, Subhash Kirpekar of The Times of India, way senior to us all, is sadly no more. The other was Brahma Chellaney (yes, your famous strategic pundit and TV talking head), who then worked for the Associated Press (of America).

I may have been walking as a devotee now, head bowed on the parikrama but, instinctively and inevitably, my points of references were the two Ramgarhia Bungas (towers) on which the sandbagged machine-gun nests of militants were stockaded, the image of the bags and bodies sent flying when struck by the army’s howitzers (on June 4, 1984, exactly 30 years tomorrow), the Guru Ram Das Sarai terrace overlooking the Golden Temple, where Bhindranwale originally held court and routinely updated his hit lists — in public (basically it meant adding new names and striking out those who had been “sorted out”), the Akal Takht building, the supreme seat of Sikh spiritual and temporal power with the authority to issue Hukamnamas (the Sikh equivalent of encyclicals or ecclesiastical bulls) to the community, where he finally took control of his faith’s Vatican and where he met his end on June 6, 1984, 30 years this Friday, grenade shrapnel hitting his face first and then an entire carbine burst from an infantryman cutting him down. But not before nearly 2,000 lives had been lost, 136 of them from the army — the highest casualties suffered by our armed forces in a domestic operation ever in 24 hours — and those of anything from 600 to 1,000 innocent pilgrims. Dead, along with Bhindranwale, were his most committed lieutenants, Major General (retired) Shabeg Singh, Bhai Amrik Singh, the handsome, articulate but fiery deputy from whose father Bhindranwale had inherited the position of the head of Damdami Taksal, an ancient and conservative religious seminary in Mehta, near Gurdaspur, and several others. No, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was no saint. Nor was he even a nice man, and I would dare to defy Shailaja’s injunction here to use that word. But he was the most interesting human being I have ever met and dealt with as a journalist, and god knows I have met more than a few of those in 37 years.

And he was one of the most talented, charismatic and, in the end, recklessly courageous. You had to be so, to make a last stand in an ancient building, fighting off repeated assaults by six of the finest infantry battalions of the army, besides the commandos, Vijayanta tanks firing from their main guns, APCs, 3.7-inch mountain howitzers, the venerable, World War II, 25-pounders, helicopter patrols, for 36 hours.

Luring desperate assault troops and young officers into the killing ground between the Akal Takht and Darshani Deori, where the causeway to the Temple begins, and cutting them down with machine guns sited to cover every inch, and peeping out of the slits cut out of the Akal Takht’s centuries-old marble walls. You had to be reckless to fight there, knowing the inevitability of the end. Or you had to be delusional.

There was a bit of that to Bhindranwale too. In fact, quite a bit. He had begun to believe the mythologies spread about him by himself and his devotees. That he was an embodiment of the divine, that his victory and the formation of a new Sikh state were preordained, that in a holy war against the Hindu state, his Sikhs were obviously going to win. He genuinely believed that till the last moment. To him, the only inevitability in that murderous June week was fateh, victory. Shikast, or defeat, was for “Bibi’s” (as he addressed Indira Gandhi) army. I was among the very small group of reporters whom he gave an audience to over glasses of a herbal concoction (banafsha was his preference, tea and coffee were forbidden, like all intoxicants) just before the army fully slammed the trap shut. A kind of last supper (see picture, three decades ago, you still have a reporter with sleeves rolled and back rounded in a manner that, in later years, would be your physio’s nightmare).


Bibi and her Hindu Congress, he said, had declared war on the Sikhs, and he was ready for the last battle and victory.

“But how will you fight the might of an entire army,” we asked, “they even have tanks lined up near the kotwali (old police station).”
“Dus diyo ehnan nun kis taran ladoge singho, (tell them how you will fight, my lions),” he said, “you will be victorious, you just have to mentally prepare to fight Russian commandos.”

“Why Russian commandos Santji?” I asked.

“Because Sikhs in the Indian army won’t fight us and the topiwallahs (Hindus) won’t be able withstand us. So Bibi will have no choice but to seek Russian commandos,” he said with a smirk that, to those familiar with him by now, usually meant a death sentence. Just that in this case, it was a death sentence for himself, almost all his followers present there and thousands of others.

My limited hack’s vocabulary and pen do not have the descriptive flourish or the turn of phrase to do a portrait of that once-in-many-generations character with any degree of fairness. He was taller than most of us, born in 1947, so a Midnight’s Child, and between 35-37 years (he died at 37), had a standout aquiline nose, wiry (healthy) vein-studded legs that stood out from his long, loose kurta that just about hung below the traditional Sikh underwear, or the kachcha, no weapon on his body barring the ritual kirpan and a trademark stainless steel arrow that he carried as a general would flaunt his swagger stick. He had brilliant, studied delivery with perfect pauses to let his audiences enjoy his wisecracks or thirst in anticipation of the punchline, infra-red eyes and, most importantly, a laser wit and repartee. Of course, you could never answer back or join an argument with him. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale did not run a parliament or panchayat in the Golden Temple. His was a medieval court with sub-medieval instant justice, and nobody would dare disagree with him or even protest when he pilloried you with cruel sarcasm or simply piled you with humiliation. My first conversation with him, in August 1983, was no different from any other visiting journalist’s, Indian or foreign.

“Weren’t you born a Hindu,” he asked.

“Yes, Santji, though like all Hindus, we pray at the gurdwaras as well,” I said, put somewhat on the defensive already.

“Oh, you do, of course,” the smirk appeared, “so tell me the names of the gods you pray to in your mandir.” And then he carried on without waiting for me to answer.

“Bhagwan Ram, Krishna, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, have you seen any of them without full head of hair and beards?” he asked.

Even if you wanted to say that most of the Hindu iconography was clean-shaven, you did not somehow gather the courage to do so. In fact, nobody did. Christians, Muslims, Parsis, they were all given the same treatment.

“Now, aren’t your gods like your father?” he would now ask, and you’d have no choice other than to say, yes, of course.
“So your father never shaved and cut his hair, while you are clean-shaven. What do we call a child who doesn’t resemble his father,” he would now turn the knife or, rather, give the cue to his congregation, which would avoid using the “h” word but would break into a collective snigger.

“That’s why I say, Shekharji (or whoever his victim was that day), keshan di hatya band kar dawo (stop murdering your hair, literally), start looking like your forefathers so we will all call you a decent, legitimate son.”

This was the treatment every visiting journalist was subjected to, in full public view of a delirious congregation, on his or her first visit. And this somehow softened you. No journalist ever openly contested what he said or argued with him except, to an extent, two, in varying degrees. The first was our very own Tavleen Singh, herself a fiercely proud Jat-Sikh. Bhindranwale never fully got the better of her but got his cheap thrills, and amused his doting congregation by referring to her in her absence as that “Sikh patrakar who plucks her eyebrows (jehdi bhoan patdi hai)”. The other, old Satinder Singh, The Tribune’s bureau chief from Delhi and much older than all of us (he was film star Dev Anand’s schoolmate and bosom pal, and Khushwant Singh’s alter ego), got away with more. He even got Bhindranwale to laugh, genuinely laugh, not snigger or smirk when he told him, one evening, that if Khalistan became a reality, he would have to emigrate to “vilayat (Britain)”.

“Why, Satinderji?” asked Bhindranwale, with (probably) mock concern, “don’t you think Khalistan will need budhijeevis (intellectuals) too?”
“It may, Santji, but I will tell you my problem,” said the irrepressible Satinder, “Hindus will not let me live in India because I am a Sikh, and you won’t let me live in Khalistan because I am padhiya-likhya (well educated). So I will go to England.”

It was the only time I saw Bhindranwale let someone else win an argument, even if it was a joke. He justified it to the audience, however. Something like, in any family, there was the odd offspring who was uncontrollable. You have to tolerate those types. Of course, Bhindranwale was still laughing, in fact, giggling. The only time I ever saw him do that in possibly 30 encounters. Once, I froze as I saw him tick off a very old woman who bent to touch his feet. He nearly threw her off her feet, admonishing: “Don’t you do this. What will people say, an 80-year-old woman and a 36-year-old sant.” Sorry again, Shailaja, but he wasn’t a nice man.

I have said often that the subcontinent specialises in producing a unique type of demagogue, with the ability of picking up the grievances of a minority when it is most vulnerable and then magnifying and amplifying them brilliantly to create widespread popular outrage. Even in that formidable pantheon, Bhindranwale was at the very top. One of the finest accounts of the way his “court” functioned has been written by Tavleen in the chapter she wrote for a book, The Punjab Story, published by Roli Books after Operation Blue Star and later republished in 2009 on its 25th anniversary, where Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, Khushwant Singh, M.V. Kamath, Kirpekar, Sunil Sethi, the CPI’s Amarjit Kaur and I also contributed chapters. She describes the case of one Leher Singh, who Bhindranwale presented to his audience in her presence (I wasn’t there that day). His beard looked like it had been rudely hacked with a large knife. He said he was from village Jatwali in Fazilka district, bordering Punjab in Pakistan, and that his beard had been cut off by Thanedar (inspector) Bichhu Ram. Six months later, Bichhu Ram was shot dead. Tavleen wrote later how she never realised then that she had seen a death sentence being delivered.

However devout he was, Bhindranwale was really no man of god, no realised master who had conquered ego and vanity, if other worldly desires. In any congregation, he always wanted to be the centre of attraction and hated anybody stealing the limelight. On several of those visits to the Golden Temple, I was accompanied by (or, correction, I accompanied) Raghu Rai, the greatest celebrity photographer in five decades. Raghu, with his locks, tall, wiry frame, shirts in exotic weaves and undone really low to expose oodles of chest hair, many cameras, humongous lenses dangling from his neck barely providing tantalising cover, if at all, was a real magnet for Bhindranwale’s rustic audiences, and he did not like it one bit. Particularly when, one winter afternoon at his sarai terrace, Raghu sat soaking in the sun on the parapet. He attracted a lot of attention.

“Shekharji, tell your photowallah to get off that munder (parapet),” said Bhindranwale.

Nobody usually asked him why, and it wasn’t such an impossible demand, so I told Raghu that Santji wanted him to get down and either stand or sit with the congregation on the floor, like me, lower than Bhindranwale.

“Why, what is the problem,” Raghu, a prima donna if you’ve seen one (albeit a true genius with the camera), asked with just a hint of petulance.

“Tell him, Shekharji, to get off that parapet. Or he may just roll over and die, and then the whole world will say santaan ne maar ditta (that the sant killed him).”

This time even Raghu obeyed.

On another occasion, possibly just a couple of weeks before Operation Blue Star, I went to see him along with my frequent fellow-travellers to Punjab and one of the greatest reporter-writers of all time, Edward Behr of Newsweek (check out his reporter’s memoir, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?). Behr was quite a spirited old man, one whom nothing would ever bother or irritate. On long drives through terror-soaked Punjab, he would regale you with stories from the battlefront, reportage as well as the years he spent as an officer in the Indian army’s Garhwal Regiment before Independence. As we got up to leave, he hobbled a bit, as old people, particularly foreigners, do because they are not used to squatting.

“Why is the gora (white man) hobbling,” asked Bhindranwale.

I asked Behr what Santji wanted to know.

“Oh, just tell him my foot has gone to sleep,” said Behr, just a little dismissively, and Santji did not miss it even as I played the honest interpreter.

“His foot has not gone to sleep,” he said, turning to his fully armed audience now, “the white man’s legs are trembling at the sight of our Sten guns.”

Up came a spirited bole so nihal. There was no way Santji was going to let anybody, even a benign old gora journalist, walk away with the last laugh. Of course, Behr figured the joke was on him and for once he, the reporter with the thickest skin, lost it.

“Tell them I am not afraid of these Stens,” he said, wagging his finger, “we used the Thomson carbine in the Indian army and if you dropped it accidentally, it fired three rounds, what do you guys know about guns…”

It felt by now as if the temperature had dropped to minus 30 degrees. I grabbed Behr by the waist and dragged him out, and myself, to safety.

By May 1984, it was evident that something catastrophic was going to happen at the Temple. Intrigue hung heavy in the air as everybody, even Bhindranwale, felt insecure. I wrote a story headlined “Temple Intrigue” in the May 15 issue of India Today, describing a string of cases of torture, assassination of suspected rivals and renegades, chopped bodies being taken out of the Temple and dumped in gutters. A lone woman shot dead Surinder Singh Sodhi, Bhindranwale’s favourite hitman, while he sat sipping tea outside a tea shop near the Temple and screamed, waving her pistol, “Maine badla le liya hai (I have taken revenge).” Next morning, two assassins shot the tea-shop owner. Several mutilated bodies then appeared in gunny bags here and there and the local police had a rough time dealing with them, fishing them out of the gutters. One of these, evidently, was that of Baljit Kaur, the Dalit woman who had shot Sodhi because she believed he had killed her husband. Policemen who put together that body said they had not seen such brutal torture before. It was in this atmosphere of rising blood-letting, revenge killings and suspicion that Bhindranwale decided to up the ante, and Indira Gandhi decided to strike.

In Amritsar last month, I spent some time with Mohkam Singh, whose imposing figure is etched on my mind as one of Bhindranwale’s closest lieutenants, though he claims he never carried arms and my memory is not convincing enough to dispute this. He posed for pictures under a portrait of Bhindranwale, steel arrow and all, and argued passionately that his sant was not a separatist. He only demanded autonomy for states, which is the norm now. He was deliberately misunderstood, he said. That is why, because of their belief in decentralisation, the rag-tag group of Bhindranwale supporters that he leads has extended support to the Aam Aadmi Party. But then, as conversation went on, he relaxed. “Santji was no ordinary human,” he said, “remember how his arms hung below his knees, just like Guru Gobind Singh. He was no ordinary human.”

Mohkam (three years younger than me, actually) had transported me back to the Golden Temple in 1983-84, when people looked at Bhindranwale and “pointed out” the same “fact” to you, that his arms hung lower than his knees. But, god’s own truth, they didn’t. They didn’t, if you believed your eyes. But in Punjab of 1984, so many were not willing to believe what they could see, hear and comprehend. It was a phase of madness, so eminently worth forgetting.

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