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 continued…