Identity wars

Was Bhagat Singh a martyr or a terrorist? Most Indians would say martyr

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published: October 7, 2012 2:41 am

Was Bhagat Singh a martyr or a terrorist? Most Indians would say martyr. But at the time of his hanging there were differences. The British definitely thought he was a terrorist. Mahatma Gandhi did not plead for his pardon when he negotiated with Viceroy Irwin. Osama Bin Laden was a terrorist and yet for many Muslims he is a martyr.

Last week,General Brar was attacked on the streets of London. While his attackers have not been caught,there is a presumption that this was a revenge attack for his part in Operation Bluestar. British police have to treat it as an assault with murderous intent as and when they catch the culprits. But its Indian ramifications cannot be overlooked. That was a most harrowing episode in the history of Indian independence. More than the decades of Naxal attacks or troubles in Kashmir or Nagaland,the demand for Khalistan was the most serious challenge to the integrity of the Indian State. Even more,it was a fundamental questioning of the idea of India as a nation.

The Khalistan issue led not only to Bluestar,where a holy shrine was besieged and attacked but its aftermath was the assassination of Indira Gandhi,the only time an Indian citizen murdered an Indian Prime Minister. What followed in Delhi in the wake of that assassination has been neither forgotten nor properly settled in the realms of justice. The electoral campaign that followed was virulently anti-Sikh and yet the Congress was rewarded with the largest majority ever. The ‘Pacification’ of Punjab took even longer. The apology to the Sikh people,when it came,was too late and ironically it was delivered by the first Sikh Prime Minister.

Even today,emotions run high and the assassins of Indira Gandhi as well as Bhindranwale and his followers are much worshipped martyrs. It is a wound that runs deep. And yet,Sikhs have forgiven,though not forgotten. At the same time as the attack on General Brar took place,Sikhs in UK raised their objection to a somewhat sexist and biased characterisation of a Sikh woman character in J K Rowling’s latest novel,The Casual Vacancy. They said they would write to Dr Manmohan Singh and ask him to complain to the UK government. There is not much that the UK government can do about the contents of books. But the notion that Sikhs have to summon their fellow Sikhs to defend their honour is both droll and troublesome. Surely they should,as UK citizens,fight their own case the way any other community would fight if they had been insulted. Why call upon the Indian PM to fight their case? Would they have done so if the PM had been not Sikh?

Even so the conclusion has to be that Sikhs identify themselves as Indian citizens no matter where they are. This was made clearer when the tragic attack in Wisconsin took place. Indians were revolted and thought their Government should demand an apology of the US government. Yet it was an attack on US (Sikh) citizens by one of their own. It was an internal US matter in which India had no locus standi. Even so,the MEA made representations,TV channels exploded in anger and Americans were reviled yet again. As it happened,after a few days the US Attorney General did call it a hate crime (more than has been done for attacked-on Sikhs in India). The identity of an Indian abroad became an issue.

So the paradox. At home we have attacks on Biharis by MNS in Mumbai who question the right of Indians to settle anywhere. The same was the case with the hundreds of Bodo youth who hastened back ‘home’ because they did not feel ‘at home’ outside Assam. Rahul Gandhi deplored the UP youth for migrating to Mumbai in search for better jobs. ‘UP for UP-walas and no UP-wala should be seen outside UP’ seemed to be his message.

Can it be that at home Indians fail to feel Indian and assert their linguistic/regional/religious identities but while abroad,feel Indian first and American or British last? Migrate to unite!

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