The 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, on June 6, was marked by a rather unexpected turn of events. Television cameras recorded images of two Sikh groups, armed with largely blunt ceremonial swords, attacking each other. The disagreement, we were told, stemmed from the old tensions around the demand for a Sikh homeland, Khalistan. In fact, in the run up to the anniversary, the idea of Khalistan had cropped up frequently, as journalists reported a growing nostalgia for Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his favoured cause. One reporter even put forward this question: did the images of warring factions represent the troubled memories of Operation Blue Star or the more worrisome revival of Khalistan?
The use of the word “nostalgia” to describe the events unfolding in Punjab throws light on how 1984 and its aftermath are often read. To be nostalgic about something, whether it is a person, a place or an event, is to first presume its (usually pleasant) existence in the past. Yet neither the idea of Khalistan nor Bhindranwale achieved the kind of mass acceptance that is implied in the current spell of nostalgia. If Bhindranwale had followers among Sikhs, he had as many detractors and opponents in the very same community. Despite the popularity of audio-cassettes filled with Bhindranwale’s fiery speeches, Khalistan was, broadly speaking, a non-starter, especially among the urban classes. It is difficult to be nostalgic about an idea that was met with scepticism from the very beginning.
The popularity of Bhindranwale-themed memorabilia is offered up as evidence for this nostalgia — shops selling car stickers, T-shirts, photographs and other knick knacks do brisk business in the bazars around the Golden Temple. This, we are told, is a warning sign. Those who put forward this theory might never have seen mass-produced T-shirts printed with the profile of Che Guevara, or noticed how quickly Mao Zedong’s handbook on revolution became an instant bestseller once it was repackaged and introduced by Slavoj Zizek, the Elvis Presley of cultural theory. If Guevara and Mao, in their repackaged forms, are warning signs, they only warn of how commodification can produce banal cultural symbols. The popularity of Guevara T-shirts has not, to the best of our knowledge, caused a political revolution anywhere.
Perhaps Bhindranwale, in his quick-selling, profitable, commodified form, is flourishing more than he ever did when alive for two reasons. One, the blood and gore, the threats and fears connected to his persona are gone. He can now exist exactly as his consumers want him to. Two, a community ravaged by drug addiction and by the corruption of the ruling elite is desperately looking for heroic figures. The current pantheon of leaders in Punjab do not inspire any hope for the future. A printed T-shirt fills this vacuum without disrupting the socio-political landscape.
I would suggest that it is not the cultural economy of Bhindranwale products that is central here. The collective melancholia that is yet to find its redress is. It is telling that despite a flurry of writing in the recent past, the two decades of militancy in Punjab remain enveloped in layers of silence. The books and articles written on this period tend to be first-hand accounts of soldiers, journalists, police officers, lawyers and the odd writer. Reading this literature, one gets the impression that defence experts are done discussing the strategic tactics and manoeuvres that could have produced a better military result.
No doubt, this is a valuable body of archives that helps us gain an insight into the events. Yet it tells us very little about the men and women who were caught up in the crossfire, of those who were neither militants nor state officials. Nor were they in any influential capacity that allowed them to circumvent curfews, blockades and threats that arranged one’s everyday life. The ordinary mass of people, both Sikhs and Hindus, was usually at the receiving end of militant fire as well as the strategies of the men in uniform.
A community that has been intent on “moving on” and “getting over it” has not completely succeeded in doing so. How do you ever “get over” or stop mourning the loss of a loved one who disappeared or was shot by the police, or got separated and killed by militants on a bus journey? It is this melancholia that needs to be addressed. Unheard voices need to be brought into the public domain. The point here is not just to add voices, as historians have lately been doing, but to create a ground for trust, where citizens can expect justice from the state.
As for those worried about the nostalgic revival of Khalistan, one only needs to revert to the television footage of two warring factions attacking each other with blunt-edged swords. If there ever was an argument against Khalistan, it was vividly depicted here for everyone to see.
The writer is associate professor at the University of Copenhagen