The news of a grenade attack on a small gathering of followers of the Nirankari sect near Amritsar on November 18, killing three and injuring another 20 persons, instantly reminded observers of Punjab of the incident that took place 40 years ago. It was in 1978, on April 13, the day of Baisakhi, that a procession by two Sikh organisations protesting against what they perceived as blasphemy was violently attacked by the members of the Nirankari sect, killing 17 individuals, mostly Sikhs. Many of those killed were associated with the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh establishment that preaches the “foundational values” of the faith. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was one of its preachers, who soon emerged as a champion of the Khalistan movement.
The Nirankaris had to pay a heavy price for this confrontation. Two years later, a Sikh killed the sect’s head, Gurbachan Singh, at his home in Delhi. The 1978 incident also unleashed a deadly cycle of violence. Many regard this as the beginning of the Khalistan movement, which lasted for nearly 15 years. The period also saw devious political actors using religious sentiments to consolidate their constituencies. The violence unleashed in Punjab resulted in a prolonged phase of lawlessness, senseless terror by Sikh militants and heinous police brutalities. It also produced some tragic events — army action at the Golden Temple, the killing of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi followed by large scale violence against Sikhs.
The Sikh establishment issued diktats to its followers barring social interaction with the Nirankaris and continued to criticise its “revisionist” practices. However, the Nirankaris did not react and have kept a low profile ever since. Even after the grenade attack on November 18, their response has been rather subdued. The official statement published on their website merely describes “the incident of grenade attack” as “unfortunate”, which has left them all “deeply hurt and saddened”. It further underlines that they are “a Mission of Love, Peace and Tolerance” and that they “pray for humanity and peace to prevail”.
More importantly, perhaps, despite the campaign by the Sikh establishment and an appeal for their boycott, their alienation from the larger Sikh community has seemingly never been very serious. As is evident from the available reports, two of the three killed in the grenade attack were turban-wearing bearded Sikhs. In other words, to think of the grenade attack as a case of communal violence or an evidence of underlying religious conflict between the Sikhs and Nirankaris is likely to be inaccurate. This also suggests that the popular religiosity in Punjab continuous to be syncretic.
How should we then make sense of the grenade attack? What could be the motivation of the attackers? While it is indeed for the police and investigating agencies to provide answers to these questions, it is important to situate the November 18 attack in its larger context. This inevitably requires us to go back to the Khalistan movement and the lessons learnt from it — the need of a proper political and administrative response to a situation like this.
As we know, the Khalistan movement declined by the early 1990s and the security forces eventually succeeded in suppressing Sikh militancy. Despite the deadly violence for more than decade, in terms of its political ends, it achieved nothing. Not only was there no recognition of any kind of Sikh aspirations for political autonomy, but even the “secular” demands such as river water distributions or giving Chandigarh to Punjab or the broader question of renegotiating Centre-state relations were forgotten. The fatigue from violence had made all politics unpopular. With peace returning to the state, Punjabis heaved a sigh of relief. Maintaining and protecting peace became the most cherished political objective and continues to be so. However, the Sikhs were also left with a sense of loss and injustice. A majority of them had never supported the idea of Khalistan. The trauma of 1980s was hard to forget.
There has been no attempt to bring closure to the tragedies suffered in Amritsar, Delhi and elsewhere by members of the community.
Even though the Sikh community makes up less than two per cent of the country’s population, it has never seen themselves as a minority community. Its members had rarely felt vulnerable or marginalised. They had been proud soldiers in the Indian armed forces and played an active role in bringing prosperity to the country. There had never been any doubt about their loyalty to the nation.
Thanks to these positives, the Sikh leadership has been quite successful in bringing the community back to the national mainstream. India soon saw a Sikh become the prime minister for a decade and never was his religious identity invoked to question his credentials. Despite the declining economic prospects of the agrarian economy in Punjab and its increasing social fragmentation, the Sikhs have not lost their sense of dignity. They continue to pursue their demand for justice for the violence in 1984 in Delhi, without ever legitimising use of violent means.
The grenade attack in Amritsar may not appear to be an isolated case. Over the years, Punjab has seen several targeted attacks, which appear like attempts at reviving the idea of Khalistan. However, this ought not been seen as a popular Sikh aspiration.
The Indian state and its security agencies must treat such attempts for what they are. They require an institutional response within the framework of law, without prejudice or conceit. A plural democracy needs to work out ways of living together with difference and diversity and the responsibility for making this possible lies primarily with the political class. To the Sikhs, any attempt at invoking the narrative Khalistan in such cases smacks of a conspiracy to push the community back into the dark times of violence.
The writer is professor of sociology at JNU, Delhi