Alienation is the Key

Patwant Singh*

Not many Indian political commentators are free of communal bias. Vir Sanghvi’ s forthright statement on the populist reaction to the army’ s assault on the Golden Temple("I remember being appalled by the obscene jubilation among Hindus") is the kind of comment on that contemptible attack which Sikhs had hoped to hear from most well-meaning people. But didn’ t. He is equally unambiguous in reporting on the jubilation of a leading opinion-taker of the time, Ramnath Goenka, over this affront to the sensibilities of 16 million Sikhs: "This is a greater victory than Bangladesh. It is Mrs. Gandhi’ s greatest achievement."

Goenka’ s feelings clearly mirrored the government’ s own, because it made Lt. General Krishnaswamy Sundarji the next chief of army staff in the aftermath of the action at Amritsar - where the Indian Army took days to overcome resistance by a handful of defenders - while Lt. General Jagjit Singh Aurora, who led the Indian forces to victory in East Pakistan - taking over 90,000 of Pakistan’ s elite troops prisoner - was later bypassed for the army chief’ s post.

For reasons such as this, I have a problem agreeing with Vir Sanghvi’ s conclusion at the end of an otherwise excellent article: that the Sikh comeback "proves that Indian society is strong enough to withstand periods of prejudice and hostility." I doubt it. Just as I doubt the existence of a comeback. Because Indian society has an infinite capacity for sustaining prejudices forever, leaving them submerged in the subconscious, where they accrete new resentments, till it is time to draw upon and fuel them : as intolerant religious bigots periodically do in pursuit of power. Such prejudices led countless Punjabis to disown their language since political compulsions made them label it a Sikh language. Although it had been their mother-tongue for generations. Bansi Lal, the Congress satrap in Haryana, declared Telegu its second language, despite the heaviest concentration of Sikhs there outside Punjab.

The manner of reorganising states on linguistic lines was equally unprincipled, In its 1956 report, the States Reorganisation Commission recommended the formation of Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat, but excluded a Punjabi-speaking state. When after a bitter struggle that killed many, sent thousands to jail, and left permanent scars on communal relations in Punjab, a heavily truncated Punjabi Suba was formed in 1966 - 10 years after Andhra Pradesh and six years after Maharashtra-Gujarat - its creation lacked grace. For not only were part of Punjab excluded - their people having disowned the Punjabi language - but so too was Chandigarh, the capital built for it after Partition. Even more invidious was the officially-sponsored propaganda which made the demand for a Punjabi-speaking state appear as a move for a separate Sikh homeland. A purely linguistic demand, made by other linguistic demand, made by other linguistic groups as well, was, in Punjab’ s case, labelled as separatist demand.

The next watershed followed the Congress party’ s defeat in 1977. Since the Akalis - because of their sustained opposition to the Emergency - had been an anathema to the ruling party, its strategists felt the time had come to settle scores with them. First, by bringing down the Akali-Janta government, then breaking the Akali Dal itself. That the democratic process does not envision the destruction of Opposition parties - only the countering of their electoral appeal through more convincing alternatives - was too fine a point for the Congresss party’ s hatchet men. Their plan called for the "creation" of a religious leader with messianic zeal, who would, by siphoning off support from the coalition, discredit the Akalis. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, unknown to him, was the man chosen for this role.

There was another secret agenda in Indira Gandhi’ s new strategy in which militancy had to play a key role in Punjab. She had realised the need to replace the votes of her former "winning coalition" of Muslims, other religious minorities  and rural poor who had, in varying degrees, seen through the rhetoric of her concerns : the poor had seen the hollowness of the garibi hatao slogan, and the Muslims of secularism. So, in a profound shift from its professed ideals, the Congress would now compete for the Hindu vote. Not openly but obliquely; by making the future of a unified, republican India appear endangered by the Sikhs, the only defence against them being Indira Gandhi’ s leadership. Bhindranwale would be the unwitting instrument for provoking communal passions, with the Congress cashing in on the Hindu vote in the next elections.

He could have been arrested for his intemperate speeches till as late as 15 December 1983, when he still lived outside the Golden Temple. But he had to polarise the Hindus and Sikhs still further and the plan, moreover, called for him to be inside, since only a spectacular assault on the shrine would galvanise India and glorify the Congress.

Indira Gandhi’ s assassination and the massacre of the Sikhs which followed, left a proud people - who had for generations fought for the defence of their country - wondering whether they had a future in it. They wondered too why thousands of their innocent men, women and children were brutally done to death for a crime they had not committed. Nor why the government, ignoring the findings of several independent commissions, was shielding ministers, members of Parliament, party functionaries and police officials at whom accusing fingers had been pointed. Eight years after the crimes, there men are still to be tried. The outraged feelings of an entire community are still to be assuaged. That is why it would be more appropriate if Vir Sanghvi’ s conclusion, "Indian society is strong enough to withstand periods of prejudice and hostility," was rephrased to read: Sikhs are strong enough to withstand continuing prejudice and hostility.

Of the men the columnist has named as symbolising the Sikh comeback, I cannot get enthused over K.P.S. Gill who, in my view represents the Centre’ s imperial, not democratic, view of Punjab. The savagery of his men in uniform : the tortures, killings in custody, disappearances, extortions, branding of women, rape and cold-blooded executions by his hit-men in states as far away as Bengal, do not inspire me as they do the press, politicians and sections of the public and filmdom.

At the heart of the Sikh dilemma lies the fact that there is no effective representation of their political will at the Centre, where real power resides. Being numerically few has not helped either, since in the politicians’ calculus, it is numbers, and not justice and fairplay, which count in the political sweepstakes. Because of this lack of political weightage, M.S. Gill, a forerunner for the Cabinet Secretary’ s post last year, was bypassed despite his excellent service record in Punjab and abroad and as secretary of two key Union ministries. He was sidelined to accommodate a man without prior posting as secretary in the central government.

Equally unbecoming of a secular state is the manner in which Sikh defence personnel have been discriminated against and not a single Sikh promoted to the army chief’ s post in the 47 years since Independence. Aurora was not the only one to be overlooked, despite the laurels he earned for India through his outstanding military leadership. Much earlier, Lt. General Kulwant Singh was similarly treated and in 1969, Lt. General Harbax Singh, despite his brilliant conduct of the 1965 war, was bypassed for the army chief’ s post after his appointment, although approved by the Cabinet, was turned down  by the Prime Minister.

A genuine Sikh comeback is only possible if moral principles and decencies are give pre-eminence in public life. If India has persons of vision, wisdom and integrity at the top - and this a big "if" - then all the country’ s alienated people can be enthused once again. But if the duality of standards and political betrayals continue to plague the country, then what lies ahead is an even more divided and disaffected India.


Thoughts of Guru Nanak