Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh

Sat Nam Readers!

Today, June 6th, 2014 marks 30 years since the now infamous attack by the Indian army on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab.  I will try to provide some of the history leading up to the attack, the attack itself and the aftermath in the coming weeks.  Today, I will tell you about a central figure in the 1984 events – Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.  He’s a controversial character and even Sikhs themselves are somewhat divided on how they feel about him.  I myself was just a young teenager when Bhindranwale was becoming a part of history half a world away.  So what I relate to you will be mostly from the information of others, not all of whom agree, but hopefully it will be enough to explain his very central role he took in the tragedy of 1984.

Before you begin reading ji, please keep an open mind and have a willingness to decide about this man for yourself.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale
posted at SikhSangat.com

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was born on June 2, 1947 in the village of Rode, Moga district, Malwa region of the Punjab.  His name at birth was Jarnail Singh Brar.  His father, Joginder Singh Brar was a farmer and Sikh leader.  His mother was Nihal Kaur.  He was the 7th of 8 children, including 6 brothers and a sister.  In 1965, at 18 years old, he was enrolled at a religious school – the Damdami Taksal, by his father.  During his studies with the Damdami Taksal he was a student of first Gurbachan Singh Khalsa and then Kartar Singh.  He was known to be a very serious student of Sikhi.  When Kartar Singh, the head of the Damdami Taksal was killed in a car accident, he named young Jarnail Singh Brar as his successor.

He married and had two sons, Ishar Singh and Inderjit Singh.

Jarnail Singh Brar went from village to village in the Punjab, advocating for a return to Sikh values and the Sikh way of life.  He encouraged the youth of Punjab to turn away from pornography, alcohol, drugs, adultery and tobacco which had become social problems for the Sikhs as the prosperity of the entire Punjab rose in the 60s and 70s.  His focus on a return to pure Sikh values was appealing to many of the disaffected youth of the time.  He became known among those who followed him, as Bhindranwale Mahapurkh which means roughly, “Great Spiritual Man from Bhindran”.  After this he became widely known as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the name that continues today.

He became the leader of the Damdami Taksal, by election at Mehta Chowk on August 25, 1977 shortly after the death of Kartar Singh.

Bhindranwale and Khalistan

Many of his speeches are audio and video recorded.  He often said “Sikh ik vakhri quam hai” in his speeches, which means “Sikhs are a distinct race.”  He was never reported to have demanded in any way, a separate Sikh state called Khalistan.  However, he is often perceived to have been Khalistanee.  In fact, the Indian government in the 1970s and 1980s would label his a separatist and a terrorist.  There appears to be no real evidence of either.  In a BBC interview, he stated that if the government agreed to such a separation, then he would not refuse it.  He has also been quoted as saying: 

“We are not in support of Khalistan nor are we against it.”  and ” I don’t oppose it [a separate state of Khalistan] nor do I support it.  We are silent.  However, one thing is definite that if this time the Queen of India [a reference to Indira Gandhi] does give it to us, we shall certainly take it.  We won’t reject it.  We shall not repeat the mistake of 1946 [this will be the topic of the later post.  For now know that this is the year before the partition of India into two states – India and Pakistan].  As yet, we do not ask for it.  It is Indira Gandhi’s business and not mine, nor Longowal’s, nor of any other of our leaders.  It is Indira’s business.  Indira should tell us whether she wants to keep us in Hindustan [the term used in India for India – meaning land of the Hindus] or not.  We like to live together, we like to live in India.”

Perhaps tauntingly, given that by this time he was living in the complex of the Golden Temple and had fortified the temple, he added “If the Indian Government invaded the Darbar Sahib complex, the foundation for an independent Sikh state will have been laid.”  After this interview, the BBC reported that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was daring the Indian government to respond to his fortification of the Temple.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (centre-left)
Source: Wikipedia

The Ananpur Resolution

Bhindranwale was also a supporter of the Anandpur Resolution which called for many things including: regional autonomy for the Punjab, the return of the City of Chandigarh to Punjab, special status of Sikhs in the Indian union (not very separatist), a review by the Supreme Court of the use and control of river water in Punjab, a return of all Punjabi speaking areas to the Punjab, a return of the administration of the Punjab Electric Board and certain headworks to Punjab, the provision of a fair share of electricity to Punjab along with some minor religious demands.

Bhindranwale’s Role in Militancy

On April 13, 1978, a fundamentalist group within Sikhi, the AKJ or Akhand Kirtani Jatha went to protest against a second group, the Nirankari, a reformist group within Sikhi.  [These two groups are topics for later posts].  The protest ended in violence and the death of 13 of the demonstrators.  This is were things become murky and complicated.  Essentially a criminal case was filed against the perceived perpetrators (Gurbachan Singh or Nirankari Baba) of the violence.  The case was transferred to Haryana state and resulted in an acquittal.  The Chief Minister of Punjab at the time chose not to appeal the acquittal.  This action was taken badly.  Sikhs were frustrated by what they saw as sacrilege (the killing of the demonstrators) and the legal immunity of the perpetrators (a frustration that continues to this day in any number of cases).  There then developed an attitude that if justice could not be had by turning to state leaders, it would be taken into the hands of the Sikhs themselves, outside of judicial measures.  For a number of reasons the attitude is understandable but that attitude also played a role in the deaths of thousands and thousands more Sikhs in the years that would follow.

There were several proponents of this attitude:

  • The Babbar Khalsa, a group founded by window Bibi Amarjit Kaur of the AKJ
  • The Damdami Taksal, whose leader was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale
  • The Dal Khalsa, a group formed to demand a sovereign Sikh state
  • The All Indian Sikh Students Federation, a group which the Indian government had banned

On April 24th, 1980, Gurbachan Singh appears to have been shot and killed.  Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale apparently openly celebrated this action, which made him a suspect.  A case was filed against no less than 20 people with ties to Bhindranwale, for the murder of Gurbachan Singh.  In the end, an AKJ member, Ranjit Singh surrendered and confessed to the murder and received a sentence of 13 years in jail.

Next, Lala Jagat Narain was murdered on September 9, 1981.  He was the editor of a widely circulated newspaper.  He advocated against the use of the Punjabi language to teach children in Hindu schools.  He encouraged Hindus in the Punjab to therefore declare Hindi as their mother tongue, rather than Punjabi – the language of the region.  Bhindranwale spoke often against Narain, so when Narain was murdered, Bhindranwale was once again a suspect.  A warrant for his arrest issued on September 11, 1981 but he was not located to be arrested.  He publicly announced that he would turn himself in on September 20, 1981, which he apparently did.

Twenty five days later, the Indian Home Minister announced in Parliament that there was no evidence against Bhindranwale for the murder.  He was released for jail a hero.

Around this time, law and order deteriorated quickly over the Punjab region.  The Sikhs became divided into many groups including those that advocated for a peaceful, negotiated settlement for a sovereign Sikh state and those that rejected a peaceful approach.  It appeared that every group with an agenda then got to work dividing the Sikhs further – including covert government agencies, police, armed gangs and communist groups.  The situation left the Punjab region very destabilized.  Bhindranwale began to wear a revolver and encouraged his followers to be armed themselves.

In July 1982, Longowal then head of the Akhal Takhat invited Bhindranwale to live within the Golden Temple Complex.  Bhindranwale subsequently took up residence in the Guru Nanak Niwas (a guesthouse within the complex) with a group of armed followers (freedom fighters to some, terrorists to some, followers to still others).  It is said, as his followers were arrested practically daily, that he intended to make peaceful appeal for their release from the Temple.  However, under threat of arrest for some threats he had made against nationalist groups, he and his group moved to the Akhal Takhat.  Some say that he did this to hide from the law and that it was perceived that Bhindranwale and his group were above the law at the time.  Others says that he did not hide from the law at all and that he was vulnerable to arrest at any time, even while inside the Golden Temple.

Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s body on blocks of ice
Source:  www.sikhmuseum.com

Whichever perception is more true, Indira Gandhi wanted him out of the Temple.  She perceived his popularity as a threat to her control over the Sikhs and the Punjab.  Further, agitating the Sikh situation she believed would garner her favour with Hindu voters.  On June 3, 1984, she ordered the Indian Army to attack Sikhi’s holiest site – the Harimandir Sahib (the Golden Temple), to capture Bhindranwale and his entourage.  Bhindranwale would die during the military operation, Operation Bluestar.

Others believe he was capture alive and then tortured to death.  Still others believe he remains alive and will return to lead the fight for freedom from Indian oppression.  So you see we are not even agreed on his death or his death (or not) has become an unfortunate political tool.

 Whatever the truth, this man who is never quoted as demanding a sovereign Sikh state, remains controversial and the perception of him as a violent separatist remains.  He was declared shaheed (a martyr) in 2003.  He is still used as a symbol of the Khalistanee movement.  As Khushwant Singh has said – Operation Bluestar gave the Khalistan movement its first martyr in Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

It is hard to tell where the truth about Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale lies.  Unfortunately, his life, his speeches and his death are too often the subject of propaganda by various groups seeking to promote their own agenda.  I am told that some translations of his speeches are reasonably reliable while others are not reliable at all.  Reporting on him by the Indian government is rife with bias as well, quite obviously.  If you want to know more about him, I suggest that you do what I am doing and read everything you can find, listen to everything you can find and in the end, decide for yourself who this man really was.   The truth is buried somewhere in the massive complexity that surrounds him.

Personally I have come to see Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as more a freedom fighter than a terrorist.  There is no evidence that he was a terrorist or an extremist at all, expect vague declarations of same by those he opposed.  Taking into account that history is written by the victor, I tone down any labels the Congress Party or Indira Gandhi or the Indian Government would put on him.  I don’t believe he advocated for the violent creation of the state of Khalistan.  I also tone down labels from the other extreme – those who view him as a Khalistanee leader and first martyr in the “fight” for Khalistan.  What I do believe, from all I’ve read and all I’ve seen and heard, is that he pushed for Sikh rights, a recognition of the Sikhs as a unique people whose uniqueness deserved protection, he was willing to take a hard stand against the government and that made him a target, he took sides when maybe he didn’t need to, and he helped inspire many back to original Sikh values and away from social ill.  He would have supported a separate state but I think he would have wanted that to occur through protest, negotiation and perhaps some hard line advocating, rather than a violent overthrown (how could he and his group have won that fight??).  I believe he was willing to die for his beliefs and for the freedoms he advocated.  Right or wrong, that’s exactly what he did, on a day between June 3rd and 8th, 1984, most often reported to have occurred on June 6th.  So for myself, as imperfect as I believe him to be, I will refer to him as Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a shaheed.  

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jarnail_Singh_Bhindranwale#Sanctuary_in_the_Golden_Temple
60 Minutes Interview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNwqhTWd8Jw
Subtitled Speech by BirRass Productions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rr0RnaQJ_Cc
Sikh Revolution collection of speeches (many in Punjabi):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CW4t9Q5MfKc&list=PLC9E583347AD33843
SikhiWiki’s entry on Bhindranwale:  http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Sant_Jarnail_Singh_Bhindranwale
Article by his brother, Harcharan: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/xPmJHaL6ygspS631NCnijK/My-brother-Bhindranwale-was-misunderstood-by-the-govt-Harch.html
Article by Praveen Swami from The Hindu:  http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/bhindranwale-reborn/article6079108.ece
NeverForget84.com’s bio:  http://www.neverforget84.com/sant-jarnail-singh-khalsa-bhindranwale
Sikh Times Article:  http://www.sikhtimes.com/bios_060604a.html
Sikh-History.com’s article:  http://www.sikh-history.com/sikhhist/personalities/bhindrenwale.html
Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry:  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/64145/Sant-Jarnail-Singh-Bhindranwale
A History of the Sikhs, Vol 2, by Kushwant Singh