Date: 12/7/2001


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'STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale' Translated by Ranbir Singh Sandhu, 1999. Sikh Educational and Religious Foundation, P.O. Box 1553, Dublin, Ohio 43017, LXX plus 503 Pages

A Dying Tradition? Ravinder Singh and I.J. Singh Wed Dec 05

In June 1984, the Indian army launched a major military offensive targeting the Golden Temple in Amritsar and 38 other Gurudwaras across the Punjab, allegedly to flush out - as the government put it - terrorists led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. But the assault did more than just slay Bhindranwale. It also killed thousands of innocent pilgrims, reduced the Akal Takht to rubble, destroyed the Sikh Reference Library and left the Sikh community deeply outraged. More importantly, it set the stage for the subsequent pogrom of the Sikhs that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination in October 1984.

Did Bhindranwale fit the image that the Indian government, aided by a pliant media portrayed of him - that of a venom spewing religious fanatic who resorted to terrorist activity as a means to achieve his goals? Or, was he in fact an unwitting pawn in Indira Gandhi's devious game, a victim, in the end, of State terrorism? Does he deserve the honorific "Sant" that Sikhs have bestowed upon him? Was he in some way responsible for putting the entire Sikh community under attack? Any assessment of Bhindranwale must account for these questions.

Bhindranwale is nothing if not controversial. Difficult to ignore, he was - and remains - much maligned and much misunderstood; yet, he is also much admired. Labeled a terrorist by the Indian government, he was accused of killing Hindus and inflaming communal passions. Oddly enough, Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as Prime Minister of India, called him a religious man just three weeks before the Indian Army launched its attack. The government had him arrested once but found no evidence to try him on any charge. On the other hand, the same government had earlier patronized him and used him to undermine the Akalis in Punjab.

Bhindranwale also polarized the Sikh community during his lifetime. He was revered as a "Sant" in rural Punjab but resented by urban Sikhs, especially outside of Punjab. But in his death most Sikhs have come to admire him as a "martyr". In fact, with each passing year his memory acquires an increasingly mythical dimension amongst the Sikhs.

Bhindranwale insisted that he was a man of religion, not a politician. Yet, he allegedly fielded and supported candidates for SGPC elections and actively promoted the Anandpur Sahib resolution, which has political ramifications. He never sought political office but was by no means oblivious to the political process or Akali politics.

Seventeen years after his death, Bhindranwale continues to loom large, but objective assessments on his life and role remain sparse, especially in English. Apart from Chand Joshi's 'Bhindranwale: Myth and Reality' and Surjit Jalandhry's 'Bhindranwale Sant', the only recent work is that of Justice Choor Singh who published a monograph three years ago. This lack may be, in part, because it is politically incorrect to do so; and in part, because source material (in English) on Bhindranwale is scanty or unavailable. The result is that the available literature on Bhindranwale is either highly biased or lapses into hagiography leaving the real Bhindranwale shrouded in mystery.

Dr. Ranbir Singh (Sandhu), Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University has sought to redress this imbalance by providing us a window into Bhindranwale's mind in 'Struggle For Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale'. The book, published in 1999, is a compilation of Bhindranwale's available speeches (in Punjabi and recorded on audio and video cassettes) arranged chronologically and translated into English. The forty-four speeches and three conversations span the period from early 1982 to May 1984, although a majority (thirty) were delivered during the six months from March to August 1983.

Dr. Ranbir Singh brings a meticulous engineering mind and scholarly rigor to an onerous task. His translations are crisp, skillful and copiously annotated. The reader will also appreciate the painstaking care and calibrated precision with which the speeches are divided into paragraphs, each with a header reflecting the subject being discussed. A glossary of Punjabi terms and a list of places mentioned during the speeches are also included. Through lengthy introductory essays, Ranbir Singh provides a contextual framework for the events leading to Operation Bluestar.

The Bhindranwale that emerges from these speeches bears no resemblance to the terrorist ogre he has been made out to be. He is provocative, no doubt, and on occasion intemperate in his choice of words, but certainly not enough to invite the kind of retribution that the government visited upon him - and the Sikhs. As a matter of fact, many of the issues that preoccupied him - the release of Bhai Amrik Singh, installation of a transmitter in the Durbar Sahib, police excesses against innocent Sikhs - are very local, and to a Sikh outside the Punjab, would appear as non-issues.

Underlying these concerns was a persistent exhortation for Sikhs to rediscover the pristine purity of their own faith, to imbibe the idiom of self-respect that the Gurus taught. And there are diatribes against drug and alcohol use amongst Sikhs. This is standard fare for a Sikh preacher, except that Bhindranwale was also a charismatic presence.

It is noteworthy that nowhere in these speeches is there a demand for Khalistan or the dismemberment of India.

There can be little doubt that Operation Bluestar was the culmination of Indira Gandhi's political strategy to demoralize the Sikhs, to put them in their place as it were. Bhindranwale merely provided the pretext.

In his introductory material Dr Sandhu does well to trace the origins of embedded anti-Sikh attitudes amongst Hindus, especially the Arya Samajis, as exemplified in their denial of a separate Sikh identity and "shudhi" movements. He also takes to task - quite rightly - the unprincipled role of the Akalis in bringing Sikhs to their present pass.

However, some nettlesome questions remain. For instance, the issue of why Bhindranwale chose to remain entrenched within the Golden Temple complex when it was clear that a full-scale army invasion seemed imminent. Why would a pious Sikh, imbued in Gurbani, knowingly risk the destruction of the Durbar Sahib and the lives of thousands of pilgrims? These questions repeatedly arise in discussions particularly with non-Sikhs; many Sikhs, too, remain unsure about them. But they are explored neither by Dr. Sandhu in the introductory essays nor in the speeches available here.

Then there is the matter of what lessons can Sikhs imbibe from this phase of their history? The Sant-Sipahi ideal, which Bhindranwale embodied and helped Sikhs rediscover, is fast fading from our religious landscape. Has the ideal (and Bhindranwale) become an anachronism in the modern world? These are difficult but important questions Sikhs must ponder.

Bhindranwale was undoubtedly a complex man with a presence that was larger than life. The speeches translated here provide a marvelous, though an admittedly narrow, window into his mind. More comprehensive analysis of Bhindranwale would probably have to wait the release of confidential files of the Indian government, if and when that occurs.

The book is invaluable as reference material for future scholars and historians interested in Sikhs and the Punjab. These translations are above all a labor of love. Ranbir Singh Sandhu brings his keen and incisive mind and broad learning to a subject that no one with an interest in Sikhs and Sikhism can ignore.

Ravinder Singh lives in Columbus, Ohio; I.J. Singh in New York.