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Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale: Five Myths

By PUNEET SINGH LAMBA

The Sikh Times, Jun. 6, 2004


Photo: A life-size picture of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale adorns the entrance of one of Canada's largest gurdwaras, Sri Guru Singh Sabha, 7280 Airport Road, Malton (a Toronto suburb), Ontario, June 22, 2003.

Introduction

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of Jarnail Singh Brar, popularly known as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, or simply Bhindranwale.

In the early 1980s, Bhindranwale led an armed movement for Sikh autonomy and died during an India army offensive (nicknamed Operation Blue Star) on the Darbar Sahib complex (also known as the Golden Temple complex).

Not many people can claim to be neutral about Bhindranwale. To his admirers, he was above all a man of his word, a rare quality among politicians.1 To his detractors, he mostly represented the 'paranoia' and 'dangerously intolerant quality of orthodox Sikhs.'2

After Operation Bluestar, Harchand Singh Longowal, perhaps the most respected moderate Sikh leader of recent years, is said to have done a volte-face and revised his opinion of Bhindranwale overnight from 'scoundrel' to 'saint.'3

Dipankar Gupta, one of India's premier sociologists, once offered the following explanation, 'That Bhindranwale is near canonisation in the minds of many Sikhs today is because Bhindranwale's blood mingled with the blood of at least 400 pilgrims who died during Bluestar.'4

The fiery preacher, equally controversial in life and death, left behind several myths about himself, some made popular by well-wishers, others by detractors. The following is a countdown of the top five most enduring of the Bhindranwale fables.

Myth #5: Bhindranwale Survived Operation Bluestar and Is Alive and Well

Damdami Taksal is the influential religious school, once located in the village Bhinder5, where Bhindranwale was initially a student and eventually jathedar (head priest). The seminary's current jathedar, Thakur Singh, has continued to maintain that Bhindranwale is still alive.6

According to Lt. Gen. Kuldip Singh Brar, who commanded Operation Bluestar, '[the bodies] of Bhindranwale and Shahbeg were identified by a number of agencies including the police, the I.B. [Intelligence Bureau] and militants in our custody.'7 Bhindranwale's brother is also reported to have identified Bhindranwale's body.8 Pictures of what appears to be Bhindranwale's body have been published in at least two widely circulated books.9,10

Whereas there can be little doubt that Bhindranwale is no more, the circumstances of his final moments remain shrouded in mystery. The New York Times reported three distinct versions of Bhindranwale's death.

Veteran B.B.C. correspondent Mark Tully relates an incident during Bhindranwale's funeral. Captain Bhardwaj 'on lifting the sheet to make sure it was Bhindranwale [asked] the police why the Sant's [Sant is an honorific title analogous to Saint] body was so badly battered.' A police officer replied, 'The extremists broke his bones.'11

At the other end of the spectrum lies Dilbir Singh's account. Dilbir Singh was 'Public Relations Advisor at Guru Nanak Dev University for seven years [and] was with the Sant constantly from 1978 until the last week of his life.' He was also 'at that time a correspondent of the Tribune and formerly of the Patriot.' He stated, 'In the fight Bhindranwale was injured on the right side of his temple. A government doctor verified he was captured alive. He was tortured to death.'12

R.K. Bajaj, a correspondent for Surya magazine, is said to have confirmed that 'he had personally seen a photograph of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in army custody.'13

Myth #4: Bhindranwale Was a Man of Religion Without Political Ambition

Bhindranwale made repeated claims to the effect that he had no interest in political power, 'If I ever become president of the Akali Dal or the S.G.P.C. [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee], an M.L.A., a government minister, or a member of parliament . . . I shall deserve a shoe-beating by you.'14,15

In contrast, we have the following examples of Bhindranwale's abundant political aspirations year after year:

However, given his poor record in electoral politics and a disinclination to play by the rules, he had little incentive to seek formal political office. He was already 'the uncrowned emperor.'22 As articulated by Time magazine, 'Bhindranwale had become so popular he had usurped the Akalis' authority.'23 He wielded more informal power than all of Punjab's formal political players combined and liked the idea of 'keeping all factions chasing his favor [whereby] no faction made a move in Punjab without considering the response it would draw from Bhindranwale.'24

Bhindranwale operated 'from inside a whale,'25 seemingly without concern for other points of view. 'In this independence lay much of Bhindranwale's appeal.'26 Yet, the same aloofness also represented his most significant weakness: a failure to participate in the democratic process.

'Villagers came to him with their problems, Bhindranwale pronounced judgments and called frightened policemen on the telephone to instruct them on how a matter was to be settled.'27

Subhash Kirpekar was 'perhaps the last journalist to meet the lion in his den.' During the interview Bhindranwale responded thus to a question on succession planning, 'It is not an elective post. I think whosoever attains the status of God will come up as my successor.'28

Myth #3: Bhindranwale Did Not Demand Khalistan

In the absence of a universally accepted definition of the term 'Khalistan,' the usage here is consistent with its origin wherein Dr. Vir Singh Bhatti envisioned it in 1940 as a 'theocratic' monarchy, which would by definition be inconsistent with the Indian Constitution.29

Bhindranwale's standard response to the question of Khalistan, an independent Sikh state, was noncommittal: 'we are not in favor of Khalistan nor are we against it.'30 He often also clarified that if Khalistan came about, 'We won't reject it. We shall not repeat the mistake of 1947.'31 To that he added, 'if the Indian Government invaded the Darbar Sahib complex, the foundation for an independent Sikh state will have been laid.'32

The book Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants by Cynthia Keppley Mahmood has received wide acceptance among radical Sikhs. In the book, Harpal Singh recalls a meeting with Bhindranwale during which the preacher remarked, 'staying in India would mean the genocide of the Sikhs.'33 The implication that anything short of a separate state would spell eventual disaster for the Sikhs amounted to an implicit vote for Khalistan. On other occasions Bhindranwale was more explicit, 'Frankly, I don't think the Sikhs can live with or within India.'34

The Dal Khalsa, responsible for hoisting a Khalistan flag at a Sikh convention on March 20, 1982 at Anandpur Sahib, were seen forming a protective ring around Bhindranwale when, in 1981, he was holding the police at bay at Chowk Mehta in an attempt to avoid arrest.35 Although 'Bhindranwale was never openly associated with the Dal Khalsa,' most observers regarded it as 'Bhindranwale's party.'36

In early 1983, India's intelligence is said to have obtained a copy of a letter from Bhindranwale to Jagjit Singh Chauhan in which he promised full support for Khalistan.37

Finally, while we're on the subject, we might as well also cover one other related myth, i.e. that Khalistan has never had any substantial support amongst Sikhs in India. In an interview with B.B.C. correspondent Mark Tully just days before his death, S.G.P.C. President Gurcharan Singh Tohra answered a question about his personal views on Khalistan by admitting that 'some personal desires are better kept hidden.'38 According to Ved Marwah, a former senior police officer on Indira Gandhi's 'select committee for monitoring Punjab affairs,' a majority of the Sikhs supported separatism in the wake of Operation Bluestar.39 In a recent interview,40 Lt. Gen. Kuldip Singh Brar estimated that if Khalistan had been declared prior to Operation Bluestar, 'a large section of the Punjab police might have crossed over to support Bhindranwale.'

Overly optimistic claims by pro-India commentators that the Sikhs have 'moved on' are consistently belied by informed parties who note, '[Operation Bluestar] has not been forgotten, and you [the visitor] will find many people in Amritsar keen to explain the Sikh side of the story.'41

Myth #2: Only a Tiny Minority of Sikhs Revere Bhindranwale as a Martyr

In Khushwant Singh's words, '[Operation Bluestar] gave the movement for Khalistan its first martyr in Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.'42

In 1985, Harkishan Singh Surjeet had optimistically announced that Bhindranwale's martyr status would only be 'temporary.'43

However, on this day last year, Joginder Singh Vedanti, the jathedar of the Akal Takht, an approximate Sikh counterpart to the Vatican, formally declared Bhindranwale a 'martyr' and awarded his son, Ishar Singh, a siropa (robe of honor).44 The function was organized by the S.G.P.C., 'a sort of parliament of the Sikhs.'45

The Encyclopedia of Sikhism, edited by Harbans Singh, a widely respected scholar of Sikh studies, describes Bhindranwale as 'a phenomenal figure of modern Sikhism.'46

Bhindranwale's posters and speeches are among the 'most popular' items at Punjab's rural fairs, held on occasions such as the Hola Mohalla festival.47

Gurtej Singh Brar, a former I.A.S. officer and S.G.P.C. National Professor of Sikhism, was suspended from the I.A.S. for making the following statement: 'The Sikh nation theory has been current among the Sikhs since the time of Guru Nanak. There should be others like Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to lead the Sikhs and take up their cause of righteousness and truth.'48

Several North American gurdwaras prominently display Bhindranwale's pictures at entrances and in langar (community kitchen) halls. This writer has personally witnessed the phenomenon at gurdwaras in Detroit, Michigan and Toronto, Ontario (see picture).

In the words of Vir Sanghvi, one of India's leading political commentators, '[Bhindranwale] remains a martyr in the eyes of many Sikhs. Even today, rare is the Sikh politician who will dare to call him what he was: a fanatic and a murderer.'49

Myth #1: Bhindranwale Was Not a Terrorist

In 1985, Citizens for Democracy (C.F.D.), founded by Jayaprakash Narayan and chaired by the noted civil libertarian Justice V.M. Tarkunde, produced a report on the Punjab crisis. The report, banned in India because of its strong indictment of the state, has received wide acceptance within the diaspora Sikh community despite its acknowledgement of 'Bhindranwale's role in inciting violence.'50

Violent thoughts seemed second nature to Bhindranwale. He often made extremely cruel remarks with utmost sincerity, 'If a true Sikh drinks, he should be burnt alive.'51 Tavleen Singh discovered that in Bhindranwale's darbar (court), 'concepts like non-violence were mocked and sneering remarks made about Gandhi.'52 Perhaps Khushwant Singh said it best, 'He well understood that hate was a stronger passion than love.'53

Although the 'mad monk'54 was politically astute enough to recant vicious statements made in the heat of the moment, it is instructive to note just how bellicose he was when aroused.

Even Bhindranwale's staunchest supporters only go as far as stating, 'Bhindranwale consistently opposed violence against any innocent person.'63 The autocratic Bhindranwale had assumed singular jurisdiction over the guilt and innocence of a good portion of India's citizens. And to him lethal violence was a justified means of punishment for those whom he considered culpable. He was the legislature, executive and judiciary all rolled into one with complete disregard for the democratic concept of the separation of powers. The result was nothing short of 'ethnic cleansing.'64

Dilbir Singh (see above) related the following account of how masterfully Bhindranwale ordered the killing of Lala Jagat Narain, proprietor-editor of the Hind Samachar group of newspapers:

According to Chand Joshi, a veteran correspondent for The Hindustan Times, 'In the Nirankari Baba murder case, for instance, the C.B.I. claimed to have pin-pointed four suspects including Jarnail Singh Brar alias Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The arrest warrants had been given to the Punjab police but were not served because of 'orders from the highest quarters.' '66

It is worth noting, 'The decision to release Bhindranwale was taken by the [Indira Gandhi and Zail Singh] government. It was not the verdict of a court.'67

Finally, it is impossible to accept that the people closest to Bhindranwale could consistently perpetrate monstrous violence without his endorsement.

Concluding Remarks

In closing, here is a sampling of additional points to ponder: Bhindranwale might well be the most polarizing figure in Sikh history. This essay acknowledges his numerous advocates but makes no apologies for expounding on the preacher's flaws. To the extent that the Sikhs revere him as a prophet and a martyr, his contradictions are likely to be emblematic of the paradoxes that inflict the Sikh community as whole. To grapple with Bhindranwale's inconsistencies is to critically evaluate the state of Sikhism today.

Surain Singh Dhanoa was the senior-most bureaucrat in Punjab during the years immediately following Operation Bluestar.78 His viewpoint is representative of the denial that causes many in India to place responsibility for Operation Bluestar squarely at Bhindranwale's doorstep. According to Dhanoa, 'There would have been no Operation Bluestar [if] Bhindranwale had moved out of the Golden Temple complex.'79

However, Dhanoa and others fail to acknowledge New Delhi's primary role in the brinkmanship and lost opportunities prior to Operation Bluestar. Instances include the critical roles played by Sanjay Gandhi and Zail Singh of the ruling Congress party in 'promoting' Bhindranwale as a counterweight to the Akali Dal,80 the government's failure to arrest Bhindranwale even when he 'openly flouted the law' while touring New Delhi with an entourage 'brandishing illegal arms,'81 and Indira Gandhi's propensity for backing out of agreements (at one point 'three times in six months'82).83

Responsibility for Operation Bluestar and the 'dark decade'84 that followed (mid-1980s to mid-1990s) ought to be apportioned in proportion to the formal political powers and electoral mandates enjoyed by the parties involved: Notes and References
  1. Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley, Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), p. 69.
  2. Mahmood, pp. 241-243.
  3. Tully, Mark, 'After Blue Star,' Part 2, B.B.C., June 2004
  4. Singh, Patwant and Harji Malik (editors), Punjab: The Fatal Miscalculation (New Delhi: Patwant Singh, 1985), p. 219.
  5. Singh, Khushwant, A History of the Sikhs, Volume 2: 1839-1988 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 328.
  6. Kaur, Naunidhi, Frontline, June 23, 2001 (http://www.flonnet.com/fl1813/18130360.htm).
  7. Brar, Lt. Gen. K.S., Operation Blue Star: The True Story (New Delhi: U.B.S.P.D., 1993), p. 114.
  8. Akbar, M.J., India: The Siege Within: Challenges to a Nation's Unity (New Delhi: U.B.S.P.D., 1996), p. 196.
  9. Nayar, Kuldip and Khushwant Singh, Tragedy of Punjab: Operation Bluestar and After (New Delhi: Vision Books, 1984), p. 97.
  10. Tully, Mark and Satish Jacob, Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle (New Delhi: Rupa & Co, 1985), p. 177.
  11. Tully, p. 182.
  12. Pettigrew, Joyce, The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerrilla Violence (London: Zed Books, 1995), pp. 34-35, 51.
  13. Jaijee, Inderjit Singh, Politics of Genocide: Punjab (1984-1998) (Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1999), p. 59.
  14. Sandhu, Ranbir Singh, Struggle for Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale (Dublin, Ohio: Sikh Educational & Religious Foundation, 1999), p. 285.
  15. Tully, p. 113.
  16. Singh, Khushwant, p. 332.
  17. Tully, p. 61.
  18. Joshi, Chand, Bhindranwale: Myth and Reality (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1984), p. 85.
  19. Joshi, p. 130.
  20. India Today, May 15, 1984, pp. 30-31, cited in Paul Wallace and Surendra Chopra, Political Dynamics and Crisis in Punjab, (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 1988), p. 39.
  21. Tully, p. 202.
  22. Joshi, p. 26.
  23. Lopez, Laura, 'India, Diamonds and the Smell of Death,' Time, June 25, 1984.
  24. Jeffrey, Robin, What's Happening to India?, Second Edition (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1994), pp. 146-147.
  25. Mahmood, p. 249.
  26. Jeffrey, p. 142.
  27. Jeffrey, p. 168.
  28. Kaur, Amarjit, et al, The Punjab Story (New Delhi: Roli Books International, 1984), pp. 76-78.
  29. Grewal, J.S., 'Sikh Identity, the Akalis and Khalistan,' in J.S. Grewal and Indu Banga, Punjab in Prosperity and Violence: Administration, Politics and Social Change 1947-1997 (Chandigarh: Institute of Punjab Studies, 1998), p. 65. This paragraph was added in response to a clarification sought by Hari Singh Khalsa of Espaņola, New Mexico.
  30. Sandhu, p. vi.
  31. Sandhu, p. lvi.
  32. Sandhu, p. lvii.
  33. Mahmood, p. 128.
  34. Jaijee, p. 34.
  35. Joshi, p. 34.
  36. Tully, p. 60.
  37. Joshi, p. 129.
  38. Tully, Mark, 'After Blue Star,' Part 3, British Broadcasting Corporation, June 2004.
  39. Jaijee, p. 30.
  40. Rediff, June 3, 2004.
  41. Pippa de Bruyn and Keith Bain, Frommer's India (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2004), p. 387.
  42. Singh, Khushwant, p. 378.
  43. Interview with Nikhil Laxman of The Illustrated Weekly of India, reproduced in Samiuddin, Abida, editor, The Punjab Crisis: Challenge and Response, (New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 1985).
  44. The Times of India and Outlook, June 7, 2003; Don't React, Editorial, The Indian Express, June 9, 2003.
  45. Singh, Khushwant, p. 214.
  46. Singh, Harbans (editor-in-chief), The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Volume II (Patiala: Punjabi University, 1996), p. 352.
  47. Jolly, Asit, Reporting from Chandigarh, Punjab, B.B.C., March 31, 2002 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1904217.stm).
  48. Joshi, p. 1.
  49. Imprint magazine, February 1986, cited in Sandhu, p. xl.
  50. Rao, Amiya, et al, Report to the Nation: Oppression in Punjab (Columbus, Ohio: Sikh Religious and Educational Trust, 1986), p. 16.
  51. Akbar, p. 181.
  52. Kaur, Amarjit, et al, p. 39.
  53. Singh, Khushwant, pp. 330-331.
  54. Joshi, inside front cover jacket.
  55. Tully, p. 59.
  56. Sandhu, p. vi.
  57. Sandhu, p. vi.
  58. Joshi, p. 120.
  59. Joshi, p. 144; Sandhu, p. 256.
  60. Sandhu, p. 286.
  61. Joshi, pp. 148-149.
  62. Sandhu, p. 471.
  63. Sandhu, p. xxi.
  64. Cole, W. Owen and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Second Fully Revised Edition, (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1998), p. 176.
  65. Pettigrew, p. 34.
  66. Joshi, p. 78.
  67. Tully, p. 69.
  68. Joshi, p. 88.
  69. Joshi, p. 91.
  70. Juergensmeyer, Mark, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Third Edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, p. 100.
  71. Joshi, p. 115.
  72. Joshi, p. 115.
  73. Singh, Tavleen in Amarjit Kaur, et al, p. 34.
  74. Joshi, p. 34.
  75. This is a reference to Bhindranwale's insistence that Indira Gandhi, being a woman, should be the one to visit him for negotiations.
  76. Singh, Tavleen in Amarjit Kaur, et al, p. 41.
  77. Akbar, M.J., India: The Siege Within: Challenges to a Nation's Unity (New Delhi: U.B.S.P.D.), 1985, p. 185, cited in Harjot Oberoi's essay 'Sikh Fundamentalism: Translating History into Theory' in Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 268.
  78. Surain Singh Dhanoa, an Indian Administrative Service (I.A.S.) officer from the Bihar cadre, served as chief secretary of Punjab until mid-1985 when he was appointed as senior advisor to the governor of Punjab, India Today, May 31, 1985, p. 17.
  79. Dhanoa, S.S., 'Memorial to Bluestar,' The Tribune, June 15, 2005.
  80. Tully, p. 60.
  81. Tully, p. 70.
  82. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, quoted in Tully, p. 91.
  83. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Jagpal Singh Tiwana, a leader of the Sikh community in Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada), in framing this argument via his comments on Sikh-Diaspora, Yahoo! Groups, June 17, 2005.
  84. Grewal, Manraj, Dreams After Darkness: A Search for a Life Ordinary Under the Shadow of 1984 (New Delhi: Rupa & Co, 2004), p. 1.