A U G U S T 1 9 8 8
by Conor Cruise O'Brien
The Indian state came into being amid the scenes of communal-religious carnage that accompanied the partition of the subcontinent between mainly Hindu India and entirely Muslim Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, had resolutely rejected the idea of a secular state that could encompass both Hindus and Muslims. In his presidential address to the Muslim League at Lahore in 1940, Jinnah declared: "Islam and Hinduism are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but in fact different and distinct social orders, and it is only a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality.... To yoke together two such nations under a single state ... must lead to a growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state."
Return to Flashback: Indian Passages
Yet in the event, the fabric of India's secular state proved tougher than that
of confessional Pakistan. Pakistan originally consisted of eastern and western
sections, connected by a common religion but different in language and culture.
The religious bond proved insufficient, and East Pakistan in 1971 seceded and
became the independent state of Bangladesh. Secular India, however, has held
together. There are now almost as many Muslims in India as there are in
Pakistan. Muslims and Hindus in India may perhaps not have "evolved a common
nationality," but they -- and Sikhs also, so far -- have managed to live together,
within one state, for more than forty years now, whereas the "common
nationality" of the Muslims of Pakistan burst asunder after twenty-four
The viability of the secular and democratic system in India is a remarkable phenomenon, and one that has received less attention in the West than it deserves. Yet there have been continuing challenges, both internal and external, to India's secular democracy, and to the very existence of an Indian state. In this article I propose to look at the latest, and perhaps the most serious, of these challenges -- the challenge of Sikh religious nationalism, discreetly backed by Pakistan. The Sikhs are a religious and ethnic group, distinct from both Hindus and Muslims. Most Sikhs live in the prosperous northwest Indian province of the Punjab. From about the beginning of the present decade militant Sikhs -- with considerable moral backing from their fellows -- have been engaged in a campaign of violence, mainly against the Indian government, but also against Hindus in the Punjab, and sometimes against Sikhs who happen to have offended the militants.
Sikh terrorism in the Punjab took about a thousand lives in 1987 and more than a thousand in the first five months of 1988. If it continues at the present rate, Sikh terrorism in the Punjab will have cost more lives in two years than the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland has cost in twenty.
Previous challenges to the Indian state came mainly from poor and marginal regions or sections, and these challenges, including those mounted by the Naxalites (Indian Marxist-Leninists), exploited the grievances of the most disadvantaged. The Sikh challenge is different. The Sikhs are the most dynamic, and among the most prosperous, of all the peoples of India. They are first-rate farmers, soldiers, sportsmen. Thrifty, abstemious, self-reliant, with a well-developed work ethic, the Sikhs have many of the Puritan virtues. The Punjab is the richest of all the provinces of India. It is because of the Punjab that India has not needed to import food, even during the recent periods of prolonged drought. The wealth of the Punjab is partly due to its natural resources, in particular its great rivers. But it is also partly due to the skill and industry of its farming population, the Sikh Jats. Sikhs are also prospering in various employment -- mainly to do with transport -- in many other parts of India.
So what are the grievances that have driven a section of this prosperous people into revolt? The answer to this question does not exactly lie on the surface. Before attempting to answer it, we shall need to look first at some of the facts on the ground today and then at the history of the Sikhs, and in particular at the evolution among them of a uniquely explicit institutionalized synthesis of religion and politics -- a synthesis that has proved profoundly inimical to the secular and democratic state of India.
Recently I attended a Sikh political rally which was also inevitably a Sikh religious rally, at the Guru Nanak stadium, in the Punjab industrial city of Ludhiana. The rally was organized by the main Sikh political party, the United Akali Dal. The UAD is regarded as a constitutional party in India. I thought a term once in use in Irish politics might be more appropriate: "a slightlyconstitutional party."
The crowd consisted almost entirely of large, stolid, handsome Sikh farmers: Jats. The Jats sat on the ground of the sports field, in silence, facing the platform. That platform was quite a sight. It was religious on one side and political on the other: a fascinating spectacle for someone like myself, curious about the interdependencies of religion and nationalism.
The political side was a conventional political platform with chairs, a long table, microphones, glasses of water, and political personalities taking turns to speak. All that was on the right-hand side, from the point of view of the audience, or congregation. On the other side -- the gospel side, in Christian parlance -- was a dais raised about a foot above the level of the regular platform, and covered by a red and gold canopy. Under the canopy was a copy of the Sikh scriptures: the Granth Sahib. Three priests in saffron robes kept silent vigil around the Granth Sahib.
The presence of the Granth Sahib meant that the gathering was a religious ceremony as well as a political occasion. It also meant that the whole platform and the area immediately around it, including the press gallery, was deemed to constitute a sacred place. I was invited to take a seat in the press gallery but declined on finding that in order to enter I would be obliged to cover my head. Somehow I found the idea of a sacred press gallery, though novel and interesting, also faintly nauseating. I stayed out on the field.
But even out on the field the political proceedings had a disturbing liturgical character. The political resolutions, all of which were carried unanimously, were put to the vote with the sacred formula
God is Truth.")
The members of the audience, or congregation, signified their approval by raising their right hands and saying,
("God is Truth.")
Rather like ratifying a political proposition with the formula Et cum spiritu tuo.
The liturgical method of dealing with political affairs has some disquieting implications under present conditions in the Punjab. The liturgical method assumes consensus and that in itself might seem harmless enough. But the form that the present consensus of the Sikh people has assumed is somewhat sinister.
In the forty-eight hours that preceded that rally at Ludhiana, seventeen people had been murdered by Sikh terrorists in the Punjab. Most of those murdered on that particular occasion were themselves Sikhs, designated by the terrorists as collaborationists or as delinquent in other respects (failure to pay up on receipt of an extortion note being probably the most frequent type of offense). So not much Sikh consensus there, operationally speaking. But at that large and respectable liturgico-political Sikh rally there wasconsensus. And it was a consensus that worked smoothly and solemnly, in support of the terrorists.
As the proceedings at Ludhiana were conducted entirely in Punjabi, I was dependent on an interpreter, a young Sikh official of the government of the Punjab (which is to say, under present conditions, the government of India). I asked my interpreter to let me know if anyone referred explicitly to what the Sikh terrorists had been up to in the previous days, and over many months before that. The meeting went on for five hours, with dozens of speeches. During all this time only one speaker -- Amrinder Singh, formerly the Maharajah of Patiala, a city in the Punjab -- explicitly condemned the taking of innocent lives. Apart from that there was nothing. So much my interpreter told me, but I later learned that what actually happened was worse than that. A resolution implicitly supportive of the terrorists, and probably drafted by them, had been passed unanimously by that large and peaceful-looking gathering, with the obligatory ritual formula
I had spent the evening before the Ludhiana rally at Amrinder Singh's home -- formerly, palace -- in Patiala. Amrinder Singh is the greatest of Sikh magnates, and enjoys the unusual distinction of being highly respected both by the Sikh community and by the government of India. He retains the confidence of the Sikh community because he resigned from the Congress Party, and from various offices, after Operation Bluestar, the occupation by the Indian Army of the Golden Temple complex, in June, 1984. Amrinder Singh is greatly concerned by the rising influence of the terrorists (euphemistically known as militants) and by the apparent drift in the direction of some kind of secession of the Sikhs, with the complicity of Pakistan.
Amrinder Singh had explained to me that while he would like to see a resolution passed condemning terrorism, there was no way of getting such a resolution from a representative gathering of Sikhs, in present conditions. He knew of the draft resolution supporting the terrorists, but thought on the night before the rally that he had succeeded in killing this. The organizing committee had rejected it by four to one. Then, at the rally itself, a member of the platform party had simply put the resolution, and it had been immediately carried, in the ritual manner. The resolution asserted that Sikh survival is now in danger and that therefore (in addition to constitutional measures of opposition) "in a befitting response, the Sikhs have taken recourse to other modes of resistance, thereby keeping alive the traditions, history, and ethos of the Sikh people."
So after Ludhiana the Sikh terrorists can credibly claim that their armed struggle has been unanimously validated at a representative gathering of the Sikh nation, and has received the blessing of the Sikh religion.
The word Sikhmeans "disciple." The Sikhs are the disciples of ten gurus who flourished from the late fifteenth to the early eighteenth century in the Punjab. The teachings of the ten gurus are explained in the Granth Sahib, the bible of the Sikhs.
In the time of the gurus the dominant power in northern India was the Mogul Empire, in which Islam was the official religion. The religion of the gurus grew up in the borderland between Muslim and Hindu territory. The Punjab was part of that borderland. The first guru, Nanak (1469-1539), was originally a Hindu, and many of his followers have regarded themselves as belonging to the Hindu community and as practicing a purified form of the Hindu religion. The teachings of Guru Nanak are monotheistic and egalitarian, and are opposed to idolatry, to the caste system, and to the oppression of women. As the Sikhs increased in number and in influence in the region, the teachings of the later gurus became increasingly political and eventually militaristic. The fifth guru, Arjan (1581-1606), from the moment of his inauguration, directly challenged the legitimacy of the Mogul Empire. Thus challenged, the reigning Mogul Emperor, Jehangir, seized Arjan and tortured him, to obtain a recantation. Arjan refused to recant, and died under torture. He thus became the first great martyr of the Sikh religion.
The dying message of Guru Arjan to his son was, "My dear son, sit fully armed on the throne and maintain an army to the best of your ability." Arjan's son was the sixth guru, Hargobind (1606-1645). It was Hargobind who made the union of religion and politics a formal and explicit part of the Sikh religion, and also put the religion on a footing of war. Hargobind assumed the title of Miri Piri Da Malik,Lord of the Secular and the Spiritual, and wore two swords, corresponding to this concept. Since that day Miri (the secular) has been coequal in Sikhism with Piri (the spiritual). This concept remains central to the Sikh revolt of the late 1980s. That rally I attended at Ludhiana passed a resolution reaffirming the sixth guru's doctrine of Miriand Piri,the inseparability of the religious and secular spheres. This doctrine is of course incompatible with full participation in the political life of a nation, India, that is committed to the separation of the spheres in question. Opposite the Golden Temple, Hargobind built a new temple, dedicated to the union of Miriand Piri, and this became known as the Akal Takht, the Timeless Throne. It is the Akal Takht that is today the spiritual-cum-secular center of the Sikh revolt against the merely secular Indian state.
The central significance of the Akal Takht in the Sikh revolt has been blurred almost out of existence in the Western media. For the fairly brief period in 1984 when the Sikh revolt was making the front pages, it was "the Golden Temple" that was the center of attention. It was "the Golden Temple" that the Sikh religious-political leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had turned into the headquarters from which he directed his insurrectionary, or terrorist, campaign . And it was "the Golden Temple" that was violated by the Indian Army when it decided to destroy Bhindranwale and his headquarters, in the military action known as Operation Bluestar.
But in reality it was in the Akal Takht that Bhindranwale made his headquarters, and it was the Akal Takht that was reduced to a ruin by the 105-mm guns of Indian Army tanks, leaving the bodies of Bhindranwale and his companions in the rubble.
The confusion is understandable, indeed inevitable, because the expression "the Golden Temple" is generally used, by Sikhs as well as others, to refer to the Golden Temple complex. But the center of that complex is not just the Golden Temple but the binary system made up of the Golden Temple proper and the Akal Takht. The Golden Temple represents the spiritual aspects of the Sikh religion -- Piri. But the Akal Takht, representing both Miriand Piri,secular power and spiritual power, is the focus of Sikh sacral nationalism. It was for this reason that Bhindranwale made the Akal Takht the headquarters of his rebellion. And the spokesman and some of the leaders of the Sikh rebellion of 1987-1988 have operated from offices within the Golden Temple complex, next to the partially restored shell of the Akal Takht, in whose name they speak. This May, Indian security forces intervened in a more sophisticated operation than Bluestar, and succeeded, for the moment at any rate, in again ridding the temple complex of the terrorist presence. But outside the temple complex Sikh terrorism continues to increase.
Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister at the time of Operation Bluestar. Even before that -- as early as 1982 -- she was being denounced at Sikh rallies as the "acting Mogul King of Delhi." After Operation Bluestar, Indira Gandhi was execrated, not only by Sikh militants but by the great majority of Sikhs, as the arch-persecutor of the Sikh religion, the right of armed rebellion against external authority being regarded by Sikhs, now as in the past, as an integral part of their religion.
On October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was murdered by two Sikhs belonging to her personal bodyguard. One of her assassins, Beant Singh, was killed. Beant Singh has now followed Bhindranwale into the martyrology of the Sikh insurgents. For three days after the murder of the Prime Minister, Hindu mobs attacked the Sikh population in New Delhi, causing something like 4,000 deaths. During this period the authorities did little or nothing to protect the Sikh population. Indeed, although the governing Congress Party has always declared its resolute opposition to communalism, it is believed that some Congress officials, in those frenzied November days, instigated and directed the rampaging Hindu mobs. At the end of the three days the mobs were brought under control. There were no similar outbreaks in other Indian cities and -- up to the time of this writing -- there have been no further examples of mass violence by Hindus against Sikhs. However, the sharp escalation in 1987-1988 of Sikh violence in the Punjab, mainly against Hindus, inevitably raises the possibility of further Hindu backlash against Sikhs in other parts of India. Sikh terrorists are not worried about this. They probably believe -- as Catholic terrorists in Northern Ireland believe about Protestant reaction to their deeds -- that acts of violence perpetrated by members of the other community actually help their cause, by raising the national consciousness of their own people. At the end of that Sikh rally in Ludhiana young men were chanting the name of Bhindranwale.
The sixth guru, Hargobind, gave the Sikh religion its explicitly political form and made the Sikhs into a military force. The tenth and last guru, Govind Singh (1675-1708), reaffirmed the political character of the religion and added a major new institution. He also extended Sikh military power and made militarism part of the Sikh religion. Govind Singh "proclaimed that the sword was God and God was the sword"!
Govind Singh's personal arms -- an impressive collection of late-seventeenth-century weaponry -- can be seen today at Anandpur Sahib, which is, after the Golden Temple complex, the second of the great temples of the Sikh religion. Govind Singh's arsenal should be seen not as a museum annexed to the holy place but as an integral part of the holy place itself, a central object of the cult. Weapons, according to Govind Singh, are Pirs:gods.
It was at Anandpur Sahib that Govind Singh founded the Khalsa ("the pure"), the sacred military brotherhood of the Sikh lions. Singhmeans "lion," and every baptized male Sikh is called Singh, being a lion of the brotherhood.
The Sikhs still recite as part of their daily Ardas(prayer), at home or in the temple, what is known as the Srimukh Vak,the blessed word of Govind Singh. The blessed word runs, in Punjabi,
Bache Saran Jo Hoi.
humiliation the refractory shall submit and those
who seek refuge shall be protected.")
After the death of Govind Singh, in 1708, the Sikh Khalsa flourished exceedingly for a while, as an efficient and highly motivated armed brotherhood operating in the propitious conditions of the disintegrating Mogul Empire. By the nineteenth century the dominions of the Sikh Maharajah Ranjit Singh extended over the whole Punjab, a designation that then applied to a large part of northwest India, including territories that are now part of Pakistan. But in 1849, after two hard-fought Anglo-Sikh wars, Britain annexed the Punjab, thus completing its empire on the subcontinent.
The British, impressed by the courage and martial prowess demonstrated by the Sikhs during the Anglo-Sikh wars, took great pains to conciliate the Sikhs and were largely successful during the heyday of the Raj. The British showed respect for the Sikh religion, which was more compatible with Victorian Protestant values than any of the other faiths of India. Sikh recruits to the British forces were sworn in on the Sikh scriptures, and were actually required, as a condition of their service, to conform to the requirements of the Sikh religion, as laid down by Guru Govind Singh, as regards personal appearance and behavior (turban, beard, abstinence from tobacco, and so forth). From very early on Sikhs responded to the conciliatory British approach, and they took the British side, against fellow Indians, in the great Indian mutiny of 1857. Although Sikhs were never more than two percent of the population of India, Sikh soldiers amounted to 20 percent of Britain's Indian Army.
The Sikh religion was able to accommodate itself to the British Raj partly because the British authorities had placed their nominees in control of the Gurdwaras(Sikh temples), including the Golden Temple complex, but also because the Sikhs came to think of themselves less as subjects of the Raj than as partners in it, "favorite sons of the Empress Mother." In such ways the Sikh religious principle of Raj Karega Khalsaadapted itself to the realities of the actual British Raj.
The happy symbiosis of the British and the Sikhs did not long survive the impact of the First World War -- as disillusioning an experience for the Sikh soldiers as for other survivors. In the wave of unrest that swept over India in 1919, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs appeared for a time to be united in a common cause. For the Sikhs, the most enduring legacy of this period is the recovery of Sikh religious autonomy: the ending, a generation before the coming of Indian independence, of British control over the Sikh Gurdwaras,and so over the means of registering Sikh religious and political opinion.
As independence neared, Sikhs -- living in the borderlands between the two emergent states of the subcontinent -- did not exactly have to choose between India and Pakistan, because Pakistan, being a Muslim confessional state, did not want the Sikhs, whereas secular India offered them equal citizenship. If the Sikhs had refused the Indian offer and insisted on their own state, Khalistan -- meaning the state of the Khalsa, "the pure," the Sikhs -- they would have had to fight alone, greatly outnumbered, against Pakistan, which laid claim to the Punjab, where Muslims were the largest community. So the Sikhs elected to join India, and Muslims and Sikhs fought it out in the Punjab, in 1947, through hideous intercommunal massacres, which left more than half a million dead and about two million homeless. The old Punjab was partitioned into West Punjab, part of Pakistan, and East Punjab, part of India.
Sikhs seem to have expected to enjoy some kind of autonomous status for themselves as a religious national community within a confederal India. Sikh political leaders soon convinced themselves and their followers that thev had in fact been promised such a status and then cheated out of it. Sikhs, though the largest community in East Punjab, were a minority of its total population.
The Indian government was concerned about the Sikh discontent but unable to concede what the Sikhs were actually looking for: autonomy for themselves as a religious community. To yield on that would be to accept the principle of communalism, an acceptance that would lead to the dissolution of India. Still, it was hoped that the Sikhs could be placated bv arranging majority status for them, not through a religious criterion but through a linguistic one. The old Punjab had already been partitioned, between Pakistan and India. Now India's Punjab -- East Punjab -- was itself partitioned, on the basis of a linguistic survey. The northern part, speaking Punjabi, retained the name Punjab. In this new Punjab the Sikhs are a majority. The southern part of the old Punjab became Haryana, a state of Hindus, mostly speaking Hindi.
The government of India hoped that the Sikhs, having acquired majority status in their homeland, would be content. But the Sikhs were not content.
In the heyday of the British Raj their appetite for martial glory had been satisfied by a sense of participation, and an illusion of partnership, in the world's greatest empire. Later, glory was to be found in the struggle against the British Raj. The Sikhs claim that 90 percent of those who fell in India's struggle for independence were Sikhs; of course, the struggle in question, in the rest of India, was designed to be nonviolent. But to the Sikhs, brought up in the teachings of the tenth guru, the idea of a nonviolent struggle was incomprehensible.
Some commentators suggest that there are more "practical" reasons for Sikh unrest, high unemployment chief among these. But the question of employment -- acceptable employment, that is -- is inseparable from the question of honor among Sikhs. Working on your own farm is honorable; so is working for the government, especially the defense forces. But working as a factory hand is not honorable, and therefore not acceptable. For the industrialization of the Punjab the factory workers have had to be brought in from the outside, from poor provinces like Orissa and Bihar. In late May these immigrant Hindu workers became the main targets of Sikh "revenge" killings following the reoccupation of the Golden Temple complex.
Central to the present Sikh unrest is the excess in the numbers of young male Sikhs over the amount of honorable employment available. To own even a tiny farm is honorable, but the subdivision of the farmland appears to have reached its limit. Sikhs are conspicuous in the armed forces of India, but the proportion of Sikhs in the forces is significantly lower than it was under the British. There are Indian officials who would like to increase the number of Sikhs in the armed forces of India; others resist, believing that the Sikhs would be an unreliable element in the armed forces. (There were some mutinies among raw Sikh recruits immediately after Operation Bluestar.) What career is open to a young male Sikh who doesn't have a farm of his own and hasn't been able to get a place in the defense forces or any other branch of government service? That question remains unresolved, and in the meantime there are too many young Sikhs who find no suitable outlet within the law for their abundant energies.
In the present generation a number of Sikhs in this category have decided to take up arms and fight for Khalistan. Those who make that choice don't necessarily have to believe that Khalistan is attainable. Whether it is attainable or not, the fight for it remains a thoroughly honorable pursuit sanctioned by the Sikh religion through the concept of the Khalsa (military brotherhood) and by the general value system of the Sikhs.
On the day after the political rally, I went on, along India's Grand Trunk Road, to the holy city of Amritsar, to visit the Golden Temple complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. The road from Chandigarh, the state capital, to Amritsar runs through flat, lush country of summer wheat, ripening at the time, broken by stands of poplar and eucalyptus. There were few military or police vehicles, and no signs of unrest or tension, until we reached Amritsar. The Holy City is the center of the troubles, and the killing grounds are the region between Amritsar and India's borders with Pakistan.
In Amritsar the security forces of the Indian government were much in evidence. They maintain a cordon all around the Golden Temple complex, and the faithful are checked, questioned, and sometimes searched as they go in and out. The faithful obviously dislike this. It is said that attendance at the Golden Temple has dropped to no more than a quarter of what it was before the troubles began. Most Sikhs ascribe the decline to the frightening demeanor of the security forces, and that is no doubt a major factor. But it seems probable that there has also been another factor: the frightening character of certain transactions going on within the temple precincts themselves. (These transactions have been interrupted by the intervention of the Indian security forces in the temple complex in May. It may, however, be difficult for the security forces to prevent the reinfiltration of the terrorists, as happened after Bluestar. In what follows, I am describing conditions at the temple complex as they were before the May intervention.)
The precincts of the Golden Temple form a splendid spectacle under the gentle sunshine of the North Indian spring. It is a spacious and soberly harmonious ensemble, nobly planned and executed, and well maintained. The grand feature of the complex is the large artificial Holy Lake (or "tank," as it is called). The Golden Temple itself is an architectural island in the middle of the lake, a fairly small building, as was necessitated by the cost of its precious covering. Around the lake runs an extremely wide marble promenade: the Parikrama. A pier with an ornate gate connects the Parikrama to the Golden Temple. On the other side of the Parikrama, facing the entrance to the Golden Temple, stands the other great temple of the Sikhs: the Akal Takht, the Timeless Throne of Miriand Piri,the sacred architectural symbol of the fusion of religious and political authority in the holy nation of the Sikhs.
At the time of my visit the Akal Takht was under restoration after its bombardment in 1984. The restoration of the exterior was almost complete; workers were applying gold leaf to the cupola. But the sanctity of the restored edifice is challenged. The money for the restoration was contributed by the government of India, as part of an effort to promote reconciliation with the Sikhs after 1984. But the Sikh militants hold that restoration from such an unhallowed source is not acceptable. The new edifice will have to be torn down and the Akal Takht restored in all its holiness, and this must be accomplished by Sikhs, alone and unaided. Pending that, the idea of the Akal Takht remains -- irrespective of the present edifice -- the animating concept of the entire complex that includes the Golden Temple.
Apart from the shattering of the Akal Takht, Operation Bluestar did little damage to the temple complex. My guide made the most of what damage there was, pointing out some pockmarks of shrapnel on the gold integument of the temple in the lake, and the track mark of an Indian Army tank on the marble flooring of the Parikrama. The guide also told me that the Indian Army had completely destroyed the temple library, with its ancient sacred manuscripts. "They did it in order to wipe out the culture of the Sikhs," the guide explained.
The religious life of the temple precincts seemed to be going on normally, though with reduced numbers. In the temple kitchens men and women were preparing the Langar, the communal meal that the Sikh religion offers to all who wish to partake. A group of women were dipping a baby in the Holy Lake. It was a cool morning, and the baby cried. The women took it out, wrapped it up, and comforted it.
A peaceful scene. But things had not really returned to normal in the temple precincts. In normal times the temple is a busy place at night, when the main liturgical events of the Sikh religion take place. But people were now afraid to go into the Golden Temple precincts after dark. The hostels of the complex, where all visitors are entitled to stay for three nights free of charge, had become poorly frequented. Visitors had been terrorized by the militants. Women had been abducted, raped, and subsequently blackmailed. Dead bodies had been found outside the temple gates. So it was not a place to linger after dark.
On the first morning of my visit there was just one outward sign of the presence of terrorists in the temple complex. The sign took the form of a makeshift metal screen, with bits of paper pasted on it, standing on the Parikrama, right at the edge of the Holy Lake, on the Akal Takht side. At the top of the screen was a colored picture of the martial tenth guru, Govind Singh. Below the guru were newspaper pictures of Sikhs recently killed by the Indian security forces. The iconographic message was altogether clear: those whom the Indians call terrorists are martyrs of the Sikh religion, and honored in this holy place.
On the following day I went to the temple complex in order to make contact with some of the terrorists, alias militants. I had been tipped off as to how to do this. The first thing was to make contact with the official custodians of the temple complex, the representatives of the statutory elective religious body, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. As often in Sikh affairs, there were two representatives, an old man and a young man. The old man had an expression like an American television evangelist, and he had also an abundant snow-white beard. The combination put me in mind of "the King" in Huckleberry Finn,as he appears in Kemble's illustrations. The young man looked hard-eyed and street wise, and I knew he was the man for me.
The old man started off by telling me nostalgically about his recent stay on a health farm in New Mexico. Then, with a "back to work" expression, he delivered a monologue on the Sikh religion, stressing the pacific and ecumenical Guru Nanak side, rather than the militarism of Guru Govind Singh. Then I put my prepared question (should you, reader, ever visit the Golden Temple complex at Amritsar, and should you have a mind to visit with the terrorists in residence there -- supposing they are there at the time -- the way to frame your request is as follows):
"Could you put me in touch, please, with some of those who are engaged in voluntary religious service in the temple precincts?"
Kar Seva -- translated as "voluntary religious service" -- is a technical term of the Sikh religion. It includes such pacific services as preparing the Langar and cleaning the Parikrama. But it also includes military service in the holy cause of the Khalsa, the brotherhood of the Sikhs.
My interlocutors knew I was not talking about the Langar cooks. The old man looked at the ceiling, as if contemplating the mystical beauties of the concept of Kar Seva. The young man said simply, "Come back tomorrow at nine."
In a bare office at the edge of the Parikrama, to the side of the Akal Takht, I met representatives of the Panthic Committee. Panth means "the Sikh community." The Panthic Committee is an ad hoc umbrella body, empowered to issue collective statements on behalf of the five major terrorist bodies (Khalistan Liberation Commandos, Bhindranwale Tigers, and so forth) that were then in control of the Golden Temple complex. There was no furniture in the office. On the walls were three pictures: the inevitable Govind Singh, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and an unidentified young Sikh with a submachine gun.
When I came into the office, I thought there was only one person there: a tall, soldierly Sikh who didn't look particularly bright. Then I noticed that the soldierly man seemed to be deferring to someone else, in a corner of the room, below my original line of sight.
The man who was sitting on the floor in the corner was very thin -- indeed, emaciated. He wore a heavy blanket over his shoulders, though the room did not feel cold. He had a black turban and a long blue-black beard. His features were classical, patrician, his eyes deep-sunken. He was about as pale as it is possible to be, and far paler than any Indian I had ever seen. He looked like a man who hadn't got long to live, and who didn't much care how long anyone else got to live either.
The personage was Narvir Singh, the Jathedar -- "high priest" -- of the Temple at Damdama, the fifth holiest of the temples of the Sikhs. Narvir Singh was in the Golden Temple complex by invitation of the terrorists, who drove out the Jathedar
Our conversation didn't last very long. Narvir Singh is a man of few words, as one could see by looking at him. He spoke in Punjabi, and the soldier translated.
"What are you fighting for?" I asked.
"What exactly is Khalistan?"
At a nod from Narvir Singh, the soldier handed me a map, helpfully headed in English "Map of Khalistan." I looked at the map in confusion.
"But this is a map of India!" I said.
"Not all of the present India," Narvir Singh said, in scholarly correction. "It does not include Jammu and Kashmir."
The map of Khalistan, formerly India, minus Jammu and Kashmir, was covered with markings in the Gurmukhi script, the written language of the Sikh scriptures. I had the notations translated for me after I left the Golden Temple complex. There were some important changes in place names. New Delhi was renamed "Tenth Guru City," after the warrior guru, Govind Singh. And the airport at Delhi, now known as Indira Gandhi International Airport, had become Beant Singh International Airport, after Mrs. Gandhi's martyred Sikh assassin.
From an Indian point of view, this last change is equivalent to renaming the John F. Kennedy International Airport the Lee Harvey Oswald International Airport.
Narvir Singh could see, apparently, that I was having some difficulty in assimilating the proposition that Khalistan is not so much a secessionist project as a project for the annexation of India by the Sikhs, who number less than two percent of the population of the subcontinent. Narvir Singh said something in a very low voice, charged with emotion. The soldier translated: "It is a little boy walking in a room. Soon it will have the whole house."
The project of Kalistan, as expounded to me in the precincts of the Golden Temple by the representatives of the Panthic Committee, appears about as demented as a political project can be. Yet there is some method in the madness. This is reflected in the omission of Jammu and Kashmir. These provinces are claimed by Pakistan, which covertly backs Khalistan. The developing unrest in the northern part of the Punjab, bordering on Jammu and Kashmir, is favorable to Pakistan's hopes of recovering what it regards as its lost provinces, as well as paying off a number of other old scores.
More than anything else, Khalistan is a project for bringing about the destruction of the Indian state in a welter of communal disturbances, of which the Sikhs see themselves as the spearhead. The Punjab Sikhs Lawyers Council speaks in the name of the "human rights of Sikhs and other oppressed nations." The Sikhs are looking for allies and have found some. There were Naxalites in the Golden Temple complex before the storming in 1984. At the Sikh rally in Ludhiana there was a sizable Indian-Muslim contingent, marching behind a green flag with a crescent and a star: another symptom of the Pakistan connection.
I am afraid the Khalistan insurgency is likely to prove prolonged and bloody. As far as the Sikhs are concerned, the insurgency is deeply rooted in their religion and tradition. If attacks by Sikhs against Hindus provoke ferocious Hindu backlash -- as happened in November of 1984 in Delhi, after Mrs. Gandhi's murder -- the Sikh alienation from the rest of India will undoubtedly become more widespread. But even as it is, the Sikh majority is protective of the Sikh insurgents, and likely to remain so.
In Delhi, political leaders are still trying to find a formula that will reconcile the Sikhs to their place in Indian society. The effort, in itself, is no doubt praiseworthy. But I must say that nothing I encountered in Ludhiana or in Amritsar did anything to encourage a belief that a stable and voluntary political accommodation is possible between the secular and democratic state of India, on the one hand, and the sacral nationalism of the Sikhs, on the other. It is in the interests of all the peoples of India -- including the Sikhs, though they don't know it -- that the force that prevails will be that of India; and that the state will be faithful to its own basic anti-communal principles and constitution, repressing both Sikh terrorism and any recurrence of Hindu mob violence against the Sikh population.
Copyright © 1988 by Conor Cruise O'Brien. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August, 1988; Holy War Against India; Volume 262, No. 2; pages 54-64