From 1988 to 1990, for nearly three years, I was posted in the Rajpura factory of Hindustan Levers as Factory Accountant. All managers lived in Chandigarh. It gave me a chance to work in Punjab, the state of my origin. Till today, I carry fond memories of summer holidays spent at my maternal grandparents’ home in Abohar and swimming in the canals there.
Since I grew up in Maharashtra, I was keen to experience Punjabi culture and enjoy the food first hand. Our family retained many aspects of Punjabi culture. The mandir at home had a largish picture of Guru Nanak. My Ma's grandmothers, on both sides, were Sikh and she studied medicine at Amritsar Medical College. Like my doctor Nanaji, Ma spoke Punjabi well and had many Punjabi patients. It was a habit with us to address a turban-wearing Sikh with a ji, meaning Sardarji. I remember Ma telling me stories of how there was little distinction between going to a temple or to a gurudwara.
At a personal level, I am a great admirer of Guru Govind Singhji and the Lion of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. During a 1977 visit to the Golden Temple, I spent hours enjoying the peaceful surroundings. When I was a child, my dadaji told me about the tradition in many Punjabi families of making the first son a Sikh.
Khushwant Singh wrote:
The roots of Sikhism lie deep in the Bhakti form of Hinduism. Guru Nanak picked what he felt were its salient features: belief in one God who is undefinable, unborn, immortal, omniscient, all-pervading and the epitome of Truth; belief in the institution of the Guru as the guide in matters spiritual; unity of mankind without distinction of caste; rejection of idol worship and meaningless ritual; sanctity of the sangat (congregation) which was expected to break bread together at the Guru ka Langar; the gentle way of sahaj to approach God while fulfilling domestic obligations; hymn singing (kirtan); emphasis on work as a moral obligation. The Adi (first) Granth is essentially a distillation of the Vedanta in Punjabi, the Dasam (tenth) is a compilation of tales of valour of Hindu goddesses, some composed by the Guru himself, others by bards of his court. (1)
Guru Nanak did not start the Sikh religion as it's now called (his followers were called Nanak Panthis). He was a reformist of the Hindu religion focusing on social reform so that one focussed on the core teaching of the Vedas that Parmatma is the one and only. He sent his son to learn from a Udasi who belonged to the Nath tradition. Guru Nanak’s words resonate with all Hindus. The formation of the Khalsa was a response to Mughal oppression.
My upbringing, personal thoughts and awareness made me see what unites Sanatan and Sikh dharma.
So, in 1988, notwithstanding the difficult situation in Punjab then, I looked forward to working there. My work was in Rajpura and I drove 45 km one way from Chandigarh daily. I rarely left Rajpura to return home before 7pm.
At times, the situation got stressful. We heard stories about anti-terror operations and were apprehensive about reading the morning newspaper.
When I look back and reflect, the questions that come to mind are: how did things get so bad, who divided Punjab and set back the state by at least twenty years? Questions like these goaded me to write this essay.
Simply put, it is the British who sowed the seeds for the Khalistan movement by dividing Punjabi society into Hindu and Sikh. They did this starting the 1860's. Post independence, what started as a game for political power snowballed into a terror movement, aided by Pakistan who wanted to do a Bangladesh to India.
This essay gives a comprehensive view of key events in Punjab between the 1860s and 1995. It is not my intent to reignite the divide between Punjabis – Hindus and Sikhs. For me, the two are bound forever by an unbreakable bond of history and kinship including marriage.
This piece is based on inputs from three must-read books on Punjab – Amritsar; Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle (Mark Tully and Satish Jacob) and A History of Sikhs, Volumes I and II (Khushwant Singh). I have tried to be as factual as possible. Where possible, facts are interspersed with personal experiences. Errors and criticism are solely to my account.
This Essay Is In Four Chapters:
1. A snapshot of key events in 1699 and then from the 1860s to 1995.
2. A history of Punjab for the same periods. The birth of Khalsa; why Sikhs joined the Royal Indian Army in large numbers; how the British sowed the seeds for the Khalistani Movement; Hindu-Sikh relations; Tat Khalsa Movement; birth of Akali Dal and different Sikh sects.
3. Key political developments between 1948 and 1980, including the beginning of terrorism in Punjab; emergence of Bhindranwale; Operation Blue Star.
4. The Sikh mutiny post Operation Blue Star; the Rajiv-Longowal Accord; Operation Black Thunder II; peak of killings; crushing of terrorism.
Snapshot Of Key Events In Punjab (1860s to 1995)
- 30 March 1699: Guru Govind Singhji founded Khalsa.
- The British were grateful to Sikh princes for assistance received during the Mutiny of 1857 and seeing the bravery of the Sikh armies realised they could be an effective buffer between Afghanistan and India.
- The British replaced Bengali soldiers by loyal Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims. Only Sikhs who sported the five k's or symbols of Sikhism, could join the army.
- Kahan Singh Nabha's book Ham Hindu Nahin Hain was published in 1898. It was a vitriolic appraisal of Hinduism, focusing on why Sikhs were not Hindus.
- 1905: Idols were removed from the Golden Temple as a result of pressure applied by the Singh Sabha.
- Between 1881-1931, large numbers of Hindus became sahajdhari Sikhs who were baptised to become the Khalsa. Consequently, the Sikh population increased. More on this later in the essay.
- 1925: The Sikh Gurudwaras Act was passed. This was the beginning of the intertwining of politics and religion.
- During Partition, there was an exchange of populations with West Punjab/Pakistan in which Sikhs and Hindus equally were unacceptable in Muslim majority Pakistani Punjab. They had to flee overnight to avoid genocidal massacres. Hindu and Sikh refugees migrated to India and virtually rebuilt their lives from scratch. The pain both the communities experienced during those trying times is part of Punjabi folklore.
- 1957 onwards Akalis started to demand a state where Punjabi, in Gurumukhi script, would be the state language and there was a consequent Hindu-Sikh divide on which language constituted the mother tongue: Hindi or Punjabi.
- 1966, Punjab divided into Haryana, consisting of the Hindi-speaking areas, and the rest remained Punjab.
- 1967, for the first time Akalis came to power (1967-1971), followed by Congress (1972-77), Akalis (1977-1980) and Congress (June 1980 to October 1983).
- In 1977, a coalition of the Akalis and Jan Sangh (now BJP) ruled Punjab. Sanjay Gandhi (son of Indira Gandhi) wanted to break the coalition. Senior Congress leader Zail Singh asked Sanjay to look for a new religious leader to discredit the traditional Akali Dal leadership. They zeroed down in Bhindranwale.
- 1978, clashes between the Damdami Taksal, headed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the Nirankaris. The Damdami Taksal is an influential school founded by Baba Deep Singh, one of the greatest Sikh heroes.
- 1980, assassination of Nirankara Baba Gurbachan Singh. Bhindranwale's name figured in the police report on the murder.
- 1982, protests by the Akali Dal protests at the Delhi border during Asian Games in Delhi.
- Bhindranwale's strategy was to cause communal tension so that Hindus leave Punjab in fear and hoped that a Hindu backlash in other parts of India would make Sikhs realise that they were safe only in Punjab. Killings become more common of anyone who spoke against Bhindranwale for e.g. the killing of the owner of Punjab Kesari group Lala Jagat Narain on 9 September 1981.
- Bomb blasts occurred across North India including those called tiffin and transistor bombs.
- By March 1984, Bhindranwale and his men began fortifying the Golden Temple. Sandbag emplacements were seen on either side of the clock tower. Young Sikhs with automatic rifles had taken up positions on top of the tower. A long-time resident of Chandigarh shares, “While the Government of India turned a blind eye to all his movements, Bhindranwale & Co. roamed around Chandigarh brandishing assault rifles. I have personally seen them shouting Bole so Nihal sitting atop buses in their traditional attire, waving guns and firing into the air.”
- In early 1983, “Longowal organised a Rasta Roko in which the police suffered 175 casualties and 21 people were killed in the violence”.(2)
- 23 April 1983, Deputy Inspector General of Punjab A.S. Atwal shot dead in the Golden Temple.
- April 1984, prominent Delhi Sikh H.S. Manchanda shot in broad daylight. BJP prominent politician Harbans Lal Khanna killed in Amritsar.
- 1984, Operation Blue Star.
- 31 October 1984, assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
- Anti-Sikh violence in many parts of the country following the assassination, orchestrated by the Congress.
- Thousands forced to leave their homes in Punjab and move to other states during the peak of the Khalistan Movement. Top surgeons of Chandigarh left due to extortion attempts. All over Punjab doctors, industrialists and businessmen moved to safer locations. People were compelled to sell their land and property for a pittance.
- 1985, bombing of Air India aircraft Kaniskha killing 329.
- 10 and 11 May 1985, 20 bombs explode in Delhi and 18 bombs in other parts of north India leaving 82 dead.
- 1985, Rajiv – Longowal Accord signed. Sant Longowal killed on 20 August 1985.
- May 1987, the AK 47 rifle enters the story of the Punjab conflict and dominates the conflict thereafter.
- Mumbai cop Julius Riberio’s became Director General of Police Punjab in March 1986. He is remembered for his Bullet for Bullet counter-terrorism policy.
- 1988, terrorists occupying the Golden Temple forced out by the Punjab Police and security forces. Operation Black Thunder II carried out under the supervision of K P S Gill.
- 1988, Major General B N Kumar, then head of the Bhakra Beas Management Board killed for allegedly causing flooding of Punjab due to release of dam waters.
- Complete breakdown of the judicial system in Punjab.
- The Punjab Police under K P S Gill and supported by other armed forces, under the political leadership of Congress Chief Minister Beant Singh, breaks the back of the terror movement. Peace returns to Punjab in 1994.
- 1995, Beant Singh killed in bomb blast.
- 1981 to 2016: fatalities in terrorist-related violence: 21,660. Of these 11,787 were civilians, terrorists 8,107 and security forces 1,766.
The writer is an independent columnist, travel photojournalist and chartered accountant, and founder of eSamskriti. He tweets at @sanjeev1927.
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