From The Ground In Punjab: The Demons Of 1984 Are Back To Haunt The Congress

Tushar Gupta

May 17, 2019, 01:20 PM | Updated 01:20 PM IST

Sam Pitroda. (Flickr/WEF)
Sam Pitroda. (Flickr/WEF)
  • With only a few days to go for the election and the momentum with SAD-BJP, one can expect countless voter choices to be driven by painful memories of those two decades when Punjabis were humiliated and brutalised.
  • History shall never be able to shed clarity upon the role of Rajiv Gandhi in ushering in a technology revolution in India. However, his best friend, Sam Pitroda, shall infamously be remembered for gifting the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance votes in some critical belts of Punjab.

    Dismissing questions from the media last week, Pitroda, made a loose remark in the context of the anti-Sikh riots that broke out in 1984 after the then prime minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead at her residence by her Sikh bodyguards. “1984 mein hua toh hua,” Pitroda said, rather casually, addressing a group of reporters.

    The remark did not go down well with the Congress leadership and the Chief Minister of the state, Captain Amarinder Singh. While the Congress president publicly declared that Pitroda should be ashamed for his remark, Chief Minister Singh merely expressed his shock. However, the damage had been done.

    The tryst of the first three prime ministers from the Nehru dynasty with Punjab can best be described as tragic.

    Jawaharlal Nehru’s early days as the first prime minister of India saw Punjab being carved into two with enormous migration from both sides of the border along with genocide fueled by religion, forced conversions, rapes and mass killings. However, the atrocities were soon forgotten as the population found itself occupied in reconstructing the state of Punjab and constructing an independent India.

    The years of Indira Gandhi, the 1970s, were those of underlying stress as the state was on the verge of chaos as the demand of a separate homeland of Sikhs grew stronger. Lastly, the years of Rajiv Gandhi are remembered for the anti-Sikh (most Punjabis disagree with this terminology and recognise it as an artificial genocide) riots in Delhi and the subsequent controlling of the Punjab insurgency problem, the impact of which can be felt in some households even today, more than 20 years later.

    It all began in the late 1970s. As the demand for a separate Sikh homeland grew stronger, the state saw the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In 1977, Parkash Singh Badal won the state elections, and SAD came to power defeating the Congress under Gyani Zail Singh, who went on to become the seventh president of India from 1982 to 1987.

    Bhindranwale was backed by the Congress leadership in the late 1970s. After SAD government came to power in the state, Congress further added to the strength of Bhindranwale in the hope of splitting the Sikh vote bank and thus weaken the Akali Dal. Prominent leaders like Sanjay Gandhi were also involved. However, the popularity of Bhindranwale came back to haunt its promoters, the Congress, and they found themselves dealing with a self-proclaimed ‘Sant’ and his ambitions of an independent homeland for the Sikhs.

    In 1980, Indira Gandhi-led Congress party won a majority in the state, and Darbara Singh became the chief minister, holding the office until 1983. This is the period when it all went from bad to worse for Punjab.

    Speaking to Swarajya, one of the residents of Patiala shares her experience of meeting Bhindranwale. “In 1981, the assassination of Lala Jagat Narain, a media tycoon of those times, and a vociferous critic of Bhindranwale sent shockwaves through the state. However, when I met the Sant (referring to Bhindranwale) along with my father in early 1983, he denied having any role in it. They labelled him for the murder, arrested the Sant, and later released him. It was all a ploy on the part of the then Congress governments at the Centre and the state to get rid of the Sant, as he had become a liability.”

    Upon asking about her interaction with the Sant, she added, “There was a conviction in his ambitions which could impress a teenager as well. It was probably why he had become a focal point for young Sikhs in the state. They were without work, and the Khalistan movement in the villages added to the chaos. So, the Sant became their leader. He spoke about the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, about peace and harmony, but justified the armed revolt as a means to fulfil his ambition of a separate homeland for Sikhs in the form of Khalistan.”

    She further adds, “In October 1983, things took an irreversible course after the infamous Dhilwan bus massacre. Six Hindu passengers were dragged out of a bus on the way to Jalandhar, and were killed by Sikh militants”.

    The state went under President’s rule the day following the massacre and remained so until September 1985.

    “This was the lowest point in Hindu-Sikh harmony in their collective history of 500 years. There was fear everywhere. When people from the same party that was witness to those events make such statements, we fear that if our grandchildren would have to suffer that trauma again for one party’s power struggle,” she concludes.

    Sukhmanpreet Kaur, a resident of Anandpur Sahib, spoke to Swarajya about how young boys in villages across Punjab were helped with arms. “Centre and state, both had Congress government, and yet, there was an easy supply of arms within the state, and no one ever wondered how or why. The young ones took up weapons for the holy cause, hoping that at the end of it they would have more land to irrigate. Everyone had their own interpretation of the movement that was going on. For the government, it was all about finding one excuse to unleash their forces against the Sant.”

    Upon asking about who backed Bhindranwale amongst the general population, she says, “those were different times. We did not get news like we get today. Everything came from the government. For some, he was a Sant, a hope for a better tomorrow, but some were sceptical, but no one ever openly criticised because they were afraid that they might be killed. They all waited, hoping for the storm to pass without touching their homes, but that never happens”.

    Tavleen Singh, in her renowned book, Durbar, speaks about the events of 1984. By the summer of 1984, Akal Takht (throne of the timeless one), the highest seat of justice in Sikhism, and one of the five takhts had been converted into a residence by Bhindranwale. The population was irked by this act, but they were too scared to say anything. A showdown between Bhindranwale and the government was inevitable.

    By the afternoon of 10 June, in governmental words, Operation Blue Star had been brought to a successful end. Bhindranwale and his aides had been killed, one of them being General Shabeg Singh, the hero of the 1971 war and the mind behind Mukti Bahini. Gyani Zail Singh, the then president, denied any knowledge of the operation.

    Speaking to Swarajya, one of the residents of Amritsar recalls the horror of the days that followed Operation Blue Star. “I along with my late father and sister visited Darbar Sahib. The pond had been drained by then because of the blood. The rotten smell of the bodies was still there. I remember my father sat down at the entrance to temple facing the Akal Takht, and cried for hours. Hundreds of men and women cried in those days that followed. It felt as if the soul of Sikhism had been desecrated. When someone from any party mocks the events of those years, it feels as if they are mocking the desecration of the citizens of Punjab”.

    The death of Bhindranwale further added to the problem of Punjab. Manjit Singh, a teenager then, told Swarajya about the rumours that used to run amok during those weeks. “For a long while, people in villages believed that Bhindranwale had escaped to Pakistan and he was going to come back to avenge the attack on Darbar Sahib. There were local sects, loyal to the separatist cause, and they continued their movement.”

    In October 1984, Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her two bodyguards as a retaliation to the Blue Star Operation. In the days that followed, mobs were unleashed on the innocent population of Sikhs in Delhi and thousands were killed, some burned alive. Rajiv Gandhi dismissed the riots in a sentence saying that when a massive tree falls, the earth shakes.

    Speaking to Swarajya, a resident of Chandigarh spoke about how her brother managed to escape the mob lynching in Bidar, Karnataka. “He used to study in a college then, and the orders were to nab any Sikh boy as they were easily recognisable because of their long hair. One of our cousins in Kanpur was detained. Randomly, men and boys were picked up from their homes, colleges, and hostels, thrown into prisons in far away states, without any information given to us. My brother was lucky, for rain resulted in mob turning away from his hostel. A few years later, he moved abroad, and has never come back since.”

    As Tavleen Singh has pointed out in her book, Durbar, the real problem of insurgency in Punjab began during the Rajiv Gandhi years.

    Vouching for her statement, a resident in Canada, in a telephonic conversation with Swarajya shared her experiences of the late 80s and early 90s. “They had assigned senior officers to clean up Punjab, but a lot of innocent men were killed. The ones who believe the lies of the government call such officers ‘supercops’ but the families that saw a generation wiped out, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, it was organised mass murder, like a butcher, sent to a slaughterhouse. The ones who could move out of Punjab have done so, and have not returned since. No one wants such horrors for their children”.

    Swarajya requested the residents mentioned above to share their response to Pitroda’s remark, and the response was somewhat the same. “Rubbing salt on the wounds of Punjabis will do them no good. If they are so unapologetic about the decades that decimated Punjab, where is the assurance that they won’t retread the same path for power,” one of them said.

    On the ground, Pitroda’s statement has been met with fierce criticism from the voters. Situated on the border of India and Pakistan, Dera Baba Nanak is one of the towns in the Gurdaspur constituency. This is where the Kartarpur Corridor is being constructed and is set for inauguration later this year.

    Sukhman Brar, one of the farmers here, spoke to Swarajya about the remark. “It is remarks like these that create an atmosphere of fear. All those memories come back, and today, when we are trying to make a fresh start with the corridor, this kind of comments imply that the people craving for power may use the same means again to divide our votes”. Already, the negotiations around the Kartarpur Corridor have been marred by the fear of Pakistan using the corridor to ignite violence in the state.

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his recent rallies in Bathinda and Chandigarh, pointed out how the offhand remarks from the Congress mentor had hurt the sentiments of Sikhs around the region. In his Chandigarh rally, the ground sentiment against Pitroda’s comments could be felt in the response that came from the people who were in attendance. For Congress, any damage control will be too little too late.

    The issue of 1984, the delayed justice on the part of the Congress, and the conviction of Sajjan Kumar under the Special Investigation Team constituted by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government have become the talking points in the region as the Union Territory of Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab vote later this weekend.

    “Sant Bhindranwale was declared a martyr in 2003 by the Akal Takht. While this declaration can be debated for eternity, what was martyred was an entire generation of Punjab, and when people like Pitroda label it as a regular event in their arrogance, it goes on to show the seriousness of their party when it comes to the sentiment prevailing around Sikhism,” Sukhman Brar adds.

    This statement by Pitroda may not translate into constituency victories for SAD-BJP, but will undoubtedly take away attention from the sacrilege issue of 2015 that was being used by the Congress to defame the alliance.

    For many, it will serve as a reminder of the extent a party can go to for power. With only a few days to go for the election and the momentum with SAD-BJP, one can expect countless voter choices to be driven by painful memories of those two decades.

    This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details

    Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_

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