Punjab Of The 1980s: Nehruvian Laboratory Versus Healing Hindutva

Punjab Of The 1980s: Nehruvian Laboratory Versus Healing Hindutva Sikh people watching the installation of the Baba Banda Singh Bahadur’s statue at Nabha House, the Wall of Truth memorial to the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the museum at Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, in New Delhi. (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The Congress under Sonia Gandhi and family has ensured the party’s further descent into the Nehruvian politics of divide and rule while Narendra Modi represents the polity guided by the values of the RSS.

What is being done today in the name of anti-farm reforms agitation also brings to the surface another undying dimension of the crafty politics played by Indira F Gandhi and her political think-tank cabal: pitting Sikhs against the non-Sikh Hindus, amplifying the fear psychosis latent in identity politics.

The images of Islamic-Sikh solidarity and a ‘Hindutva’ government portrayed to act against the interests of Sikh farmers is disturbingly reminiscent of the way former prime minister Indira Gandhi operated. She nurtured the radically anti-Hindu factions within Akali Dal, facilitating a Pakistani-Khalistani nexus in Punjab — ultimately causing immense human tragedy to both Sikh and non-Sikh Hindu population of Punjab.

Today, the breaking India forces have become more blatant in their actions with the Congress party under Sonia Gandhi reinventing itself as an anti-Hindu party.

With a strong possibility of non-Sikh Hindus, influenced by social media tales, falling prey to the divisive narratives of ‘Sikhs versus Hindus’, it will be interesting to see how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) provided the much-needed healing touch to the deeply and grievously wounded Punjab. This was the state that became a laboratory to practise Nehruvian politics by dynast prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The Genesis And M S Golwalkar

Both during the British rule and after India’s Independence, scholars and a dominant section of politicians have nurtured the Sikhs as belonging to a separate religious identity. The visceral hatred the Islamists had for Sikhs came out in form of blatant cruelty during the 1947 Partition riots, which also helped to cement the divide that had emerged during the colonial period.

After Independence, particularly under the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi, the Congress started playing the old game of divide and rule. The Sikhs were particularly targeted. The divide between Sikhs and other Hindus started with the secular veneer of Hindi-Punjabi divide.

The Sikh-dominated Akali Dal batted for Punjabi while the Arya Samaj-dominated Jan Sangh asked the Punjabi non-Sikh Hindus to accept Hindi as their mother tongue. The Jan Sangh at the Punjab provincial level backed Hindi rather than Punjabi. But the RSS took the opposite stand.

This is a classic instance of parochial superficial anchoring of Hindu identity politics versus Hindutva. K R Malkani, the veteran RSS leader, wrote:

Things nevertheless, began to settle down, but then the Arya Samaj made a Himalayan mistake. In the Punjab University Senate, Bhai Jodh Singh, Principal Khalsa College, Amritsar, and Principal Niranjan Singh, leading academician, long-time Congressman and brother of Akali leader Master Tara Singh, proposed that Punjabi in two scripts — Gurumukhi and Devnagri — be accepted as the language of instruction and examination upto matriculation. But the Arya Samaj friends, who dominated the Senate, in their excess of love for Hindi, refused. Shri Guruji Golwalkar was the only leader who urged Punjabi Hindus to accept Punjabi, their own language, with good grace, but to no avail. This soured Hindu-Sikh relations.     
K R Malkani, Political Mysteries, Prabhat Prakashan, 2009, p.101

The nation would pay a heavy price for this ‘Himalayan mistake’ of non-Sikh Punjabi Hindus. Both the national leadership of the RSS and Jan Sangh had foreseen the possibility of a national disaster in the problems of Punjab.

Veteran Punjabi journalist Krishan Lal Dhall was present in the meeting addressed by Golwalkar at Jalandhar during his visit to Punjab in 1960. In 2015, he still remembered the then famous and important statement of Golwalkar over the Punjabi-Hindi language divide: “Punjabi is the mother tongue of every Punjabi”.

Even when Punjab Jan Sangh leader Krishan Lal Mai tried to persuade Golwalkar to retract or at least change the statement, guruji refused. The impact of Golwalkar's statement encouraged non-Sikh Hindus to change their stance from registering Hindi as their mother tongue in the Census to accepting Punjabi as their mother tongue.

All these contributed to mellowing down the differences so much so that the Jan Sangh and Akali Dal could form electoral alliance for municipal elections which helped Akali Dal in the urban areas and the BJS in the rural areas. Nevertheless the Akali Dal feared that the identity politics which was its basis, would be subsumed by the Hindutva of RSS.

Early 1980s: Punjab Becomes Machiavellian Nehruvian Laboratory

Though the initial demand for Punjabi Sabha did not display any overt secessionist tendencies or hatred towards non-Sikh Hindus, the divisive and radical elements began to have the upper-hand, not without the support from Indira Gandhi.

Political analyst Sunil K Salu describes how Indira Gandhi’s Machiavellian politics led to a national tragedy:

The Sikh terrorism and violence which engulfed and paralyzed Punjab was India’s most important political issue in the mid-1980s. ...Although the Akali Dal did not have majority support in this majority Sikh province, Indira Gandhi sought to minimize their political clout by encouraging a split in the group. She encouraged the extreme Sikh faction within the Akali Dal to break away from their party, and later she supported Bhindranwale, leader of the Sikh Student Federation and a popular militant preacher, to further weaken the Akali Dal. The Akali Dal responded by mobilizing the forces of religious nationalism through the chain of Sikh temples available to the party. in order to unite its power base. Thus, the Congress party’s mobilization to split the Akali Dal and the latter’s counter-mobilization led to the rise of Sikh militancy, violence and civil disorder ... increasingly out of control of both the Akalis and the national government.   
Sunil K Salu, Religion and Politics in India in ‘Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective The One, The Few, and The Many’ (Ed. Ted G Jelen & Clyde Wilcox),Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.249

The Machiavellian Nehruvian politics practised by Indira Gandhi also tried to garner political capital out of the fear generated in the minds of non-Sikh Hindus by imposing humiliating restrictions on Sikhs.

During the 1982 Asian Games, over 1,500 Sikhs were arrested and thousands more were humiliated by the Congress-I government of Haryana headed by Bansi Lal. Even national war heroes Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh, Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora and Major General Shahbeg Singh were subjected to humiliation by the Nehruvian state.

The double-faced Congress government at the same time nurtured terrorist leader Bhindranwale, forcing the then home minister to release him twice in cases connected with the killing of prominent Punjab citizens. Once the killing spree of emboldened terrorists increased, the Indira Gandhi strategy tapped into the fear among non-Sikh Hindus threatened by Bhindranwale.

Thus, the Punjab of 1980s can be rightly called the laboratory of Nehruvian divide-and-rule ‘secularism’ experimented by the Nehruvian dynast prime minister. Both Sikhs and non-Sikh Hindus of Punjab paid a huge price for this experiment.

The Healing Touch Of The RSS

The RSS through its Hindutva prism took an extraordinarily healing and conciliatory yet pragmatic stand with respect to the Sikh-Hindu divide.

With terrorism becoming a daily menace, the RSS conducted a massive Vishal Hindu Dharma Sammelan on 3 March 1983 in Amritsar. The dharmacharyas from all over India converged on Amritsar with Sikh spiritual leaders also participating.

The conference saw a significant number of Mazhabi Sikhs participating in it. There was a 6 km long procession and the langar service was provided by local gurudwaras. The conference brought together various Sikh and Hindu factions in a remarkable union.

1983: Vishal Hindu Dharma Sammelan conducted by the RSS right at Amritsar : a direct challenge to the divisive narrative while facing the terrorist machine guns.
1983: Vishal Hindu Dharma Sammelan conducted by the RSS right at Amritsar : a direct challenge to the divisive narrative while facing the terrorist machine guns.

In Delhi, the RSS launched Ekta Abhiyan in the same year as an outreach to non-Sikh Hindus to counter the deep psychological divide the Congress was creating. Various programmes were launched, including seminar and cultural events, highlighting the sacrifices and contributions of Sikh gurus to nation-building and protection of Dharma.

Traumatic 1984

The year proved to be the most testing and traumatic in the history of India and for the Sikhs. An emboldened Bhindranwale had taken over Sri Harmandir Sahib. Indira Gandhi who had nurtured him and turned mostly a blind eye to Khalistani terrorists periodically massacring Punjabis — both non-Sikh Hindus and Hindus, now decided to send the army into Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple. ‘Operation Blue Star’ became a humiliating trauma to the Sikhs — an eternal wound.

The year 1984 also saw parallel activities by the RSS.

In 1984, the Punjab Kalyan Forum organised a conference ‘Punjab Today’. General J S Aruora, the liberator of Bangladesh, openly declared in the conference that Khalistan was futile fantasy. Dr Mann Singh, another prominent Sikh and a retired principal of Amritsar medical college, denounced the separation between Sikhs and Hindus and stated categorically that the Sikhs were a part of the Hindu community and their duty was to protect India.

These initiatives posed a challenge to the core Khalistan-separatist ideology and terrorists and the divisive manoeuvring of Nehruvian dynast politics. The RSS also launched Punjab Peedit Sahayata Samiti — which worked in terrorism-hit rural Punjab.

It distributed relief measures to the families of terror victims. They helped them with their livelihoods and sponsored the education of the children of the affected families. In the cities of Amritsar, Ferozepur, Batala etc, swayamsevaks donated 109 bottles of blood to 300 people wounded by Pakistan-sponsored Khalistan terrorists. They also provided the hospitals taking care of terror victims Rs 70,000 worth life-saving medicines.

All these steps naturally made RSS the target.

After ‘Operation Blue Star’, the RSS got involved in a series of activities to alleviate the pain experienced by the nation on account of the action on the Golden Temple.

Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal of the RSS while expressing “its deep anguish at the sad course of events making the Army action inevitable in Punjab to flush out the terrorists from the Golden Temple Complex” identified with clinical precision, "the low-level political rivalry indulged in by the ruling Congress (l) and the Akali Dal and factional fighting within both the parties" for the spiralling down of the situation into murderous events.

Expressing “great distress to all our countrymen, more so to the devout Sikhs” the RSS exhorted “all our countrymen in general and Swayamsevaks in particular to come forward to restore the pristine glory of our Darbar Sahib through all possible means including ‘Kar Seva’''.

That year, for the sangh’s Guru Puja programmes in most places, the prominent Sikhs even if they had differences with the RSS were invited. Kushwant Singh, the wel- known RSS baiter, was invited to preside over the Guru Puja at Chennai, where Singh to his credit declared that none could doubt the patriotic fervour of the RSS . In Delhi, the veteran Sikh scholar Padma Sri Dr Attar Singh presided over the Guru Puja of the RSS. He said:

It is here that I find the real Sangham of various streams of national culture.  The majority of the Sikhs are not for Khalistan.  They want to live and die in India and for India.  It is the medieval Sikh history of resistance against Muslim fanaticism to protect Hindu Dharma and culture that inspires most of the Sikhs even today.  By underplaying this we have been helping the forces of separatism. It is this aspect that the RSS and people like me are pledged to emphasize and strengthen. Our ties are unbreakable. I am confident that Punjab will ever remain an integral part of India and Sikhism an inseparable limb of the great Hindu body. 

The RSS Guru Puja function at Delhi was held in September 1984.

Then in October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Congress goons launched a genocidal attack on the Sikhs. Rajiv Gandhi, the next dynast prime minister, shamelessly justified the attacks. While Rajiv Gandhi made the statement “earth shakes when a tree falls”, Madhukar Dattareya Deoras, all India leader of the RSS, sternly cautioned the Hindus:

We should keep in mind that every Sikh is not an Akali, every Akali is not an extremist and every extremist is not a Khalistani.     

Sangh To The Rescue

Today, it is well-documented though not well popularised that while the greatest and perhaps only genocidal pogroms of independent India happened following the assassination of Indira Gandhi — the chief architect of the Punjab tragedy, the RSS fought to save the Sikhs while the Congress methodologically facilitated the ‘holocaust’.

Writes researcher and author Vinay Sitapati (2020):

As many as 2733 Sikhs were killed while Congress leaders led angry mobs and the police looked on. One such mob surrounded the Sikh-run taxi stand outside Vajpayee’s house. When a Sikh driver escaped and took shelter inside his bungalow, Vajpayee emerged and stood protectively at the gate until the police arrived. Vajpayee and Advani even visited Home Minister Narasimha Rao to ask him to activate the government machinery. What they did not know was that Rao had been bypassed by a direct order from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Emphasis not in the original.  [p.132]

It was not only prominent swayamsevaks like Atal Bihar Vajpayee and L K Advani who became concerned about protecting the Sikhs from Nehruvian rioters. In the wake of the anti-Sikh pogrom unleashed by the Congress using the tragedy of Indira Gandhi's assassination, one of the crucial steps RSS took was to organise protection squads to save the Sikhs in Delhi and parts of Haryana.

At Nanakpura, though the gurudwara itself could not be saved from the mob, the RSS cadre rescued at least some of the Sikhs. At Kalkaji, the RSS-organised patrol saved the Sikhs. It also made available the necessary supplies of food and clothes for the Sikh riot victims at Bala Saheb Gurdwara at Bhagwan Nagar, where 1,000 Sikhs including women and children had taken shelter.

Sardar Uttam Singh, chief of the Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Majlis Park, was overwhelmed by the behaviour of the RSS workers. The gurdwaras of the area were saved from the rioters by the RSS. In Indira Nagar area, the RSS cadre kept three days of day and night vigil to save the gurdwara from the storm-troopers of the Congress.

Hans Raj Gupta of Delhi RSS visited the camps of Sikh victims and made sure that they were given essential relief materials — from food to medicine and ensured their safety. (Kanwar Chander Deep Singh, 'Study of Hindu right wing in Punjab a case study of Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh from 1935 to 1984', Punjab University, 2008, pp.397-403)

The approach of the RSS and the Congress to identity politics in Punjab is as different as milk from coal. Congress wanted to deepen the divide in the society so that it can keep the fractured communities perpetually in fear of each other and Congress can play the saviour in exchange for political power.

The RSS on the other hand while recognising the differences also sees the differences between various Indic spiritual traditions in the larger and healthier context of history and nation-building.

Today, the Congress under Sonia Gandhi and family has ensured further descent of the party into the Machiavellian Nehruvian politics of divide and rule while Narendra Modi represents the polity guided by the values of the RSS.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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