The inside story of how Sanjay Gandhi and Zail Singh created ‘Sant’ Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and unleashed the forces that precipitated the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
When I first met Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, he was already cast in his role of both hero and villain. He was as prominent as Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal, head of the Akali Dal. The two sants, Bhindranwale, haughty and violent; Longowal, meek and dignified, were a study in contrast.
Once I caught up with Bhindranwale in his very untidy room and I asked him why he was surrounded by so many armed men toting rifles and Sten guns. His reply, in rustic Punjabi, was to ask why the police carried arms. I told him that the police represented authority; to which he retorted, “Let them ever challenge me, and I shall show them who has the authority.”
This was typical of the man. He believed himself to be above the law of the land; an individual who had been chosen by God for a mission. His ambition was to wield so much power that all the police and all the troops in India would not dare challenge him. That was his tragedy. While I was with Bhindranwale, central minister Swaran Singh barged in. As I was sitting on the only chair in the room, he squatted on the floor. Before I could offer him the chair, he remarked that he preferred to sit on the floor in the presence of the Sant.
Bhindranwale did not own up responsibility for the assassination of Lala Jagat Narain, owner of Punjab Kesri and Hind Samachar, who was killed in broad daylight outside Ludhiana. He did not even express any regret over the murder; instead, he described Jagat Narain as “a person who had abused the Sikh qaum”.
My friend Romesh Chander, Jagat Narain’s son and editor of the two papers, was also murdered by Bhindranwale’s supporters. I felt the tragedy all the more acutely because a day before Romesh returned to Jalandhar on an urgent mission, he had promised to go to see a film with me.
Bhindranwale’s emergence on the political landscape of Punjab can be traced back to 1977 when the Akali Dal-Janata Party government came to power after defeating the Congress in the Assembly elections. Zail Singh, the defeated chief minister who later became President of India, was most unhappy, not only because he had lost power, but also because the Gurdial Singh Commission appointed to look into his conduct as chief minister, had found him guilty of misuse of power.
It was Sanjay Gandhi, known for his extra-constitutional methods, who suggested that some ‘Sant’ should be put up to challenge the Akali government. Both Sanjay and Zail Singh, particularly the latter, knew how the former Punjab chief minister Pratap Singh Kairon had fought the Akalis. He had built up Sant Fateh Singh against Master Tara Singh, the Akali leader, who had become a hard nut to crack. Zail Singh and Darbara Singh, who was a Congress Working Committee member and later became chief minister, selected two persons for Sanjay’s evaluation.
As Sanjay’s friend, Kamal Nath, recalled: “The first one we interviewed did not look a ‘courageous type’. Bhindranwale, strong in tone and tenor, seemed to fit the bill. We would give him money off and on, but we never thought he would turn into a terrorist.” Little did they realise at that time that they were creating a Frankenstein. Zail Singh too maintained contacts with Bhindranwale, although he denied this after he became President. Bhindranwale got his first opportunity to get into the limelight on April 13, 1978, Baisakhi day, when a band of Sikhs clashed with Nirankaris who called themselves ‘Sikh’ but were not considered to be so by the community. They were like the Ahmedis who are not considered to be ‘Muslim’, although they follow the tenets of Islam.
Sixteen Sikhs died in the clash on that Baisakhi day. Bhindranwale said that the killing of Sikhs when an Akali was the state chief minister was outrageous. There was indeed anger in the community throughout the country. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal was in Mumbai at the time of the incident.
He rushed to Amritsar, suspended some police officers, and arrested the Nirankari chief, Gurbachan Singh. This did not however mollify the Sikh community, nor did his call for a boycott of the Nirankaris assuage its feelings.
To add to the woes of the Akalis, on the day of the clash, Zail Singh had blessed the foundation of the Dal Khalsa to needle the Akalis, and his supporters paid the bill. The inaugural function of the organisation pledged in a resolution “to preserve and keep alive the concept of the distinct and independent identity of the Sikh Panth.” The political goal spelt out was “the pre-eminence of the Khalsa”.
The important part of the resolution was that “in Punjab and other states the Centre’s interference would be restricted to defence, foreign relations, currency, and general communications,” and for these departments, “Punjab and other states [should] contribute [to central funds] in proportion to [their] representation in Parliament.” This eventually took the form of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which New Delhi interpreted as a demand for secession.
The Akali leaders were on the defensive about the resolution. Whenever I discussed it with them they would say there were many versions of it. One of them said that it was Kapur Singh, a former Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer, dismissed from service, who had drafted the resolution. It was in English, which Fateh Singh, the then Akali president, did not understand. The resolution was only “explained” to him by Kapur Singh, and Fateh Singh reportedly never realised all that was being incorporated in it.
Perhaps Fateh Singh did not understand the implications but the drafting committee had men like Balwant Singh, former Punjab finance minister, Surjit Singh Barnala, former Union minister for agriculture, and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), as its members. They could have stalled the resolution or watered it down, but there was nothing surprising about this development because whenever the Akali Dal was in the wilderness, the party adopted a militant stance. The resolution therefore fitted in with and reflected its politics. …
It was apparent that Indira Gandhi and the Akalis were on a collision course. The moderates among the Sikhs were in a minority. People such as Parkash Singh Badal, Balwant Singh and S.S. Barnala were not part of the meeting convened by Bhindranwale to consider the future course of action. Punjab education minister Sukhjinder Singh, who had stated that the Sikhs should establish Khalistan with the assistance of China and Pakistan, attended the meeting, as did Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who had brought along with him Basant Singh Khalsa, who after losing in the Lok Sabha elections had said that the Sikhs should have a separate electorate.
The prime minister could not accept the Akali demand for a separate territorial entity for the Sikhs. Longowal was in two minds. The extremists played on his feeling of betrayal, arguing that Indira Gandhi had gone back on her commitment even on religious demands. To placate the moderates, Longowal nominated Badal to be the first to court arrest in a morcha to win a separate state for the Sikhs. …
What however clinched the matter was the fear in the minds of the Akalis that Bhindranwale, who had made the Golden Temple the base for his activities, might eventually take over the gurudwara if the Akalis did not show any resistance. More than that, morchas, as the Akalis knew by experience, always became a matter of prestige for the Sikhs and received traditional support from the countryside, with volunteers numbering in the thousands.
The Golden Temple automatically became the fulcrum of any such demonstration. The morcha began on August 4, 1982. Badal was the first satyagrahi, leading a batch of 300, all of whom were arrested when they emerged from the temple for violating the order banning the assembly of more than five persons. This became a daily affair over the next two and half months, and was all very civilised. …
The moderate among the Sikhs were still in control. Longowal did not fail to chide anyone raising demands other than those that the Akalis had made. The day I attended one of these congregations, when a slogan was raised for Khalistan, Longowal not only condemned it but also said that those who raised the slogan were “agents of the Congress Party” and that the Akalis were strongly opposed to it. Till then he was in control. Bhindranwale, who was sitting beside him, did not utter a word.
(Extracted with permission from the publisher, Roli Books)