Freedom Issue 2017: Dispatches from History

Punjab: Seeds of Secession

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Punjab highlights the disasters that can arise when political unscrupulousness is mixed with religious fervour

SEPTEMBER 1981 WAS an unusual month in Punjab. It was the month when the writ of government finally broke down. In the middle of it, an obscure preacher who had engaged in a provocative display of weapons and fire power in the national capital dared the state police to arrest him. Less than a year ahead, India was to host the 9th edition of Asian Games, and here was this man from a small, unknown town in north Punjab who could not care less. When, finally, warrants were released to arrest him, no one had the courage to nab him. Worse, he set the date for his ‘arrest’ from the pulpit of Damdami Taksal, the seminary in Chowk Mehta that he led. In less than a month after his ‘arrest’, he was a free man. He was never arrested again until 1984, when the Indian Army finally got rid of him.

The man—Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale—epitomised all that could go wrong in India’s dog-eat-dog politics. The youngest of seven siblings, Bhindranwale would normally have been no more than a petty preacher. But in the course of a decade of volatile politics—from 1974, when a secessionist manifesto labelled ‘the Anandpur Sahib Resolution’ was adopted, to 1984 when the Golden Temple in Amritsar was stormed—he became the éminence grise of Punjab politics. It was a time when India’s first religiously informed secessionist movement came close to getting what it wanted: a separate Sikh state.

Those heady days are now no more than a memory. The sant, or holy man, as Bhindranwale was described by his acolytes, is gone and so is the toxic politics that marred Punjab with terrorism for more than a decade. Damdami Taksal is now like any other Sikh temple that dots Punjab’s landscape, except it is a bit larger. Home to some 300 students, many of whom are orphans, the seminary boasts a gurdwara, hostels, messes and infrastructure for imparting education.

Does anyone remember what Bhindranwale looked like or what he did when he led the seminary? “Of course! No one can forget santji. Whatever be their background, for all young students here, santji is their role model and idol. All aspire to be like him,” says Baljinder Singh, a 21-year-old instructor of scripture and Sikh history at the Taksal. His young years notwithstanding, or perhaps because of them, he is very clear that politics without the backing of religion is purposeless. It is an outlook that ordinary Sikhs won’t deny in a debate but will also not state openly in so sharp a manner. In espousing such ideals, the seminary has changed little from the time it spelled terror in the hearts of police, politicians and ordinary people in Punjab.

“Sikhism prohibits keeping any memorabilia and belongings of a great man,” Singh says during a discussion on the legacy of Bhindranwale. “There is a better way to keep a leader’s memory. Follow his ideals and embrace his ideas and there is no need for pictures.” For a religion rooted in India, that idea is remarkably close in perspective to Semitic religions.

Watching row upon row of students reading religious texts placed in X-shaped folding book rests, what comes to mind is devotion. What is less clear is the nature of that devotion. Is it devotion to God and his word? Or to a very different, earthly, conception that piety is not possible without political backing? It is troubling to think that after a long and dark spell of violence, the idea has not been expurgated and continues to thrive. Perhaps it has to do with the soil, for this part of Punjab has always been receptive to the mixing of religion and politics. As long as it remained an idea, it did not matter. But from 1978 until 1984—the year the Army finally put an end to Bhindranwale and his men—it acquired a dangerous life.

On their own, the preacher and what he preached could not have come remotely close to political power in Punjab even if, in retrospect, that is what he desired. A supporting cast of politicians, whose politics was bereft of any idealism, was an essential ingredient. Much like Merlin’s magic, the idea was to use Bhindranwale for settling political scores. And just like the story, the device got out of hand.

Close to four decades have elapsed since that fatal adventure in politics. There are few who want to recall that episode and the key actors are dead. Bhindranwale met his God in the place he chose to desecrate. Zail Singh and Darbara Singh, too, are gone, and so is Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Gone along with them is the secret history of intrigue and faction-fighting that led Punjab—and India—to the edge of a precipice. Whatever history has been re-constructed, it is from fragments and bits and pieces of partial information.

If the history is hazy, the political miscalculations that led to the disaster are clear. The political objective behind creating a Sikh-majority state— the first state in Independent India where language and religion of a minority were mixed—had failed. The Akalis—a party of men who wanted religious ideals to inform their politics—assumed that getting Punjab would finally let them enjoy what they wanted—a blend of religion and politics. That did not work. The Sikhs of the state were in a majority, but not the kind of crushing majority that would allow Akalis a free-run. If a small fraction of the Sikh vote could be broken away, the electoral game would open up again for the Congress.

In a sense, this was business as usual in a state. Factionalism and wrangling for power was the stuff of politics in the 1960s. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were—and continued for long—to be prime examples of this sort of politics. In those days, before refined caste calculations for electoral gains came into play, it was the kaleidoscopic rearrangements in factions—from a village panchayat all the way to a state capital—that made or marred the chances of a politician. Punjab was no different. At this stage, in the late 1970s, there was no sign of secession as an idea, let alone as an organised political force.

Secession based on religion needs a fertile soil of atavism to sprout, but far more than that, it needs acceptance among politicians and intellectuals who, for very different reasons, accept it for their own ends

This was also a time when a process of political decay had begun in the Congress party. Some 11 years before the first signs of trouble emerged in Punjab—in 1978—the party had experienced its first shock at the level of states. Nationally, the party held easy politically primacy; in states, the contest was just beginning to get ugly.

It was at that point, in 1978, when faction- fighting turned into a mess. Not only was the Congress trying to break apart the Akalis by weaning away their legislators, the party’s two senior leaders—former Chief Minister Zail Singh and the soon-to- be Chief Minister Darbara Singh—were busy fight fighting each other. In this hunt for cheap votes, seats in the legislature and the top job in the state, no one in the state or the central leadership of the party thought for a moment how destabilising all of this would be.

All along, waiting on the flanks, Bhindranwale shrewdly bid his time. By 1981 this preacher, whom few took seriously, became the most powerful man in the state. Virtually every ambitious politician in the state wooed the preacher. The man had learnt the ropes of politics: at all times, he abjured political office and disparaged politics, but by one deft manoeuvre after another, he brought Punjab to its knees. Like a rabbit out of a hat, he made secession a viable idea. What the Akalis tried to get, in vain, from the days of the Cabinet Mission in 1946 and innumerable fasts by alleged religious leaders, at last seemed within the grasp of this man from Chowk Mehta. From a minority-dominated state in the garb of a linguistic state Punjab appeared to be on the cusp of seceding from India.

This Punjab was unique. Unlike other states that tried to secede, Punjab experienced no separatist movement on the basis of economic and political grievances (Assam) or ethnicity (Nagaland and Mizoram). In all these states, secessionist ideology and mass support for it went hand in hand. In Punjab, this was never so and the gap between the desire to secede and the mass upsurge needed for it was always large.

A number of pieces on the political chessboard had to fall in the right alignment for the idea of secession to become viable. And this happened at the hands of rational actors who craftily went about calculating their interest in the space offered by legitimate democratic politics. Once the constellation of supporting factors passed, the idea withered away. It was, in the end, just an idea.

The Indian Ideology has been described as a blend of secularism, socialism, democracy and non-alignment. It is easy to visualise these four elements in a neat geometric figure—a square. But this was never a textbook shape except, perhaps, for the first decade after Independence. But as India evolved politically, the pulls and pressures twisted and turned the geometric ideal into, at times, a grossly misshapen figure. By the time the Punjab crisis arrived, short-term political calculations dominated everything else. Close to four decades after those events, one is forced to ask if their participants knew what they were doing even as they marched on insouciantly. Perhaps at that stage, no one realised how playing with religious fire in a border state dominated by a minority could seriously shake the foundations of India. The net result was that the axis linking secularism and democracy was twisted out of shape. It is fashionable to date the Babri Masjid demolition as ‘the end of Nehruvian India’. Perhaps that date ought to be re-evaluated, for what was being practiced in Punjab from 1978 to 1983 was a major blot on the Nehruvian idea of India.

AFTER THE FURY passed, it was common to hear that India’s political class had learnt its lesson. Never would the kind of politics that was practiced in Punjab be replicated again. Perhaps those words were uttered too soon.

Barely a decade after Punjab caught fire, virtually the same situation emerged in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Among scholars of separatism and in the literature on the comparative study of secessionism, any consideration of Punjab and J&K together is dismissed out of hand. This is, no doubt, sound: each secessionist movement has its own peculiar features that mark it out from others and this is true in the case of these states as well. To be sure, the obvious differences are too stark to permit easy comparison: the scale and intensity of insurgency in Kashmir is qualitatively different from Punjab. There is a further, somewhat delicate, point. Punjab was always considered a part of India as imagined from times immemorial—Vedic India first emerged in what is today Punjab. Kashmir has been contested continuously since 1947. That is where differences end and similarities start.

For one, what was seen in Punjab in 1978 was also at play in Kashmir in 1987: short- term electoral gains that were purchased at a very high cost. Both episodes occurred well after the Congress showed signs of decay. As in Punjab, no one bothered to pause and evaluate the potential consequences. For another, the same sort of pandering to forces that use religion for political ends was at work in Kashmir as well. If it was a single preacher from an obscure seminary in Punjab, Kashmir has a much more organised network for the same purpose. The difference in scale and intensity mentioned above are partly due to this factor. Resultantly, the idea of secession is much stronger in Kashmir than it ever was in Punjab; regrettably, so is the scale of violence and cost of human life.

The crucial difference between the two cases, one that puts a question-mark over the Indian Ideology, is the asymmetry in ideological responses to Punjab and Kashmir. In 1980s, when terrorism was at its peak in Punjab, the descriptor used was ‘crisis of national unity’. That term has seldom been used for Kashmir, and in recent times, almost never. In fact, today it is fashionable to describe the ‘crisis in Kashmir’ as a result of weaknesses in Indian liberalism and threats to individual freedom. The political threat that happenings in Kashmir pose to the unity of India are never mentioned either in scholarly work or in public commentary. What a difference time has made to understanding two crises that have many common features. The ideological square—made up of secularism, democracy, socialism and nonalignment—is now an unrecognisable figure and not because conservative politics made it so.

What happened in Punjab was a betrayal of ‘secular ideals’: an unscrupulous bunch wanted power at any cost even as intellectual India watched aghast. There is a neat reversal of roles in Kashmir. For the most part, mainstream politicians and parties desperately want a way out; intellectuals, in contrast, are busy questioning the very Idea of India. Secession based on religion needs a fertile soil of atavism to sprout, but far more than that, it needs acceptance among politicians and intellectuals who, for very different reasons, accept it for their own ends. In the end, it engulfs everyone. It is a self-inflicted wound.