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Punjab: A Cataclysmic Showdown, Aftermath and Challenges

A Review by Dr Hardev Singh

Author: Bhupinder Singh Mahal, Canada
Publisher: Singh Brothers, Amritsar
Pages: 192, Price Rs. 350/-; US $20
First Edition: April 2009

Bhupinder Singh Mahal, a freelance author, has written extensively on the Sikh ethos and challenges faced by the Sikh diaspora. He was born in Uganda, raised in Kenya and educated in U.K. Mahal has traveled over five continents and gained lot of experience of living in multicultural societies around the globe. His international manifold experience has provided him with a platform to promote multiculturalism in Canada.

The book under review is divided into 7 chapters. Chapter 1, “1984: The sequel to Mahabharta” is the central theme of the book and deals with history, background and impact of what we call in common parlance as Operation Bluestar. The author is critical of Nehruvian approach to Sikh affairs by his denial of creating a Punjabi Suba based on the principles of re-organisation of states on the basis of language. He also debunks the naïve approach of Sikh leaders. For example, a reference is made to Master Tara Singh's statement that “he was for a United India; but if Pakistan was conceded he was for a separate Sikh state with the right to federate either with India or Pakistan.” To dissuade Sikhs, Nehru promises them a “glow of freedom” in an independent India. The Akalis were befooled to believe that Punjab will be made an autonomous unit of India.

The author traces the roots of communal feud in Punjab: Many Punjabi-Hindus view the struggle of the Sikhs to protect and preserve the culture, language and religion as a call for special rights and privileges: “Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs have inexorably moved to different moorings of life and faith during the last 50 years.” The author is highly critical of the role played by Punjabi Hindu, Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Partap Singh Kairon in opposing the genuine demand of the Sikhs for creation of the Punjabi Suba. “Punjabi speaking Hindus declared Hindi as their mother tongue in census. The Akali demand for Punjabi to be based on Gurmukhi script was construed by Nehru as a religious demand and hence communal and not linguistic, unlike the case with other states.” When Nehru in a death bed change of heart instructed Kairon to declare Punjab a unilingual state, Kairon reassured Nehru, “Suba agitation does not have the support of all Sikhs but only the Akalis who have no fight left in them.”

The author has established the conspiracy between Indira Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh to use Bhindranwale as a tool to destroy the power of Akalis as a political force in Punjab. The rise and fall of Bhindranwale is depicted by the author: “Bhindranwale, a parvenu from an obscure village, now emerged as a key player. A protege of Zail Singh, he was to establish a turbulent presence in Punjab. Indira Gandhi stoked the fires of Sikh extremism in Punjab by helping embed Bhindranwale on the political landscape of Punjab. Thus did Zail Singh, a willing intrigant, aid and abet the communal-minded Indira Gandhi in her quest of destroying the Akalis through the induction of militancy in their own ranks?”

On page 35, the author tries to focus on the riddle of Indian politics and the role of Akali Dal: “How could Indira and Rajiv Gandhi so fatally manipulate the Indian political system? Why did Gandhi family lionize Bhindranwale? How and why do simple preachers get elevated to the locus of geo-political decision-making? To what extent did the fickle Akali leaders with shifting loyalties damage the Sikh cause?” However, the author has a word of praise for Bhindranwale (page 52): “The preacher stayed on his message, determined to vocalize the imminent threats to Sikhism from the sharply rising apostasy; and as his populism won over peasantry, it made the Akalis harbour chilling suspicions of his motives.”

The author has analysed the failure of Akali morhca on two counts: The clash of interest between old guard Akalis and Bhindranwale on the one hand and cunningness of Indira Gandhi on the other. “She was very adept at saying one thing for public consumption while privately hatching sinister plots.”

B S Mahal calls Blue Star operation a folly on the part of Indira Gandhi and her cohorts including both advisors and army generals. The author refers to the comments of Brigadier Manmohan Singh Virk to prove his point of view (p.57): “Bluestar was a devious plot since it ignored other more appropriate and less lethal measures. The Army brass not only exaggerated the number of terrorists killed but that the operation itself was ill-conceived and poorly executed. In what God’s name, could General Sundarji justify killing thousands of innocent pilgrims, looting of valuable Sikh relics and torching of original historical documents”?

The author wonders why there were no protests by the Students Community in the colleges and university campuses in Punjab. He blames the fourth estate of being guilty of gross dereliction of duty. The myth of Indian secularism is exploded by reference to Gujarat riots and quoting Rajiv Chandrasekran in Washington Post: “the confrontation illustrated the volatile mixture of religion, history and extremist politics that plague India, a Hindu dominated but officially secular nation of one billion people.”

The first chapter also depicts the gory scenes of Delhi Sikh mayhem, poignant scenes of arson and murder in which whole families were annihilated in a fit of rage. One can also watch the triumphant faces of Indian army generals in the holy precincts of Golden Temple, as if they had won a battle over enemy forces.

The author devotes full three chapters (2, 4 and 5) to the problems of Sikh diaspora. He refers to the endless debates and discussions going on the Internet websites of Sikh Diaspora regarding the definition of a Sikh and other related issues. Interestingly, all three founding members of Sikh-Diaspora group, including the author himself, are clean-shaven. The author does not call himself a sehajdhari but coins a new term ishadhari, in the hope to morph into a keshdhari before life’s journey's end.

Chapter 4, “Cross-cultural influences and doctrinaire ambiguities bedevil the Sikhs,” also deals with the problems of the Sikh society in general and the Sikh diaspora in particular. There is open criticism of SGPC and role of Akal Takhat jathedars in this chapter.

Chapter 6 deals with attacks on the Sikh faith iconography. It is based on the controversial play Behzti (dishonour) written and directed by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and portrayed sexual abuse in a Gurdwara. The showing of this play in Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2004 led to violent demonstrations by the Sikhs and the police had to be called to restore peace. The author blames the writer and director of the play: “Bhatti’s senseless and gratuitous staging of a sinful crime in a Gurdwara lacerate Sikh psyche who see it as an attack on the iconography of their faith.”

Chapter 3 “V S Naipaul’s misconstruction of Sikh History” deserves a special mention. The story appeared in an abridged from in The Sikh Review and a rejoinder was published by Sarder Gurtej Singh in the same journal. The author blames the Nobel laureate “V S Naipaul” for providing a jaundiced view of Sikh history through the lens of a biased Hindu mind. The inputs of Naipaul’s write-up were provided by S Gurtej Singh, National Professor of Sikhism; hence the author tries to implicate the learned Professor of Sikhism for this misadventure.

Bhupinder Singh Mahal, the author of Punjab, deserves my full appreciation for his untainted view of the Sikh affairs in Punjab in the background of Operation Bluestar. He wields his pen with dexterity and his narrative deserves a high pedestal among the writers of Sikh lore of twentyfirst century. He has quoted all references to the material used faithfully in support of his thesis presented in this book. He demolishes the view-point of his adversaries with a mighty stroke of his pen and uses scientific vision and logic to establish the truth. This book will cater to the needs of a vast readership, including historians, sociologists, political scientists and theologians in Punjab.

Singh Brothers, especially Gursagar Singh, deserve my appreciation in publishing a series of books during the Tercentenary celebrations of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The foreword of this book is written by Dr Shinder S Thandi, a scholar and a teacher of Coventry University, England. His comments are relevant to be quoted here: “This collection (of essays) represents the views, perspectives and prejudices of Mahal but the themes and issues chosen have a wider relevance and they are of immense importance in understanding the societal behavior as a whole.”

Having the experience of working in earthquake prediction studies, I am amused to read the terminology of seismology used by the author to explain his view-point twice in a unique way in Chapter 1. On page 33, the author writes, “Overtime this relationship was to undergo seismic stresses, with each wave piling bitter resentment upon resentment until the final eruption in June 1984.” Again on page 74, he quotes: “Religiously motivated spree of senseless communal slaughter is a regular feature of Indian life. And Hindu zealots are always at the heart of the body turmoil. Periodically, they engineer an environment that forces communal tectonic plates to shift and grate against each other.”


ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2009, All rights reserved.