(This article was originally published on 11 June 2021. The introduction has been modified based on current news developments.)
The rise of Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh and the subsequent state crackdown against him has led to several Hindi and English media outlets comparing him to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
We don't want to get into a comparison between the two individuals because they are different in terms of personality, background, and religious training. Also, Amritpal Singh is yet to attain the kind of iconic status that Bhindranwale achieved both during his life as well as after he was killed during Operation Blue Star in June 1984.
However, there may be similarities with regard to the vacuum in Punjab that caused both of them to grow in stature as well as the state response to the two individuals.
Irrespective of how Amritpal Singh's story develops, there is a need to relook at the legacy of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the circumstances that led to his rise.
Bhindranwale's legacy is a polarising issue. We say polarising because the official narrative around Bhindranwale and the popular narrative in Punjab are at complete variance. The Indian state sees Bhindranwale as a terrorist, a symbol of violent insurrection, and the demand for a separate state of Khalistan.
Hindu nationalists, liberal nationalists, the BJP, the Congress, and even much of the mainstream Left may disagree on a lot, but all of them broadly subscribe to this narrative around Bhindranwale.
On the other hand, the Akal Takht – the highest temporal body of the Sikh community – hails Bhindranwale as a martyr. Many Sikhs in Punjab and outside subscribe to this view. And, in the last decade or so, Bhindranwale has also emerged as a cultural icon, appearing in songs, T-shirts, posters, and on social media.
The official narrative is well known, so this article will try and look at the second aspect — Bhindranwale's popularity, nearly four decades after he was killed during the military action on Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar.
We will try to answer three questions:
How did Bhindranwale’s cult come about in Punjab of the 1970s and early 1980s?
How did he get the status of a ‘martyr’?
What explains Bhindranwale’s popularity over three decades after his death?
Bhindranwale's Cult Then
Why does a personality cult come about? It has no doubt a great deal to do with the personal charisma of the individual. But the cult doesn't emerge in a vacuum. It is often the product of social, economic and political conditions and tensions.
Bhindranwale became popular in the late 1970s. This was a time when Punjab was facing a variety of tensions, many of which were byproducts of the Green Revolution as well as the larger political context in India. There was a perceived threat to the Sikh identity, stemming from increasing dominance of Hindus at different levels and also the imposition of "secular" values by the Indira Gandhi-led Centre, which affected Sikhs more than other communities, given the centrality of religious symbols.
Though the Green Revolution created prosperity, it led to increase in economic inequalities in rural Punjab and also fostered a culture of consumerism.
Water woes in Punjab also increased and the people of the state felt aggrieved due to the transfer of its waters to other states like Haryana and Rajasthan.
It was in this context that Bhindranwale emerged. A preacher associated with the Damdami Taksal (he was appointed its head in 1977), Bhindranwale began touring Punjab preaching against alcohol, pornography and consumerism, which had increased following the Green Revolution. He urged people to take Amrit (initiation) and lead a life in line with Sikh principles.
Bhindranwale's oratory and simple lifestyle added to his popularity among the masses. To many, he appeared as a contrast to both the consumerism and irreligiousness of the time as well as to contemporary politicians seen as self-serving and corrupt.
There was a class element as well. Bhindranwale was the son of a small farmer from Rode village in Moga district (it was then part of Faridkot district), while most of the politicians in Punjab at that time were big landlords and were seen as protecting the interests of rich farmers and traders alone.
Politically, Bhindranwale acquired a reputation as someone who is uncompromising in asserting and defending Sikh interests. His critics, however, accused him of brinksmanship and taking extreme positions and alleged that he struck secret deals with the ruling Congress.
The Sikh-Nirankari clash of 1978, however, strengthened the perception that Bhindranwale was the only one committed to fighting for Sikh interests. The Akali Dal was seen as having compromised in that case. Bhindranwale even took up the cause of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which had been the plank of the Akalis.
The passivity of the Akali Dal and its subservience to the interests of rich farmers drove many young Sikhs towards Bhindranwale, which was reflected in the shift of the All India Sikh Students' Federation.
Besides being against elite politicians, he was also against Communists, which also appealed to devout young Sikhs, many of who were first generation learners from rural small farming backgrounds.
Increase in education levels not being accompanied by employment opportunities also created a cadre of unemployed youth who became impressed by Bhindranwale. For many of them, Bhindranwale offered a life of pride and piety, saving them from hopelessness and vices like alcohol and pornography.
He highlighted the difference in how Sikhs and Hindus accused of the same crime were treated, and argued that the Indian state was in essence a Hindu state.
However, it is important to note that Bhindranwale never openly called for a separate state or Khalistan.
“Sikh ik vakhri qaum hai” (Sikhs are a distinct community/nation), was his common refrain. But “nation” is an inaccurate translation of qaum, which may mean people or community too.
“Brothers, I don't oppose it (Khalistan) nor do I support it. We are silent. However, one thing is definite, if this time the Queen of India does give it to us, we shall certainly take it. We won't reject it. It is Indira Gandhi's business, not mine," he is known to have said.
How Bhindranwale Was Declared a Martyr
However the cult of Bhindranwale assumed completely different proportions after Operation Bluestar in June 1984. The dominant narrative in India is that the operation was done with the aim of eliminating Bhindranwale and his loyalists who had taken refuge in the Harmandir Sahib complex since 1982 and had amassed weapons, harming the peace in Punjab.
But for many Sikhs, this was an attack on their holiest site of worship as well as the seat of their highest temporal body — the Akal Takht.
The Akal Takht has called it the Teeja Ghallughara or the Third Holocaust, the first two being the massacre of Sikhs by the Mughal forces led by Jaspat Rai and then Lakhpat Rai in the 1740s and the second in 1762 by the army of Ahmad Shah Abdali.
One must remember that it wasn’t just Harmandir Sahib, Gurudwaras across Punjab were attacked around the same time, with a large number of casualties.
The anti-Sikh pogrom of November 1984 was an extension of this Ghallughara, according to many Sikhs.
In this context, Bhindranwale along with his companions like Bhai Amrik Singh and General Shabeg Singh, are seen as the last men standing against the Ghallughara.
In 2003, Bhindranwale was declared a "martyr" by the Akal Takht on Ghallughara Divas.
“There should be no more controversy with regard to Bhindranwale. The demolition of the Akal Takht was a condemnable act by the Indian Army and a black chapter in India’s history,” said the then Jathedar of the Akal Takht, Joginder Singh Vedanti.
This happened at a time when the BJP-led NDA was in power at the Centre and Congress led by Captain Amarinder Singh was ruling in Punjab.
The commemoration of martyrdom is a very integral part of Sikhism, therefore this decision by the Akal Takht gave a great deal of sanctity to Bhindranwale.
Bhindranwale's Cult Now
Just as when he was alive, Bhindranwale's cult in the past decade or so is also largely a product of the prevailing context. Unemployment, corruption, drug abuse and economic inequalities have been rampant in Punjab in this period. Add to this is the grief stemming from the fact that people behind the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and cops guilty of atrocities in the 1980s and 1990s remained unpunished.
There is also there is a gaping political vacuum in Punjab with no politician – mainstream or pro-Khalistan – being able to capture the imagination of the people, especially the Sikh youth.
The mainstream politicians are still seen as corrupt, anti-Sikh and representing landed interests. It is in this vacuum that cult of Bhindranwale has become stronger.
A crucial role has been played by increasing internet access and proliferation of social media. This has opened up non-official means of expression and also fostered greater interaction between the Sikhs in Punjab and those in the diaspora, who didn’t face restrictions regarding praising Bhindranwale.
Interestingly, the rise in Bhindranwale's popularity has been unconnected with support for Khalistan, which has mostly been on the wane.
Lt Gen (Retired) HS Panag compares Bhindranwale's cult with Che Guevara. He writes, "The Khalistan movement in Punjab has been fighting an existential battle for the last three decades. There are no takers. Even the cult status of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is more like what Che Guevara was for the young in the 1970s.”
The main point is that Bhindranwale represents a contrast to the existing order. "Ajj Hunda Bhindra wala..." (Had Bhindranwale been alive) is a common refrain in songs that present this contrast between Bhindranwale and the prevalent realities.
For instances, a recent song by Kanwar Grewal says that, "Had the lion of Bhindran been alive, acts of sacrilege and corruption wouldn't take place."
Even in the context of the farmers’ protest, a song was released saying that, “had Bhindranwale been there today, he would have taught the Centre a lesson”.
Need To Acknowledge Difference in Narratives
The massive gap in the official narrative and the narrative among Sikhs needs to be acknowledged. Even within Punjab, there is a clear difference between how Sikhs and Hindus see Bhindranwale. For many Hindus, Bhindranwale remains a figure associated with fear. Many accused Bhindranwale of being behind attacks on Hindus in the 1980s. But even the perception of some Hindus has changed with time.
Even regarding Operation Blue Star, there isn’t enough acknowledgement of the trauma the attack caused Sikhs or of the debatable rationale behind it.
The official version needs to be questioned much more. Former Research and Analysis Wing Officer GBS Sidhu has written in his recent book that Operation Blue Star should have been “avoided at all costs” and that it wasn’t “motivated out of any genuine threat perception about the demand for Khalistan”.
Even someone as closely associated with the establishment as KPS Gill has said that Operation Blue Star was avoidable.
The point is that there are no right or wrong narratives.
It is important for political observers and historians to study events like Operation Blue Star and figures like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, dispassionately and without political baggage from any side.
The other issue that often gets missed in the entire debate surrounding Bhindranwale is the context.
Even those who condemn Bhindranwale need to understand that his appeal is the result of a political rot in Punjab and authoritarianism of the Centre. This was as true of the Indira Gandhi era as Narendra Modi's rule and of different rulers in Punjab — be it Zail Singh, Darbara Singh, Beant Singh and the Badals and Captain.