Time, New Delhi, Apr. 9, 1984
Photo: Bhindranwale, with entourage at the Darbar Sahib complex (also known as the Golden Temple complex), Amritsar
Sikhs and Hindus engage in frenzied clashes
In normal circumstances, entering the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Punjab, the holiest of Sikh shrines, is a serene and majestic experience. Over the past few weeks, however, the temple has become a formidable fortress. Religious symbols mix with modern rifle muzzles, automatic weapons, swords and battle-axes. Even women are armed, and some children as young as five have daggers hanging from their belts.
The Sikhs, a sect (sic) of 12 million that broke with Hinduism at the end of the 15th century, are known equally for being charitable hosts and aggressive warriors. Today they seem solely the latter, as they are preparing for what may be the battle of their lives. (Not to mention the battle FOR our lives) Their increased demands for political and religious autonomy in the Punjab and their use of violence to enforce those demands have made them virtual enemies of the government and the Hindus who once lived peacefully in their midst. The Sikhs have become a grave concern for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Says a senior Indian official: 'It is the greatest, most volatile crisis this government has faced since the days of partition.'
Resistance to Sikh militancy from Hindus in the Punjab and the neighboring state of Haryana has raised the latest violence to alarming levels. Within the past two months, at least 88 people have died and almost 250 have been wounded in frenzied clashes. In one instance, Sikh extremists threw a grenade into a Hindu religious festival in Amritsar. Three people were killed, 51 injured. The Hindus quickly became an outraged mob, charging the police and accusing them of favoring the Sikhs. Unable to contain the crowd with their long bamboo poles, police opened fire with tear gas and finally, in desperation, with bullets. Before the riot was over, the crowd had burned and looted many Sikh shops and smashed to bits Sikh-owned scooters and bicycles. (Just a foreshadowing of things to come in November.)
Ever since India's independence in 1947, the Sikhs claim, they have faced discrimination. (And still do.) Before then they had enjoyed preferential treatment in the armed forces and civil services, and were given special representation in elected bodies. With independence, those privileges were lost, and the Sikhs became politically subservient to the Hindu majority. (It seems to me, the problem was that we refused to become subservient to anyone. We were insisting on the government keeping the promises made before independence, when the Hindu majority needed our help.) Soon they began agitating for their own state. In 1966 they were given Punjab by the federal government. (An outright lie! If we had been "given Punjab by the federal government," we would have raised out flag, formed our government and lived in peace with India.)Although that state has India's richest, most fertile land, the Sikhs still felt their portion was too small compared with that of neighboring Haryana, the state created at the same time for the Hindus. Therefore, the Akali Dal Party, the political arm of the Sikhs, began an insistent drumbeat of peaceful protest. In 1973 the Akalis passed a resolution setting out various religious and political demands, among them that Punjab's capital, Chandigarh, be made a Sikh capital exclusively, and Amritsar a holy city.
Two years ago, an extreme right-wing (Extreme right-wing? Fascist? I've been called many things in my life, some of them uncomplimentary, but never right-wing or fascist. In fact, I have most often been called things like "dirty pinko commie.) Sikh faction emerged, thus turning the protest aggressive and radical. Its fanatical leader, Sant Jarnail Bhindranwale, (It strikes me as strange that first they call him "Sant," then "fanatical.")36, (So young. So strong. So pure.) now commands at least 1,000 armed followers from the most sacred room of the Golden Temple. Hindus have begun to fear that the demands of the more heavily armed Sikhs will be met as Bhindranwale's movement gains momentum. Even when Gandhi assured them that they would not be let down, Hindus organized to combat the Sikh threat. (Had the Hindu leaders kept their promises, there would have been no "Sikh threat"! Do I detect a tone of prejudice or bias here?)
In mid-February Hindus in Haryana staged then-most violent assaults yet. A mob of 5,000 quickly grew to 8,000, attacking however many Sikhs they could find. In one instance half a dozen Sikh prisoners were held immobile and their beards and hair shorn as Hindus hooted and yelled. 'There goes your hair power,' cried out one Hindu demonstration leader, referring to the Sikh belief that spiritual power derives from long hair. (Not exactly. Notice how they try to make us sound silly and superstitious?)Their heads shaved to the scalp, faces no longer covered with luxuriant beards, Sikhs lay in the street, blasphemed, humiliated and scorned. Blasphemed and scorned, to be sure, but not humiliated. No one can be humiliated without their own consent. I'm sure these brothers never consented to be feel humiliated.)
Last week, in an atmosphere of anarchy, Gandhi's government imposed harsh measures of its own. In clashes between police and terrorists in New Delhi, the Punjab and Haryana, at least eight people were killed and 36 wounded. After five moderate Sikhs were assassinated by radical members of the sect, the government ordered the arrest of 1,225 young Sikh fanatics (read Amritdhari) across the country who were suspected of sabotage and planning insurrection. To quell further uprisings, the government increased military patrols on all railroad lines and highways, bringing the total number of security forces assembled in Punjab and Haryana to 50,000.
Gandhi first moved forces in to surround the Golden Temple in early March, in an attempt to isolate Bhindranwale and stop Sikh provocations. It is unlikely, however, that Gandhi would decide to move them inside. By doing so, she would risk committing a sacrilege that all Sikhs, moderate and radical, would find intolerable. (She did and we did and she ended up executed by our beloved shaheeds, Beant Singh Ji and Satwant Singh Ji.) Since Sikhs make up 25% of the armed forces and hold key command positions, Gandhi does not wish to provoke them any more than necessary. Last weekend, in a bold bid for reconciliation, she established a committee to draft an amendment to the constitution that would define the Sikhs as a separate religion. Sikhs immediately responded to the new development by calling off the burning of 100,000 copies of the Constitution, which they had scheduled for this week. At last a breakthrough seemed possible. (Possible? I guess it didn't turn out that way.)
(Until reading this story I really didn't realise how prejudiced against us the Western press, in this case, Time Magazine, a respected news magazine was.)
(And that's the way it was, Monday, 9 April 1984, as we were preparing our trip to India. It was, of course, the last time we were to celebrate my birthday and our anniversary.)