Indian election results open old wounds: Fathers Day 2019

Written by Gurpreet Singh | Published on: June 17, 2019
 “Why there is no salt with peanuts in the bag?” , asked one soldier to another on a train heading to Amritsar?


Image Courtesy: Hindustan Times

“What do you expect from those who are not loyal to the salt of the nation?”,  came the reply from fellow soldier.

This discussion had left my father shaken to the core.

Maybe the soldiers did not notice a turbaned Sikh sitting next to them or maybe they just brought this up to humiliate him.

For those who need to understand the context of the conversation it is important to know that salt is a test of one’s loyalty in India. Those who are loyal to their masters are called namak halal (for being indebted to the one who provides for food) and those who aren’t, are namak haram.
For these two soldiers in a conflict zone, the locals were namak haram. They were most likely from Uttar Pradesh, a northern Indian Hindi speaking state where people eat peanuts with salt. You get it for free if you buy peanuts from a vendor. But in Punjab where they were posted now this wasn’t the case. If you buy peanuts you won’t get free salt with it simply because people in Punjab eat peanuts differently.

My father knew what these soldiers were talking about. He had been to Uttar Pradesh so he also understood their language. It was a clear reference to his people whose loyalty to the nation had come into question ever since Punjab was turned into a military zone.
The time when this incident occurred was when my father was posted in Amritsar- the Mecca of the Sikhs. He worked as a sales manager with a government owned Oil Company. He was traveling back home on a train when he bumped into these soldiers who were passing a judgement on his co-religionists, just because they did not get free salt from the vendor on railway station.

My father never forgot this conversation. He felt completely helpless and couldn’t muster courage to confront them either. It was challenging for any ordinary Sikh to argue with Indian soldiers who were now ruling their homeland of Punjab. But he shared his pain with me and the story has stuck with me since he first narrated it and on Father’s Day I still remember the way he explained it with lump in the throat.  

This happened months after the infamous Operation Bluestar that was executed by the Indian army in the first week of June, 1984. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had ordered the military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs to deal with handful of armed extremists who were accused of using the place of worship as their hideout to carry out their political movement for religious rights. Their leader and a fiery preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale believed that the Sikhs were being treated as second class citizens in a Hindu dominated India. Since the government wasn’t sincere to address the issue and had deceived the moderate Sikh leadership at every step, Bhindranwale became more popular among the ordinary Sikhs. He emphasized that the Sikhs should arm themselves to fight against injustice in accordance with the principles of Sikhism that teaches its followers to resist against repression.

An era of killings had started. Ordinary Hindus and moderate Sikhs became the target of violence, besides the political leaders who were on the hit list of Bhindranwale and his supporters.

On the pretext of crushing terrorism, the Indian government decided to go ahead with Operation Bluestar. The Indian forces stormed the place of worship even as the Sikh pilgrims had gathered there to mark the martyrdom day of their fifth Guru, Arjan Dev – who had laid the foundation of this holy place.

Instead of resorting to other means to prevent the bloodshed and sacrilege and making the militants surrender, the Indian government let the army turn the temple complex into battlefield. The incident had left scores of pilgrims dead and the highest temporal seat of the Sikh faith Akal Takhat Sahib heavily destroyed.

All these ugly memories have freshened up following the May 23 election results of India that brought back the right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power with a brute majority. The BJP got more than 300 seats in the house of 543. The number was even higher than 282 seats BJP won in the 2014 election when Modi first became the Prime Minister.

This year’s election coincided with the 35th anniversary of the Operation Bluestar and subsequent events. The linkage between the two episodes happening within a span of three decades cannot be overlooked.

What my father and his fellow Sikhs faced during 1984 has lot in common with other minorities, especially Muslims and Christians facing today under BJP rule.  Especially when the Indian electorate re-elected the BJP that openly scapegoated Muslims and riled up Hindu majority against them during the campaign and throughout its first tenure, there is a reason to draw parallels between 1984 and 2019.  

The Operation Bluestar was clearly aimed at teaching two percent of the Sikhs a lesson to garner the support of Hindu majority in the forthcoming election. This was proven soon after the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards. Gandhi’s Congress party that claims to be a secular alternative to the BJP engineered anti-Sikh pogrom across the country. The mobs led by Congress party activists targeted innocent Sikhs to avenge the murder of their leader. In the general election held in the aftermath of the massacre, Indira’s son Rajeev Gandhi got a huge majority of more than 400 seats. The BJP got only two seats in the parliament as its vote bank had shifted to Congress that won the election riding on the anti-Sikh wave and using the slogan of national unity.

The Sikhs felt alienated and insecure during that period. In particular, turbaned Sikh men like my father became potential suspects in the eyes of police and paramilitary soldiers. The majority community remained largely indifferent to the grievances of the Sikhs caused by the Operation Bluestar and anti-Sikh massacre.

My father who was a carefree man often trimmed his beard, but after Operation Bluestar decided not to cut his facial hair anymore and started growing it. He now became more religious and the events of 1984 had lot to do with this. Though he never got baptized, he became a much dedicated observant of his faith.

Before the army stormed at the temple, my father was given the responsibility to install cooking gas cylinders at the Golden Temple Complex kitchen. His company also supplied the cooking gas. When the process began, he often used to visit the Golden Temple and had a chance to meet Bhindranwale personally on number of occasions. Sometimes, the colleagues visiting him from Delhi used to ask him if he can arrange their meeting with Bhindranwale as they were curious to know what this man was fighting for. To this my father obliged.

Once Bhindranwale pointed out to him that he shouldn’t be trimming his beard and be respectful to the religious code. However, my father just ignored this. He had mixed feelings about Bhindranwale who had become a hero for many in Punjab. While he agreed with him on the attitude of the government toward Sikh issues, he was also critical of the violence on part of the militants.

Around that time, the audio tapes of Bhindranwale’s speeches were in great demand. We also used to bring them home to listen to them to understand the nature of conflict between the government and the Sikhs. One day our father got so upset with some violent incidents that had taken place inside the Golden Temple Complex that he wanted us to stop playing his tapes.

However, everything changed after the Operation Bluestar.

The state of Punjab was brought under curfew and there was a complete press censorship. In the nights, the administration carried blackouts claiming that the neighbouring Pakistan might attack taking advantage of the situation to help the Sikh militants in creating a separate homeland of Khalistan.

I was 14 at that time and was sick with stomach flu. Neither was I in a position to go anywhere, nor the situation allowed anyone to step out in the first place. But the sounds of gunfire and shelling are still etched on my memory. Our house was little far from the Golden Temple Complex – but we could clearly hear those deafening sounds throughout the army operation. During day time, we would see heavy smoke emerging from the direction of the Golden Temple complex.

In order to prevent any accident in the kitchen of the temple, my father was asked by the administration to go and make arrangements to relocate the cooking gas cylinders. For this he was given a curfew pass.

When he came back he was depressed over what he saw at the temple. He shared with us his first-hand account of having seen the signs of destruction everywhere and the dead bodies.

After the operation was over and when the temple was finally opened to the devotees, my father took all of us inside. When I saw myself before my eyes the building of Akal Takhat scarred with shelling, I could not believe it. This had frightened me completely. I became angry and felt so helpless. Even though my father wasn’t political and my understanding of politics was nil, I was convinced that the government has humiliated my people.

After witnessing all this, my father one day told me that he has decided to stop trimming his beard out of respect for Bhindranwale who had died fighting against the Indian army. Thanks to the Operation Bluestar, he had now become a martyr for my father. An ambivalent admirer had now become his follower.

Some of his colleagues had already started spreading rumours that he was a supporter of Bhindranwale. A complaint was made against him within his organization but nothing was established.  They failed to understand that he was only pained just like many other Sikhs. Notably, his mother was a Hindu and his elder sister was married into Hindu family so he was always aware to keep a distance from the Sikh separatists.

Interestingly, one of my cousins who is a Hindu and had served the army supported the Operation Buestar, while a distant one who is a Sikh had deserted the army in retaliation of the army attack. He was among those who revolted as soon as the news of army invasion on their Vatican reached them.

My father had voted against the Congress party for many years after the events of 1984. But in 2004 when the Congress appointed Manmohan Singh as the first Sikh Prime Minister he softened his position and tried to bury the past and move on.

Singh’s appointment came after BJP threatened to stop Congress leader Sonia Gandhi from becoming the Prime Minister because of her foreign origin. Sonia who is the widow of Rajeev Gandhi – who was responsible for Sikh massacre, is of the Italian descent.

Even when my father was disillusioned with Congress, he was very clear on one thing that never to support BJP. He often used to tell me that the BJP is much more dangerous than the Congress as it wants to turn India into Hindu theocracy. He believed that the BJP supporters were also involved in the anti-Sikh massacre. Though the Congress was directly complicit as it was in power, the BJP folks he used to say also had a hand in the violence. He sincerely trusted Sonia Gandhi for giving Singh a chance to become the Prime Minister to bring closure, though I never agreed on this with him. I still believe that the Congress never tried to address the issue of 1984 honestly and the appointment of Singh was merely symbolic. Yet, my father stuck to his belief until the final years of his life. 

He died in November, 2017. I was visiting India to see him as he wasn’t keeping well because of cancer when he passed away following a cardiac arrest. He expressed his concern over growing attacks on religious minorities under Modi, a night before.

Modi is widely accused of repeating 1984 like massacre against Muslims in 2002. He was the Chief Minister of Gujarat back then. The bloodshed followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. The incident that left more than 50 people dead was blamed on Islamic fundamentalists by Modi after which the BJP supporters began targeting Muslims all over Gujarat. Much like Rajeev Gandhi, Modi gained a huge majority in the next assembly election.

Ever since Modi became the Prime Minister, India has witness spike in violence against minorities. During this year’s election campaign, Modi and his cohorts had intensified their hate campaign against Muslims and constantly accused them of indulging in terror and anti national activities. The police violence against Muslims has also increased under Modi. So much so, the newly appointed Home Minister Amit Shah was responsible for the killings of Muslims in police custody in Gujarat. The narrative of Muslims being Pakistani agents or terrorists is no different from the one used in 1984 against the Sikhs.

Before the election when 40 soldiers died in a February 14 suicide attack blamed on Kashmiri Muslim militants in Pullwama, ordinary Kashmiri Muslims were targeted by the mobs throughout India. 

Agree or not, this polarization had helped Modi to come back to power with even greater majority.  

The structural violence against Sikhs during 1984 need to be understood to comprehend what India is facing today. It had set the stage for a culture of impunity that gives police and the state sponsored vigilantes to pick on minorities, scapegoat them and get majority to support their masters.

In the end, I want to confess that I like to eat peanut with salt as I lived in Uttar Pradesh for many years with my parents. My wife and others often joke that I am more like someone born in Uttar Pradesh. I have every reason to shun this practice in protest against what my father was subjected to, but I am still sticking to it with a hope that real India based on the principles of pluralism and diversity will recover one day from this madness and will be back on the rail. I may not agree with my father hundred percent, but I am keeping a hope that someday his resilience will work and help us in regaining what we have lost under a majoritarian democracy. If my father could keep his hopes alive and never compromised on his belief of Hindu-Sikh kinship even under worst circumstances, why can't we?