In the Wake of the Golden Temple Assault, An Indian Expert Explains the Sikh Religion and Revolt

updated 07/09/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/09/1984 01:00AM

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to invade the Golden Temple at Amritsar on June 5th and flush out the Sikh militants entrenched there, she committed one of the riskier acts of her long political career. For at least four months the world's most populous democracy had been convulsed by yet another round of sectarian violence, this one perpetrated by a band of religious extremists determined to obtain by force what others had been unable to achieve through negotiation: autonomy for Punjab, India's prosperous, Sikh-dominated state.

Led by charismatic holy man Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, 37, some 1,000 militants had holed up in the sacred temple complex, gathering weapons and reportedly conducting a wave of assassinations. When the guns fell silent after the army's 36-hour assault, a reported 84 government soldiers and 492 Sikhs, including Bhindranwale, lay dead. Despite the army's efforts to avoid damaging the temple, the majority of India's 14 million Sikhs (2 percent of the population) were seized by outrage and a sense of betrayal.

One Sikh who has maintained a more sympathetic view of the government's action is Nihal Singh, 55, former editor of the Statesman and the Indian Express, two of India's most respected English-language newspapers. Singh, who was born in Rawalpindi and raised as a Sikh, was educated at the University of Delhi and has made a lifelong discipline of "perceiving the world objectively—even matters close to my heart." He is currently a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Manhattan. In an effort to clarify the nature of the Punjab strife, Singh discussed Sikh faith and ferment with Assistant Editor Joshua Hammer.

Who are the Sikhs, and what are their beliefs?

The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak in India in the 16th century as a synthesis of Islam and Hinduism, a way to make peace between those warring faiths. Sikhs are monotheistic and focus their worship on the teachings of a line of gurus, whose religious thought is codified in a holy book known as the Granth Saheb. Sikhs believe tobacco is evil, avoid beef and—officially, at least—reject the caste system.

What role do they play in Indian society?

They have thrived in all of India's major cities as entrepreneurs, professionals, merchants and property owners. In Punjab they have become prosperous farmers. Hindus often look inward; Sikhs are far more civic-minded and are often flamboyant extroverts. To explain that to an American audience, I call them the Texans of India.

Is militarism part of the Sikh faith?

Yes. In the 18th century, when the Sikhs were fighting the Mogul overlords, a guru, Gobind Singh, gave the religion a military orientation. He decreed the so-called "Five Ks," a standard of Sikh dress that includes kesa (wearing the hair unshorn), kara (an iron bangle), kachha (regulation underclothing), kanga (a comb) and kirpan (a short sword). The idea was that you would have a band of soldiers—religious warriors—ready at a second's notice to go into battle. The fact that the swords of older days are now machine guns does not conflict with the Sikhs' concept of religion.

What is behind Sikh unrest in Punjab?

There are two problems. The first is political: In 1966, when the state of Punjab was created, the Sikhs made up 60 percent of the population. Today they make up 52 percent—which means they have less control of state government. So there is frustration. The second concern is more basic, related partly to the prosperity of Punjab, which is the richest state in India, and partly to worldwide modernist trends. The Sikh leaders fear that as more and more of the younger generation discards the outer symbols of Sikh faith, its members will be swallowed up by Hinduism, India's overwhelmingly dominant religion. Many of the leaders' demands are rooted in that need to preserve a sense of Sikh identity. Others are rooted in the desire to preserve economic privileges.

What are some of those demands?

Sikh leaders want, for instance, the Punjab capital of Chandigarh, which is shared with the neighboring state of Haryana, turned over to Punjab. The Punjabis feel that this city—designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier 35 years ago—was built for them. They also want greater autonomy for industrialization now that the Green Revolution, which created a whole class of rich farmers in Punjab, has tapered off. And they've been demanding a greater share of irrigation waters, which have been diverted from Punjab to neighboring states. There is a widespread feeling among the Sikhs: Why should Punjab subsidize its poorer neighbors? That creates conflict, because any federal government is going to try to redistribute wealth.

Why wasn't a political settlement hammered out before the attack on the Golden Temple?

Indira Gandhi's traditional method of dealing with agitators has been to give them a long rope—so that they run out of steam—before trying to work out a compromise with them. In this case, as time went on and there was still no settlement, the Sikh politicians increased their pressure. Radical Sikhs, led by Sant Bhindranwale, were allowed by other Sikhs to become increasingly militaristic and threatening. Then the radical elements ran away with the agitation. You had Sikh shrines being used as safe havens for people who took potshots at opponents. And, obviously, the radicals had amassed considerable arms.

What was the appeal of Bhindranwale?

He represented a return to Sikh roots. In various forms this is a phenomenon you have all over the developing world, Iran being the extreme example. Despite the fact that Punjab is the richest state, there are Sikhs who are unemployed or poor. Bhindranwale's movement attracted these people.

What was Bhindranwale's point of view?

He never really defined it. He used symbols, saying the Sikhs are oppressed—which is patently untrue. Sikhs are generally doing well indeed, not only in Punjab but wherever they are in India, and all over the world. Non-Sikhs in India, in fact, cannot understand why the Sikhs have grievances, when they've done so well in virtually every field. They just don't understand what all the griping is about.

Do you think that Mrs. Gandhi could have defused the crisis without storming the temple?

In my view, the options toward the end of this long agitation were either to take the risk of having another Northern Ireland kind of insurgency or take the kind of action that obviously would have the serious repercussions we have seen.

What are the feelings of the average Sikh now?

What has happened with the storming of the temple and the fact that hundreds were killed is that Sikhs everywhere feel scandalized, hurt and angry that the army went into their most sacred shrine and, to their minds, defiled it. The demand for Khalistan—a separate state independent of India—was espoused before the Golden Temple event by a small minority. Even Sant Bhindranwale was ambivalent toward the idea. What has happened is that in their anger the Sikhs are now saying, "We must have Khalistan." It's an emotional reaction so far, rather than a well-considered demand.

Is the Khalistan likely to gain momentum?

That depends upon the wisdom of Mrs. Gandhi and the government. Obviously there is a feeling of alienation among the Sikhs toward her in particular and Hindus in general. I think her gesture of going to the Golden Temple and paying her respects was her way of saying, "This was a terrible thing that had to happen. I couldn't do anything else. After all, every government must maintain a measure of security for all its citizens. The wave of murders had to stop." Personally, I believe what she should do as well is announce a political settlement and say, "Yes, Chandigarh goes to Punjab." As far as the other problems are concerned, she should refer those questions to an impartial tribunal, accepted by all sides, for a quick decision. What has complicated the picture is that the next general elections must be held by January 1985, and it's obvious that the storming of the Golden Temple has the support of the majority of the rest of India. But I don't think she would play politics with such a potentially dangerous problem.

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