When I first met Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, he was already cast in his role of both hero and villain. He was as prominent as Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal, the head of the Akali Dal. Although the demand for a Punjabi suba had been conceded (the Punjabi-speaking districts were grouped together to form Punjab state) the Sikhs were generally unhappy with the solution.
Once I caught up with Bhindranwale in his very untidy room and I asked him why he was surrounded by so many armed men toting rifles and Sten guns. His reply, in rustic Punjabi, was to ask why the police carried arms. I told him that the police represented the authority; to which he retorted, ’Let them ever challenge me, and I shall show them who has the authority’.
While I was with Bhindranwale, Central Minister Swaran Singh barged in. As I was sitting on the only chair in the room, he squatted on the floor. Before I could offer him the chair, he remarked that he preferred to sit on the floor in the presence of the sant.
Bhindranwale’s emergence on the political landscape of Punjab can be traced back to 1977 when the Akali-Janata government came to power after the Congress defeat in the assembly polls.
It was Sanjay Gandhi, known for his extra-constitutional methods, who suggested that some ‘sant’ should be put up to challenge the Akali government. Zail Singh and Darbara Singh, who was a CWC member and later became chief minister, selected two persons for Sanjay’s evaluation. As Sanjay’s friend, Kamal Nath, a member of parliament, recalled: ‘The first one we interviewed did not look a "courageous type". Bhindranwale, strong in tone and tenor, seemed to fit the bill. We would give him money off and on,’ Kamal Nath reminisced, ‘but we never thought he would turn into a terrorist.’
Bhindranwale got his first opportunity to get into the limelight on 13 April 1978, Baisakhi day, when a band of Sikhs clashed with Nirankaris who called themselves ‘Sikh’ but were not considered to be so by the community. Sixteen Sikhs died in the clash on that Baisakhi day. To add to the Akalis’ woes, on the day of the clash, Zail Singh had blessed the foundation of the Dal Khalsa to needle the Akalis, and his supporters paid the bill. The inaugural function of the organisation pledged in a resolution ‘to preserve and keep alive the concept of the distinct and independent identity of the ‘Sikh Panth’. The political goal spelt out was ‘the pre-eminence of the Khalsa’.
The important part of the resolution was that ‘in Punjab and other states the Centre’s interference would be restricted to defence, foreign relations, currency, and general communications’, and for these departments, ‘Punjab and other states (should) contribute (central funds) in proportion to (their) representation in Parliament’. This eventually took the form of the Anandpur Resolution, which New Delhi interpreted as a demand for secession.
The Akali leaders were on the defensive about the resolution. Whenever I discussed the Anandpur Resolution with them, they would say there were many versions of it. One of them told me that it was Kapur Singh, a former Indian Civil Servant (ICS), dismissed from service, who had drafted the resolution. It was in English, which Fateh Singh, then the Akali president, did not understand. The resolution was only ‘explained’ to him by Kapur Singh, and Fateh Singh, reportedly, never realised all that was being incorporated in it.
Perhaps Fateh Singh did not understand the implications but the drafting committee had men like Balwant Singh, former Punjab finance minister, Surjit Singh Barnala, former union minister for agriculture, and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), as its members. They could have stalled the resolution or watered it down, but there was nothing surprising about this development because, whenever the Akali Dal was in the wilderness, the party adopted a militant stance. The resolution therefore fitted in with and reflected its politics.
It was apparent that Indira Gandhi and the Akalis were on a collision course. The moderate among the Sikhs were in a minority. People like Prakash Singh Badal, Balwant Singh, and S.S. Barnala were not part of the meeting convened by Bhindranwale to consider the future course of action. Punjab education minister, Sukhjinder Singh, who had stated that the Sikhs should establish Khalistan with the assistance of China and Pakistan, attended the meeting, as did Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who had brought along with him Basant Singh Khalsa, who after losing in the Lok Sabha elections had said that the Sikhs should have a separate electorate.
The prime minister could not accept the Akalis’ demand for a separate territorial entity for the Sikhs. Longowal was in two minds. The extremists played on his feeling of betrayal, arguing that Indira Gandhi had gone back on her commitment even on religious demands. To placate the moderates, Longowal nominated Badal to be the first to court arrest in a morcha to win a separate state for the Sikhs.
The moderate among the Sikhs were still in control. Longowal did not fail to chide anyone raising demands other than those that the Akalis had made. The day I attended one of these congregations, when a slogan was raised for Khalistan, Longowal not only condemned it but also said that those who raised the slogan were ‘agents of the Congress Party’ and that the Akalis were strongly opposed to it. Till then he was in control. Bhindranwale who was sitting beside him did not utter a word.
What frightened me was the religious frenzy that Bhindranwale aroused. I wrote strongly to warn the government that the situation could lead to a renewal of the demand for Khalistan. I also met K.C.Pant, then home minister, to suggest he speak to the Akali leaders. I was pained by his comment: ‘I do not doubt your patriotism but I feel that you are encouraging the Sikhs.’
On 15 October 1983, on the eve of Diwali, Indira Gandhi released all Akali prisoners. Within a few days of the Akali prisoners’ release, Swaran Singh met Longowal and discussed all their demands, most of which were mundane.
indira vs akalis
Swaran Singh, who had been keeping Indira Gandhi in the picture, conveyed to her the details of the agreement on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution and the distribution of water, the two principal demands. She accepted the settlement and praised him for his painstaking efforts.
She, however, told him that she would like the matter to be placed before a Cabinet subcommittee, which she constituted immediately, with Pranab Mukherjee, R. Venkataraman, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and P.C. Sethi as its members. Swaran Singh placed the formula in detail before the committee and they accepted it; Swaran Singh proposed that the prime minister be informed for final concurrence. The subcommittee members told him that they had full authority to endorse the formula and convey the government’s acceptance.
Accordingly, Swaran Singh told the Akalis that the government had approved the formula, and a draft statement too was shown to them. Their leaders, camping in Delhi, wanted to carry the draft with them to Amritsar. As the statement had to be placed before Parliament, it was agreed that it would be relayed to them at Amritsar at about the same time that it was placed before Parliament. However, the statement placed before parliament was substantially different from that which had been shown to the Akalis and did not mention all the points in relation to which Swaran Singh had made concessions. It again spoke about seeking the consent of Rajasthan and Haryana before reaching a settlement on the division of water. The Akalis termed this ‘a betrayal’ and complained to Swaran Singh. He could say nothing because it was apparent that Indira Gandhi had changed her mind at the last minute and the ministerial committee’s approval carried no weight.
Swaran Singh could not subsequently tell me what had happened behind the scenes but his guess was that the cabinet subcommittee did not tell Indira Gandhi that the draft statement, which she subsequently changed, had been shown to the Akalis. His inference might have been correct because Indira Gandhi’s ministers had no communication with her. Had they told her that they had authorised the statement on their own, they would have faced her wrath, a prospect which all of them wished to avoid, but this would have paved the way for a settlement.
Who bungled at which stage may never be revealed but it is apparent that Indira Gandhi changed her mind after giving her consent to Swaran Singh. My feeling is that she believed that Longowal and Bhindranwale were on the same page. Any concession would mean that the Akalis could convincingly say that they represented the Sikhs, and where would that leave her own Congress party? What she did not realise was that most of the Sikhs wanted an identity of their own and the Akalis had come to represent them.
Indira Gandhi left the problem, which she could have settled then, hanging. The Akalis still thought that they could retrieve the situation which was being increasingly controlled by Bhindranwale.
— Abridged excerpts