Monday’s terror strike on a police station at Dinanagar in Punjab, in northwestern India, brought back memories of bloody times in the early 1980s — when the state was engulfed in militancy.
Four policemen, including a senior officer, were killed in the Monday encounter. So were three civilians and three terrorists. The cops didn’t have bullet-proof vests and fought with antique guns, while the extremists used sophisticated AK 47s.
The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the country’s intelligence agency, had warned the government in a report submitted a month ago that there could be a terror strike, given the resurgence of radical Sikh (a religious group in India) outfits in various regions — particularly in Pakistan, Malaysia, Germany, France, Britain and the US.
Though it is too early to say with any certainty who was behind Monday’s attack, the RAW report sent to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to suggest that hardline Sikh outfits could have perpetrated it. Fingers are also being pointed at Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba who might be keen on opening a new front in Punjab. Hitherto, they had largely confined themselves to Kashmir, a state Pakistan claims as its own.
The Hindu newspaper, quoting the RAW report, said: “On June 6 in Germany, Sikh radical organizations such as Babbar Khalsa International (BKI-G) and Sikh Federation (SF-G) staged a protest outside the Consulate General of India, Frankfurt. The event was attended by 8-10 Pakistan/Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) origin persons as well. A few new Sikh families, which arrived from Portugal, were also seen participating in the protest … A Kashmiri youth spoke at length saying Kashmiris supported the demand for Khalistan (an autonomous state within India for Sikhs) … Similarly in the UK, rebel groups under the banner of Sikh Federation held a remembrance march and freedom rally to commemorate the 31st anniversary of Operation Blue Star.”
Tranquillity had descended on Punjab soon after Operation Blue Star in June 1984 — when Sikh extremists under the leadership of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, holed up inside one of the holiest of shrines, Golden Temple, with a huge cache of arms and ammunition, were flushed out by security forces. It was a battle soaked in blood that saw Bhindranwale dead and his movement for Khalistan crushed. With no political solutions coming, an embittered Bhindranwale had taken up arms to push for an independent Sikh State, Khalistan.
(Later, there would be a similar gory war in Sri Lanka in which the Tamils, led by leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Vellupillai Prabhakaran, would fight for a separate homeland.)
The Sikhs, already bitter about their political and religious concerns not being addressed, were devastated that one of their most sacred spots, Golden Temple, had been soiled. It broke the proud Sikh spirit — a community that had literally helped Hindus fight the Muslim onslaught during the communal riots which took place after the Asian subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan in 1947, and granted freedom by colonial Britain.
In October 1984, barely months after Operation Blue Star, India’s Congress Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, often compared to Britain’s steely Margaret Thatcher, was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards — as she was walking on her lawns for an interview with a foreign television crew.
In one of the most dastardly communal flareups seen since the 1947 partition riots, hundreds of Sikhs were mercilessly killed or burnt alive in the days following the assassination by rampaging Hindu mobs, and while India writhed in agony, the administration run by the Congress and headed by Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, chose to play fiddle. Or, this is what has been widely reported.
(India would see yet another such mayhem in the Gujarat of 2002 when hundreds of Muslims would perish– with the government failing to stop the massacring Hindu mobs.)
One is never sure whether the Sikhs have got over the 1984 humiliation (some of them had to cut their long hair and stop wearing turban — mandated by Sikhism) and the excruciating experience of those torturous days. Have the community’s grievances been addressed? Are the Sikhs now at peace? These are some of the questions that need to be looked into, and if at all there is any truth in the RAW report, New Delhi must wake up to nip right in its bud the emergence of another form of extremism — a kind of rebellion that was crushed in the 1980s Punjab at the cost great human tragedy.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with two of India’s best regarded daily newspapers, The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years, and who now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.
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