August 07, 2020
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How Khalistan Movement Scarred Punjab's Very Soul -- Wassan Singh Lives To Tell Horror Tales

Still an icon of sorts, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's ideology still attracts Punjabi youths. That's a worrying sign

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How Khalistan Movement Scarred Punjab's Very Soul -- Wassan Singh Lives To Tell Horror Tales
Searing Memories
Wassan Singh Zaffarwal at his home in Gurdaspur district, Punjab
Photograph by Suresh K. Pandey
How Khalistan Movement Scarred Punjab's Very Soul -- Wassan Singh Lives To Tell Horror Tales

The small, single-storey house stands alone, as if wary of the habitation around the nearby village of Zaffarwal. Dwarfed by its large, walled compound, it has just three rooms, and a stairw ay outside leading to the terrace, where nights are spent sleeping under the stars, old style. Nights…. We are in Gurdaspur district, a couple of hours off Amr­itsar, in a swathe of rural Punjab that spent a decade-and-a-half as if in a long night. The dark tone of the ’80s resurfaces here the moment there is any intelligence input on terrorism: it is to this house that police posses come swooping down.

One such visit was around the last week of October. Some 100 cops, with one senior police officer, drove in. A stifling panic struck all, including octogenarian Kulwant Kaur. Her son, Wassan Singh Zaffarwal, was not home. The police wanted to wait. Relief came only when he returned, and the posse left after meeting him.

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A curious inversion here: once a name that struck fear across Punjab, Wassan Singh now lives in fear. The dreaded chief of the Khalistan Commando Force during the late ’80s and early ’90s is trying to lead a normal life: his prison sentence ended around a dec­ade ago. He has sought redemption through politics, but is hobbled by the fact that he’s often jai­­led or under house arrest. His latest struggle: trying in vain to get a passport to visit Australia to see his 3-year-old grandson, whose photo adorns the bed shelf.

Religious-political divide led to a bloody, senseless war where only victimhood was secular. Outrages, curfews, social diktats ruled.

In a white kurta pyjama, with an orange turban wrapped Guru or Sufi style, Wassan Singh is calm in tone. Remorse tinges his words, but he’s not hesitant to speak about the past if he trusts you. “After I declared war against police and anti-Sikhism forces, my family was the first victim. My father and brothers, even the youngest one who was 14, were tortured. I can’t tell you the horrors they went through. My mother would sit for days in different police stations, hoping for news that they are alive.” He had travelled to Pakistan and Switzerland before being arrested in 2001 for at least half-a-dozen cases of killing and kidnapping across Punjab. In Dasuya, Amritsar, Batala….

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Born to a poor farmer in Zaffarwal village, Wassan, a school dropout, started as a class IV employee in Dhariwal Mills. A baptised Sikh who used to participate in Gurbani recitation, he joined Damdami Taksal and became a follower of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He pronounced the ‘creation’ of Khalistan from the Akal Takht on April 29, 1986—and moved to Paki­stan, coordinating the activities of KCF (Zaffarwal) from there. He mostly stayed there—occasionally sneaking into India—before moving to Europe. “I wanted to surrender, but was arrested before,” he quips.

Night Sets In

Even people like Zaffarwal now describe the period of insurgency, from the late ’70s to around 1993, as “the dark days”. A time when religio-political differences peaked into a bloody war where only victimhood was secular: both Hindu and Sikhs suffered. For those who survived, life limped on. Streets emptied at night: people stopped stepping out in the dark. Also, it was an era of social diktats! The fiats from terrorists were not limited to Sikhs. One such was a dress code for women and girls: no skirts or jeans, only a salwar suit with dupatta. Every school, private or government, was forced to introduce this new uniform. Even missionary schools toed the line.

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Another was language, an old canker in the soul of Punjab, at least since the 1961 census. A lot of ethno-national movements are propelled by linguistic identity: here it had the additional force of being identified with religion. All government departments were directed to have nameplates and vehicle number plates in Punjabi. The promotion of Punjabi was made so important that Patiala AIR station director M.L. Manchanda was kidnapped and killed on May 27, 1992 by the Babbar Khalsa for apparently not being pliant enough, after the government’s negotiations for his release broke down. They were demanding that electronic media broadcast only in the local language, not Hindi.

Senior journalist Prabhjot Singh, who worked with The Tribune, says, “My editor called...militants had threatened to send one severed arm of Manchanda to the Tribune office and another to the Punjabi news­paper Ajit. Can you stop it, he asked me.” Prabhjot did not know what to do bey­ond the regulation follow-up, using his reportorial network. He rushed with a photographer to Patiala and from there to Ambala, following pol­ice leads. But too late. “Manchanda’s body was found near Rajpura, with his arms intact but his head over 200 km away in Ambala. The police took his head in a 15 kg tin box used for ghee. We followed the police, although they tried to avoid us.” Finally, the head was stitched up at Rajpura mortuary and the body handed over to the family after an autopsy.

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A post-mortem of the whole state seemed nigh, such was the stultifying air. “The media crawled, we didn’t have legs to stand upon. There was so much fear,” says Prabhjot, who too was beaten up once at a Patiala temple. “I almost got killed.” Many others did not live to tell the tale.

Three Stages

(Clockwise) J.S. Bhindranwale, whose cultish, radical charisma fanned the Khalistan movement, at the Golden Temple; Sikh miliants lay down arms before K.P.S. Gill; detainees during Op. Blue Star, June 1984.

That Seventies Feeling

A brief genesis of the Punjab problem. For a province torn asunder by Par­­tition, a hint of community estr­­angement was perhaps natural. It started peaking in the mid-1970s: the Anandpur Sahib resolution of 1973 became an inflection point as Akali politics started hewing to a more radical line. But the genie could not be put back in the bottle after Bhindranwale, a minor religious figure propped up by former PM Indira Gandhi as a counterweight, turned rebellious. Bhi­­ndranwale now supported the radical panthic politics of the Akali Dal and its new ‘manifesto’: the ’73 Resolution demanding more autonomy for Punjab.

The historical trauma of Partition had combined with a sense of discrimination, of being a minority, to amplify Sikh disaffection. The community was disappointed with the Congress-run Centre’s res­ponse to the Resolution. The anger now coalesced anew, given focus by the strident charisma of Bhindranwale, who made the Golden Temple the headquarters of his planned armed rebellion.

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With the temple a bristling armoury, with militants manning fortified defences, on June 6, 1984 the army was ordered to throng the Golden Temple. The resulting bloodshed and desecration of the holiest Sikh shrine has still not been fully accounted for—in quantified terms or the deep sense of woundedness. The levels of alarm really peaked in New Delhi after reports of desertions from the army (by June 12 itself, an estimated 500-600 deserted their units) started filtering in. In all, around 2,800 Sikh personnel, officers and others were involved in collective insubordination and desertion. (Out of them, 450 were discharged or dismissed and put in civil jails.)

Cataclysm begat cataclysm. Indira Gandhi was assa­ssinated by two Sikh bodyguards four months later. Within a day, Delhi started living its worst moments, with a massacre of the Sikhs in thousands.

In Punjab, though not many adhere B’wale’s ideology, he’s still an icon of sorts, a symbol removed from the actual, messy history.

The long, bloody militant aftermath lasted another decade: killings, bombings, all encased in a renewed call for Khalistan. Victims were strewn across Pun­jab’s fields. The full force of the security backlash was felt after IPS officer K.P.S. Gill took charge of ending terrorism. Thousands were arrested as suspected militants or informers and jailed for months or years, without judicial trial or record. Many were eliminated; often last rites were conducted without families being informed.

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Amrish Kumar (name changed) from Ludhiana says human rights violations were routine. “I rem­em­ber night curfews, with the last bus from all cities, especially in winters, leaving by 6 or 7 pm…. I got a bank job, but my mother refused to let me take it because it would have meant travelling 60-70 km daily one side.” He remembers a militant-police encounter next door in the late ’80s. The cops had taken up position on their roof. “It was so scary.”

A former DG of Punjab Police offers a defence. “It was a political movement that turned communal. Mil­itants were killing everyone. You would find highly literate people joining the terrorist ranks. It wasn’t a situation that could be handled with negotiations,” he says. “The stories of torture are many on our side too. How police families were killed, women raped, which many a times we didn’t report.” Ours, theirs…Punjab had split into two.

Says Manjit Singh Dala, a Gurdaspur realtor and the son of a big farming family: “That era changed cropping patterns in Punjab. Not just militants, even the government and police issued verbal orders to people. Stopping sugarcane cultivation was one such.” For sugarcane fields were deemed a safe haven for fleeing extremists; in several cases, entire fields laden with cane were burnt, with policemen ringing it all around. Most farmers started cultivating rice.

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Zaffarwal offers an interesting analysis. “These atr­o­cities was one main reason for youth joining us radicals. Only 10 per cent of Sikhs who joined the Khalistan movement did so out of ideological influence; for 90 per cent it was the atrocities that impelled them. When young boys used to come to Kothi (an undisclosed location across the border), they were fuming. Each had his own story to tell.” He accuses the media of being biased. “They never tried to put forward the real story. Ideological hardliners could be accused, but the war against atrocities had to be written about too.” That’s one reason why Bhindranwale is considered a saint and still has a following across the world, he adds, as an afterthought.

During those volatile times, the Indian Army had its own lessons to learn. There was a media blackout and there were no mobiles or messaging apps; even then news about the Harmandir Sahib being attacked by the army reached the all-Sikh regiments (like 9 Sikh). An armed rebellion broke out, but was contained bef­ore anyone could reach Amritsar. That was when the army realised it was better to have mixed regiments; the idea of pure community-based regiments started withering away, although a handful survive. A former defence personnel who was part of the battalion that entered the Golden Temple also claims that the scenario inside was not entirely in line with what people would connect with piety and holiness. “The sight inside was horrendous. A sacred place like that…it would have left anyone angry.” Sikhs in the army too slowly realised this, he adds.

Three decades later, Mehta village, headquarters of the Damdami Taksal and Bhindranwale’s original base, has a deserted look. On internet sites, Facebook, YouTube or any social media, however, one can still find Sikh youth across the world, especially from the US, UK, Canada and Italy, being staunch Bhindranwale followers. In Punjab too, though not many adhere to his ideology, he’s still an icon of sorts, a symbol far removed from the actual, messy history. His iconic image—poster-blue turban, woollen shawl, a belt of bullets slung around, an arrow in hand, standing on the premises of Golden Temple with the Harmandir Sahib forming the backdrop, can be found everywhere. Cars with his poster and T-shirts with his messages abound on college campuses. A disembodied reminder of the past.

End Of Revolt

Militants holed up in the Golden Temple complex surrender during Operation Blue Star, June 1984.

Bhindranwale Zinda Hai

Says Balkar Singh, a Ludhiana resident who had a narrow escape during a bomb blast in the ’90s, “Hindus might consider Bhindranwale a terrorist, but for Sikhs he is not. We believe a conspiracy theory works behind terrorism and that happened with Bhindranwale too. You have radicals in all religions. But when you try to suppress people, they would rebel.” Most militants, he adds, were religious men, not experts in politics.

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He remembers the day of the blast in Chandigarh. “I was going with my dad to the market…within a few seconds on the road, we heard a huge explosion. There was blood all around. A scooter bomb....” He remembers gurdwaras in villages talking about abjuring meat and alcohol. And not having more than five people at weddings. “It was suffocating…I can’t dream of going back,” he says. An essential amb­­­ivalence haunts him, even though for him Bhindranwale was a “political victim”.

Says Jobanpreet Singh, a student of Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, “Every Sikh has respect for Bhindranwale somewhere.” This boy, in his 20s and dressed in Sikh attire—adhering to all the 5 ‘K’s, kesh, kangah, kada, kachha and kripan—is pursuing an MPhil on Religion and Conflicts and the contribution of Damdami Taksal, and for his research stays at their Mehta headquarters. He believes Bhindranwale’s mission is incomplete and one day it would be successful. “Bhindranwale had instilled a feeling of freedom among youth, which is still burning after so many years. He taught us what real Sikhism is.” Would the wizened scholar or the Sikh commoner be able to offer an unequivocal response to that? Perhaps not even Zaffarwal can.

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By Jyotika Sood in Amritsar and Gurdaspur

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