What did Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Bhindrawale achieve and lose in the Punjab conflict/terrorism/destruction?

By Sunil Kumar

Today is an auspicious day in India, Bhaiya-Dooj in the North and Bhau-Beej in Maharashtra. So, spreading the good vibes of this festival and cheer is better.

Somewhat inappropriate to dwell on the existential angst and suffering of a ‘historical’ answer on Quora, but here goes. To be completely objective; I have grown up and spent most of my life in Mumbai, at some distance from the turmoil that engulfed the region when I was a young child. My answer will be based on my reading, interaction with people from the region and personal opinion.

But as an Indian and a Punjabi, my attachment to the country and the heinous wounds inflicted on its fabric by an insurgency and earlier the partition in its most patriotic state affects me deeply. Also, as both my maternal and paternal grandparents are from undivided Punjab/India(Multan, Sialkot) the national calamity of Indian division in 1947 impacted us on a personal level like many other people at the time.

I’ve always felt that unlike Bengalis, Maharashtrians and Malayalis, Punjab and its people have always had a more inclusive, national outlook rather than regional axes to grind. Numerous examples in all sectors of public life- including legend Satish Dhawan(father of India’s space program) encouraging iconic Kalam when Tam-Brahms were against him.

From British times to the present day, Punjabis have formed a major chunk of the Indian armed forces. Ditto, on the other side of the border. Also, we deserve to be more openly proud of our intellect, language, food and culture, which is undoubtedly amongst the most energetic and vivacious in the country.

So, now to answer your question, Sir.

‘What did Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Bhindranwale achieve and lose in the conflict/turmoil?’

The most obvious thing in my opinion is both of them lost their lives as a result of this suffering that was the creation of Indira Gandhi, the Congress and Bhindranwale’s unrighteous war. Most Hindus and Indians have great respect for the Sikhs based on past experience and a halo of nobility due to the excellent spirit of empathy and compassion from the 10 Gurus and their holy book which was also an eclectic and secular compilation of their teachings plus other Bhakti saints of the time period. Voracious readers with an interest in Punjab’s history know that all of them were from the Hindu Khatri Bedi/Sodhi clans.

Like the Tamil Tigers who were initially encouraged by Indira, Bhindranwale was a counterfoil to Akali power propped up by Zail Singh, Sanjay Gandhi and Kamal Nath(later accused in the 1984 riots) under Indira’s benevolent gaze.

Operation Blue Star: How Congress invented a saint

Sikh Social Warriors – Bio of Tara Singh from a Sikh site.

From Master Tara Singh(himself born into a Hindu Malhotra Khatri family) to the extreme antics of Bhindranwale, resentment amongst the Sikhs at a moth-eaten Punjabi ‘suba’ was growing. General Zia-ul-Haq(himself a Punjabi from Jalandhar pre-partition) was at the helm of affairs in Pakistan, and like any shrewd geopolitical player ready to expose chinks in one of the strongest parts of India’s armour.

It is not the personal stories of Indira Gandhi or Bhindranwale that are important in my opinion, but deepening of fault lines in Punjabi/Indian society. Murderous thugs that roamed Punjab in Bhindranwale’s time and an equally brutal set of goons that was let loose in Delhi after Indira’s assassination were extremely dangerous to India’s survival.

The ‘lost years’ after 1984 upto the mid 90s were also crucial in stunting the growth of the state, and has definitely impacted its position as one of the most affluent states in the union.

That Congress was absolved of its ‘sins’ in a singular act of amnesia and re-elected in assembly elections recently was a shocker but par for the course in the democratic chaos of India. Not that the alternatives were all that great, but this is an act which is singularly bewildering.

‘Indira was uncomfortable with educated people’

Declassify Bluestar files, says Swamy, defends Bhindranwale

What did Indira achieve? After her death, despite Rajiv’s callous remark of ‘ When a big tree falls, the earth shakes’ and brutal riots, the Congress won the greatest landslide in Independent India’s existence and a few other festering wounds were created including Shah Bano, the Ram Temple Issue, Bofors, the rise of V.P Singh, insurgency in Kashmir, the Mandal Commission, brutal terrorist attacks, the now omnipresent ‘reservations’ system that even B.R Ambedkar would not have approved of. Coalition governments, the rise of the B.J.P(Vajpayee/Advani/Modi) and other subsequent events may have panned out very differently.

For all her faults and manipulation, Mrs. Indira was a decisive leader and far better for the republic than everything that followed. What would have happened had she lived is another speculative subject that can be dabbled into, but serves no purpose.

In his death, Bhindranwale became a martyr especially for an element of disenchanted Sikhs outside India, apart from some local sympathisers. I remember a visit to a Sikh gurdwara in Yangon, Myanmar with a Sikh naval captain in the early 1990s; where Khalistani terrorists were prominently displayed on the walls as martyrs, an example of their anger at the army and the state. This was very distressing for me personally. However for the most part, the present-day Indian Sikh community is still largely integrated into the national mainstream and accorded respect by most sane people.

In the kaleidoscope of the Indian state’s 71-year existence, the Indira/Bhindranwale episode and ‘Operation BlueStar’ was a brief blip but a pivotal episode in the movie that turned the tides of destiny in a certain direction. What they achieved/lost may be somewhat important, but inconsequential in the overall scheme of the fate of its now 1.3 billion citizens.

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