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Terror and Loveliness: The Unnerving Tranquillity of the Golden Temple

Ramachandra Guha may be reached at

The Telegraph, Calcutta, Apr. 16, 2005

Photo: A Sikh at the Golden Temple

The political event that most moved me was the butchery of the Sikhs of northern India in the first days of November 1984. I grew up in Dehradun, a town founded in the late 17th century by a dissident Sikh preacher, and further nourished by a large in-migration of Sikhs after Partition. The Doon is a valley legendary for its beauty, but among the many picnics in river and forest, the ones I remember most were to Paonta Sahib, where Guru Gobind Singh spent much time while preparing to fight the Mughals. It took an hour to get there, by car, or three hours, by bicycle. Whichever way we went, we would reach the gurdwara in time for langar, the communal meal open to all, regardless of caste and creed.

From Dehradun I moved to college in Delhi, another place where the Sikh presence was very strong indeed. I grew up with Sikhs, but to say that 'some of my best friends were Sikhs' would be a vulgarity. They were part of my consciousness and my unconscious too. There were jokes about the Sikhs, of course, but to me - and countless others - what the Sikhs stood for was honour and bravery, as well as integrity and decency.

However, when the 'Punjab crisis' finally climaxed, I was based in Calcutta. It was in this city that I read, from a very long distance, about Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's encouragement by the Congress in the early Eighties, about the killings that this 'mad monk' (as Khushwant Singh called him) had inspired, about the Indian army's storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984. That attack was answered, some months later, by the murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the hands of her bodyguards, this, in turn, provoking the killings of Sikhs in Delhi and other towns in the North.

In November 1984, I was in Bangalore, preparing to get married. The few Sikhs in this city were unharmed, as were the many more Sikhs in Calcutta, made safe by a firm mandate to his police force from Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. But in Delhi, in U.P., M.P. and Rajasthan, things were quite otherwise. Easily recognizable by their headgear, Sikhs were pulled out of cars, trains, shops and houses and slaughtered, often with the authorities looking on. These were Sikhs innocent of any breach of the law, Sikhs who were as upright, decent and honourable as the ones I knew and grew up with. Yet they were killed - for being Sikhs.

After the killings had subsided, the relief work began. Friends of mine in Delhi worked heroically to bring succour to the victims. Newly married, and a month into my first job, I could not join them. All I could do was take a private vow of penance - that I would visit the Golden Temple as soon as circumstances permitted.

I am ashamed to admit that it took twenty years for me to redeem this pledge. I made plans, now and again, but abandoned them in favour of the claims of career and family. Last month, finally, I used the opportunity of an 'official' visit to Patiala to go and pay my respects at the great shrine of the Sikhs.

Patiala lies at one end of Punjab; Amritsar at the other. To get from here to there takes five hours, the road passing through the major factory towns of the state. Much of the land in between is taken up with farms and fields, but judging from the signs along the highway the real boom seems to be in the services sector. And the favourite name of units old and new is 'Lovely.' There are a few Lovely schools and many Lovely dhabas, these all substantively eclipsed by a large campus, coming up just outside of Phagwara, of the 'Lovely Institutes.' The buildings are spankingly new, and their finish is first-class. The board outside the main entrance tells us that among the Lovely courses to be offered here are an M.B.A. and M.Sc.(I.T.).

There were other indications that the real growth area in Punjab is education, or at least higher education, and more specifically still, professional courses in engineering and management. Some of these new institutes are funded by non-resident Punjabis; others by religious institutions. That they are coming up in such profusion is proof that peace has finally, and authoritatively, returned to the Punjab. But there was even more conclusive evidence to this effect. These were the posters advertising the imminent visit of my famous fellow townsman, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. He was scheduled to speak at Patiala, Ludhiana and Jalandhar, at whose traffic intersections were placed large hoardings, inviting people to come and soak in the 'Divine Presence' of their visitor.

Despite his renown, this particular godman has always struck me as being slightly fraudulent. Still, one must suppress feelings of aesthetic distaste to appreciate what those hoardings really convey. For so long as Bhindranwale was alive, Hindu holy men, whether genuine or bogus, could not have publicly preached in the Punjab.

Travelling through the state, listening to people and seeing the signs around, it was hard to imagine that just a decade previously the Punjab countryside was in the grip of a veritable reign of terror, imposed jointly by Khalistani terrorists and a trigger-happy police. When one finally reached Amritsar, and entered the Golden Temple, one had, once more, to forcibly remind oneself that this was where a bloody battle was fought a mere twenty years ago. For the temple is as exquisitely tranquil as a place of worship should be; spotlessly clean, with orderly queues of pilgrims whose eyes shine with devotion, and wafts of fine music coming in from the great golden dome in the middle.

It was only when I entered the Museum of Sikh History, located above the main entrance to the temple, that I was reminded that this was, within living memory, a place where much blood had been shed. The several rooms of the museum run chronologically, the paintings depicting the heroic sacrifices of the Sikhs through the centuries. Plenty of martyrs are commemorated on its walls, the last of these being shaheeds Satwant, Beant and Kehar Singh. Below them lies a picture of the Akal Takht in tatters, with the explanation that this was the result of a 'calculated move' of Indira Gandhi. The text notes the deaths of innocent pilgrims in the army action, and then adds, 'However, the Sikhs soon had their revenge.' What form this took is not spelt out in words, but in pictures: those of Satwant, Beant and Kehar above.

To see the killers of Indira Gandhi so ennobled was unnerving. However, down below, in the temple proper, there were plenty of contrary indications, to the effect that the Sikhs were now thoroughly at ease with the Indian state. A marble slab was paid for by a Sikh colonel, on 'successful completion' of two years of service in the Kashmir Valley. Another was endowed by a Hindu colonel, in grateful memory of the protection granted him and his men while serving in the holy city of Amritsar.