The Ruined Center: Religion and Mass Politics in India

By Van der Veer, Peter | Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

The Ruined Center: Religion and Mass Politics in India


Van der Veer, Peter, Journal of International Affairs


Introduction

The famous Soviet dissident Andrej Amalrik predicted that 1984 would be the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was right about its eventual collapse, but wrong about the year. Instead, 1984 turned out to be a crucial year for another huge imperial state: India. This paper tries to explain some elements of what happened that year in India by looking at two religio-political movements, one Hindu, one Sikh, that tried to change the shape of the Indian nation-state. In order to understand these events one has to analyze both the secularity of the Indian state and the religiosity of the two movements involved. My interpretation will be based on a historical analysis of post-colonial modernity and on a political science account of the development of the Indian political arena over the last twenty years.

In June 1984 the Indian Army attacked the Golden Temple Complex, the central shrine of the Sikhs, in an operation with the codename Blue Star. This huge complex contained, along with numerous other buildings, the Harimandir (Golden Temple) and the Akal Takhat (the Eternal Throne). The latter was occupied and heavily fortified by militant Sikhs who demanded the separation of a Sikh state, Khalistan, from what they described as Hindu India. The army encountered so much resistance in the complex that it had to bring tanks into the operation, which caused much greater damage to the religious buildings than the generals had expected. The operation lasted from 4 June until 7 June. It destroyed the Sikh Library, which contained a great number of sacred manuscripts and objects from the lives of the Gurus in the Sikh tradition. The numbers game of counting the casualties on both sides has not been conclusive and leaves us with estimates ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand.(1) On the Sikh side the number of dead militants was greatly outnumbered by the number of dead pilgrims who were caught in the crossfire during their visit.

The leader of the Khalistani Sikhs, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, was killed in the encounter. This, however, did not mean the end, but rather the beginning of his importance, as martyrs are central to Sikh tradition. His ghost turned out to be much more effective than he had ever been alive. Operation Blue Star took its place among the founding massacres in Sikh historical memory: the pre-colonial massacre of Sikhs in the battle of Malerkotka by the Afghan war leader Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1762, the colonial massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar by the British general Dyer in 1919, and now, in 1984 the post-colonial massacre of Sikhs in the Golden Temple.(2) These memories repress a lot, but end up constructing a narrative of Sikh suffering, inflicted upon them by outside states. It conveyed the message that Sikhs no longer belonged to the state of India, which was exactly what the militant Khalistanis wanted. The clearest and perhaps most threatening sign of the Sikh understanding of the events was the mutiny of Sikh soldiers in various regiments across the country, significant because of the crucial role Sikhs played in the Indian army from the late nineteenth century onward.

Operation Blue Star turned out to be Indira Gandhi's last battle. On 31 October 1984, India's prime minister was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The assassination was followed by a widespread pogrom against Sikhs and their property, especially in major northern Indian cities with sizeable Sikh minorities, such as Delhi and Kanpur. These pogroms were organized and led by political leaders of Mrs. Gandhi's Congress Party and were meant to "teach the arrogant Sikhs a lesson they would not forget," as people said at the time.(3) The repression was allowed, and sometimes assisted, by the agencies of the state, including both the police and military. Trains and buses were stopped, and Sikhs were taken out and killed. In the Punjab the reverse happened, with the militant Sikhs killing Hindu passengers. …

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