KHALISTANI: Three decades after Operation Bluestar, deadly Sikh radicalism still stalks Western streets

In this picture taken on Oct. 3, 2012 retired Indian lieutenant general Kuldip Singh Brar is escorted out of the Chattrapati Shivaji International Airport after his arrival from London in Mumbai. Two men have been charged with attacking the Indian military chief who led the contentious 1984 Amritsar Golden Temple assault, British police said on Oct. 8, 2012. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

JONATHAN KAY
POSTMEDIA NEWS

The words “Operation Bluestar” are little known in the West. But in South Asia, the Indian army’s June, 1984 invasion of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar is considered one of the most important, and infamous, events in the region’s modern history. Many Sikh activists call it a “massacre” — and even compare it to the Sikh holocaust perpetrated by the Mughals 250 years ago. To this day, Bluestar represents a rallying point for Sikh militants seeking greater autonomy from India.

In truth, bloody though it was, Bluestar cannot be called a deliberate pogrom. In the years leading up to the assault, Sikh separatists and radicals had turned much of the Punjab into a war zone — with peaceable Sikhs being the primary victims of the chaos. Amidst the upheaval, the Golden Temple — which contains the holy text of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib — was taken over by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a charismatic Sikh fundamentalist (some saw him as a full-on prophet) who’d surrounded himself by gun-weilding zealots.

Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister (who later paid with her life for the events that would unfold at her command in 1984) realized that the situation in Punjab was untenable. Some feared that Pakistan, which already was making common cause with India’s hardline Sikhs, would recognize the independence of a breakaway Khalistani state, should one be declared, and send soldiers into Indian territory. Khalistani separatists were beginning to distribute their own currency. It was clear that taking the temple back from the zealots was a national imperative for India. And so Gandhi sent in the army.

Bhindranwale and hundreds of his fighters went down fighting inside the temple compound. Many innocents — pilgrims whom Bhindranwale effectively had taken hostage — also were among the victims. The Indian military estimated that about 500 civilians died in the crossfire. Unofficial tallies are an order of magnitude higher.

Yet Bluestar was in no way intended as a campaign of extermination by Hindus against Sikhs, even if that is how it is sometimes presented in propaganda tracts. In fact, the military commander of the Bluestar operation was himself a Sikh: Lieutenant-General Kuldip Singh Brar, a veteran of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. A majority of his senior commanders also were Sikhs.

In a series of interviews he conducted in 2004, on the 20th anniversary of Bluestar, Gen. Brar said that he saw no conflict between his duty to his nation and his religious faith:

I am religious but in moderation. I am not a person who has to be in a temple every single day, but I have a fear of God. I respect religion, and respect the fact that I am a Sikh. But as I said earlier, a Sikh or a Hindu has no meaning here [in the armed forces]. You don’t even think about it. You are convinced you are not acting against any religion but against a section of misguided people [led by Bhindranwale] who have held the country to ransom, who are ready to fragment this country.”

Nor was Gen. Brar the only Sikh in the Indian military who felt this way. Prior to the assault on the Golden Temple, Gen. Brar announced to his men that if any one of them did not feel he could participate in the operation, he should step forward and leave the staging area without fear of reprisal.

“In the fourth battalion, one hand went up,” the former commander recalls. “It belonged to a Sikh officer, Second Lieutenant Jasbir Singh Raina … [He] had a request: he wanted to be the first person to enter the Golden Temple to wipe the militants who had defiled his holiest shrine. I was very happy and [said] that Raina must be allowed to lead the first charge. The moment Raina entered, he came under a withering fire and suffered serious injuries to his legs. Yet, he refused to pull out … Months later, when he received the Ashoka Chakra [the highest bravery award in peace times], he came to receive the award in a wheelchair. I had tears in my eyes.”

Gen. Brar retired from the Indian Army in 1992. But civilian life proved just as hazardous as life in the military: In the years following Bluestar, militant Sikhs went on a spree of assassination attempts against commanders who’d been involved in the operation. Gen. Brar lives in a well- guarded compound, and spends much of his time radical monitoring Sikh websites with names such as “Kill Brar.”

The former commander also is dismayed to see a resurgence of exactly the sort of Sikh radicalism he sought to extinguish back in 1984. “There are increasing signs of the youth in Punjab being motivated and indoctrinated by hardcore pro-Khalistan elements abroad,” he told an interviewer earlier this month. “This is happening, particularly in the US, Canada, UK and West Europe by glorifying the deeds of the Bhindranwale cult and by circulating doctored footage of Operation Bluestar … Pakistan’s Intelligence agency ISI is also collaborating with pro-Khalistan cells abroad to propagate the ideology of separatism.”

Much of this is happening right out in the open. Recently, Gen. Brar notes, a memorial function was held inside the Golden Temple complex — with the honorees being the men who assassinated Gen. A.S. Vaidya, a fellow Bluestar commander. And here in Canada, Sikh activists earlier this year staged a noisy public campaign called “I am Rajoiana” — a reference to an unrepentant Sikh terrorist, Balwant Singh Rajoana, who masterminded the killing of a Punjab chief minister (who himself was a Sikh). At Sikh parades in British Columbia, other Sikh killers have been memorialized as “martyrs” on parade floats.

This month, while Gen. Brar was in London, England on a private trip with his wife, a group of four people attacked him near the east end of Oxford Street. In the melée, he was knifed in the neck and face, but survived without life-threatening injuries. British police arrested a dozen suspects. Two are being charged with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

The crime itself is shocking. But it’s also disturbing to see that the Sikh community in England is divided in its reaction to it. A Tribune India reporter who visited Southall (aka “Little Punjab”) in recent days interviewed some moderate Sikhs who found the attack on Gen. Brar to be appalling. But others embraced conspiracy theories to the effect that the assault was a “false flag” operation, hatched by India as a means to discredit Sikhs. Here in Canada, similar anti-Indian conspiracy theories circulated in regard to the destruction of Air India Flight 182 in 1985.

The fact that men such as Gen. Brar still live in fear for their life 28 years after the Bluestar operation shows that murderous violence has become institutionalized within radical Sikh circles. This radicalism, and the general schisming of the Sikh diaspora into Khalistani and non-Khalistani factions, is damaging Sikhism as much as anything that happened in 1984.

Yet Gen. Brar himself tells an interesting, personal tale about such schisms — and how they can heal on a personal level.

“My own mama [mother’s brother] who lives in London — he didn’t keep long hair, he used to smoke, visit pubs, and I used to stay with him whenever I was visiting the UK — suddenly changed [in the 1980s]. He began to grow his hair and beard; he used to regularly participate in the functions at Southall [in London] where the Sikhs vowed revenge [for Bluestar]; he went to Pakistan; he swore he’d have never have anything to do with me. He broke ties with my parents — his own sister. [But] then, just three years ago, I was in London and found out he was dying of cancer. I decided I must see him and went to the hospital. The staff told me he had about 24 to 48 hours to live. When they informed him of my presence, he told them to bring me to his bedside and he held my hand; he had tears rolling down his cheeks and he told me he now understood I had to do whatever I did.”

The recollection provides a hopeful symbol of the spirit of reconciliation that, one hopes, will eventually render Sikh political violence a thing of the past. Like Gen. Brar and his late uncle, Khalistani Sikhs — in the Punjab, Canada and everywhere else — should step back and look at what their cause has done to their communities and even their families. In that respect, this month’s shameful knife attack on a 78-year-old man, walking the streets of London with his wife, perhaps can serve as a wake-up call.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @jonkay. Adapted from an article originally published by New Europe.

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Sukh Hayre says:

Interesting article.

There’s always at least two sides to every story.

And then there’s the complex and complicated truth. Which is often quite messy, and difficult to fully comprehend in the context of the situation, especially by anyone that has a built-in bias relating to the situation.

in shock says:

i see ntn but uneducated comments, from the looks of it theur usually made by the same few ppl. but with ignoring that… indian govt has done over50yrs of genocideagainst the sikh ppl.who make up over 60% of their army, but 2% of their total population. who haswon them every battle whentheir country was in danger as well as got the british out of their so we all werent under slavery… but its ok for those ppl kids to be burnt alive, theur women raped, men beaten torchered & killed. WOW

ed says:

we didnt do it – in canada – and it is not our fight

No one knows the story says:

It’s so ironic that people just want to tell only one part of the story. No one talks about killigs of so many innocent people in Punjab during 80s and 90s. No one talk about how Khalistani’s were taking the people out of buses and killing them. Also, most of the younger generation (born and raised in canada) never lived in Punjab during that time and niether did their parents. They have been brain washed by all those militants who fled India at that time. I think the author should also need to increase his knowledge about happenings in punjab during that time and what led to riots of 84 in Delhi(which was unfortunate).At the end it’s all politics.

Jeff says:

Extremist religion is all just brainwashing. But in the name of freedom of religion we allow it to propagate.

We allow enough immigrants of this ilk in this country and soon they will be fighting their homeland battles on our streets.

ed says:

i have issues with any extreme religion – I accept all faiths as equals – \I dont mean to look look like an individual with hate – but i feel threatened everyday – with this extreme behaviour and of these issues spilling on my safe country – i wish we could do away withthis nonsense – but the truth is – it is big business – i include the cathaloic faith in this as wello and the history of so called religous wars -

MIKE666 says:

Lets get on the streets Aryan Brothers take our streets back. Jeff i feel ya eh. salute of the mans 666

EnuffZnuff says:

100 per cent correct Ed. Now you see why they had to be literally thrown out of India. They’ll create a mess wherever they go. They celebrate suicide bombers and terrorists as martyrs. No different from the Talibans or other fringe lunatics…

ed says:

i dont agree with “they” – i have many friends from the punjabi region – who lustg wnat to be free of all this

it is the fundamentalists that i fear – usually the rich – they control the gurdwaras – and use them as financial strong arms

ed says:

interesting article – but written by a caucasion – so it must all be false –

it appears the fundalmentalists have emigrated to Canada – GREAT – another bunch of religous nuts.
i read somewhere that it is okay under sikhism to use the sword when all else fails – but it appears it was used against them in this matter – and the fundamentalists are upset

strange culture – when raced against they stand up and yell – but when a story like this is printed – it appears it is all lies

Vikrant Grewal says:

I hope your aim in writing this was to get a rise out of the Sikh community in Canada, because if it was actually written with the idea of being rigorous journalism, it’s pretty laughable.

You comment on Jarnail Bhindranwale and his men taking over the Golden Temple and Punjab but you don’t seem to have any knowledge, or interest, in seeking who put them there. Guess who it was – Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party! In fact, he was considered her darling protege for wedge politics in Punjab, until she lost control of him. You also neglect to mention that the attack on Operation Blue Star took place on one of the holiest days of the Sikh year, and that thousands of pilgrims were trapped there during the gun battle and given no warning to leave either prior to it, or any time while they were being shelled by tanks – an operation that the Indian army had been practicing for months in advance and had purposefully decided to attack on a day when they could do maximum damage to the Sikh Community.

I also like how you use only General Brar’s quotes and reasonings to present himself and his government/army’s operation. Way to go and get only one opinion on an incredibly multifaceted and controversial topic. Of course he’s going to justify his, his soldiers, and his government’s actions. What else would you possibly expect him to say?

Journalists like you who do the bare minimum in trying to present a story and come into it with inherent biases (or extreme laziness, both of which are repellent in someone who presents the ‘news’) do absolutely no credit to your profession and only further entrench the opinion that mainstream journalism has become far less interested in the truth of why things tick and is just interested in providing headlines that will sell a paper or viewpoint.

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