A Blue Bit of History
Tucked within the periphery of Golden temple are reminders of violent times
Sometimes an entire journey crystallises into a few moments. Vagabond days on the road end up in bundle of totems – tangible or otherwise – as reminders. One such journey took me to the three portraits hung in reverence in a forgotten corner a few steps from the house of worship. This place was once wrenched into a slaughterhouse on a hot summer afternoon three decades back.
“Are you a reporter?” asked one of the caretakers at the Central Sikh Museum, sensing my intrusion.
The two others, perhaps also caretakers, watched suspiciously from a distance. The museum is on the first floor building of the western entrance of the Golden Temple complex, and not many people end up in this corner. I was among the first few that day.
“No,” I said, rattled by the rather inimical greeting, “I am here to see the portraits of the martyrs”.
The caretaker was in his fifties, his face softened by the years, and he carried an appearance perfected to blend in the crowd. The red turban he wore had faded by years of repeated washing, and the beard carried more grey than black. Only his eyes retained a knife-like sharpness, and a sadness that often comes with wasted years. The pervasive glow from the Golden Temple, shimmering gracefully in the lake below, came through the open window and reflected on his face, bearing away some of his gloom. He must have been in his twenties when the military operation took place. Perhaps he was here in Amritsar and had watched the incident unfold, in person.
“Yes, they are here”, he pointed to a room behind me.
The walls in that room were a sea of portraits, starting gently with that of the handsome Shahid Bhagat Singh in prison shackles, and many other Sikh scholars and saints. A few steps ahead, thousands of faces stared down, mutely but piercingly, from the bleached walls: some gruesome, their faces distorted by death, and some gentle, their pictures taken from when they were still alive. All the portraits were of those “martyred” in the long war with the nation.
One battle fought in this war stood out for giving birth to previously unseen horrors that scarred the psyche of an entire generation. The doomed battle carried an unfitting name: Operation Bluestar.
I was two years old when Operation Bluestar happened; not that I have any recollection of it. Operation Bluestar never figured in any talk at home; not a word was spoken, not even by my mother - which was surprising - given that she has the remarkable ability to casually un-wrap even the most complex political story, and lighten it up for easy feeding. It was through my mother’s political commentary, which was often funny, that brought me an understanding of politics, and more importantly, a comprehension of how a normal family reacts to it.
In these conversations, emergency was spoken about, so was caste politics. Terrorism, and political murder were gently, but seriously discussed. But in all these numerous conversations, Operation Bluestar was never mentioned, and nothing about the killing and burning of the thousands of Sikhs. It was through an India Today story that I learnt about it, and this was 12 years after it had happened. Fed on dinner table talk, I dismissed the event as a minor speckle – what was not spoken of at home, couldn’t possibly be relevant.
But over the years, I came across it again and again and in different forms: Kanishka bombing, militancy in Punjab, Chief Minister Beant Singh’s killing (which I distinctly remember), and of course Indira Gandhi’s killing, a direct consequence of the military operation. Once unexpectedly, I came across an old article from New York Times, dated December 01, 1988. The unrhetorical story stated:
“Security was also tightened at the Tihar jail here, where the men are to be hanged and where they are apparently being held in isolation. The condemned prisoners are Satwant Singh, the guard who fired his semi-automatic weapon at Mrs. Gandhi outside her home on Oct. 21, 1984, and Kehar Singh, a former Government clerk convicted of organizing the conspiracy against the Prime Minister. Satwant Singh is 25 years old and was married earlier this year. Kehar Singh is about 48. The two men are not related”.
“Who were these men?” I remember wondering after reading the story “And how do those who remember the assault at the Golden Temple remember them today?” More importantly, I questioned, what do these events of foregone years mean to me and others of my age who were not witness to the event?
Only one place could have given me the answer. So one day, driven by my curiosity, I set out for Amritsar.
It was early morning when I walked the streets of Amritsar leading to the Golden Temple. The groaning and clattering of the shops spilling over from both sides of the narrow lanes was yet to begin. The white walls of the temple complex appeared at a distance. Removing my shoes and washing my feet, I walked in to the sight of the far-famed golden dome of Sri Harmandir Sahib glittering in the still-weak morning sun. Comforting notes from a solitary harmonium and muffled shuffling from bare feet were the only sounds at this hour.
I sat for hours at the bank of the Sarovar, the water body that surrounds the temple, watching the comings and goings around me. I saw people of all faiths: some carrying buckets of water to the community kitchen, some scrubbing the floor, some deep in meditation. Despite the horrific spasm of bloodshed that Golden Temple had witnessed, it has remained a resolutely secular place. Doused in this little cheer of optimism, I walked into the museum when it opened.
Now, inside the museum, I stood battling a flutter of unease when the caretaker pointed the portrait of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. To the right, a rendition of the destroyed Golden Temple hung. ‘Sri Akal Takht after Military Attack, 6 June 1984’ – the plaque beneath read – ‘under the calculated move of Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, military troops stormed Golden Temple with tanks’.
Further to the right on the same wall, hung the portraits of the three men – Kehar Singh, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh – involved in the planning and murder of Indira Gandhi. The pictures hung next to each other on the second tier of the wall over-looking the few visitors who came by. The titles of each of them read ‘Shahid’.
Isn’t it strange that the killers of the country’s prime minister are treated with a respect suited to martyrs who fought for the freedom of the country? Is it defiance? I wondered.
“The Jathedar of the Sikh community bestows siropa (a robe to honour) on the relatives of these ‘quami shaheeds’ (martyrs of the community) every year” the caretaker spoke without cue, as if reading my thoughts.
I stood with the caretaker for some time, both of us looking up to the portraits. The air, thickened with melancholy, carried to us the hymns from Akal Takht. However hard I tried, I could not bring myself to imagine how this sombre temple could have witnessed the horror that I had read and heard about. It just did not seem plausible. My intellect refused to believe that the pictures were of real people, that people had died here; and the three men who I was staring at did what they did. But then I know it did happen.
“Do you think this is right – celebrating these killers?” the words burst out unwantedly, and I regretted the moment I asked the question.
“I will tell you what’s not right, sahabji. The country has not punished the murderers who butchered the Sikhs after Gandhi’s killing. That’s a bigger shame” said the caretaker.
An act of defiance started a chain reaction that peaked with close to 3,000 Sikhs being killed in riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
As I walked back to collect my shoes, I kept looking at the pictures of the three men that I had just secretly photographed. I did not want the feeling to dissolve, for I would wonder if what I saw was at all real. The journey was over, and I was left with those distinct moments that defined it: the few minutes that we spent inside, facing the portraits on the wall. One man relived the ghosts of the past, and the other stood in rejection. But despite our different trajectories, we were still bound together in some indescribable way.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu