It was the most effective personality buildup Punjab has seen in recent times. In one stroke Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh religious leader, was transformed from a man hunted by the police to a household name. Wanted by the police in connection with last month’s murder of the prominent,It was the most effective personality buildup Punjab has seen in recent times. In one stroke Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh religious leader, was transformed from a man hunted by the police to a household name. Wanted by the police in connection with last month’s murder of the prominent Jullundur-based journalist, Lala Jagat Narain, Bhindranwale finally gave himself up to the authorities at his headquarters in Mehta, 40 km from Amritsar, but only after prominent Sikh leaders had extolled him as a martyr to the Sikh cause and his 75,000 followers had given him a standing ovation. The price of martyrdom was heavy: a dozen people were killed, a dangerous law and order situation emerged, and the political confusion was total.The Bhindranwale sect, little known till the mid-’70s, has risen dramatically in the public eye since. During the Emergency the sect opposed the sterilisation programme, condemning it as one that interfered with Sikh tenets. Later came a confrontation with the Nirankaris who were accused of misinterpreting Sikh teachings. Again, in April 1980, when Nirankari chief Baba Gurbachan Singh was shot dead in Delhi, the Bhindranwale sect was believed to have been involved and the Sant was questioned by officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).Last month when Jagat Narain, a staunch Hindu who had opposed Sikh extremism and was proprietor of the Hind Samachar group of publications, was shot dead near Ludhiana it seemed that Bhindranwale’s luck had run out. But the announcement of his implication in the murder was premature and Bhindranwale fled from Haryana’s Hissar district where he was on a preaching tour, to the safety of his headquarters – which also houses a gurdwara – in Mehta 350 km away.Sword-wielding Nihangs and other Sikhs attack the police camp: Aggressive devotion by Bhindranwale supporterCharged Atmosphere: Once safe in his den Bhindranwale made a declaration: although he was innocent, he would give himself up to the authorities outside his headquarters on the afternoon of September 20. Though he refused to say why he chose this particular day, the answer was obvious. Apart from the fact that it gave him some time, the 20th was a Sunday and it would be easier to drum up the crowds.While Bhindranwale and his militant men went about preparing for the big day, the state’s political parties held numerous conclaves to decide their plan of action. The police force was put on an alert throughout the state, educational institutions were closed, and the village of Mehta witnessed the kind of security arrangements it had never seen before and isn’t likely to see in a long time. Three thousand policemen moved in, along with 500 men of the Border Security Force (BSF).Bhindranwale’s eight-acre camp, situated about a kilometre from Mehta among lush green fields, behind high walls and barbed wires, was a mini-fortress. Starting on the evening of September 19 hundreds of buses, trucks and tractors churned up a thick column of dust as they transported devotees into the camp. Within the walls, the atmosphere was charged with aggressive devotion. Loudspeakers blared out religious verses and people jostled one another for every square inch of space. The gathering, consisting mostly of men, seemed like some army of long ago: most sported the traditional kirpan, (long sword), and many strutted about with spears and lathis in hand. The Nihangs, the military arm of the Sikhs were the most impressive: dressed in luminous blue, they bore a frightening assortment of arms: swords, spears, poleaxes, shields and, in some cases, guns. They reserved for the outsider their most suspicious and chilling glares.Sudden Assault: Hours before the surrender every Sikh leader who mattered had turned up to lend Bhindranwale moral support. On a raised platform sat Harchand Singh Longowal, chief of the Akali Dal (L), G.S. Ajnoha, head priest at the Golden Temple, G.S. Tohra, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Santokh Singh, president of the Delhi Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, and leaders of the Akali Dal faction led by Jagdeo Singh Talwandi, the Akali Dal (T). The one prominent absentee was former Punjab chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, part of the Longowal group but a moderate in the state’s politics. The refrain of the emotional speeches was more or less the same: Bhindranwale’s innocence, criticism of the Government and a call for Sikh unity. Bhindranwale, a regal sight in flowing white and a saffron turban with a sword and a short spear, was the last speaker He repeatedly pleaded with the congregation to refrain from violence when he surrendered.At the end of his speech Bhindranwale emerged from his stronghold, the crowd poured out after him. They surged around the green Ambassador into which he climbed, and moved with it towards Mehta and the police camp set on a 10-acre piece of ground. It was 2.30 p.m.The vanguard of the procession passed the massed policemen peacefully, although the slogan-shouting had reached a crescendo. The trouble started a few minutes later when a handful of Nihangs danced their way towards the police with unsheathed swords and spears. About 40 mounted policemen galloped forward to stop them, lathi-wielding police following. They drove back the first wave but suddenly another took up the assault. The policemen turned tail and ran hard for their lives. In this successful first attack the Sikhs, many of them Nihangs, set fire to three police tents which were reduced to charred tatters in seconds. Thick black smoke billowed into the sky as a police pick-up van turned into an inferno. The demonstrators then tried to set fire to a jeep and in their frightening fury, attacked a motorcycle with swords and sticks.Angry Sikhs smashing up a jeep with swords and sticks: Frenzied violencePolice Frustration: The police regrouped and launched a counter-attack but were driven back by a barrage of stones and another wave of invaders which totally broke their morale. They could only stand by helplessly as the angry Sikhs ransacked their tents and burnt four of them to ashes. The rioters then turned on a fire tender and, as the firemen fled for dear life, stoned the massive red vehicle heavily. Meanwhile, the police were in utter disarray. The senior officers seemed to have vanished and many of the lower ranks were simply too scared to face the fanatic Nihangs and their cold steel with impotent staves. “Where are our orders’? Where are our officers?”” An elderly inspector was heard to scream in the melee.The policemen’s frustration peaked when a furious constable suddenly tried to open fire. Six of his colleagues where required to overpower him and they released him only after snatching his magazine. All this while, the armed police stood in the background indifferently, as they had yet received no orders. At around 3p.m., teargas shells – in all more than a hundred-were fired into the crowd, but they had no effect and the assault continued unabated. The only people to redeem their self-respect with exemplary courage were a couple of policemen who ran forward with folded hands and repeatedly begged the rioters to withdrawFinally at 3.20 p.m. the long-awaited order came. The gunmen took up position, some lying prone while others crouched low. A few warning rounds were fired and a minute later the air was filled with the sharp cracks of rifles shots as the police let loose a volley into the swarm. The firing continued for eight minutes and the demonstrators retreated helter-skelter. When the gunsmoke cleared, seven of them lay dead on the ground. Five more were to die in the hospital later.The crowd retreated to a safe distance but the authorities were taking no chances. Two BSF trucks arrived from their camp 4 km away and 90 grim-faced jawans jumped out fanning out with sten guns held menacingly. The rioters melted before them and all that was left for the police was the unpleasant task of picking up the corpses and dumping them into a nearby van -and counting their own injured: 12 policemen suffered wounds.Policemen firing in the air: Low morale and fiery mobsRigid Life-style: The bloody drama at Mehta has effectively focussed public attention on the Bhindranwale sect (it gets its name from the village of Bhindran). The Sant’s followers are a puritanical lot – they don’t eat meat, and don’t consume intoxicants or even tea-and it is this, among other things, that led them to term the Nirankaris’ less rigid lifestyle as “immoral”.For most of the year Bhindranwale is on the move with 100 or more of his followers and travels as far as Calcutta in the east, Bombay in the west and Bhopal in the south. His programme is always made out months in advance. During his travels Bhindranwale preaches the Gurbani (the holy words of the Guru) and presides over kaihas and kirtans. Lessons in the use of traditional weapons are also an important part of the sect’s lifestyle.Though Bhindranwale is now being wooed by the Akalis, he has no history of political involvement. Until a few years ago, in any case, the sect was not considered a major one. It is only the recent turmoil that has led the Sant and the politicians to make common cause. As the Sikh religion forms the basis of Akali politics and Bhindranwale is a religious leader, they had to come out in his support and make a martyr of himPoor Image: Mrs Gandhi’s air dash to Chandigarh served to highlight the dilemma of the state Government which has taken a bad beating. In its attempt to handle the situation, the state administration has tied itself into knots: to take action is to invite the wrath of one of the two major communities and to stay quiet is to invite the charge of inaction. As Mrs Gandhi said: “Politics and religion have got mixed up here. It is more of politics and less of religion.”advertisementadvertisementadvertisementPolicemen hauling a corpse towards a van: No winnersWhile the focus in recent days has shifted to Bhindranwale, ironically, the case which led to his arrest has been relegated to the background, probably because there seems to have been very little progress. A senior official in Chandigarh pointed to the similarity in the modus operandi in both the Jagat Narain and the Baba Gurbachan Singh murders. In the Baba case a new car and in the Jagat Narain killing a new motorcycle were used and both were bought under assumed names. The officials refused to say anything about the interrogation of Nachhatar Singh, arrested as one of the trio who allegedly committed Jagat Narain’s murder, and whose statement presumably led the police to Bhindranwale’s doorstep. The other two, Dalbir Singh and Swaran Singh one a proclaimed offender in the Baba case, and the other a nephew of Bhindranwale – are still at large. Admitted the official: “If we are to implicate Bhindranwale, we’ll need more evidence.”A taxi-driver in Amritsar summed up the whole situation correctly: “The public, the police and the Akalis have all emerged losers out of the episode. There has been only one winner – Bhindranwale.”POLITICS: BOOSTING SIKHISM Bhindranwale confers with Longowal before his surrender: Gaining acceptablityWhatever else Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale may represent, he is nothing so much as a bandwagon for the various political factions in Punjab. Last fortnight, many of them were flocking to his side, anxious to bask in reflected glory when the act of surrender to the police raised him to uncommon heroism in the eyes of many Sikhs. Perhaps it was just as well that they were there to witness the violence and death that followed, possibly tragic augury of greater turmoil in Punjab.Bhindranwale rose from total obscurity in April 1978 when an impassioned speech in Amritsar led to the death of 18 people in clashes between his extremist sect and the pantheistic Nirankaris, a sect whose followers are drawn from all religious and regional backgrounds. He was in the limelight again last year, avoiding police interrogation after the murder of Nirankari chief Baba Gurcharan Singh, son of the sect’s founder.While the Nirankaris are nowhere close to being a real challenge to the Sikhs’ faith, Sikh leaders are wary of them as a potential threat who might provide an attractive alternative, especially to the minor Sikh castes who have no chance of breaking into the Sikh politico-religious establishment which has always been the preserve of the Jats and Khatris. The official Sikh objection to the Nirankaris derives from certain tracts published by the sect which the Sikhs claim are derogatory to the Sikh gurus and scriptures. It was obviously no coincidence that Bhindranwale’s arrest was ordered in connection with the murder of Lala Jagat Narain, who strongly advocated the Nirankari cause.Bhindranwale has ridden the crest of a wave of religious revival, fanned by a gnawing fear among Punjab’s Sikhs that they may soon be outnumbered in their homeland. The Sikhs have never really shed their frontier mentality.Today their share of Punjab’s population has fallen to 52 per cent from 54 per cent a decade and a half ago a trend forced by the outward migration of Sikhs and inward movement of agricultural workers who will soon be eligible to vote. Punjab is not unique in its complaints against New Delhi, but it offers up a longer than usual list of grievances: delays in sanctioning the potentially productive Thein dam, the planned neglect of large-scale industry because of the proximity of Pakistan, and uncertainty about the future of Chandigarh.The Akali Dal (L), the largest and most significant of the several Akali factions, decided to launch a dharam yudh, or holy war, on September 7, 1981, to put right these grievances but was somewhat upstaged by Bhindranwale who claimed nationwide attention after the Narain slaying.Militant Politics: The Akali Dal is still smarting from its last election defeat, when it won only 37 seats as compared to the 64 gained by the Congress (I). Though the state is not scheduled to go to the polls till 1985, there is obviously room for militant politics to muster the ranks of Punjab’s Sikhs and, if possible, create conditions for a mid-term poll. Chief Minister Darbara Singh, whose handling of the incident has attracted sharp criticism, realises that his future lies in keeping a lid on unrest, though Akali Dal (L) leaders have accused him of trying to project Bhindranwale as an alternative to the Akalis. “If this is correct, it’s a clever move,” says a Congress (I) politician in Chandigarh, “suddenly, Bhindranwale appears taller than Tohra, Longowal or any other Sikh leader. If he is established as a kingmaker in Punjab politics, the Akalis could be in serious trouble.” But Darbara Singh has already had many problems on his hands. Since he took over last summer, he has had to deal with the Khalistan stir, the anti-tobacco agitation by the Sikhs in Amritsar, the Jagat Narain murder to which roster of woes has now been added the Bhindranwale arrest. And within the party too he has had an unpleasant time. Apart from his running feud with Union Home Minister Giani Zail Singh, he had to face Mrs Gandhi’s imperial fury when, in the last week of July, she angrily asked him to quit as president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (I). Nothing would please the Giani more than an opportunity to see Darbara Singh out of the gaddi, replaced by his own nominee. Small wonder that with so many people interested in his welfare, Bhindranwale was able to choose the place and time of his own arrest.