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The Secularism Dichotomy: Punjab, Politics and Parity

The Mid-way uproars in post-British India posed a new set of challenges, offered a novel collision course, and questioned the very notion of the foundational base of our Independent Nation; placing ‘Secularism’ on a dubious platform.

Image Credits: Outlook India

Secularism is derived from the ideals of ‘modernity’ and was considered an integral part of the nation-building and development in India. Though the word itself was added to the constitution only by the 42nd Amendment act of 1976, never was a terminology more resonant with the indigenous ideals of nationhood. After a long-drawn struggle against the imperialists, on the mid-night 15th of August, 1947, India gained its freedom. On one hand, the air was filled with the pompous joy of liberation and end to despotism, while on the other hand horrendous cries of communal violence and trauma bloodied the celebrations. At midnight, the Indian Subcontinent was divided into two states of India and Pakistan. Pakistan portrayed itself as a state of homogenous people whereas India proclaimed a pluralistic nationalism and welcomed religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity.

If a closer look is paid towards the demographic composition of India, especially at the time of Independence, we find that multi-ethnicity made India opt for Secularism and consider it vital for the very existence of structure and unity in the newfound nation. It was supposed to solve the problem of ethno-religious pluralism by uniting India through a common identity i.e., a modern, secular Indianness was expected to replace the traditional ethnic thinking and identities. The father of Indian secularism, Jawaharlal Nehru, alongside the Congress Party of India, developed a strategy of ‘containment’: a distance between the state and religious passions of the society, with equality in the corresponding flourishment, interwoven with the phrase of unity in diversity.

The crisis of Punjab during the 1980s groups another pack of shades in the mosaic of Indian Secularism. The breakdown of the political order of secularism and the rise of communalism began with a political agitation by the leaders of the mainstream Sikh political party in the 1980s, The Akali Dal, aimed towards securing greater rights for their community. The tensions deepened in 1983 and 1984, with some sections demanding that Punjab secede from the union to form a sovereign state of Khalistan. This marked a contention between Indira Gandhi and the Sikh leaders who eventually sparked militancy and deployed violent tactics to promote their vision of Punjab as an exclusive entity for Sikhs. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale gained power at the beginning of the 1980s and became the leader of the Sikh extremist movement. The supporters of Bhindranwale served him and the faith by going on with the mission of killing Hindus. Motor-scooter commandos drove to the villages and shot people, buses were stopped and the Hindus travelling in them killed.

The crisis centered around two main events; The Blue Star operation in June 1984, with an armed assault on the militants in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest pilgrimage center of Sikhism. The second being the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984, by her two Sikh bodyguards, in retaliation for the Golder Temple Action. The chain of violence further escalated with ethnic killing sprees, and the Anti-Sikh Riots that allegedly saw the active participation of Congress politicians colluding with police.

The other event was the central government’s declaration of President’s Rule in Punjab and eight other states during the 1980’s. In Punjab, after dissolution, the new elections brought in a government achieving Indira’s trust. At the starting of the 1980s, the Congress party helped Bhindranwale gain political power, in hope of his religious influence and command over the Sikh masses, countering the Akalis. Indira and Jarnail had a common interest, to destroy the power base of the moderate Akali headship, for Indira this would have been successful in mobilizing the Hindu votes in North India. But Bhindranwale had some other plans, though he topped the Akalis with his stronghold campaigns regarding economic and religious demands, he eventually turned against his Godmother’s hegemony. In the early part of 1984, Bhindranwale broke with the Akalis and became an autonomous flag- bearer of the Khalistan identity. The seed soon turned into a full-fledged tree, spreading its roots towards the center, shaking the national capital. Indira Gandhi wanted to stop her renegade child; thus, she undertook an attack against the Akalis as well as against Bhindranwale.

The excuse for the assault was found in a peaceful road blockage organized by the Akali Dal, preventing the movement of food-grains out of Punjab as a protest against the economic policy of the Union; speaking Indira decided to attack her ally. On June 2nd, 1984, Indira made a speech on the situation in Punjab however she did not suggest any way to the attack which took place a couple of days after the speech., though she recommended that the Akali Dali should hold negotiation talks with her for a fruitful and democratic solution. As per Khushwant Singh, the President of India, Zail Singh was kept in the dark about the Blue Star Operation.

After the operation, Indira Gandhi had a bounty on her head and became the main target of Sikh terrorism because she had wrecked the most sacred place of the Sikhs, The Golden Temple. On the 31st of October, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two closest bodyguards, who were both Sikhs. The Anti-Sikh riots erupted in some areas for several days, killing more than 3,000 Sikhs in New Delhi and an estimated 8,000 across India. The perpetrators carried iron rods, knives, clubs and combustible material such as petrol and diesel; entering the Sikh neighborhoods and killing Sikhs indiscriminately. The notion of Indian Secularism was deeply questioned here, many leaders were actively involved in these killings with allegations following that the Congress’ entire apparatus was involved in the 1984 genocide against Sikhs in the national capital.

The final years of Indira’s regime and her death were marked by the breakdown of the secular accord. The leading party was worried that its close identification with the minorities posed a risk of alienation to the other constituents. The subsequent decline and fragmentation of the Congress base in the late 80s gave a space for the communal parties in the emergent political vacuum. The currency of Indira’s speeches carrying the Hindu Heartland Appeal was not present this time. As noted by Erja Marjut in her book, The Contest of Indian Secularism, “The Congress used national unity and secularism as manipulative symbols for electoral mobilization. Thus, it became easy for the Hindu masses to rely on Hindu religious symbols for mobilization.”

Although the Indian state does not openly side with any religion, in practice it has not always functioned in a secular manner. It has failed to deal with some challenges such as that posed by Punjab because it adopted a strategy of compromising with communalism by surrendering its secular ideology. The state apparatus not only failed to contain the fanatics in Punjab, but per se created them. Therefore, the state did abdicate its role of interviewing and settling disputes on the principle of self-governance. The method adopted to solve the Babri Masjid dispute is another example of the Indian state surrendering its secular role. The rise of Hindutva politics in the late 80s brought up the cleavages and disputes between the state and its said notion of secularism, entrenching the gap between the proclaimed allegory and stark reality.


By Nirmanyu Chouhan

Nirmanyu is a history honours student from Hindu college, pushing and exploring his interests in the numerous aspects of global and national political arena, also driven towards the study of regional socio-political affairs. He is more towards research and development of a particular issue and active journaling.

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