(Photo: YouTube : Sikh Sangat after 1978 massacre )
( The grenade attack on Nirankari congregation on November 18, 2018 , near Rajasansi has brought back in focus the April 13, 1978 Sikh-Nirankari clash to which the militancy that hit Punjab subsequently is traced.
The person who emerged as the leader at that time was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
The following is the detailed account of that tragic incident from the book Khalistan Struggle: A Non-movement by senior journalist Jagtar Singh
- Editor )
The Sikh-Nirankari Clash
The tension between the Sikh organizations and the Sant Nirankari Mandal, a religious sect headed by a Sikh with multi-religious following, mainly from the lower middle classes, had been simmering for some time and the decision of the Nirankaris to organize its annual meet on April 13, 1978, the Baisakhi day, at Amritsar became the flashpoint. Baisakhi in Punjab is associated with the birth of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. It was the Damdami Taksal and some other Sikh organizations, which had been spearheading the campaign against this sect that had come under attack for distorting and denigrating the Sikh theology. Both the time and place of organizing the Nirankari meet are significant. Thousands of Sikhs throng to Darbar Sahib on Baisakhi to pay their obeisance. This sect was also well-entrenched in a section of the bureaucracy in Punjab.
Tension in the city mounted as the Nirankaris took out a procession on the morning of April 13, which converged at the venue of the conclave. The situation remained under control and the security forces went into the relaxation mode. As the procession was winding through the roads of the holy city, the Sikh groups were holding deliberations on the issue at two different places. The Taksal men led by Sant Bhindranwale were at Manji Sahib Diwan Hall in the Darbar Sahib complex where Revenue Minister Jiwan Singh Umranangal was also present at the function organised to celebrate Baisakhi. The followers of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, another religious organization of the dyed-in-the-wool Sikhs, had gathered at nearby Ajit Nagar where a function had been organized in the memory of Bhai Randhir Singh, the founder of the organization. The roots of the militant outfit Babbar Khalsa are traced to this organization.
Sant Bhindranwale took up the issue with Umranangal and pleaded him to take action against the Nirankaris for their anti-Sikh activities. As the minister expressed his helplessness, they exchanged some hot words too. Sant Bhindranwale announced that he would lead the protesters to the venue of the Nirankari congregation to demonstrate against their anti-Sikh activities. Simultaneously, an announcement was made by the Akhand Kirtani Jatha leaders about the decision taken by Sant Bhindranwale to stage protest near the venue of the Nirankari meet and immediately, about 200 members left for Manji Sahib Hall. About 150 Sikhs from the Akhand Kirtani Jatha and the Damdami Taksal led by Fauja Singh later left for the venue of Nirankari congregation to mark their protest, unarmed. Sant Bhindranwale had been convinced to stay back. Fauja Singh was also closely associated with US based Harbhajan Singh Yogi and the Americans converted to Sikhism under his influence. The interaction between members of the Akhand Kirtani jatha and the American Sikhs was frequent.
Two ministers from Punjab, Hit Abhilashi and Balramji Dass Tandon, both from the Janata Party (and hailing from the Hindu fundamentalist Sangh Parivar background), and Lala Jagat Narain, proprietor-editor of the Hind Samachar group of newspapers and a Congressman, were to attend the Nirankari congregation at Amritsar as per the information with the district administration. Lala Jagat Narain was to be the state guest as per instructions from the state headquarters. The tour programme of the two ministers had been circulated from the state capital.
Going by the tour programme of the ministers and the instructions to treat Lala Jagat Narain as the state guest, the Badal government did not apprehend breach of peace despite the palpable tension in the air. Had there been any assessment of trouble, the ministers and Lala Jagat Narain would have been advised against the visit. Something was wrong somewhere. It was perhaps for this reason that the district administration had not taken the adequate precautionary measures. The Nirankari procession had passed off peacefully and the district administration was taking it easy, treating the congregation as a normal exercise.
Only a small posse of police was posted at the venue of the meet outside the walled city near the Gobindgarh fort under the command of City Inspector Anoop Singh. Fauja Singh from the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, who was leading the Sikh protesters, conveyed the Sikh sentiments to the police while pressing that the congregation be dispersed immediately. However, suddenly, the protesters came under attack from the Nirankaris about 100 meters away from the venue without any provocation. The Nirankaris appeared fully prepared as several of them carried firearms. In the attack, which lasted only a few minutes, 13 Sikh protesters lay dead.Total 18 persons killed in the clash including 3 Nirankari followers and two ordinary citizen. Strangely, the function continued undisturbed as if nothing had happened. Some Sikhs protesters were carrying only traditional swords but no fire arms.
Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Kuldip Singh Janjua got the information about the incident at his residence. He tried to contact Senior Superintendent of Police Gurbachan Jagat who had joined at Amritsar only a few days earlier and was told that he had already left for the spot. As he was stepping into his car, Janjua was handed over a report from the local intelligence wing about the likely trouble. It was too late. Gurdaspur Deputy Commissioner Naranjan Singh had also reached the residence of the Amritsar Deputy Commissioner and wanted to accompany Janjua in his car, who refused to take him along. Niranjan Singh was himself part of the top hierarchy of the Nirankari Mandal. By the time Janjua reached the site, dead bodies had reportedly been removed. It is intriguing as to why the police removed the dead bodies from the scene within minutes, even before the District Magistrate reached there.
The DC then rushed to the Nirankari chief and told him not to proceed to the venue and leave the city immediately to which he agreed, at first. He was also told to call off the function. However, he went on to address the congregation as if nothing had happened. When Janjua came to know that the Nirankari Baba had gone to address the congregation, he rushed to the venue and virtually forced him to leave immediately after snatching the mike from him. Naranjan Singh was also present on the stage. Hit Abhilashi was at the circuit house at that time while Tandon had not reached Amritsar. Lala Jagat Narain left Amritsar without attending the Nirankari congregation.
By the time Badal reached Amritsar, Army authorities had been alerted. The DC advised the Chief Minister against attending the cremation of those killed by the Nirankaris the next day. No concerted effort seems to have been made to arrest the culprits. This police inaction is intriguing. Some of the protesters had died due to injuries from the blunt edged weapons while others had received bullet injuries. Some of them had been attacked with swords. A group of armed Nirankaris was seen sitting in a tent at the venue when the first journalist reached there.
It is also questionable as to why the Nirankari congregation was allowed to be held on Baisakhi and that too at Amritsar when thousands of Sikh devotees visit Darbar Sahib as the confrontation between the Sikh organizations and the Nirankaris had already been escalating. This should have been realized by the Akali Dal-Janata Party government in the state. Both the inaction by the police in arresting the culprits and the selection of Baisakhi day and Amritsar as the venue for the annual congregation by the Nirankaris remain a mystery till date. Some people were arrested hours later when the real culprits had already escaped.
The reaction among the Sikh organizations was expectedly at the religio-political level. The Akal Takht issued the Hukamnama (edict) on June 10, 1978, directing the community to boycott the Nirankaris at every level. Earlier, the SGPC had convened a representative Sikh meet to discuss the situation on May 17, which recommended to the Akal Takht chief to issue the edict. That directive, issued under the signature of then Akal Takht chief Jathedar Sadhu Singh Bhaura, is still in force though at one stage, the initiative had been taken to end this confrontation.
About the Book : Khalistan Struggle: A Non-movement by Jagtar Singh
For the past six centuries, Punjab has gone through many upheavals. After almost a period of every 20-30 years, it has faced one trouble or another. Leave the distant past aside, a few decades ago at the time of Partition, Punjab had virtually turned into a river of blood owing to communal violence. A few decades after Partition, Punjab witnessed trouble related to the Punjabi Suba morcha. Some years later it was hemmed in by Naxal violence. From 1978 to mid-1990s, the state remained a turbulent region in the country owing to religio-political turmoil.
It saw killing of thousands of persons, including common populace, top-ranking politicians, officials of security forces and others. One can say it was another blood-soaked period in the history of the state and the country as such. That turbulence did not remain confined to the state but affected the adjoining states also and kept the country’s political and security establishment on tenterhooks for a long period.
There are ideologues who describe it as a movement for Khalistan, a separate Sikh state. Others simply describe it as a terrorist movement without any objective and cause. For instance, the former DGP KPS Gill described it as "a sheer madness and nothing else".
Undoubtedly, what happened in the recent decades in Punjab had roots of its cause and effect in the past.
Khalistan Struggle: A Non-movement is also partly eye witness account of the author who was shifted to Amritsar in March, 1979 as The Indian Express staffer.
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