Oh boy, getting close to modern times! And the stuff that doesn’t have, like, any “perspective of history” on it at all. Which is also why it is really important to know about it to watch film, because it is the stuff that is kind of being worked through actively still through film plots. (part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here)
Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not Indian, nor am I an Indian history expert. More importantly for this post, I have no deep emotional connection to any of these events. And I know many millions of people do. So please know I am aware of that and I don’t want to diminish your feelings by talking about them. I am just hoping to provide a small introduction for people who don’t know anything about the source of these emotions in order to let them take the first step in understanding them.
In the previous section, I ended with the 1977 elections, post-Emergency, in which Indira was shocked to learn she had lost power. She fought for a seat and won in the 1978 elections in a different constituency, in response to which the new Prime Minister ordered her arrest. In response to which, Indira’s supporters hijacked a plane. It was all very messy.
The big problem was, Indira’s opponents had no real identity beyond being Indira’s opponents. It was a loose coalition of smaller factions who were essentially ideologically opposed to each other. Once Indira was defeated, their cracks immediately started appearing.
On the other hand, Indira’s problem was that her version of Congress (which split AGAIN and was now called “Congress (I)”) had no identity beyond Indira. Still slightly more of an identity than the other party, but not much of one. She spent 3 years fighting her way back to power, making bargains wherever she could, and when she finally won victory in the 1980 elections, it was taken as a mandate on, well, Indira! All of India had decided that she should have full power.
(Indira in 1980)
Shortly after the elections, Indira suffered a personal tragedy which forever changed the course of Indian history. And Indian narrative. The idea of Indira as the mother, as the strong almost unwomanly woman leading the country, that is something you have probably seen over and over in Indian film. And so is the idea of the two sons, one spoiled and “bad”, one overlooked but full of potential. Or is it that these stories already existed and we just got used to putting that narrative onto the Gandhi family?
However you want to think of it, Sanjay Gandhi was Indira’s chosen heir. He was living in her house, helping with political decisions, her strong right arm. The only one she fully trusted by this point. And shortly after her re-election to power, he died in a plane crash (if you watch Qurbani, Greatest Movie of the Eighties, you can see a big tribute to him). This was of course a personal tragedy for Indira. But it was kind of a good thing for her in public life. She had never had so much sympathy or popularity. Both because of the tragedy of her son’s death, and because Sanjay was a large reason her followers were dubious about her, and now he was removed.
(Indira at Sanjay’s funeral)
But, by this point, Indira couldn’t function without a son with her. She had taken so much power for herself, and she did not trust anyone outside of the family. It was literally too much for one person to handle. And so she had to call on her other son, the older son who was working as a pilot for Air India and living a quiet life mostly out of the spotlight. Rajiv.
Rajiv was Amitabh’s best friend, who grew up and studied overseas, got a pilot’s license, and a career on his own merit. And picked his own wife, a woman who seemingly removed him from political consideration ever. Sonia Gandhi, a Italian student who was working as a waitress in England while Rajiv was studying there. They fell in love and got married. An Italian waitress as the first lady of India seemed like it could never happen. But as the wife and mother of his children, she seemed fine. So far as I can tell, Rajiv and Sonia were always very happy together.
But then Sanjay died. And his mother needed him. And suddenly Rajiv, the forgotten son, came to power. And no one really knew what to make of him. He didn’t seem as aggressive as Sanjay, but besides a sort of general modern cosmopolitan outlook, there wasn’t a clear sense of what he wanted. But he was there, he was working, he was learning, his family was living in the Prime Minister’s house, his wife was being a good daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law, things were moving in a new direction.
Okay, now I get to the part with the deep deep scars that are barely really scars and mostly still wounds. So I am going to try to be a simple and factual as possible. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a leader of the Sikh community. The Sikhs had lost much of their traditional territory during Partition. And since then, there had been a constant struggle to regain their identity, their land, their everything. This struggle had various parts, concern over land redistribution, over access to religious sites, over keeping the Sikh/Punjabi literature alive.
Just to clarify, the Sikh religion was founded in the Punjab. The Punjab has it’s own unique language, festivals, clothing style, all the stuff that goes into making an identity, just like all the other regions of India. Since the Sikh religion was founded there, many Punjabis are Sikh. And almost all Sikhs are Punjabi. So there is a lot of slippage between the two identities. It was Punjabi territory which was given to Pakistan (thus a lot of ethnically Punjabis who live in Pakistan). But there were a lot of Sikhs living there, and the Sikh community felt it was an insult to their religion. Which maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It is certainly a thing that the entire Sikh homeland is/was in Indian territory. And that large parts of this land that had all kinds of religious significance in different ways was given away in order to placate another religious minority in the creation of Pakistan. Yes, there were all kinds of other issues involved, but there is also this.
In the years since Independence, the Sikh community went back and forth on how to be a part of India. Most Sikhs were just Indian. They farmed or worked, prayed, lived their lives. Many of them took up military service. But there were also politically active members of the group who argued and talked loudly about what the community should do, as a community, to strengthen themselves.
And this brings me to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He was the strongest voice for a few years. And he was calling for radical changes. At the most extreme, the creation of “Khalistan”, a Sikh homeland separate from India. At the least extreme, a remaking of the maps of India so that “Khalistan” would be a separate state within India. Protests were constant, throughout the state. Sikhs were killed, their attackers were not prosecuted. And then their enemies died mysteriously, Sikhs were arrested, and then released for lack of evidence. It was messy. Law and order was increasingly lost. And Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale became somehow the one man everyone was turning to. He took the place of the judges and police, solving land disputes and other issues. And he encouraged his followers to be ready for attacks, to always go armed, as he did himself.
In 1982, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale moved into the grounds of the Golden Temple complex. The Golden Temple is the most sacred site of Sikhism. And it’s very very large. Don’t picture, like, the one temple and that’s it. It’s a whole complex. And one part of this complex had a group of armed men living in it. While the rest of it continued to host pilgrims, scholars, religious men, and so on.
Jarnail Singh’s group slowly came more and more towards the center of it. And they also got permission to post machine guns and look out stations around the edges. At the same time, publically, they frequently declared their willingness to appear and face any charges brought against them, to hand themselves over to the police at any point. Which in fact Jarnail Singh had already done earlier, agreeing to a date to surrender himself and then calmly handing himself over back in 1980. But that was before he was living at the center of the center of Sikhdom, surrounded by armed guards.
Jarnail Singh was absolutely preaching anti-Indian sentiments. That was sort of his point, that he wanted the Sikh community to have something for themselves within India. And he was absolutely a potential threat, a potential massive threat considering his popularity, the stronghold where he was living, and even the number of Sikh’s in the armed forces who could at any time choose to mutiny and follow him. He was a challenge for the central state to figure out.
In a greater sense, India had been rocked by those state boundary protests since the beginning. Going back to Nehru, there had been a pull between the desire for ethnic identities to be subsumed in the national leading to greater national stability, versus the desire of the people of India to maintain their own existing strong identities. Nehru himself hadn’t been fully able to solve this question when dealing with the borders of the southern states and the protests that ensued. And now Indira was facing a similar threat to nationhood. What to do? Giving in could lead to an avalanche of statehood requests, but not giving in ran the risk of (even more) armed rebellion. And negotiations weren’t working.
I don’t know if I would be able to find a solution for this, but I like to think I would have winced away from the solution Indira found. In June of 1984, Operation Blue Star went into effect. Power was cut for the entire state, journalists were woken in the middle of the night and transported outside the state borders, telephone and telegraph lines were cut. And curfew was imposed. Once the entire state of 20 million people had been cut off from the outside world, the army went into the Golden Temple complex, The Most Sacred site of Sikhdom, and killed somewhere between 483 and 800 civilians. Supposedly around 400 security forces died in the exchange of gunfire.
(No images for this, because power cut, reporters transported outside state borders, etc. etc. etc.)
So, yes, you can’t let armed militants just set up shop within your country. But on the other hand, you really shouldn’t desecrate in the worst way possible the most sacred site in the world for 25 million people, most of whom are also your citizens. And authorizing the complete shutdown of an entire state in order to facilitate your attack is also not good.
As word got out as to what had happened (although clear accounts are still not really available 33 years later), shock reverberated throughout the Sikh community. Still is reverberating. In the immediate aftermath, around 5,000 Sikh soldiers mutinied, with rumors of pitched battles being fought to bring the mutineers under control. Indira’s actions, besides considering the morality of it all, was also a terrible political decision. There is perhaps nothing more offensive that she could have done, nothing that more clearly stated that the Indian state did not respect the Sikh community.
4 months after Operation Blue Star, while walking through the gardens of her house on the way to meet Peter Ustinov (not an important detail, I just find it odd that Peter Ustinov was there), Indira Gandhi was killed by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikh.
(Peter Ustinov. Talented character actor, and witness to the assassination of the leader of the world’s largest democracy)
No one really knew what to do. Literally. Even the decision of whether or not to take her to the hospital was confounding for people. This is what happens when power is too centralized. Even if Indira had been the wisest leader in the history of the world, having power fully within one person means that if that one person is taken away, the state will flounder. Which is what happened. Sonia, her daughter-in-law, briefly took control. And then Rajiv arrived, flying in from a state visit out of the country.
Taking a break from all this really heavy political stuff for a moment, do you know who met Rajiv as his plane landed in Delhi and rode with him in the car to the hospital? Amitabh Bachchan! His oldest friend. He was there, in the car, when Rajiv decided to take control of India. Other people were there too, it wasn’t just a Rajiv-Amitabh conversation, but Amitabh was there.
Rajiv arrived at the hospital and took charge. He was made head of the Congress Party and, in essence, the leader of India. Within hours of his mother’s death. A smooth transition of power, mother to son.
Well, kind of smooth. Operation Blue Star was a tragedy and a blasphemy, there is no way around that. But what happened after Indira’s death, that was possibly worse. While she lay in the hospital, her followers went outside and spoke to the crowds gathered. The constant refrain was “Khoon Ka Badla Khoon” (blood for blood). The crowd started stopping passing cars and pulling those identified as Sikhs out of them and beating them.
Over the next few days, Delhi erupted. Some sources claim 3,000 dead in the city, 8,000 dead in total in India. Millions were displaced as the Sikh areas were destroyed. The riots were bad, but what was worse was the state response. Or lack of response. Police did not come, the army was not sent in, the city just burned and no one seemed to want to stop it. Depending on what sources you read, this is called a “pogrom”, “genocide”, “riots”, or most often simply “1984”.
(Oh, and Amitabh was there too. He has been named as one of those Congress party voices who stood outside the hospital and helped incite the mob.)