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Counting the corpses of Panjab

  • In his new book, journalist Amandeep Sandhu looks at Panjab’s bloodstained past and fractious present
  • This exclusive excerpt sets up the premise of his reportage, based on extensive travels and interviews

An Image from the first day the Darbar Sahib was opened to the public after Operation Blue Star, mid-June, 1984.
An Image from the first day the Darbar Sahib was opened to the public after Operation Blue Star, mid-June, 1984. (Photo: Satpal Danish)

If you want to understand Panjab, be ready to count its corpses,’ said the photographer as he reached for the drawer in his desk. On that spring afternoon, Satpal Danish and I had met at his shop in the Brahm Buta Akhara, near the Guru Ram Das Serai, next to the east gate of the Darbar Sahib complex in Amritsar….

Danish is one of the few photographers who, with his camera, has closely observed and documented Panjab politics from the mid-1970s to date. Over the past few decades, especially in what is called the ‘dark decade’, which is actually a decade and a half (1978–93), when separatist militancy created dehshat—a reign of fear and silence—in Panjab, his pictures acquired and distributed by Associated Press travelled all over the world and appeared in major publications. Informally, he was also the personal photographer of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale whom the nation’s discourse portrays as the chief protagonist of the Khalistan separatist movement.

In his shop, from an old translucent plastic bag, Danish pulled out his collection of photographs. He showed me pictures of young boys with guns in their hands in front of Darshani Deodi at Darbar Sahib—their eyes smiling, faces innocent, looks resolute and hands easy on the guns they held. For someone who does not know Panjab, the guns could look threatening. However, given the land’s geography and history, resistance and rebellion are central to it and its people. Sikh lore is full of warrior legends. I am sure that, until the violence became targeted, such a scene did not raise Panjab’s eyebrows. In the beginning of the movement, the militants were in fact called bhau, khadku and munde which translate to brothers, rebels and boys.

Danish took that iconic picture of a smiling Bhindranwale, the one of Bhindranwale standing wrapped in a grey loi (shawl), symbolic spear in hand, and the one of Bhindranwale tying his turban. These pictures came to define the man to the world outside Panjab. As one looks at the many photographs, one can see a dramatic change in Bhindranwale’s face from 1979 to 1984—its gradual hardening reflects the many ways in which the central government and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi were blocking his way and the Akalis were weakening in their stance.

There were pictures of Bhindranwale along with Harchand Singh Longowal, the Akali leader who had led the Save Democracy Morcha during the Emergency, and with the head of the representative body of the Sikhs—Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC)—Gurcharan Singh Tohra, with a hand-held speaker in front of a crowd.

There were two specific pictures that fascinated me for how they were seemingly similar, but actually were a counterpoint to each other. The first picture was from October 1982. Bhindranwale and Longowal were sitting on a manji (hand-woven cot), in front of a bolted door. Now, almost three and a half decades later, one can read the bolted door as the doorway to the Indian nation and both these leaders—one emphatic, the other moderate—stood outside the door. It is almost as if they were discussing how to open the door so that Panjab’s issues could become part of the nation’s discourse. Bhindranwale’s sharp probing eyes were on Longowal’s passive face and lowered eyes. Their shoulders were relaxed and they seemed to be at ease.

The second picture was from late winter, 1982, a few months later. Bhindranwale and Longowal were sitting wrapped in lois on a manji, sipping tea from battis (big wide steel bowls). It was a warmer picture than the earlier one—a shared ritual of food and camaraderie. Yet, it had a tense undertone. Bhindranwale’s sharp eyes were focussed on Longowal’s face, while Longowal’s eyes were lowered to Bhindranwale’s batti. The picture spoke volumes on how the equations were changing between the two leaders. A resolute Bhindranwale, ready to engage with the Indian state, was in a commanding position. Longowal, willing to compromise with the Indian state, was subdued.

On the white table-top, Danish placed another picture. It was from the day in mid-June, 1984, when, for the first time post Operation Blue Star, ordinary people were allowed entry into the Darbar Sahib complex. Though what the picture depicts is massive, it stuns me through what it does not show but points at. Like how silences sometimes speak louder than words. In the picture, people have climbed on to the top of the 156 feet Ramgarhia Bunga on the east of the Darbar Sahib complex and are peering down in all directions. Unsurprisingly, given the inherent patriarchy of Panjab’s society, all are men. I count twenty-one adults, all with heads covered as mandated in the Sikh tradition—many with turbans and some with another cloth. Some are probably Hindu—the Darbar Sahib is revered by all faiths. There are four early adolescent boys in the picture, about the age I was when Operation Blue Star took place. I feel I am one of the boys. One person is pointing at something specific, showing it to two of the boys.

To me….

As I see the picture, I feel not only these people, not only the whole of Panjab, but even I have been sitting on one such Bunga in my mind, looking at Panjab over the last few decades with rising bewilderment. Except for the other Bunga, there are no other structures as tall as these towers in the vicinity. That means, from a distance, the people could also be seeing the inner city of Amritsar. A top angle view of the inner city of Amritsar is remarkably similar to the ventral view of the human brain. Its maze of narrow, winding, entwining by-lanes, katras, akharas and bazaars are akin to the grooves between the frontal, parietal, occipital, temporal lobes, the cerebellum, the basal ganglia and the brain stem. The Darbar Sahib is at the centre of the inner city as is the corpus callosum in the middle of the brain. The way the corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres of the brain and integrates the motor, sensory and cognitive performances, the Darbar Sahib connects the Miri-Piri (temporal-spiritual) aspects of the Sikh faith.

When the picture was shot, the onlookers could not have known the number of combatants and non-combatants killed, injured or imprisoned in the army Operation. Yet, they knew the attack took place when the Darbar Sahib complex was unusually crowded with pilgrims who came from far-flung villages for the 378th martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan, which fell in the week of the attack. Operation Blue Star was a watershed historical event precisely because it was an attack by a nation state on the symbol of faith, the corpus callosum of the Sikh community. Since the attack, I have wondered how people keep faith that the nation state they believe in would defend them, their article of faith and their religion? Where, in the human brain, is the organ that creates faith located?

As a new generation has grown up and the nation has gone through a tailspin in terms of its politics, time has exacerbated the wound. The multiple narratives that arise from the event have hardened and lacerated the land and its people, turning it into a landmine. One never knows which stone could explode under one’s mis-step. I travelled through this chequered Panjab to address my bewilderment, to learn how to keep faith and how to trust.

Along with the map of present-day Panjab—partitioned in 1947, rendering gory and bloody the birth of India as a modern nation, trifurcated in 1966, shrinking Panjab to a heart-shaped state, one-seventh its original size, that divided the speakers of a common language, Panjabi, and tore asunder the common culture of Panjabiat by hardening the identities of people into Hindu, Muslim and Sikh—this picture hangs framed in my study, in front of my writing desk… I sense the men in the picture, while looking at the Darbar Sahib complex, are now also looking at me, pointing at me.

Their gaze unsettles me.

I ask myself if I am ready to count Panjab’s corpses.

Excerpted with permission from Westland. The book will be on sale from 30 October.

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