On Operation Blue Star's 35th anniversary, examining its historical precedents for Sikhs

When Guru Nanak was returning from his Haj, he stopped in Sayyidpur, a small town in the Punjab, which falls in modern-day Pakistan and is called Eminabad today. He was there to visit with Lalo, one of his beloved disciples. Sayyidpur was reeling from a bloody attack by the army of the Uzbek adventurer Babar [or Babur], who would go on to establish the mighty Mughal Empire. The gentle prophet was roused to anger by the carnage and he addressed these famous words to Babar:

Kings are hungry lions; their servants rabid dogs
Foes of soothing restful sleep; the mindless servile cogs
The lackeys of the evil king; waving talon and claw
They prey on common gentlefolk; their tender flesh they gnaw

In these words lay the seed of a principle that was to become fundamental to the faith that Guru Nanak founded. An unequivocal commitment to fighting oppression, no matter what the cost. This principle was strengthened by the blood of Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh master, who refused to bow to the tyranny of the emperor Jahangir, and that of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth, who sacrificed his head in the defense of religious freedom. The sixth Sikh master, Guru Hargobind, established the Akal Takhat as his seat of temporal power at the Sri Harmandir Sahib and from that day onwards, it became a powerful and visible symbol of Sikh sovereignty.

Though this principle has been a source of intense pride for the Sikhs, it has also brought them much pain over the centuries. In the 18th century in particular, as the Mughal empire started to crumble, a power vacuum formed in the Punjab, that the Sikhs eagerly attempted to take advantage of. Great resistance was offered to the likes of Nawab Zakriya Khan and Mir Mannu, Mughal governors who relentlessly tried to break the back of the fledgling community that they saw as a threat. In 1740, Massah Rangarh, a deputy of Zakriya Khan, occupied and desecrated the Sri Harmandir Sahib in an attempt to crush the spirit of the Sikhs.

 On Operation Blue Stars 35th anniversary, examining its historical precedents for Sikhs

Golden Temple with Akal Takhat on the right. The sixth Sikh master, Guru Hargobind, established the Akal Takhat as his seat of temporal power at the Sri Harmandir Sahib and from that day onwards, it became a powerful and visible symbol of Sikh sovereignty. Image courtesy Amarpreet Singh via Wikimedia Commons.

When Ahmad Shah Abdali, the new king of Afghanistan who saw himself as the overlord of the Punjab, descended from the mountains to plunder, kill and take captives, the only resistance he faced came from bands of Sikhs who were living the principle that Guru Nanak had put forth two centuries earlier. Heavily outnumbered, the Sikhs would employ guerrilla tactics to harry the Afghans as they made their way back, relieving them of their booty and mounting daring raids to free their captives.

Retribution was constant, swift and often cataclysmic. The Afghans would repeatedly attack and desecrate the Sri Harmandir Sahib and the Akal Takhat in an attempt to break the spirit of the Sikhs. The single biggest setback was the Great Holocaust of 1762, referred to as the ‘Vadda Ghallughara’ by the Sikhs, that resulted in the community being decimated. Perpetrated by Ahmad Shah Abdali to teach the Sikhs a lesson, it had the opposite effect, strengthening the resolve of the Sikhs even further.

In 1764, the Afghans attacked again. A large force was bearing down on Amritsar and the Sikhs, fully aware that they would be unable to take the large force head on, were planning to retreat. Abandoning the Sri Harmandir Sahib once again to the advancing hordes was a bitter pill to swallow, but there really didn't seem to be a choice. The Sikhs were about to be taught a now familiar lesson once again.

As we approach the 35th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, the Indira Gandhi-ordered attack on the Sri Harmandir Sahib and the Akal Takhat (where Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was headquartered), it is impossible not to place it on the context of Sikh history. Of course, it would be disingenuous or worse to suggest that Mrs Gandhi was hell bent on eliminating the Sikhs. However, it would also be naive to ignore her highly cynical political imperative to teach the Sikhs a lesson.

The complex politics of Punjab leading up to Operation Blue Star cannot be unraveled in this brief reflection, but a few things can be stated clearly. Fortunately they are borne out by reportage and analysis in mainstream Indian media in the 35 years that have elapsed since the attack. The Hindu right had Mrs Gandhi against the ropes for her handling of the ‘Punjab Problem’, characterising her as weak in the face of Sikh militancy. There was only one way for her to get her mojo back.

As a student of history I see a startling similarity between Ahmad Shah Abdali’s thinking in 1764 and Indira Gandhi’s thinking in 1984.

Rattan Singh Bhangu was a 19th century Sikh poet and historian who wrote the monumental Sri Guru Granth Prakash, a detailed history of the Sikhs, in verse. Interestingly he was descended from a Sikh hero named Mehtab Singh, who had retaliated against Massa Ranghar for the desecration of the Sri Harmandir Sahib.

In episode 156 of his opus, Bhangu tells the rousing tale of Gurbaksh Singh, a Sikh warrior, who decided to resist the invaders as they approached the Sri Harmandar Sahib. I have attempted more or less to be faithful to Rattan Singh Bhangu’s narrative but this is not a word-by-word translation; I have instead attempted to capture the spirit of Rattan Singh Bahngu’s poetry.

Chaupai (Quatrain):

Young man of steel this warrior brave
Steadfast and sober dressed in blue
Rises at dawn and drains his cup
And girds up for the coming day
Prayers are said in early morn
Proud turban does his head adorn
To shining steel he bows his head
Before it’s on his person borne
A chain of steel around his neck
Shining bracelets upon his wrists
Quoits of steel upon his head
Together his impervious shield
Gloves of steel, a mighty club
Breeches that hang down to his knees
On his breast a coat of mail
Resplendent is The Warrior brave

Dohra (couplet):

A leader true, always out front
His men forming his glorious train
Wherever he would plant his flag
His men so steadfast would remain

Dohra (couplet):

In forests and in place strange
The fleeing Sikhs in misery dwelt
And pondering their pitiful state
Their pain the mighty warrior felt

Chaupai (Quatrain):

The Sikhs gathered for evening prayers
In the shade of the Timeless Tower cool
To leave the town was the sacred writ
Save Warriors by the sacred pool
Was heard the mighty Warrior roar
Is there today one single man?
To valiantly pick up the sword
In the name of the ever glorious Lord
The Sikhs then spoke in a single voice
None here is worthier or more brave
You are the one, young warrior strong
The Lord will hear your rousing song

Dohra (couplet):

Hearing this then The Warrior bows
His hands in fervent prayer joined
With folded hands and pendent head
The maiden Death agrees to wed

Chaupai (Quatrain):

Meanwhile the Giljis gird their loins
As they get word of the massing Singhs
They don their armor helmets and mail
Sikh warriors have none of these things
To their teeth are the mighty Giljis armed
Ready to lay the Singhs to waste
Arrows pistols and muskets long
Readied and primed with savage haste
The Singhs are armed with fighting words
Some have daggers, some double edged swords
Many have naught but rustic clubs
And yet they press, eager to fight
Some Singhs are mounted on their steeds
Jockey and twist to lead the charge
To each other solemnly swear
That each will lead the pack by far

Chaupai (Quatrain):

The war drum beats; standard is raised
With music divine is the Master praised
The minstrels sing sweet songs of bliss
Till the warriors too have had their fill
The Giljis march at break of dawn
And bear down upon the eager Singhs
Some steadfast sit on noble mounts
Foot soldiers too; they hold their ground
And where they stand they give their lives
For how could they stop such a mighty horde
And as they leave for their final abode
The Singhs who live give battle fierce
The Singhs are by the Giljis ringed
Kill them! Kill them! Like wolves they bay
Louder is heard the Warrior’s roar
Dig in! Show them the martyr’s way

Dohra (couplet):

Honor there is in pressing forth
Just as in holding back is shame
When hostile swords around you sing
It’s time to prove a warrior’s worth

Chaupai (Quatrain):

Hearing these words the warriors bound
And lion-like on the Giljis pounce
Where else can such valor be found
They care no more for life or limb
Press on! Press on The Warrior roars
Drink your fill of the martyrs brew
Your sylvan dreams of paradise
In martyrdom you will realize
If you wish to be an eternal king
The maiden, Death, you must embrace
Reborn you shall be! As a mighty Singh
Of your enemies there will be no trace
Sallied forth his most valiant men
We are best men! You are the groom
We will follow you to paradise
And with you we will gladly rule

Dohra (couplet):

For heaven we care not one whit
Our bonds of brotherhood are enough
A noble death fighting we crave
As we send our foes to a fiery grave

Chaupai (Quatrain):

And then The Warrior gravely says
A solemn oath I now do swear
As I set foot in the Guru’s court
To pieces will I the Giljis tear
My fearless brothers, now you take heart
You will be Singhs again reborn
And once again does The Warrior say
Embrace your death! Your enemies flay
The Giljis are back with fearsome force
The Singhs fight back their heels dug in
In their heads no thoughts of retreat
As slowly back Giljis they beat
Like a lion’s roar The Warrior’s cry
Let not today your purpose pale
For your faith you fight this noble fight
Dismount and with your swords prevail

Dohra (couplet):

These words beyond the Giljis’ ken
Their muskets rain a hail of lead
Steadfast men falling to the ground
Beholds The Warrior all around

Chaupai (Quatrain):

The Warrior swings his mighty sword
A fearsome Gilji whistling smites
Pierces his armor; rips his breast
And many more soldiers he fights
Audaciously the Singhs advance
For a moment mighty Giljis yield
With practiced ease they lightly dance
Each man sheltered behind his shield
Contemptuous look on his noble face
His shield, The Warrior tosses away
The Giljis charge with flashing swords
Undaunted Singhs! They join the fray
Eyelids un-batted heads unbowed
No backward glance! Singhs charge ahead
The Giljis take to their heels cowed
So furious is their attack

Dohra (couplet):

From a distance Gilji guns let loose
And arrows whistle through the air
Singhs spout blood from countless wounds
To shreds their flesh do Gilji’s tear

Chaupai (Quatrain):

The bullets they pierce their flesh and bone
The Singhs fight on heedless of pain
Their bodies spew a rush of blood
Like from an oil press flows a flood
The Warrior too profusely bleeds
Water spurting from a ruptured pouch
As on and on as he marches forth
Like fountains do the gashes spout
As more and more of his life blood seeps
His weary body starts to rebel
Yet The Warrior thinks not of retreat
That shame to him is worse than Hell
To the Lord he prays at this moment dark
Save me O Lord! Save me from shame
Accept my humble sacrifice
He begs as he chants his master’s Name

Dohra (couplet):

The Gilji horde just swells and swells
Fresh fighters now their ranks enhance
With fury fall upon the Singhs
And rend their foes with spear and lance

Chaupai (Quatrain):

The Warrior mighty swings his sword
Slices through many a lance
The Giljis dare not come too close
Away from flashing sword they prance

Dohra (couplet):

Not one Singh did that day retreat
Nor cast his eye towards the rear
No one shall ever dare to say
That even one ran from the fray

Chaupai (Quatrain):

Warrior assailed! So many spears!
As the Giljis strive to make him yield
And though he’s fallen on his knee
They cannot from his hand sword free

Kundaliya Chhand:

He grips his sword in bloody hand
But his mind is now roiled by doubt
If I cast my sword on the sand
Will they spare me a man unarmed
If I yield I’m sure I will live
But all this blood will be for naught
This glorious moment for sure will pass
The time to sacrifice is now
Thus The Warrior girds his loins
Makes up his mind to never bow
May my head from my trunk be cleaved
Hither! Sweet sword! No one bereaved

Chaupai (Quatrain):

He picks up his sword; mightily roars
A challenge to the Gilji horde
His neck is bare begs to be hacked
Just like was Ninth Master attacked
A Gilji bravo swings his blade
The Warrior’s head is no more nigh
The Lord is kind: a promise made
The Singhs can hold their heads up high
Of warriors past and martyrs’ sprites
Their joyous ranks The Warrior joins
Into their waiting arms he’s borne
Chariots divine with pennants flying
They come for him on prancing steeds
Bejeweled saddles! There is a slew
Beating war drums flying flags
In dazzling robes of electric blue

Chaupai (Quatrain):

Tired Giljis in slumber deep
The Singhs make off with many a steed
And on their camp they fiercely sweep
Writhing in the dust the Giljis bleed
At break of dawn the Giljis flee
Make haste to catch up with their king
In the light of day the Singhs behold
Brethren in heaps their bodies cold
And as the beaten foes retreat
More Singhs appear upon the scene
It looks as if the earth has bled
Or coloured red by the warriors dead
The Singhs come up with a common plan
With honor they will treat every man
By the Timeless Tower a pyre is lit
By dancing flames Singhs solemnly sit

Dohra (couplet):

On the mighty fire are the martyrs laid
Fallen comrades gallant band
The Singhs prepare a sacred feast
Received humbly by every hand

Chaupai (Quatrain):

Ashes to ashes dust to dust
Their bodies fallen heroes leave
Their souls rise up to meet the Lord
And join the martyrs’ eternal horde
The Singhs joyously chant in praise
Blessed are fathers, such sons who raise
To the warriors is built a glorious shrine
Wishes are fulfilled every day
Such is the glory of this shrine
Many a malady has it cured
And so great is its power benign
Forgotten is all pain endured

I have read many accounts of the aftermath of Operation Blue Star. The images they conjure up are eerily similar to the ones that rise from Bhangu’s poetry.

The similarity does not end there.

Ahmad Shah Abdali's large force carried the day in 1764 as did Mrs Gandhi’s in 1984. Both ‘victories’ were spectacularly Pyrrhic.

Note: The translations of the hymn by Guru Nanak as well as Rattan Singh Bhangu’s poetry are my own.

Sarbpreet Singh is a poet, playwright, and commentator with a career in technology. He is the author of The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia (Tranquebar/Westland Publications).

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Updated Date: Jun 09, 2019 10:47:12 IST