The Unreluctant Fundamentalist

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Thirty-two years ago Madhu Jain had an accidental meeting with Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and came away with a sense of foreboding

Room No. 32 in Guru nanak Niwas, opposite the Golden Temple in Amritsar, was rather busy on April 13, 1981. It was Baisakhi, an important day in the history of Punjab, and Balbir Singh Sandhu, secretary general of the “Republic of Khalistan”, was issuing mint-fresh, deep navy-blue and saffron Khalistan passports. Even I got a shiny new one with lots of blank pages for visas. Some rather stale celebratory barfi was being passed around in the crowded room. Curious about how serious all this talk about carving a new nation for Sikhs really was, photographer Sondeep Shanker and I had gone to Amritsar the previous day. We were working for New Delhi, a fortnightly magazine  started by MJ Akbar and edited for a year by Khushwant Singh.


Living by the Sword: Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale

A few hundred miles away in the capital, the fledgling clamour for a separate Sikh nation was not considered newsworthy. For the national press, it was nothing more than local politics fuelled by diasporic Sikhs. But that morning in the slightly grimy room, which Mr Sandhu had made his home, I sensed that it wasn’t quite that simple: there was something else going on. The anger being expressed seemed real. There was a young man with finely chiselled features and an intricately-layered dark blue turban sitting quietly. Soft-spoken at first, he suddenly started talking about Santji, a religious leader. The zeal with which he spoke about him made me blurt out “Take me to your leader”, like a line from a B-grade Hollywood movie.

He did. The next day we left for Mehta Chowk, about an hour’s drive from Amritsar. Sondeep and I had presumed it would be a modest house in a bucolic setting. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Our taxi stopped before an imposing two-storied building. It was the headquarters of the fundamentalist DamdamiTaksalBhindranwale sect. Inside, what took our breath away was the sight of smooth-cheeked young boys, some with their milk teeth still intact, holding guns to their shoulders, ready for battle. There were even children—boys who could not have been more than four years old—carrying kirpans and spears. Apparently, they also played with the guns.


Starting Young: A child holds a carbine belonging to his father

Santji was waiting for us. He was, as we soon learned, Jarnail Singh, then 33, and the leader of the Bhindranwale sect. The man with the sensitive face who had taken us to his leader was Amrik Singh, president of the All India Sikh Students’ Federation at the time, and the son of the former head of the Bhindranwale sect. Both men were to die in Operation Blue Star when the Indian army went into the Golden Temple in June 1984.

I had never heard of Jarnail Singh. There had hardly been any mention of him in the national press. Nor did he appear imposing. He barely looked us in the eye; there was something awkward in his demeanour. Rather scrawny, there was an air of diffidence about him. He wore a knee-length white kurta with a white cloth draped over his shoulders and carried a spear. Jarnail Singh’s battle at the time was with the Nirankaris, a reformist movement in Sikhism. Some of his men had been killed in a clash with them three years earlier on Baisakhi.

The interview takes place on the terrace on that star-filled night. When I ask about Khalistan, he talks in riddles, peppering his replies with similes and occasional
humorous asides.

Excerpts from the interview:

Will there be a Khalistan?

Chiriyaangumhrahiyanhain. Unanughosleychaideyhaigey.(Birds are wandering. They need their nests.) Sikhs should have a home. If some of us accept the life of subordinates, of slaves, and even then we are not allowed to exist, something has to be done. We have to break the shackles and be free.

Will there be violence?

Baadalhaigey, kaaleyhaigey, ghaneyhaigay—garjangey.(There are clouds. They are black and thick. There could be thunder… If I say anything about Khalistan, I am committed; I can’t go back on my word. I believe in the Guru GranthSahib. . . So I say that if you see clouds, there is a likelihood of rain, but sometimes there are lots of clouds and no rain. And sometimes, hail falls from the clouds and destroys the crop. . . We are not free to worship. The government is helping our enemies. It helps the Nirankaris and gives them police protection. I don’t ask for police protection. We have the right to defend ourselves.

Do you think that children should carry guns?

The tenth guru said that every Sikh must have arms. He must know how to use them.

Will you give me a visa?

Yes, you can come as an ambassador from India.

Holding Fort: All India Sikh Students’ Federation (AISSF) activists, carrying guns, guard the approach to the historic minarets in the Golden Temple Complex, Amritsar, on the eve of Operation Blue Star

Holding Fort: All India Sikh Students’ Federation (AISSF) activists, carrying guns, guard the approach to the historic minarets in the Golden Temple Complex, Amritsar, on the eve of Operation Blue Star

The sky had darkened by then. We moved downstairs to have dinner. Bhindranwale’s headquarters was like a monastery. It was spartan and there were only men and boys silently roaming about. We sat on the floor and ate chickpeas and chapattis liberally slathered with ghee (clarified butter), washed down by tall glasses of warm milk. Jarnail Singh was cordial but there was a soup çon of menace in his voice—especially when he spoke about the Nirankaris and Jalandhar-based Lala Jagat Narain, a veteran journalist and proprietor of the widely-circulated dailies Hind Samachar and Punjab Kesari. He had campaigned vigorously against Punjabi being adopted as a medium of instruction in Hindi schools. Lala Jagat Narain had also urged the Hindus of Punjab to reply to the government census that Hindi, and not Punjabi, was their mother tongue.

Jarnail Singh’s diatribe against the veteran journalist prompted us to drive to Jalandhar the next day to warn him. Lala  Jagat Narain was assassinated that September. Jarnail Singh was arrested but released from jail after nearly a month: there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. Sondeep and I went back to Amritsar to meet him.

Follow the Leader: Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale with an audience atop the Guru Nanak Niwas in the Golden Temple Complex, Amritsar

Follow the Leader: Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale with an audience atop the Guru Nanak Niwas in the Golden Temple Complex, Amritsar

Jarnail Singh returned from jail a different man. He was feted like a hero in the Golden Temple. There were huge crowds hanging on to his every word. When I started taking notes during his speech, some of the women sitting next to me looked at me suspiciously. One of them even asked me if I was a government agent. Seeing me being threatened, Jarnail Singh and Amrik Singh told me to join them on the podium.

Jarnail Singh was now spending more time in the temple complex. I met him later that day for an interview at Guru Nanak Niwas. He was still scrawny but now looked me straight in the eye. There were rumours at the time that the Congress (I) Party had propped him up to divide the Akalis. The jail sojourn was probably a turning point in the trajectory of this activist-preacher: he seemed angrier, but more confident.

Bibi, tuhimennu Khomeini akhyasi(Ma’am, you are the one who called me Khomeini), was the first thing he said to me. In an article on the Khalistan movement in New Delhi, I had written: “Khalistan has its potential Ayatollah Khomeini: SantJarnail Singh” (published April 27–May 10, 1981). He seemed very pleased with the comparison. However, this time the niceties were missing. He had a mission which went beyond the Nirankaris.

Abiding Faith: Young students read scriptures at the Mehta Chowk headquarters of Damdami Taksal

Abiding Faith: Young students read scriptures at the Mehta Chowk headquarters of Damdami Taksal

The last trip Sondeep and I made to Punjab was to Rode in Faridkot district. It is the ancestral village of Jarnail Singh. We wanted to meet his family. The drive from Ludhiana to Rode was revealing, especially regarding the generosity and entrepreneurial flair of the Punjabis. Passersby were being offered lassi outside a home. Intrigued, we went into the house. Apparently, their cows were producing so much milk that they were churning tons of lassi in their washing machine! They had a separate one, the lady of the house assured us, for washing clothes.

The journey was uneventful, almost pastoral, until we approached Rode. We stopped to ask for directions to Jarnail Singh’s ancestral home. The man was old and bent-over, one of his eyes clouded with cataract. He glared at us, pointed ahead and said: “Ikgoli di maar. . .” (The distance a bullet travels…) Violence was just a blink away. Terror in the time of lassi.

Photographs By Sondeep Shankar


  1. Raj A Iype March 21, 2014 at 9:19 am - Reply

    Great article. Wonderful photographs. To think, Bhindranwale was such a force in the 80s. He had the country by the throat. Today, no-one remembers him. Even the Sikhs have moved on.

    • Deep June 6, 2014 at 3:32 am - Reply

      You are wrong. Sikhs still remember Sant Ji and always will.

    • Gill April 2, 2016 at 11:28 pm - Reply

      Raj A iype -u haven’t have that calibre to talk about 20th century great Sikh. .religious -warrior..
      ….who after 220yrs after Baba Deep Singh ji Shaheed came into Sikh political platform & shown to the world that Sikhs are Saint-Soldiers. .
      Sant Bhindrawale was Shaheed. .& 20th century greatest Sikh. ..
      Watch before u speak. .& journalist who wrote this article clearly seems biest. ..

    • Amandeep December 27, 2016 at 7:05 am - Reply

      Nirankaris had always slandered Sikh Gurus and Sikhs and they killed Sikhs.
      It was not a reformist sect. The writer is biased.
      Sikhs have never forgotten 1984 and will never forget it either.
      Damdami Taksal is not a sect. Bhindranwale is not a sect.
      All misinformation. Misleading journalism. Shame on Indian Govt for breaking the law and using tanks against civilians and attacking the holiest shrines of Sikhs and committing genocide of Sikhs.
      Fundamentalist were your Jagat Narain and Jan Sangh that left no stone unturned to cause hatred against Sikhs, insulted our religion and turned Hindus against Sikhs for their cheap communal propaganda.
      India showed its fascist face with betrayal and genocide of Sikhs.

    • Joginder Singh April 13, 2019 at 3:18 am - Reply

      Every Sikh remembers and respects Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale don’t you worry. Never Forget 84

    • Joginder Singh April 13, 2019 at 3:23 am - Reply

      The writer of the article is biassed and misinformed. Does she think it is right for a Punjabi to write their mother tongue as Hindi? Typical propaganda misinforming the readers.

  2. satish May 23, 2014 at 8:57 am - Reply

    Hope, I could write that. Very well written. For once while reading I went to that era. Quite interesting and sensitive but you managed it well. Every side has paid its price but peace is what is paramount. So lets be progressive in our approach in a single [email protected] humanity hails above all religion . You’ve got 1 more fan added. Keep up the superb work.

  3. Anonymous June 6, 2014 at 1:47 am - Reply

    Sikhs have moved on as Jews moved on from the Holocaust.
    And labelling people asking equal rights as hardliners is not new in India, neither was this betrayal by the government started not in 1980s or even 70s, but as soon as Sikhs decided to stay with India as a nation. Refer – Betrayal of the Sikhs by Sirdar Kapur Singh – Addressed to Indian Parliament, 6th September, I966

    This article by Madhu Jain is a one sided hegemony written by someone who did not bear the cross on her shoulder. I can debate many a things mentioned here with references of contemporaries but would abstain.

  4. Ghani Jafar October 1, 2014 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    This piece of writing has taken me back to Baisakhi of 1981: the day I joined the fledgling Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad. In hindsight, it seems providential that I was time and again asked to research and write on the then burning issue of the Sikh uprising in Indian Punjab; the consequence was the production of a book by me in 1987, “The Sikh Volcano”, published by Vanguard, Lahore, and then a pirated edition published in India.

  5. SUNIL October 9, 2014 at 5:03 pm - Reply

    A great article by Mrs Madhu Jain followed up with some rare photos from that Punjab grain basket of India timeline in the 1980s. A very violent, tension-ridden and exciting place to be in.

  6. RAMANDEEP SINGH May 23, 2015 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    Madhu Jain wrote the time when Sikh started to locate their individual identity post transfer of political power from Britishers to modern ruler of India.The smell of urgency of Sikhs to get freedom from this so called mock democracy has been penned thorough.

  7. kamakshi p. murti August 8, 2015 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    It’s a powerful testimony to the strength of purpose that disenfranchised groups show. Thank you, Madhu! I’ll never drink lassi again without thinking of your words!

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