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A dangerous nostalgia

Thirty years ago, the Indian army was in the midst of its assault on the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, the holiest shrine for Sikhs, who constitute India’s fourth-largest religion. Operation Bluestar had been assented to by Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, on the assumption that there was no other way to dislodge Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his band of fundamentalist separatists from the temple complex. It succeeded in that aim, if at great human cost – much of it caused by bad planning. The army’s leaders failed to foresee the level of resistance the militants would put up, and the degree to which the terrain of the temple complex could be turned against the regular troops; and the government had failed to take into account the fact that Operation Bluestar was launched on the anniversary of the martyrdom of the Sikh guru who had built the Golden Temple, and that the complex was thus crowded with innocent pilgrims. Eventually, even though the operation was a tactical success, with most of the militants led by Bhindranwale dead in the fighting, its strategic impact is less positive. It polarised many in Punjab, and, of course, led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi a few months later.

What is particularly unfortunate is that Operation Bluestar has not been allowed to fade quietly into history. Even as the rest of India has chosen to largely forget both the operation and the riots that followed Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, in Punjab the military assault on the Golden Temple in 1984 remains an open wound. In the Golden Temple complex, a memorial to Bluestar was recently installed which, some worry, glorifies the insurgents. The reasons for this revival in Bhindranwale nostalgia are manifold – but are mainly to do with the failure of mainstream politics. In the years since militancy in Punjab ended in the early 1990s, the state has grown richer. However, the appreciation of assets such as land has not been matched by an equivalent growth in the skills of the state’s young people, or in job opportunities. This has led to widespread youth discontent. The cross-border drugs trade has flourished so alarmingly in this atmosphere that it has led to persistent rumours that some in the government in Chandigarh are involved in it; whatever the truth of these rumours, they have undermined trust in the state.

The credibility of the state government, led by the Shiromani Akali Dal in a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party, has thus taken a hit. It is also widely known that the family of the venerable chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal, has been extremely fortunate in its business dealings during Mr Badal’s tenure. A recent investigative series by Devinder Pal of The Tribune indicates that the Badal families, and its related clans – the Majithias and the Kairons, the latter descendants of Punjab’s first chief minister – have done well not just in their traditional transport business, which has grown even as Punjab’s struggling state transport company has abandoned various lucrative routes. The state’s ruling families have also benefited from the power industry, among others.

The anger among Punjab’s young people should not be underestimated. The photogenic Bhindrawale is now on T-shirts and on walls; the Aam Aadmi Party won four seats in Punjab among accusations its campaign was soft on such nostalgia. Unless the state’s main parties recover people’s faith, this dangerous nostalgia can grow stronger.

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