AMRITSAR, India -- A painful chapter in India’s history was reopened this week when a retired general who oversaw the storming in 1984 of the Sikh’s most revered site was stabbed in London in an alleged “revenge attack” by disgruntled Sikhs.
The story has made headlines in India since Sunday’s attack on Lt. Gen. Kuldeep Singh Brar, who directed the controversial Operation Blue Star storming of the Golden Temple. Brar, 78, who says he fought his attackers off using his military training, spent an hour in surgery after receiving cuts on his face and neck in the assault near a central London hotel. The injuries were not serious and he returned to Mumbai on Wednesday afternoon.
Although London police declined to speak about the attackers’ alleged ethnicity in line with department guidelines, Brar told Indian media he was the object of a “pure assassination” attempt motivated by revenge, while his wife Meena told India’s the Hindu newspaper her husband was “101% certain” the assailants were Sikhs. In an appeal for witnesses, Scotland Yard described the four assailants as having long beards, dark clothes and long black jackets.
So far there have been no arrests in the ongoing investigation.
Brar, himself a Sikh, oversaw the Indian army’s two-day assault starting June 5, 1984, after then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi directed the armed forces to remove well-armed militants from the Golden Temple complex in northern Punjab state. The fighters had been holed up there for months seeking an independent Sikh state known as Khalistan.
The firefight killed some 900 militants and civilians, according to government figures, although critics say the death toll was significantly higher. Eighty-three troops were also killed. The assault also badly damaged the temple.
The operation was widely seen as a military success but a political disaster. As Sikh resentment spread, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards a few months later. This sparked retaliatory riots that killed thousands of Sikhs, fueling a festering Punjab insurgency into the early 1990s.
Satish Jacob, who co-authored a book on the period entitled “Amritsar, Mrs. Gandhi's Last Battle,” said he’s not surprised by Sunday’s attack on Brar given the history of Sikh militancy. He points to a similar incident in 1940 in which retiree Michael O’Dwyer, 75, who had been lieutenant governor of the Punjab in 1919 during a massacre that killed 379 civilians, was assassinated in London by a Sikh revolutionary. “The guy stalked him for years,” he said.
An ex-journalist based in New Delhi who covered the 1984 army assault said Brar’s version of events contained in his 1993 book “Operation Blue Star: The True Story” may also have been a factor. “I’m not surprised the militants are still after him,” said the former journalist, who asked not to be identified given the continued sensitivity of the issue. “The book’s general tone, it was very provocative.”
The Sikh religion -- which believes that a single universal God looks over humanity and that different religions and sects are a man-made construct -- is rooted in the 15th century teachings of Guru Nanak Dev. It has about 27 million followers worldwide, most of whom live in Punjab. Members of the community are sometimes mistaken for Muslims. In early August, six Sikhs were killed at their temple in Oak Creek, Wis. Authorities say the assailant was a heavily tattooed U.S. Army veteran belonging to a white-power rock group who killed himself at the scene.
While most Sikhs have moved on from the violent struggle for Khalistan, misgivings over the 1984 assault on militants, who were led by seminary student turned militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, remain widespread. Mixed with this is a desire for greater Sikh understanding and recognition that might prevent incidents such as the Wisconsin tragedy.
Bumper stickers, CDs, books and posters in Punjab honor Bhindranwale, who died in the assualt, many lauding his leadership and calling for his return. Bhindranwale is the “new Che Guevara,” wrote political editor Hartosh Singh Bal in a recent issue of India’s Open magazine.
Every year, tens of thousands of Sikhs gather at the Golden Temple on the anniversary of the assault, and a controversial memorial for those who died that June evening is being erected there.
Most of those walking clockwise around the perimeter of the Golden Temple’s sacred pool in brutal midday heat on a recent weekday paid little attention to construction going on in a corner of the temple complex, as young men swam and families posed for pictures in front of the gleaming central building. Critics say the 400-square-foot Bluestar memorial, made of marble inlaid with semi-precious stones, could awaken old passions and incite violence.
“This is part of a political game,” said Sarabjit Singh, 26, director of a hotel in Amritsar, arguing that much of the financing and support comes from more hard-line Sikhs living overseas. “I don’t think it should be built.”
For Pankaj Mahajan, 46, a non-Sikh travel agent from Pathankot some 60 miles north of Amritsar, the monument is a bad idea given how easily communal sensitivities can fuel conflict in India. “What’s in the past should remain in the past,” he said. “Unemployment is widespread, murders are increasing, terrorism can be at your doorstep again.”
Members of the Golden Temple committee, however, say they don’t see any problem with the monument, which will only take up a small part of the temple.
“Differences of opinion are a healthy sign, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Dalbir Singh, secretary of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which oversees the Golden Temple. “And it’s not some huge building. The Sikh community is intelligent and educated; one memorial won’t incite them. The attack on Brar has no connection to this memorial.”
Most Punjabis have moved on and are more interested in getting a job in information technology than rallying for an independent state, said Jacob, the author. However, overseas Sikh communities are often more hard-line than those living in Punjab.
“There’s a lunatic fringe,” he said. “But the majority has forgotten about it, even as the culture remains alive.”
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Retired Lt. Gen. Kuldeep Singh Brar, center, is escorted by security personnel in Mumbai upon arriving from London on Wednesday after being stabbed and wounded Sunday in London, in what he claims was an assassination attempt. Credit: Rafiq Maqbool / Associated Press.