Some thoughts on Mark Tully thesis on Bhindranwale

Prof Pritam Singh touches on key issues of Indian governance, including those related to Punjab and the Sikhs


By Pritam Singh | OPINION | 

I have been thinking of writing for quite some time a critique of what I call ‘Mark Tully Thesis on Bhindranwale’. This interview provided the opportunity to articulate that view.

Though the title of the interview suggests this subject and that title is partially justified, this interview (nearly one hour long) is wide-ranging and goes way beyond this limited, though important topic, and touches on many key issues of Indian governance especially (though not wholly) relating to Punjab and the Sikhs.

I touch upon Cabinet Mission (and the long drawn link between it and the Anandpur Sahib Resolution), Jinnah, partition, Nehru’s centralism, his flawed opposition to the Punjabi language and Punjabi speaking state, the weak secular foundations of the Indian republic, the continuity and difference between Indira Gandhi’s tilt towards Hindu majoritarianism in the 1980s for narrow electoral purposes and the RSS’s ideological project of shaping India into a Hindu nation, the peculiar placing of upper caste Punjabi Hindus in Punjab and India to explain the nature of politics among upper caste Punjabi Hindus, the need to understand the anxieties and fears (and thwarted political aspirations) of upper caste Punjabi Hindus, the need to understand the difference between urban based upper caste Punjabi Hindus and rural based Punjabi Hindus (who have contributed enormously to Punjabi literature from Dhani Ram Chatrik, Shiv Batalvai, I C Nanda, Balwant Gargi to Ram Saroop Ankhi), the lack of sophistication of Akali and Sikh politics in defending Punjab’s economic, political and cultural interests, many objectionable speeches of Bhindranwale and actions of Sikh militant organisations, Hindu communal bias of Indian media in reporting on Punjab which was not recognised by progressive intellectuals in India when I reported that for the first time in EPW in 1984 but now being gradually recognised in the reporting on issues relating to the Muslim community.

I also mention about how Khushwant Singh was the first among Indian opinion-makers (and I praise him for that) to appreciate my materialist and cultural explanation of the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale which was an implicit criticism of Mark Tully’s simplistic thesis of explaining Bhindranwale as a Congress agent to weaken Akali Dal (a thesis lazily copied by almost all journalistic and academic writings on Bhindranwale due to Tully being a known BBC journalist) but I also criticise Khushwant Singh for plagiarising my article (published in 1987) while revising volume 2 of his History of the Sikhs.

I make a sharp criticism of Vandana Shiva who plagiarised sections of my article in her book Violence of the Green Revolution.

I had analysed in my 1987 article ‘Two facets of religious revivalism’ in Gopal Singh (ed) Punjab Today that it is by understanding the impact of capitalist penetration in Punjab agriculture and rural society in ushering in culturally degenerative processes that one can understand the rise of religious revivalism (of which the rise of Bhindranwale was one part) as a reaction against this cultural degeneration.

I have objected to the editing of this interview of mine by deleting that part where I dealt with my view that Indira Gandhi was not anti-Sikh per se and to support that contention, I had referred to her gladly accepting her son Sanjay marrying a Sikh woman but that her decision to send the army into the Golden Temple was the most anti-Sikh decision any politician in post-1947 India had taken (The interviewer has apologised for this lapse).

I report a historically important conversation that late Prof Tapan Raychaudhuri once had with me and Prof Iftikhar Malik about Indira Gandhi’s decision and conversation with her advisor Arjan Sen Gupta and others regarding Operation Bluestar. I had first reported this conversation in one of the historical chapters of my book Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab Economy (2008, second edition 2018): ‘Tapan Raychaudhuri, a retired professor of Indian history at Oxford, told me and Iftikhar Malik, a South Asian studies scholar, in Oxford on January 18, 2003 that Arjun Sen Gupta, a close advisor of Mrs. Gandhi, told him (Raychaudhuri) that Indira Gandhi had talked to Sen Gupta and a group of other key advisors immediately after signing the order to send the army into the Golden Temple.

She is reported to have said, “By ordering the army into the Golden Temple, I have signed my death warrant because I know that religion is a very powerful force in moving Indian people to action.” It appears that though the electoral considerations of gaining Hindu vote by this action might have been a factor in her decision, the fact that she was aware of the risk to her life indicates that more powerful historical forces were at play in making her choose a path of military confrontation with the Sikhs. Perhaps, she saw herself as a historical victim of the confrontation between Indian nationalism and Sikh nationalism. It seems that she chose to act in the interests of asserting Indian nationalism as a historical necessity. It is debatable, however, whether the interests of Indian nationalism could have been better served by seeking a negotiated settlement with the moderate Akali Sikh leadership” (p181).

I conclude by suggesting an open-minded, self-critical and democratic dialogue between all sections of Punjabi society to come out of the continuing Punjab crisis which keeps on taking different forms at different points of time.

This article is extracted from the author’s personal jotting on his Facebook page

Prof Pritam Singh is a Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, UK. He is the author of ‘Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab Economy‘ (Routledge, London, 2008), Economy, Culture and Human Rights: Turbulence in Punjab, India and Beyond (Three Essays Collective, Delhi, 2010), Hindu Bias in Indian Constitution (Critical Quest, Delhi, 2017), Institutional Communalism in India (Critical Quest, Delhi, 2019) and co-editor with S Thandi of ‘Punjabi Identity in a Global Context‘ (Oxford University Press, 1999) and with M Pearl of ‘Equal Opportunities in the Curriculum‘ (Oxford Brookes University, 1999).



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