Back in vogue
A couple of weeks ago, on television there was dramatic footage of Sikhs rushing out of their holiest shrine, brandishing swords against each other in a violent confrontation. At first sight, it seemed straight out of a Sunny Deol film. Yet whatever might have been the reason for the violent clash, it gave Indians reasons to recall the tumultuous post-1984 era. Besides youths sporting T-shirts with Bhindranwale’s photo and shouting slogans of ‘Khalistan Zindbad’, many others were seen wearing clothes with inscriptions saying ‘We will not forget 1984.’ Bhindranwale was a militant leader who had holed up with his supporters and arms in Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1984 and fought a pitched battle from there with security forces, till he was killed.
So much so that all this led many to think that the Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale still exercises as much a thrall and runs in Punjab’s veins as he used to in the wake of Golden Temple crisis and Operation Blue Star.
And it is hardly far from truth. As far as present-day Punjab is concerned, Bhindranwale’s cult has not only not vanished but in fact has grown exponentially. His followers regard him as ‘Sant Ji’ (a saint) and proudly sport accessories and clothes bearing his photo. The craze for Bhindranwale can be checked both from the sales of his biography, as well as from songs, films, posters and other merchandise bearing his name. This craze is not just limited to Sikhs but extends to non-Sikhs as well. So, why do Punjabis find Bhindranwale relevant till date and what does he and 1980s have to do with today’s Punjab? Quite a lot. Firstly, Bhindranwale still cuts a heroic figure in the minds of many Sikhs. Radical Sikh singers like KS Makhan have sung songs in his praise, and his popularity as a reformer and warrior is not going to go away easily. Secondly, Punjab is once again facing many of the problems that gripped the state in the 1980s. Failed crops, poor revenue generation and faulty fiscal planning have derailed the state’s economy, with unemployment at an all-time high. Issues like drugs and alcoholism are coming back to haunt the state. Some think present scenario calls for another Bhindranwale episode.
‘Youths in Punjab’s villages and towns can be seen sporting bright yellow T-shirts, emblazoned with huge photos of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. And the paraphernalia is being openly sold in prominent markets in all major cities of Punjab,’ claimed Professor SS Sidhu, who teaches in Patiala. Fearing the return of the old problems, cops often seize T-shirts on which photograph of Bhindranwale, along with Khalistani slogans, are emblazoned, especially from Ludhiana, a hub of Sikh fashion merchandise. ‘Calendars, stickers, coffee mugs, key chains and T-shirts carrying Bhindranwale’s pictures are in huge circulation ever since Akal Takht declared him a ‘great martyr’ in 2003. His portrait has been installed in the Darbar Sahib museum by the SGPC,’ said Gurbachan Singh who runs a garment factory in Ludhiana.
On YouTube, a promotional video from Punjabi film Sada Haq has popular singer Jazzy B singing a song that controversially clubs Guru Gobind Singh and freedom fighter Bhagat Singh with militants like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Balwant Singh Rajoana. The song Baghi(rebel), like the film that was released last year, is reported to have glorified militants, but the producers said it simply talked about rebels and did not link or equate any of them.
‘Guru Gobind Singh Ji was a rebel at that time. If we talk about today’s rebels, yes Rajoana is a rebel. It’s a song by Jazzy B to promote the movie and we agree with him. We are saying the Sikh community has had rebels from the Guru’s time till the present,’ explained producer Kuljinder Sidhu in one of his interviews last year.
It must be said that Balwant Singh Rajoana is on death row at a Patiala jail for the 1995 assassination of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh. Sada Haq is based on a story about militancy in Punjab and has characters in it similar to Rajoana and other militants. The film was stuck with the censor board for some time; the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) had requested that it be cleared. On Youtube, the official video of the song, uploaded on 24 March last year, already has had more than two lakh views. Most comments on the video support the flavour of the song.
Besides, Punjabi cinema’s matinee idol Diljit Dosanjh is also coming up with a film – 1984 Punjab. It is reportedly based on the story of a boy who was forced to leave home during the fateful year in Punjab, and his own personal story and challenges in attempting to return home. Bollywood star Soha Ali Khan is also working on a film based on the riots which took place on 31 October 1984 in the national capital after the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own bodyguards. The film is being helmed by National Award winning Marathi director Shivaji Patil. It’s tentatively titled October 31. Being made in Hindi, its shoot will commence soon.