Identity and Survival- Sikh Militancy in India 1978 - 1993
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Identity and Survival- Sikh Militancy in India 1978 - 1993

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Item Code: NBZ967
Author: Kirpal Dhillon
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2006
ISBN: 9780143100362
Pages: 394
Other Details 8.00 X 5.00 inches
Weight 320 gm

Before my name was finally cleared by the Union home ministry for posting to the Punjab as director general of police in June 1984, I appeared twice before Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for what were termed as briefing sessions. I had already met her security adviser and other senior functionaries in the government, mostly for advice-but also for a subtle kind of vetting of my credentials for the top job in the troubled state.

I was visibly ill at ease when ushered into her presence, although the prime minister was at her gracious best. After a few preliminary remarks, she asked me about my previous postings and why I thought I would be able to competently handle the grave situation then developing in Punjab. After describing as best as I could how I perceived the situation, I asked her how the government expected me to discharge my duties in the border state.

By the time the meeting ended, it seemed to me that the PM was fairly satisfied with its outcome. Then, she smilingly remarked, 'But people tell me you are a very decent man.' The expression she used in Hindi was `Lekin log kehte hain ki aap bahut sharif hain.' As if sharafat, or decency, was hardly the best of virtues for a police chief in the kind of situation then obtaining in the country in general-and Punjab in particular!

The PM's remark just about summed up what the establishment thought of enlightened policing practices. Most educated police officers are generally regarded as misfits in the Indian police. The upshot is that under the sheer weight of popular perceptions, officers laboriously shake off their reputations as refined and compassionate human beings so as to pass muster as pragmatic and tough police leaders. Archaic concepts of control and superintendence frustrate any well-meaning attempt to correct many systemic aberrations.

As a class, policemen are believed to look at aggressive behaviour as a symptom of criminality and malfeasance. In fact, a successful career is largely contingent upon shedding all commitment to human rights and democratic imperatives. A police recruit must first thoroughly and consciously dehumanize and desensitize him/herself. It follows that a refined sensibility, compassion and empathy have no role to play. Living and working in a sordid environment, cheek-by-jowl with the dregs of society, a neophyte policeman tends to soon lose his faculty to distinguish between a habitual criminal and a hapless victim of social injustice who is impelled by circumstances to overstep the boundaries of law in order to impel the authorities to take note of his grievances, real or perceived.

Then, in post-colonial societies of Asia and Africa, the police are still largely governed by colonial enactments and attitudes, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. All over South Asia, governments swear by what is called hard policing, in which police organisations and personnel are thoroughly conditioned to divest themselves of all humane and civilised concerns for the suspects and victims of crime.

The point that I am trying to make is that the persistent refusal of the Indian political and bureaucratic classes to take note of the enormous changes taking place all over the world in the art and science of law enforcement has led to grave distortions in the handling of crime and criminals by the police. Not only has police performance in day-to-day crime-control tasks plunged to abysmal levels, the Indian police has also proved hopelessly inept in coping with the expanding span of extremist violence and insurrectionary movements. Policing policies and processes that still reflect mid-nineteenth century values and attitudes, as embodied in the Indian Police Act of 1861, breed a culture of law enforcement grossly at odds with present-day social prerequisites.

Moreover, militancy and extremist violence are not purely a law and order problems, which can be contained merely by the use of deadly weaponry. Sikh militancy in Punjab continued to be treated as a mere law and order problem even though it showed all the characteristics of a political movement. Later, when Rajiv Gandhi did open a dialogue with moderate Sikh leader Sant Harchand Singh Longowal (president of the Akali Dal), it failed to carry conviction, because by then a sense of anger and resentment had seized the Sikhs. Whether an honest political approach at the outset and positive and constructive policing in the post-1986 phase of acute militant activity would have saved the situation remains wide open for history to assess.


The decade-and-a-half of militancy in the sensitive border state of Punjab posed the gravest threat to India's stability since independence. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that much ink has been spilt in analysing its causes and to a lesser extent its ending. Explanations for the emergence of violence in the Punjab variously focus on Sikh ethno-nationalism, the cultural and economic impacts of the green revolution, the 'hidden hand' of external intervention and the crisis in Centre-state relations, arising from Indira Gandhi's de-institutionalisation of the Congress. I ess academic attention has been devoted to the return of the province to 'normalcy' in the mid-1990s. It has been conceptualised by Gurharpal Singh in terms of the state's re-establishment of hegemonic control from overt control. Such writers as Joyce Pettigrew and Shinder Thandi have pointed to the factionalism of the militants, the increasing success of the state's counter-insurgency techniques of criminalisation and infiltration of their ranks, along with the weariness of the rural population, who were victims of both militant and police violence.

Participants in the counter-insurgency have produced a number of memoirs. The works of D.P. Sharma, Lt-General K.S. Brar and K.P.S. Gill are especially well known in this respect. This volume by Kirpal Dhillon, who took over as director general of Punjab police in July 1984, adds to this growing literature. In terms of its critical awareness and forthright approach, however, it differs markedly from the aforementioned works. Brar blandly endorses the Government of India's White Paper on the Punjab. Agitation on the army action in the Golden Temple. Gill and Sharma similarly blame the crisis on ‘anti-national' forces. The former talks of the 'doctrines of deceit' of the Sikh 'leaders of faith' paving the way for terrorists to occupy centrestage in the politics of the Punjab. There is little sense of history in these accounts. What is even more lacking is critical analysis of the role of the state and the political culture of Punjab. It is precisely these elements that inform and add value to Kirpal Dhillon's approach. He, for example, incisively demolishes the case for the fateful army action on 3 June 1984. The result is a more academically rigorous and intellectually honest account of this traumatic period in the Punjab's history. All that the work shares in common with the other memoirs is perhaps understandable reluctance by its author to delve deeply into the personal role that he played in the drama. The reader is merely provided with tantalising glimpses. Such glimpses are accompanied by acute and sometimes tart reflections on others of the leading dramatis personae. In particular, through personal observation, Dhillon reveals Zail Singh's troubled state of mind in the wake of Operation Blue Star.

Dhillon's historical analysis of the onset of the crisis perceptively points to the partition trauma for the Sikh community. He also shares the view of such academics as Cynthia Keppley Mahmood that an important source of Sikh militancy was the fear of absorption into an increasingly dominant Hindu culture. Paul Wallace links such anxieties with the economic and demographic transformations arising from the Green Revolution. Dhillon also draws into his historical analysis the heightened community expectations arising from the colonial period. Perhaps all that is missing from the impressive argument in the opening chapter is the experience of settlement in the canal colonies of the future Pakistan state and the differences in outlook at the end of empire, arising from these settlers and political elites in the Sikh heartland of central Punjab.


Non-partisan and conscientiously researched contemporary histories of the insurgent movement occur infrequently in India. Access to reliable information of critical events of organized political violence poses massive difficulties that subsequently pale into insignificance when one tries to make 'sense' (both in logical and passional languages) of insurgency and 'counter-insurgency' operations. How may a historian relate the somewhat easily understandable current triggers for state and insurgent violence to wider narratives of its causes and histories? How may any history-writing proceed conscientiously to read the deep structures of insurgent action, in terms of its original intention/ purpose? How may the craft of history provide the best possible narrative of the radically heterogeneous character of the insurgent movement lived within the everyday labours of insurgency and the material labours of governance aimed at its repression? Rebel solidarity, as Ranajit Guha educates us, necessarily remains fractured by violence-within (that is annihilating violence directed at its own cadres, animated by suspicions of disloyalty and betrayal of this intention) and violence-without (that is annihilating violence directed to state actors and bystander civilians). How may a historian of insurgency decode the logics of this violence? Further, how may 'we' ever further fully speak, in this context, to the subordination or even disarticulation, of women's feminist presence, voice, and participation in some canonical narratives of insurgency and counter-insurgency? These and related questions invite attention to areas of immense perplexity, which no reductive reading may ever fully explain. Such readings remain rife with propagandist truths, bedeviling further, in complex ways, the tasks of a historian of insurgency.

We ought to note some commonalities or homologies among the statist and insurgent discourse. If the statist discourse renders it awesomely easy to describe insurgent actors as the enemies of the 'nation' and 'people' and to castigate them as outlaws, the insurgent discourse likewise, and with some coequal order of cruel felicity, fully and fiercely returns the same compliment to state managers and agents. If the statist discourse develops various regimes of bio-political (encounter killings/custodial torture and tyranny) power directed to annihilate insurgent actors, the insurgent discourse as well reproduces new technologies of mass violence. Each seeks to disrupt and destroy the other's justificatory languages. Insurgent actors seek to represent the rule of law talk as masking so many regimes of terror. In turn, state managers and agents resolutely signify insurgent action as the practice of collective political violence for its own sake, divested of any redemptive political cosmology. In both these processes, violence of `pure means', the 'Divine violence', as Walter Benjamin so unerringly named this, presides over the varied regimes of insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. At stake, then, remain practices, on both sides, of destruction of what Pierre Bordieu famously names as 'symbolic capital'.

Further, if state-sponsored reductive readings extravagantly forfeit the potential of understanding insurgent violence as carrying messages for some amelioration of the rottenness (as Benjamin describes this) at the very core of constitutionally presented ways of practising `representational'/’deliberative' politics, pro-insurgency reductive readings gloss over the irrationality and the horror of some of its own practices of mass violence and even 'terror'. They choose to follow the notion propounded by Shaheed Bhagat Singh in his little-read tract A Philosophy of the Bomb, which described `terror' as 'propaganda by deed'. However, Bhagat Singh did not celebrate any total erasure of the distinction between political targets and civilian populations.

In contrast, non-reductive modes of reading both insurgent and state violence seek to understand the pathologies of extreme violence on both side. Such readings thus further invite some agonizing attention to the place and character of violence in doing 'politics'. Insurgency, at least partially, thrives parasitically. on the quotidian violence of the state and law, which in turn it aggravates. If the rebel thus seeks to castigate governance as itself criminalized, and the state as a manifest order of class-based violence, thus extricating her from the 'placenta of common crime, the state and its law seek to restore the pre-natal condition by representing the insurgents as dangerous criminals. Not so curiously, then, state power seems almost to require states of permanent insurrection for the reproduction of legitimate governance credentials. In a deep inversion, then, insurgent violence stands appropriated as business as usual. Both forms of public, total, and destructive violence seem to reproduce themselves (in the words of William Blake) a 'fearful symmetry'. Both combine to produce a 'pathological nation'. Reading insurgency then, I suggest, remains at least as arduous as reading the state and its law.

Kirpal Dhillon's narrative here invites us to a close and agonized attention to these concerns by a scrupulously detailed account of Sikh 'militancy'. He deserves our profound readerly gratitude for re-situating these concerns.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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