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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 27, June 22, 2013

Tribute: Satyapal Dang

Saturday 22 June 2013

On June 15, 2013 legendary Communist leader Satyapal Dang, an outstanding and extraordinary personality of impeccable personal and political integrity who served the cause of the downtrodden and oppressed with steadfast dedication and unflinching zeal, breathed his last at the age of 93. His wife, Vimla, who stood by her husband through thick and thin as a loyal comrade-in-arms and herself fought many a battle with the same devotion as ‘Satpal’, as Dang was known to all his friends and comrades, had predecedeased him on May 10, 2009. Precisely four years later, Satpal, who had desired to depart with her, followed his beloved life-partner. The couple had decided not to have a child as they did not want to divert their attention from people’s struggles. Such selfless Communists, of the P. Sundarayya-Godavari Parulekar-Sohan Singh Josh-Gangadhar Adhikari-Negi Reddy-Bhupesh Gupta-Bhowani Sen-Somnath Lahiri-Biswanath Mukherjee-Benoy Chowdhury-S.G. Sardesai-Tridib Chowdhuri-Subodh Banerjee mould, are indeed rare in today’s world where neo-liberal values of selfish personal acquisition have come to dominate the political scene. Among the surviving Communists only former Kerala CM V.S. Achuthanandan belongs to Dang’s category. And the sole Congressman close to Dang’s Gandhian lifestyle is the present Defence Minister, A.K. Antony.

Satpal was born in 1920 in Lahore; his wife too was born in that city six years later. After marrying Vimla (both were in the students’ movement), Satpal decided to base their political activities in the working class locality of Chheharta in Amritsar. One had visited them in 1965 soon after the Indo-Pak war and was witness to the Dangs’ tireless work in helping the jawans while mobilising the people for the war effort behind the battle-line.

Satpal defeated Punjab CM Gurmukh Singh Musafir, a veteran Congress leader, in the 1967 general elections in the Amritsar West Constituency when an anti-Congress wave was sweeping the country. He became the State’s Food Minister in the non-Congress government set up after dislodging the Congress from power. But even as a Minister he did not opt for a bungalow and operated from the MLAs’ Hostel. He proved to be an able administrator who never got polluted by bourgeois parliamentarism while in power (a la his CPI colleagues C. Achutha Menon, Somnath Lahiri, Biswanath Mukherjee in Kerala and West Bengal). And he stood out because of his wide acceptability—his admirers could be found in all political parties including the BJP-RSS.

Both Satpal and Vimla worked for communal amity in Punjab during partition. But it was in the eighties that they really shot into national prominence by fearlessly striving for the same cause and defending national unity under secessionist threat springing from the Khalistani upsurge in Punjab. When Sumit Singh, editor of the famous journal Preet Lari, was murdered by the militants, Satpal promptly organised funds to ensure the journal’s survival.

Satpal was a close friend of N.C. and used to write frequently in Mainstream like S.G. Sardesai and Mohit Sen. That was before he was afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease. As a token of our heartfelt tribute to his abiding memory we are reproducing the piece he sent for publication in this journal after ‘Operation Bluestar’ in Amritsar’s Golden Temple in June 1984 that tragically sealed the fate of Indira Gandhi. S.C.

Eyewitness at Amritsar

Now to Heal Punjab’s Wounds

Satyapal Dang

How have the people in Amritsar reacted to the recent developments of June 1984—developments which have had repercussions not only in India but in many parts of the world too? What is the situation now? And what tasks face the Left, democratic and patriotic forces?

Comprehensive answers to these questions will be possible only some time after commu-nications, etc. have been restored. Even then, it is necessary to try to answer these questions to whatever extent is possible just now.

After the premises in which the Golden Temple is situated had been surrounded by the Army units deputed for the purpose, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale called upon his killer gangs to implement his standing instructions which were known to have been to indulge in mass massacre of Hindus. Some newspapers reported this directive of his.

It is already known that attempts to implement this directive were made at a number of places. In Chheharta (Amritsar) some members of the killer gangs entered the area about 5.30 pm. This became known to many including the police. And yet they were able to shoot down/murder as many as seven persons some hours after their entry.

On June 4 morning, two banks, a number of factories and about 32 shops were burnt down by a crowd of 50 to 150. It had started from a Gurdwara. What was intended to be done was proclaimed from a loudspeaker. Here too the police did hardly anything to prevent the mischief.

Two young girls belonging to the same family in village Muradapur near Tarn Taran were murdered during June 3-4 night. Their mother and brothers were injured.

A few other reports of this type are already there. But it is already clear that by and large Bhindranwale’s followers did not succeed in putting into practice the instructions given to them. Nor is this all.

As many as nine persons have been killed by extremists in the Chheharta area of Amritsar in three operations. In no part of Chheharta has there been any act or any attempt at any act that may smell of “retaliation” or “revenge”.

In Kittias all the shops that were burnt down belonged to Hindus. If the building belonged to a Sikh, things were taken out and burnt. In other cases buildings themselves were set on fire. In quite a few cases neighbouring Sikhs saved as much goods of their Hindu brothers as they could. One of the shops burnt down completely, belonged to Boota Ram. (He had been a special target of the extremists. On an earlier occasion an attempt was made to set fire to his shop. An attempt on his life had also been made. On June 3, 1984 evening, his son was fired upon but had a lucky escape.) Two shops of a nephew of Boota Ram were also burnt. The shop of his two brothers was also set on fire. Some of those who had done this, had looted some of the goods from this shop and were taking them to their houses. Some elderly Sikhs met them on the way. They asked them how they got the goods they had. When they learnt the truth, they look them to task and made them deposit all the goods in a Gurdwara. The same were later returned to the owner.

As already stated, the police were not to be seen. Curfew had already been imposed. To scare away those who were indulging in arson, some persons having licensed arms fired shots from their houses. They were Sikhs.

There is no doubt that as days pass we will know not only about what extremists may have done but also and much more about the good sense of the common people—Hindus as well as Sikhs.

Left with no other choice, the Armymen entered the premises of the Golden Temple on June 5. They had no idea about the type of the situation they had to face, and the first to enter suffered large casualties. It does much credit to the Army that no damage at all has been done to the Golden Temple proper. A part of the Akal Takht not doubt has been damaged but the responsibility for that must be borne by Bhindranwale. Considerable damage has been done in some of adjoining shopping and residential centres.

While Punjab was cut off from the rest of India, Amritsar was cut off completely for a number of days. Telephone services have been restored only two days ago. For about a week, there was no relaxation at all in curfew. Thanks to false and exaggerated reports given by Pakistan Radio and TV, many false rumours were afloat. One such false report repeated by Pakistan Radio and TV more than once was that a Communist leader (no name was given) of Amritsar had been shot dead. The Pakistan mass media did all it could to widen the gulf between Hindus and Sikhs, though this was not done in a very crude manner. Extremists were invariably referred to as Sikhs.

The unscrupulous amongst the traders minted a lot of money. Sugar was sold in many areas at Rs 8 per kilo. So also milk. And these are not the only examples.

Attempts were made to collect crowds of Sikhs to send them to the Golden Temple to fight/protest against the Army which was alleged to have attacked the Sikh religion itself by entering the Golden Temple. Efforts were also made to spread the false rumour that the Golden Temple had been badly damaged.

These attempts did succeed in a number of places but generally the crowds that marched were small. In a number of places, the attempts failed altogether. There have been instances in which the crowds went back after they were satisfied by the Army authorities that no damage whatsoever had been done to the Golden Temple. At least in one case, two representatives of the crowds were flown over the Golden Temple in a helicopter. They then went back to the crowd and reported the truth. The crowd dispersed.

Reports already coming in show that invariably Mazhbi Sikhs (agricultural labourers) as a whole refused to join these crowds or to listen to the extremists and their supporters. There are already confirmed reports from some villages to the following effect. The extremists or their hot-headed supporters said: “Not only Hindus but Mazhbi Sikhs too must be killed.” The latter as a section/class were ready for the confrontation, if it came to that. Fortunately, there is no report (so far at least) of any such confrontation having actually taken place.

The writer of this article happened to be staying with a friend in the interior of Amritsar City when for more than a week curfew was imposed with no relaxation.

This friend had in his house a boy of 13-14 years to help in household chores. After the TV had announced the death of Bhindranwale, the helper was asked by the master of the house: “Do you still insist on returning to your family in UP?” He replied: “No, since Bindranwale is dead.” I learnt that he had been terribly afraid that he might be killed and therefore had wanted to go back to his family.

We were seeing on Doordarshan, Gurbani being recited in the Golden Temple (after the operation). My friend’s son, 14-15 years old, asked: “Why have these not been killed?” His father said: “They are not extremists. They are Sikh priests.” The boy replied: “I know all Sikhs are not extremists. But the ones on TV just have ‘Peela Patkas’ (yellow cloth over the head).” He of course did not consider every Sikh to be an extremist but he had come to regard every Sikh with yellow headgear as an extremist.

In Chheharta, two or three days after the operation was over, one Sikh said to another: “Thank God, Bhindranwale is no more.” The other Sikh angrily shot back: “You are saying this even though you are a Sikh!” The first said: “In my opinon Bhindranwale was not a genuine Sikh, much less a saint.”

These instances to a considerable extent reflect the reality.

The big majority of Sikhs are bitter and angry. In the villages not a few go to the extent of arguing that the propaganda being done by the TV about the Golden Temple having been turned into an arsenal is all false. Some seek to justify the storing of arms in this holiest of holy shrines. At the same time there is the other opinon too. In a village, one elderly Sikh was heard telling a group of about 50 Sikhs: “We are sorry and pained at the entry of the Army in Darbar Sahib. But why did the Akali leaders allow Bhindranwale to convert Darbar Sahib into a cantonment? And if Bhindranwale had been really sincere about the sacredness of the Golden Temple, why did he not go out with his armed men to fight the Army outside its premises?”

In the group listening to him, there were some active Akalis too. No one answered him.

Majority of the Hindus were obviously happy when it was announced that the body of Bhindranwale had been found. Many would have liked to celebrate the news. The sober section had a different opinion. They would say: “It is a sad thing that the Army had to enter Darbar Sahib. Not only Sikhs but we too are pained. Nothing must be said or done that will hurt the sentiments of our Sikh brothers.”

Activists of the All-India Sikh Students’ Federation have been heard saying: “We will show when the curfew is no more and when the Army has been called back.” They are propagating the myth that Bhindranwale is not dead and will reappear at some appropriate time.

Some hot-headed Hindu youngmen bitten by the bug of communalism have been heard taunting Sikhs: “What has happened so far is nothing. A real good lesson will be taught in the days to come.” Of course, such elements are not many and they are often made to shut up by other Hindus.

It is clear that Punjab is not yet out of the woods. For all patriotic forces there are immediate jobs to be done and there are long-term tasks:

(a) All-out efforts must be made to maintain Hindu-Sikh unity. Communalism of either hue must be given no quarter. The gulf created between Hindus and Sikhs must be bridged.

(b) Such innocent persons as have suffered heavily must be rehabilitated.

(c) As soon as possible, new initiatives must be taken to settle what is known as the Punjab Problem, that is, dispute about river waters, Chandigarh, etc.

For a long time to come, an extensive as well as intensive political and ideological struggle has to be waged not only against the imperialist-backed separatism but also against Sikh as well as Hindu communalism.

As far as the Sikh are concerned, a massive campaign will have to be run to expose and repudiate many wrong theses that have been widely propagated from various Gurdwaras including the Golden Temple. For instance (a) “Sikhs in India are slaves/second-class citizens and are discriminated against.” (b) The Sikh religion and Sikhs can prosper only if Sikhs have a homeland of their own. (c) Sikhs are a separate nation. (d) The Akali party is the sole representative of the Sikhs. (e) For Sikhs, religion and politics must go together. (f) Sikhs must have a separate and independent political identity of their own. (g) The Constitution of India lays down that Sikhs are a part of Hindu religion and thus denies the fact that Sikhism is a separate religion.

While wrong and false propaganda must be exposed, it must be done in a convincing manner. Steps must also be taken to remove genuine apprehensions, doubts and complaints.

Strong public opinion in general and Sikh public opinion in particular has to be created that no arms must be allowed inside places of religious worship. Steps have to be discussed to ensure that what happened in and from the Golden Temple during the recent past does not happen again, either there or in any other place of worship.

In the field of administration, appropriate lessons must be drawn from the now freely admitted facts, for example, the colossal failure of intelligence and almost complete paralysis of the administration in Punjab. There needs to be a thorough overhaul of the administration in the border State, especially of the police administration.

If the above tasks are to be performed successfully, many lessons from the past are to be drawn.

First and foremost, the Congress-I leadership as well as the moderates among the Akali leaders must learn never to encourage, shelter and/or support separatist extremists for narrow party or factional considerations.

Second, the Congress-I leadership must understand that most of the Congress-I activists and even leaders of today have no deep commitment to secularism. At least in Punjab, at the time of any crisis they become only Hindus or only Sikhs. It would be no exaggeration to say that in some places at least Hindu Congress-men played a role worse than the BJP while many Sikh Congressmen were no better than the Akalis.

It needs also to be pointed out that many Congress leaders just disappeared from the scene to avoid risking their own lives. They have not yet re-emerged from their places of safety in Delhi or elsewhere.

Third, all bourgeois national parties must learn to place national integration above their electoral interests and calculations.

As far as the Left is concerned, it did whatever it could according to its capacity. At the same time certain weaknesses need to be noted. Perhaps the Left could and should have launched ideological and political propaganda on a bigger scale than it did. It should have done much more than it did to mobilise Sikh public opinion in particular, in and outside Punjab.

It needs also to be examined if all segments of the Left were completely free from electoral considerations.

It needs to be examined if the Left was fully ready to physically face the type of situation that developed in Punjab.

Whatever the weaknesses, the Left can be proud of the role it has played so far. In Amritsar, for instance, even the class enemies of the working class concede that Communists alone stood up to the extremists and refused to quit the field. The CPI is the main Left force in Amritsar. The CPI-M acted jointly with it.

Last but not the least, Doordarshan and AIR, Jalandhar, have been doing a good job for communal peace and harmony and they deserve to be praised on that account. But they have as yet hardly run an ideological and political campaign of the type indicated above. And that is needed not only in Punjab.

(Mainstream, June 14, 1984)

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