Gurpreet Singh: Remembering a Sikh Gandhi—Harchand Singh Longowal
Very few people in the West would be familiar with name of Harchand Singh Longowal, a liberal Sikh saint who was killed by the supporters of Khalistan—the imaginary theocratic Sikh homeland in northwest India.
Today (August 20) is the 25th anniversary of his assassination, which triggered the decline of the Khalistan movement and alienated moderate Sikhs from separatists in Punjab, India.
Longowal, known as a Sikh Gandhi, was the moderate face of the passive resistance movement that was launched by the Akali Dal, a regional political party in Punjab.
In 1982, the Akali Dal started peaceful agitation under the leadership of Longowal seeking special rights for Sikhs and the state of Punjab.
The Akali Dal volunteers courted arrests. Their simple religious demands included "sacred city" status for Amritsar, which houses the Golden Temple (the holiest shrine of the Sikhs), renaming of a train after the Golden Temple, and allowing baptized Sikhs to carry their swords on airplanes,This was in addition to their goals of political autonomy and fair distribution of the river waters under riparian laws.
Many Canadian Sikhs supported the movement, and in 1979, Longowal visited Vancouver and stayed with his local supporters.
However, the Indian government led by the Congress Party not only ignored their demands but was also accused of allowing a parallel extremist force to grow so as to weaken the Akali Dal.
As a result, the radical movement led by a fiery Sikh preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, became more popular than Longowal.
Subsequently, the Akali Dal agitation was hijacked by Bhindranwale and his men, who believed in violence and who turned the Golden Temple complex into an fortress.
The Akali Dal, being a religion-based party, was caught in a dilemma and let the radicals use the shrine's precincts to carry out their armed resistance. This evolved into a struggle for Khalistan.
A section within the Akali Dal leadership allowed Bhindranwale to shift his base inside the shrine.
Following a spate of murders in Punjab, the Indian government then ordered the army to attack the Golden Temple complex in June 1984.
The infamous Operation Blue Star, launched by the army, left close to 500 people dead, including 83 soldiers.
However, unofficial sources estimate that more people died, and the massive destruction inside the temple infuriated Sikhs worldwide.
There were angry protests in Vancouver, where the Indian consulate was vandalized by young, hot-headed Sikhs.
Longowal was arrested, and Bhindranwale died in the army operation.
The same year in New Delhi, then-Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards.
That was followed by the murder of thousands of innocent Sikhs across the country by mobs led by Gandhi’s Congress Party.
The ugly events of 1984 culminated in the Air India bombing off the Irish coast in 1985, which was blamed on Sikh militants.
After Gandhi's son Rajiv became prime minister, he tried to buy peace with the Sikh leadership.
Longowal was released and invited to negotiate. An accord was signed between him and Rajiv Gandhi, raising hopes of permanent peace in Punjab.
But these hopes were short-lived. The militants rejected the accord as a complete betrayal. Meanwhile, the Congress Party lacked will to implement it, and a section of the Akali Dal was also displeased.
And on August 20, 1985, Longowal was assassinated inside a Sikh temple in Punjab while explaining the necessity of the peace accord in the larger interest of the country and the people of his state.
One of the militants believed to be involved in the conspiracy is now in British Columbia.
Since the murder took place in a Sikh temple, moderate Sikhs turned against the militants and their cause.
The assembly election following Longowal’s murder saw the Akali Dal win a landslide victory, a clear sign of Sikh voters' rejection of extremism.
But the militancy did not end. Continued violence forced the Indian government to dismiss the state government.
Even though extremism in Punjab petered out in early 1990s, the Punjab accord, which was the legacy of Longowal, has not been implemented.
Both the Congress Party and the Akali Dal lacked the will to meet the conditions of the accord.
Their political opportunism not only isolated Longowal, but also strengthened the separatists, who have always accused the Indian government of mistreating Sikhs.
The political establishment of India should, rather, have strengthened the hands of Longowal instead of letting him down and muzzling the voice of moderation.
It’s the people of Punjab, who rejected terrorism and violence.
Had the peace accord been implemented, the situation in Punjab may have normalized long ago, and perhaps Canada may not have suffered the aftershocks.