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.

Comments (12) Add New Comment
sukhpal singh
Mr Gurpreet Singh,

You article is very poorly written. It seems like an essay from a sixth grader trying to explain recent Sikh history. Here are a few pointers if you decide to write again.

1. "Khalistan—the imaginary theocratic Sikh homeland in northwest India." It is in poor taste to add the adjective "imaginary" to that statement. First, it explains your position and the reader loses interest because the article will not be objective.
2. Do we really need to compare great sikhs to Gandhi? Perhaps take time to read “A cross examination of Gandhi". It is a different viewpoint of Gandhi.
3. You do know the Congress didn’t completely ignore the Sikhs demands. Part of the issue has been the demands kept changing. Look at interviews of Indra after the meeting in 70’s and 80’s.
4. You completely simplify the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, as plot of congress to weaken the Akali movement. It took 40 years for someone like Bhindrawale to step forward. This is a time when Punjab police stepped up in abuse cases and the creed they still live by. Sikhs were being killed or humiliated in the jails during the morcha and there was no justice. The lack of that checks and balance in rule of law is what rose Bhindrawale. You do not get public support otherwise.
5. Bhindrawale methods were all defensive and reactive much like a lot of great Sikhs including the Gurus. He feel in the trap on some of them for the government to justify the attack. You also seem to forgot how the Indian army practiced attacking Harminder Sahib 1 year before the attack and why they attacked other places at the same time.

In conclusion, please do not over-simplify sikh history. We have bled too much for this type of foolish.
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Aman
This is the most simplistic,one sided and ignorant article on one of the most important and saddest chapters in indian history. How u have managed to sum up the killing of thousands of innocent men, women and children in broad daylight on the streets of delhi in one sentence makes me think the congress is paying your wages.

The fact you state there was wide spread support for Bhindranwale but fail to ellaborate on why that support was so passionate and unshakable while labelling him a terrorist makes me think you wrote this article while running to hand it in 5 mins before it's deadline. Heres the facts buddy.

1. Till this day the indian government cannot justify or explain the records which state that thousands of young men were cremated secretly without prosecution or trial.

2. a "spate of murders" is the reason you give for the Indian government to invade the holiest sikh shrine is like saying a complete invasion and destruction of the vatican is justified because of a few murders.

3. It is a well known fact that punjab in the mid 80's and even now is overflowing with cheaps drugs and alchool which the government is doing nothing about instead they support it through accepting corruption of officials in place to control it. Bhindranwale was the only outspoken individual of this diesease and had amazing results getting young youth of drugs in rural villages. Might be the reason why the Indian Government labelled him a "terrorist" without him ever being convicted of any terrorist activity.
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Namrita Kaur , New Delhi
Longewal known as another GandHi? PlEASE.

Sikhs were always opposed Mahatma Gandhi and especially even more when he split the original Sikh Homeland Pakistan. Sikhism founder was born in Pakistan. Several Sikh Gurus were born and executed there, and some of the most historical events in Sikh history in Pakistan. Even today Gandhi is considered a "clown" in Punjab Cities,Villages and towns. So why the comparison.

AND EVEN before 1984 Sikhs were treated like 3rd class citizens of India. Sikhs were harrased, beaten and killed.

In the Indian Freedom Movement from ENGLAND

90% of Indians who were killed,imprisoned for life,executed, sent to other countries (exiled) for arrest were SIKH. And they only made 1.5% of the poplulation at the time.

For all their courage and hard work (punjab always most prosperus region in southeast asia) the Imperial Hindu Indian Goverment gave them the gift of destroying their most sacred temples to rubble. killing 250 000 sikhs in 10 years. Calling them HIndus in the Indian constition saying all Sikhs are hindus.

Major differences. Sikhs one God. Hindus millions. Sikhs no caste and women equal.Not so in Hinduism.

And the most important fact of all. Longewal accord? What ever happing to it?? He did sign it... Well absolutly nothing! (Not even one clause or article of that accord has been put forth in 26 years! )

You forgot to mention that dint you Gurpreet.

The Indian goverment brought more brute to Sikh youth. And thats when Sikh youth had to pick up the gun to defend them selves and there integrity.

Gurpreet, do your research, your article very vauge and is COMPLETLY INCORRECT.

The TruTH will Alwayz PrevAil !
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KJ Singh
Gurpreet has tried to give a sequence of events,as to what happened and seems a simple narrative, yet he has said enough at the end that debauchery and wickedness practised by Congress and Rajiv Gandhi in belittling Sant Longowal added to complete alienation of the community. Militants were dubbed as terrorists and moderates as bad negotiators. The results are before us.The community lost. Had the foundations of Sikh faith been weak it would have been vanquished for ever, but, there been strong resilience, community today stands more robust.
KJS
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Jagtar Singh
"Sikh Gandhi" is an oxymoron.

The Sikh faith says that when all other means have failed, raising of the sword in defense is justified. Surprisingly, this is also the stand of India, which has Gandhi's picture on every government building and even the currency. When India is threatened by Pakistan or China, Gandhi tactics of non-violence are thrown out the window, so much so, that the "Land of Gandhi" is a nuclear armed nation, with military expenditure in the billions of dollars.

Please use common sense when trying to spread false Indian nationalism. The Akalis you say were a religion based party, a Sikh party to be exact. However, then in typical Indian spin rhetoric, you say the people of Punjab rejected the militants and voted the Akalis to power after Longowal's assassination. Gurpreet Singh, please tell the readers who the people had a choice to vote for in those elections? It was the Akalis and the Congress party, the same Congress party who ordered the attack on the Golden Temple. The Akalis were not voted to power because of Longowal's assassination, they were voted to power because Sikhs voted for a Sikh party. The same Sikh party which had many many members that opposed Longowal's accord with Rajiv Gandhi. Please read facts and history before attemtping to write about such sensitive topics.

The Akali leadership warned Longowal of such an accord. You have failed in your attempt to idolize the "Sikh Gandhi" by not being aware of the fact that Longowal felt and told the likes of Barnala, that he felt he was betrayed by Rajiv Gandhi and the accord with New Delhi.

Also, you converniently mentioned that the Indian army attacked after a spate of killings in Punjab. Sir, please elaborate on who was being killed and who did the killings. It was Sikhs who were leading the Akali agitation that were being killed by Indian police forces. You see the reason for India's attack on the Golden Temple, but ignore why Sikhs armed themselves.

How many Sikh youth were killed in fake police encounters Mr. Gurpreet Singh? Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights activist, also visited cnada to share his findings. Where is he today? He is also "disappeared" in the "Land of Gandhi."

I understand blind nationalism is very dangerous. Even more dangerous, is blind nationalism in print.

Please use common sense and logic when interpreting the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Rab Rakha.
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Satinder Bains
I dont know who is this Gurpreet Singh but he has no knowledge of Sikh history. I cant believe such persons how dare to write on Sikh issues. He has no ideas but just a copy cat.
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athwal
"Imaginary" Gurpreet Singh you need to do a lot more research if you want to be writing articles of sikh history. Shame on you.
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Harjinder
Gurpreet you should remove singh from your name. shame on you
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sukha
this was very poor writing gurpreet.
good luck next.
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darshan singh
wow came across this article today. for everyone criticising gurpreet for using the word "imaginary"....well my question: where is the "real" state of khalistan?
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s Singh
longowal was a gaddar. he was not a Sikh
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Kamaljit Singh Virdi
I is really shame full for the congress who spoiled the holly atmosphere of Punjab for their personal and political GREEDS...so please it is my request to all civilians of Punjab that never give your vote to a representative of CONGRESS..they are enemies of PUNJAB.
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