Playing The Game Of Love: Passion And Martyrdom Among Khalistani Sikhs

Cynthia Keppley Mahmood

'Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality' - Che Guevara (1969: 389)

In an essay on the break-up of the Soviet Union called 'Why Were We Surprised?' W.R. Connor proposes that the 'realist' model of politics long dominant in the West was, in fact, highly unreal in that it neglected what he calls 'the passions' of ethnic and religious loyalties, affirmations of cultural identities, and yearnings for a moral state (Connor 1991:175-185). This was not the first time Western social science had failed to predict a major socio-political upheaval (the overthrow of the Shah of Iran comes to mind, for example), and only now is it dawning on theorists across the disciplines that something must be wrong with the way we have traditionally done business. Martyrdom, as often a matter of 'passion' as of rational calculation, is part of this radical re-evaluation of what matters in the realm of politics. Always enigmatic, usually frightening, martyrs intrigue and repel us in their refusal to play by the rules that most of us live by. Young men who crash trucks through the gates of Marine Corps barracks are part of the picture of unpredictability, of incommensurability, that haunts us when we try to analyze political conflicts that don't progress according to mainline Clausewitzian strategy.

The government of India currently claims to have contained the Sikh militant movement aimed at the creation of a sovereign state of Khalistan in Punjab. Though the abuses that occurred during this containment were widely condemned by human rights groups (Asia Watch 1991, Amnesty International 1992, Human Rights Watch/Physicians for Human Rights 1994), it is clear that a situation of quiet now obtains in Punjab, where farmers are back in their fields, shopkeepers in their shops, children at schools, and so on. The militants, imagined as criminals, extremists, and terrorists, are marginalized in current Indian portrayals of Punjab; indeed, the way things now look it seems difficult to remember that just a few years ago they were virtually in control of the state, their separatist aspirations a serious threat to the integrity of India. However, this picture, as Joyce Pettigrew notes (1995), is a highly superficial one. It fails to take into account the issues that prompted the militant uprising in the first place, and fails to consider the passions that continue to animate the militants, now in exile, in hiding, or beneath the mask of that farmer in his field who smiles on the nightly news.

I propose here to talk about matters of passion, always a problem for academics who easily turn questions of faith into questions of psychology, philosophical stances into cultural traditions, and assertions of dignity into political movements. These frames of discourse are more graspable in terms of the rationality we continue to hope runs the world and, in being graspable, appear controllable also. Hannah Arendt (1965), in her calculated use of the concept of evil in exploring the dynamics of genocide, was trying to push the terms of analysis to this other insistent level, and this is why her work continues to intrigue despite myriad empirical and political criticisms of it. We sense that there is something more going on when humans put other humans into gas ovens or light themselves on fire. The Enlightenment dream behind both academia and politics stumbles against it, flails out in frustration, throws up words like 'terrorism' that obscure more than they reveal, and eventually resorts to talk of psychopathology. One can't be a human being and do things like that.

Agreeing with J.R. Corbin (1977) that human violence is in fact mostly conceptual, not meaningless, customary or blind, I spent the past three years researching the conceptual order of expatriate Khalistani Sikhs, conducting about thirty extensive interviews with militants in eight cities across the U.S. and Canada. Some of the people with whom I talked reside in those cities, while others travelled there for the purpose of the interview. I stayed in Sikh homes, spoke in gurudwaras, and attended meetings of various kinds of Sikh organizations. My interlocutors in this project have been on both the receiving and the initiating ends of acts of violence in Punjab, and I hoped to learn from them what makes the courage of Sikh soldiers the envy of the military world and the determination of Sikh 'terrorists' the nightmare of the modern state of India.

The Potency Of Massacres

During the first week of June 1984, the Indian armed forces launched a massive assault on the 'Golden Temple' complex in Amritsar, the sacred heart of the Sikh religion and the temporal centre of the Sikh people. Indicative of Sikhism's welding together of spiritual and political matters, the Golden Temple complex contains both the Harimandir Sahib, the holiest shrine, and the Akal Takht, the 'throne' from which worldly decisions are made. The gold leaf of the Harimandir Sahib and the vaulted domes of the Akal Takht mirror and amplify each other, nested amongst a concert of smaller buildings including rest houses for visiting pilgrims, offices of various Sikh organizations, and the Sikh Reference Library.

The reason why the government of India ordered the attack on the Golden Temple complex in June 1984 was to flush out a band of armed militants led by Sant ('Saint') Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who as head of a key Sikh seminary gave voice to not only a string of economic and political grievances but also to the sense that Sikhism as a religion was threatened by encroaching Hinduism. A generally overlooked aspect of the assault on the complex is the great discrepancy between government rhetoric about Bhindranwale and his group and the actual seriousness with which the attack was carried out. In the months preceding Operation Blue Star, as the army assault was called, the militants were routinely described as a small band of criminals with no popular support, extremists who were as despised by the mass of Sikhs as they were by the rest of India. They were not portrayed as spearheading any kind of a serious movement or representing any serious political threat. Thus people were all the more shocked when it became clear, after the media blackout during the military operation against Bhindranwale, that it had taken not only crack ground forces but even tanks to subdue him. What kind of 'criminal' was it who could inflict so many casualties on highly trained troops of the Indian army? Even Lt. Gen. K.S. Brar, in command of the assault, remarked that the militants had fought far harder, better, and longer than anybody had expected. (Brar 1993).

This making light of militants while at the same time launching large scale offensives against them is not restricted to Punjab, but is characteristic of government responses to insurgency. For example, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak recently referred to Islamic militants as 'belly dancers [and] drummers from the slums,' while keeping some twenty thousand of them in prison (Elon 1995: 33). Making light of criminalizing, psychologizing, and otherwise peripheralizing such movements is obviously part of a strategy of domination. It is wholly logical that a government wishing to retain its power would not want to accord legitimacy to those hoping to overthrow it. But the divergence between public rhetoric and actual operations (the mass jailing of 'belly dancers') does more than make a government look duplicitous; it pushes those whose credibility as political actors is being undermined to further demonstrations of strength, to further proofs that one is, in fact, more than 'a druinmer from the slums'. In the space created by insult, the most dramatic actions - violent actions - are experienced by perpetrators as simple reclamations of dignity.

What people heard from government sources after Operation Blue Star was that the band of extremists who had illegitimately taken over the Golden Temple complex had been effectively subdued in a successful military operation that was carried out with full respect for Sikh religious sentiments. But what they saw, in photographs that quickly made the rounds in the Sikh community, passed from hand to hand with shocked horror, was the Akal Takht with a gaping hole in its dome, its walls pock-marked with bullets, the pavement in front soaked with blood and littered with bodies. The Sikh Reference Library, containing irreplaceable manuscripts and copies of the Sikh holy book, had burned to the ground. However, with all of this physical destruction, I suggest that it was the Indian government's continuing denial of substantial harm that was in a way the most psychologically damaging aspect of the entire event. Sikhs felt they were not being taken seriously, and their militancy, then nascent, got an enormous boost. Sikh militants would force the government to take them seriously, to pay attention.

India and the world were brought to rapt attention when two Sikhs assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi five months after Operation Blue Star. The post-assassination backlash against the Sikhs brought another shock. Hindu mobs, ignored by and in cases it seems led by police, slaughtered some 3,000 to 6,000 Sikhs in cities across India. People started using the word 'holocaust' (ghallughara) to describe what was happening, a term that hadn't been applied since Admed Shah Abdali's invasion of Punjab centuries before. And again, ridicule. Sikh bodies, shaking as they burned in the streets of Delhi, were said to be 'dancing the bhangra' (a Punjabi folk dance). As one woman described it, it was not only the sight of humans on fire that was horrific, but the terrible asynclirony of this vision with ongoing radio commentary that was painting a wildly different picture. Was one going crazy? One doubted one's own perceptions.

Against this kind of ambiguity, the strong assertions of the militants must have come as a kind of relief to the housewife mentioned above. Whatever else they might have done with which one disagreed, in a field of outright lies and propaganda they were calling it as many people in fact witnessed it. The Golden Temple complex was heavily damaged, thousands of people did burn in the streets, the police did look the other way. Human rights organizations in India, with great courage, investigated all of these things, but their reports were not as accessible to the masses of uneducated Sikhs as the house house, village-to-village campaigns of the militants. People had a sense of homecoming when they embraced the militancy, able then to reject government rhetoric as enemy rhetoric and to cease the constant attempt to reconcile what they heard with what they knew.

In an atmosphere of deceit and denial, the massacres surrounding the assault on the Golden Temple complex and following the assassination of Indira Gandhi seem in themselves to be assertions of truth. Massacre art, in particular showing the torn, broken, and seeping bodies lying before the Akal Takht, was distributed and hung in Sikh homes. In their very gruesomeness these paintings, drawings and photos assert themselves in a room; they are impossible to ignore, and intrude in conversation, meditation, and everyday activities. Their potency derives only in part from their blood; it derives also from their unwillingness to be masked, covered, or distorted. The slaughter is there for all to see, whatever statistics are released or policies promulgated. Hanging such a painting in one's home is therefore a continuing assertion of the unsuppressible quality of truth - a truth which, in the vision of the militants, is worth killing and dying for.

Martyrdom And Truth

Bhindranwale, embattled with his core group of dedicated militants in the Akal Takht in June 1984, had the chance to escape, but didn't take it. Though in fact the majority of the militants who were defending the Takht did leave by a back route before the final onslaught, some 35 remained until the bitter end, when they were all killed. Bhindranwale is said to have compared him self to a historical hero of the Sikhs, Baba Deep Singh, who lost his head in battle with the Afghans but who is believed by religious Sikhs to have carried it in his hands to lay it down at the Golden Temple complex. 'Baba Deep Singh had to struggle for several miles to lay down his head in this place,' Bhindranwale is reported to have said, 'while I am privileged to be able to give mine right here.'

Bhindranwale was a man who knew the value of history. He carried a silver arrow around with him, symbol of the last Sikh Guru, and talked about the current opposition to the Indian government in the same terms as historical Sikh struggles against Afghans and Mughals. But the comparison with Baba Deep Singh resonated even further, back to the first Guru and founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, who had advised his Sikhs or disciples that selflessness was a prerequisite to spiritual fulfilment. 'If you want to play this game of love,' he said, 'come to my street with your head in your palms.' The story of Baba Deep Singh concretizes this notion admirably, and Bhindranwale, calling upon his historical example, added another layer to the martyrdom as selflessness theme when he gave his head in 1984. His portrait now hangs in militant Sikh homes beside photographs of the devastated Akal Takht, inspiring fresh martyrdoms in his wake.

After Guru Nanak, the tradition's founder, there were nine other Gurus who led the Sikh panth (community) from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. The fifth, Guru Arjun, was the first to be martyred for the Sikh faith, succumbing to torture during the reign of Mughal emperor Jehangir. It was not only the fact of his death, however, but the manner it which he greeted it, which have become critical to Sildi consciousness. Guru Arjun, dying of horrific tortures, was described by his companion Mian Mir as 'unruffled', 'calm and unperturbed like the sea', and 'in absolute bliss.' He had, that is, already achieved such a state of spiritual detachment from the world, through attachment to God, that he lived life as a lotus in water, 'in affected by its waves, crossing the ocean of the world in safety through meditation on God's name (drawing on a metaphor favoured by Guru Nanak). The same elevated state was believed to have characterized Bhai Mani Singh, another famous historical martyr, whose Mughal torturer, ordered to slice him limb from limb, sought to spare his victim by starting at the wrist. 'You were ordered to cut me joint by joint,' Mani Singh is said to have responded, 'so start at the little finger and work your way up.' Guru Arjun is believed to have shown the same defiance in voluntarily wading into a river subsequent to his tortures, where he ' blended with the Divine Light' (died).

These classic examples illustrate the important but elusive connection between dying and witnessing in Sikhism, only superficially construed as masculine bravado. The tradition of wanggar (inform and challenge) in the early phases of the Khalistani insurgency was an element of this, in which a fighter would call out his identity to his enemies and challenge them to respond, rather than simply eliminating them quietly. As Pettigrew points out, this kind of swagger, resulting as it did in numerous unnecessary casualties, was later discouraged as a routine tactic (1992: 396). But she notes appropriately that the point of this behaviour was to deny the enemy's claim that one did not exist, that one was a Pakistani agent or a criminal, and to affirm loudly, clearly, and at risk to oneself that one was a Sikh, resisting injustice as a Sikh. 'The martyr is one whom terror does not silence,' she concludes (op.cit.: 400).

Sikhs who have been initiated into the siblinghood of the Khalsa or 'pure,' established by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, use their very bodies to refuse the silence of submission or complicity. Guru Gobind Singh began the tradition of the so caIIed 'five K's,' the five signs which must be kept by every Khalsa Sikh (the 'K's' describe their names in Punjabi). These external symbols of faith, including most conspicuously unshorn hair bound up into a turban and the carrying of swords, make Sikhs a noticeable presence in any crowd, even an Indian crowd in which a multitude of religious adornments and paraphernalia compete raucously for attention. Khalsa Sikhs take these external symbols quite seriously; people have died for the right to wear them, and today Sikhs are involved in legal battles in several nations surrounding the carrying of swords in schools, the wearing of turbans in military service, and so on. How can we account for this deep attachment to the externalities of faith, in a tradition which began when Guru Nanak questioned similar externalities in Islam and Hinduism?

When Sikhs are initiated into the Khalsa, they sip amrit or nectar, and in the imbibing of this amrit dedicate themselves to lives of service. Of importance here is the special heritage bequeathed to the Sikhs by Guru Gobind Singh, founder of the Khalsa, who was the last Guru in the spiritual lineage Rather than passing on the Guruship to some other individual, Gobind Singh vested the religious authority of the Guru in the holy book of the Sikhs, the Adi Granth (henceforth Guru Granth Sahib), and he vested the temporal authority of the Guru in the entire Sikh panth. In this dualism of Guru Granth and Guru Panth, Gobind Singh was carrying to fruition the earlier conception of the interrelatedness of miri and pin, temporal and spiritual authority, represented in the double swords symbolic of Sikhism since the days of Guru Hargobind. But in Gobind Singh's formulation it was divinity itself which was embodied in both the word (Guru Granth) and in the nation (Guru Panth) of the Sikhs. For an amritdhari Sikh, one who has undergone the initiation of amrit, praising the Word and defending the Nation would be complementary modes of worship. 'The way they handle their weapons, it's like they are praying,' one women whose household sheltered Sikh militants commented. Frightening as this image may be to the secular West, it is entirely in line with Khalsa Sikh tradition.

The amritdhari Sikh, having committed him or herself to both Granth and Panth, is in a sense already a martyr; he or she has offered his or her head to the service of Guru. It is the moment of initiation, the moment of taking amrit, that is actually the key moment in the creation of the Sikh martyr; from that point on he or she lives utterly for the faith, in tune with Guru, and hence fearless of bodily or worldly consequences. The literal moment of death is in a way something of an afterthought, since the amritdhari Sikh is to have 'died' to his or her personal self already. 'He who is fearless is a Sikh and he who is fearful not a Sikh,' said Bhindranwale. This sense of being beyond fear accounts for the classic grace under fire of the Sikhs, noted by virtually every observer, friend or foe, through the tumultuous history of this community. It is expressed in the serenity of historical heroes under torture and in the otherwise insanely bold actions of Khalistani militants in combat. The amritdhari Sikh, in simply being there in an inescapably obvious saffron turban, is using his or her own body as a witness to truth. In this perpetual challenge amritdhari Sikhs are particularly unnerving to governments trying to control them, as stated explicitly in the Indian army's newsletter just after the 1984 events in which amritdhari Sikhs are declared outright to be 'dangerous.' The five K's, as symbols of truth in which people have invested their very lives, become then critical aspects of witness; relinquishing them under any circumstances appears to amritdhari Sikhs as unforgivable capitulation. And insults to the five K's, a common experience of Khalistani Sikhs in custody, are unerasable components of militant consciousness. 'Truth is pure steel,' the Guru Granth Sahib advises, and amritdhari Sikhs remember this through the steel wrist bands they keep on their right arms at all times. They might die, but they will die as Sikhs, standing up for truth as they know it, fearless. As Paulo Freire commented about the death of Tiradentes, '[they] could quarter his body, but they could not erase his wimess' (1993: 158). Khalsa Sikhs would understand this sentiment implicitly. And in a climate in which, as described in the first section of this paper, the lives and deaths of Sikhs seem not to be taken seriously, the image of the Sikh militant, defiantly and seriously present, is an appealing one indeed. It is not surprising that it garnered so much ready, if covert, support. In his or her very undeniability and unignorability, the amritdhari Sikh gave expression to a population whose realities had come to be denied and ignored.

Martyrdom And Love

There remains, however, the further and more enigmatic component of Sikh martyrological consciousness centered on the notion of love. There is some thing about the idea of living and dying for a principle that reminds us of puritanism; we can understand it, even admire it, since many of our own cultural heroes lived and died similarly. More problematic is the atmosphere of great joy that permeates the militant Sikh community, now largely in exile, an atmosphere seemingly at odds with the portraits of deceased friends that decorate the walls of many homes. Captured by photographers in poses of militancy, holding AK47 '5, bandoliers across the shoulder, the martyred militants are regularly described as 'gentle,' 'quite soft,' 'full of love,' 'humble,' 'quiet and calm,' 'very spiritual.' They died of an excess of love, wrote Yeats about the heroes of the Irish uprising, but again, he could have been talking about Sikhs. Surrounded by death, much of the talk in militant Sikh households is of love.

When Guru Hargobind established the dual swords of mm and pin, worldly and spiritual power, as emblematic of the Sikhs, he was drawing on the Indian tradition which had long distinguished shakti and bhakti as two complementary forms of power. Joining them together produces the peculiarly Sikh conception of chardhi kala, 'rising spirits,' as the exercise of temporal power leads to greater spiritual power, and the exercise of greater spiritual power to greater temporal power, and so on in a grandly escalating cycle. The Sikh militant who went on combat missions with hymns on his headset and a gun in his hands was expressive of just this combination, which is more complex than the common gloss which words like 'fanaticism' can indicate. The rising spirits of the amritdhari Sikh today, in which weapons and prayer are intertwined, are the logical outcome of a tradition which has long celebrated orthopraxy, the way one lives, more than orthodoxy, what one believes (the terms are T.N. Madan's, 1991: 594-625). 'Truth is the highest good,' said Guru Nanak, 'but higher still is truthful living.'

The steel wrist bands worn by Sikhs carry multiple meanings for individuals involved in militancy. The steel that represents pure truth is part of the symbolism, but the notion that the bracelet 'handcuffs' the wearer to the world is another aspect brought out by several of the militants I know. They are unable, that is, to interpret their adherence to truth as renunciation, as they perceive happened in other South Asian religious traditions. 'It is a bond of love,' one told me, 'not only to my brothers and sisters of the panth but to all human beings.' This person kept on his wall a portrait of Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth Guru, who is believed to have sacrificed himself for the right of Hindus to worship freely. 'He was so flill of love [for humanity], he martyred,' the militant commented. 'Sikhs should be in Bosnia or Somalia or wherever people need help. That's the real role for the Sikhs.' At the moment this person is busy fighting for Khalistan, but conceives this to be only a jumping-off point for the more universalist mission of the Sikhs. He has the motto Deg Teg Fateh, Kettle Sword Victory, on his wall as well; with the kettle to feed the hungry and the sword to defend the weak, we shall be victorious, he explains.

Within the Khalsa, the bond among initiates is more obvious. When 'sisters' are sexually dishonoured (a common experience in custody), 'brothers' react with anger and shame. In the militant community, sheltering of such fictional brothers and sisters in Punjab and monetary and other support for them outside gives expression to the notion of familiarity among those who have taken amrit. Men frequently remember not their own experience of torture in prison but the cries of their comrades; women not their own rapes but the insults to their sisters, mothers, and daughters.

I suggest that the immediacy of the sense of siblinghood with others with in and outside of the panth influences the behaviour of Sikh militants in two ways. The first relates to the torture situation, in which, as Elaine Scarry (1985) points out insightfully, the major effect is the radical narrowing of the world of the victim to the space of the pain inflicted, with a corresponding widening of the world of the torturer, which becomes hegemonic. Resistance to torture, or more accurately, ability to survive torture, depends heavily on the victim's hold on a world wider than his or her pain, and it is in this context that the 'handcuffed' quality of a Sikh to the world becomes critically important. One may, out of adherence to principle and individual courage, 'refuse to talk' under torture. But surviving it with spirit intact depends on the ability to mentally and physically reject the narrowing of one's world that is the ultimate aim of the torture enterprise, and the elevated attention to the cries of a cellmate or the shame of a sister one hears in narratives of Sikh militants are best understood as part of this attempt to retain a shred of a space, a world, beyond and outside of one's own searing, demanding pain. A tradition which celebrates community bonds is one, in fact, with the latent capacity to mobilize these bonds as a form of resistance, and in the Khalistani insurgency we see this mobilization at the deepest and most personal levels. When we come to the ultimate physical affront, death, the capacity of bonds of love to mould individual experience are at their strongest. A death conceived as martyrdom turns what looks like defeat into victory; the individual died, but in his or her bloody witness the truth lives on; the individual died, but the community to which he or she was linked continues. The embracing of death by Khalistani guerrillas is itself often conceptualized as an expression both of witness and of love. Sukha and Jinda, who were hanged for the murder of General Vaidya, said in their farewell address that they imagined the hangman's rope as the embrace of a lover, longing for death as for the marital bed, and hoping that their dripping blood, the outcome of this union, would fertilize the fields of Khalistan. Others compared the martyr's death to a shower of fireworks, which illuminates and guides the entire community; to provide light, the martyr selflessly grasped death. Death in struggle is defined here not only as a feature of courage, but as a feature above all of generosity, of selflessness, of love. Hence descriptions of martyred young men and women as kind, soft, and gentle, and the immediate repudiation of leaders who, however bold, acquire the reputation of being greedy, inflated, or selfish. The Sikh who plays Nanak's game with head in hands is, I suspect, the 'true revolutionary' of Che Guevara, who as quoted above feared being thought ridiculous as he commented about the spirit of love that inflised the insurgents he knew.

Unlike Islam, a religious tradition with an equally prominent tradition of martyrdom, Sikhs who die in battle do not look forward to an eternal life in paradise. Though some elements of reincarnation have crept into Sikh popular religion, on the whole this is a tradition nearly wholly concerned with this life as the only life there is. Resistance to injustice is an existential stance, as something one does as a mode of worship with no other necessary aim than the fact of resistance itself. 'I resist, therefore I am,' wrote Camus (1961). One doesn't expect to get something out of it, either for oneself or even for one's movement. One engineering student who was part of the Bidar massacre in the late 1 980s explained that he had been far removed from his Sikh origins until, as a Hindu mob bore down on the temple in which the students had taken refuge, someone handed him a kirpan (the sword or dagger carried by amritdhari Sikhs). 'What was I supposed to do with a kirpan?' he recounted. 'But I kind of held it out in front of me and you know, somehow I suddenly felt like a real Sikh. In that gesture I knew what being a Sikh meant. I didn't know if we would get out of there or if I would actually kill anybody, but just the feel of that dagger made me realize my faith.' Although Sikh history contains ample elements of both resistance to power and complicity with power (Pettigrew 1991), it is in postures of resistance that amritdhari Sikhs today feel most fully at home, most fully Sikh. The essentially non-instrumental quality of Sikh resistance, its basic independence from rationally strategic political or military goals, is what enables the continuing florescence of militancy despite the low probability of its immediate success. Leaders who accept the rationalistic criticism that this strain in Sikhism may attract recruits and may foster extraordinary bravery, but is in the end non-productive in that it produces more martyrs than survivors, face an uphill battle in convincing the many enthusiastic fighters they 'command' that the effects, not just the process, of militant actions are critical to the eventual success of the campaign.

In the Buddliist tradition, a distinction was traditionally made between nibbana (enlightenment) as a state of mind and the nibutta-person (adjectival form of nibbana), the person who is 'cooled' of desires and attachments. Applying this analytical framework to Sikhism, it is clear that it is the active mode, the adjectival understanding of enlightenment, that would resonant with Sikh experience. The central concept here is the gurumukh, the Guru-oriented person, one liberated from all selfish attachments and entirely in tune with a larger reality. The fact that the nibutta-person in Buddhism was also classically tied to the ideal of loving compassion for all beings also compares usefully to the gurumukh, who in his very unselfishness is filled with love for all. Ready to face his own mortality without equivocation, because he is already unattached to the narrow self that fears it, his courage in the military sense is of one piece with his love for the world.

Despite the many occasions in which Sikh militants saved one another's lives, they typically talk about these episodes without the heightened sense of drama such stories would usually provoke in the Western military tradition. Rather, they are narrated in quite matter-of-fact tones: 'X stayed behind, so that Y and I could go on with the second part of our mission.' Since X, Y and Z were already walking around in a state of total dedication, of already presumed martyrdom, the actual embrace of death by X is a matter of personal sorrow, of course, but not of radical heroism. All are perceived as heroic. What seems a cold-blooded recollection of the demise of a friend the kind of hyper-rationality that many fear characterizes 'terrorists' - is in fact a phenomenon of an entirely different order. We need to understand philosophy behind it to comprehend in human terms what Sikh militancy is all about. The friends 'were in love with' each other (a commonly used phrase to describe comradely bonds), but felt more strongly their commonly commitment to the cause than their selfish attachments to each other as individuals. Their efforts on behalf of their broader love (for Guru, for Sikhi) were what was being narrated above, not their narrower and more selfish love for each other as friends. Life as a game of love means life unafraid of death, for oneself or for others.

Militancy And Martyrdom: Does the Paradigm Have a Future?

One of the key features of the guerrilla insurgency in Punjab, in structural terms, was its diffuse and decentralized quality. Although there was an early attempt to organize the entire community under the leadership of a council of five (Panthic Committee), fictionalization was rife from the beginning and several different Panthic Committees at various times have claimed to speak for the Khalistani Sikh panth. There have been at least five major guerrilla forces, which split up, joined back together, and split up again regularly. Even at snapshot moments in time when a logical command structure could be pointed out, small groups of individuals had considerable autonomy in deciding on and carrying out missions. This lack of disciplined organization is alternately praised as indicative of the essentially democratic nature of the panth, or condemned as militarily inefficient. What is clear is that the 'passionate' quality of Sikh martyrdom, as described above, is often at odds with military strategy in the strict sense to the word. The incongruity between effective mi1itancy philosophy and rhetoric martyrdom is increasingly brought to the tore in Khalistani Sikh at moment, facing the undeniability to the ebbing of insurgent power in Punjab, are taking a particularly urgent tone.

The atomistic quality of Sikh militancy over the past ten to fifteen years was probably responsible for the attraction it provided to young men in particular, for whom the heady experience of holding a gun was coupled with almost unbounded freedom to decide what to do with it. It is also clear that, religious ideals aside, substantial atrocities were committed by these undisciplined groups of youths, some of whom took advantage of the militancy to carry out personal vendettas or to commit crimes, and others who probably simply didn't understand what the insurgency was actually all about. There were, for example, many 'communal' killings, directed against the Hindu population of Punjab, although Khalistani leaders have always been firm on the point that they are not against Hindus per se but against the government of India and its representatives. Bombs went off in crowded Hindu neighbourhoods; women and children were massacred on buses. The predominantly young men involved in these actions were rarely disciplined by higher-ups in the militant organizations, and if reprimanded, they could always turn to one of the other guerrilla units. The major human rights organizations have all criticized the abuses carried out by militant groups, at the same time as they criticised the violations carried out by the state. Though the Khalistani militancy never lacked for recruits, it did admit practically anyone who wanted to fight. In this lack of discrimination it risked what in fact happened: the crumbling of the movement from within as well as its repression from without. Many villagers eventually became disillusioned with the militants as well as tired of suffering at the hands of police.

Where do the heroic aspects of martyrdom, as described above, fit into this less-than-romantic picture of the Khalistani insurgency? It would be a mistake, I believe, to discount the former because of the depredations of the latter, as tends to happen in most accounts of Sikh militancy. The tendency to view the philosophy of martyrdom as a sort of secondary or after-the-fact justification for violence is particularly unhelpful, its sceptical attitude towards Sikh religious commitment being more a function of secular Western ethnocentrism than a facet of Khalistani reality. Though the infiltration of the Khalistani guerrilla forces by people totally uninterested in faith is undoubted, the backbone of the movement remained, and remains today, a core of spiritually dedicated individuals. Rather than using the gap between the ideal of martyrdom and the reality of less-than-perfect guerrilla fighters to point to the lack of applicability of ideals, I see the Sikh conceptualization of martyrdom as itself leaving the door open to the kind of military free-for-all that has characterized phases of the Khalistan movement. People who see themselves as primarily attuned to Guru, as described above, clearly do best in situations in which individual motivation is called for, and less well in situations in which that primary connection has to be constrained by organizational priorities. This gives the movement a certain resiliency, but also leaves it open to abuses. Furthermore, the passionate commitment of individual fighters to Khalistan, to Sikhism, and to each other is the foundation of; but can also seriously hamper, strategic military and political efforts.

The lack of centralization in the Khalistan movement has a strong historical foundation, however, and leaders are hesitant to tamper with it. When Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Guru, asked for volunteers who would be willing to give their heads for the faith, five men stood up, forming the basis for the initial Khalsa siblinghood. After their initiation by amrit, Gobind Singh asked the five, henceforward called 'Five Beloved Ones', to in turn initiate him into the Khalsa order. This gesture radically decentred the Sikh community, vesting the power even to initiate a Guru with five ordinary people. Any five Sikhs who come together can in fact still be called 'Five Beloved Ones' and can make decisions as representatives of the panth. The spirit of the entire community is thus condensed primarily in face-to-face groups, which both encourages personal involvement and disperses authority dramatically.

When this localization of decision-making is combined with a martyrological tradition emphasizing dying for truth and love - concepts which are open to a fair amount of individual interpretation - the result can be chaotic. Who is or is not a 'true Sikh' is in fact highly contested in the militant milieu. It is the tenor of these arguments, sometimes quite surreal, that leads to the accusation of 'fundamentalism' from those excluded from the 'true Sikh' category and from Western scholars who see resonances of Khomeini and Falwell in the narrowness of the debates. The linkage of the political movement for a sovereign Khalistan with the broader notion of serving and protecting 'the faith' clearly leads to a certain volatility in the guerrilla movement. The owner of a chain of newspapers which published 'anti-Sikh' tracts was assassinated; did this action effectively serve the cause, or was it simply an emotional response by an individual offended by perceived blasphemy ? The same ambiguity surrounds many other acts of violence committed by militants over the past ten to fifteen years of insurgency. The sincerity of the response and the courage exhibited in carrying them out were applauded, but it was often less clear what the practical results were.

While most militant Sikhs defend the varied actions of Khalistani militants as all part and parcel of the general struggle, as indicative of the flexibility and breadth of the movement, there is an increasingly vocal group calling for a more tightly disciplined approach. Particularly in the current climate in which at least surface quiet in Punjab makes talk of mass uprisings seem rhetorical at best, a strategy of investing a smaller group of militants with the symbolic power of the whole population seems a likely response and one which is shared with similar movements in other parts of the world. The smaller spearhead group would then focus on international pressure and on key persuasive events rather than encouraging the kind of deeply personal responses and encounters that have thus far flourished. If events do develop in this direction, it will be interesting to see how the traditional conception of the saint-soldier, always at the ready to fight and die for his faith, evolves. One Sikh leader, after a particularly motivational speech, had several young people rush up afterwards saying they 'wanted to die.' He had to use all his powers of persuasion to convince them that they could best be of service in some other capacity than as martyrs. In this context, the classic paradigm of an organized, strategic group affecting events through carefully planned actions (what could be called the professional model) is at odds with the Sikh tradition of militancy, a populist one based on the idea of the citizen-as-saint, citizen-as-soldier. When you celebrate a tradition in which the 'true Sikh' is the Sikh who fights, how do you justify restricting fighting to a narrower group than the entire population?

Given the continuing unwillingness of the Indian government to 'come clean' on what actually happened during Operation Blue Star, on its complicity in the anti-Sikh pogroms following the Gandhi assassination, and on the human rights abuses going on in Punjab still, the bold figure of the amritdhari Sikh who will go to his death but will not be silenced remains an important symbol for people whose concerns and humanity seem to have been dismissed by the state of which they form a part. That these militants have also committed acts of terror and violence seems to their supporters less atrocious, not only because of the cause on whose behalf the acts were carried out but also because of the forthrightness with which the militants accept the necessity for such violence as part of the 'war' they are fighting. What for one side is 'war' for the other side is 'crime', and it is this discrepancy that provokes amplifying messages of revolutionary violence on one side and draconian punishment on the other. Whatever concessions are made to professional strategy on the part of Khalistani militants, the figure of the passionate martyr as the ultimate symbol of legitimate Sikh struggle is sure to persist. It is, I suggest, enhanced by each government attempt to minimize Sikh suffering, to criminalize Sikh heroes, and to sweep the last decade or two under the rug as if nothing had happened.

Scholars in arenas of violent conflict obviously face many methodological and ethical challenges (Sluka 1990). The philosophical challenge of coming to grips with an existential stance radically different from one's own is less easily talked about. Anthropologists, I suggest, with their orientation to cultural difference and to suspending judgement while investigating other realities, are in a particularly good position to try to understand what motivates individuals to put their lives on the line for a cause, whatever that cause may be. Refraining from false exoticization of such people while recognizing the very different perspectives on life and death they hold is the task facing us as we attempt to build a bridge between the Other - the martyr - and ourselves. And crossing back and forth on that bridge as we engage in our job of translating across cultural divides without abandoning our own values, with out condoning assassins and bombers, is a hefty challenge indeed.

Martyrdom is often a tactic of the weak, who have to expect many deaths in confrontation with the powerful and therefore find a way to make these meaningful. That Sikhs, as a small minority in a small corner of a large and overpopulated subcontinent, have developed a philosophically sophisticated tradition of martyrdom, is therefore not surprising. The celebration of martyrdom on the part of the weak is also, of course, greatly feared by the strong, who have always to worry that by winning battles they are creating more martyrs and hence feeding the flames they seek to extinguish. Certainly the ethnographic study of the Sikh militant community, with full attention to the central role played by martyrdom in Sikh theology, makes clear that the way that the government of India has handled 'the Punjab crisis' was a Pyrrhic victory in this sense. It has crushed the Sikh militant movement by force, but there is little doubt that the seeds sown in this effort will sooner or later bear fruit, in one forrn or another. To expect otherwise is, I believe, to fail to learn from history, and to fail to take seriously the passions that animate Sikhs.

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