The Golden Temple in Amritsar is one of my favourite places: welcoming, spectacular and peaceful. But tucked away up a steep staircase, in the Central Sikh Museum, are reminders of less peaceful times. On a recent visit, I took the stairs two at a time, then walked through room after room lined with paintings of gruesome incidents from Sikh history, all the way to what is, for me, the heart of the museum.
On the walls, there were plenty of portraits of admired men. On my left, a handsome one of Shahid Bhagat Singh in prison shackles, awaiting his fate. In front, a portrait of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. That’s when I got my first flutters of unease: these images, complete with explanations in English and Punjabi.
To the right of Bhindranwale, there’s an artist’s rendition of ‘Sri Akal Takht after Military Attack, 6 June 1984’ — at the climax of Operation Bluestar, when the Indian Army entered the heart of Sikhdom to defeat armed men holed up here. The painting shows the Akal Takht badly damaged and burned. In fading English below, are these lines: “Under the calculated move of Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, military troops stormed [the] Golden Temple with tanks. Thousands of Sikhs were massacred. Sri Akal Takht suffered the worst damages. Sikhs rose up in a united protest. Many returned their honours. Sikh soldiers left their barracks.”
There’s one more sentence: “The Sikhs, however, soon had their vengeance.”
My eyes moved further right, to settle on three portraits, all the same size as Bhagat Singh’s. These list only names and dates: ‘Shahid S. Beant Singh Ji, 1949 to 31 Oct 1984,’ ‘Shahid S. Satwant Singh Ji, 1967 to 6 Jan 1989,’ ‘Shahid S. Kehar Singh Ji, 1940 to 6 Jan 1989.’
You know those names and dates.
‘Shahid’ again, all three times, is written exactly as it is used for Bhagat Singh: to signify a martyr.
Indira Gandhi has plenty to answer for. My feeling is that a vast number of India’s myriad intractable problems can be laid at her door. It’s why I have minimal regard for her. But she was, when shot dead by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, India’s Prime Minister. To see her killers accorded the same esteem as Bhagat Singh, to see them called ‘Shahid’ like him, is to ask some serious questions about nationhood, about terrorism, about freedom and those who fight for it, about what those words really mean, and about India itself.
For me, the slaughter of 3,000 Indians just because they were Sikh during those days after Indira Gandhi died remains the greatest act of terrorism in our 62 years. That we have not punished the murderers a quarter century later is a national shame.
But this museum underlines what so many of us find hard to swallow: one man’s terrorist is another man’s … What? Martyr?
Dilip D’Souza is a Mumbai-based writer.
His book Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America will be out later this month
The views expressed by the author are personal.