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Print edition : Sep 20, 1997 T+T-

Queen Elizabeth's proposed visit to Punjab has raised a controversy, which involves the record of British colonialism and the Sikh religious right's attempt to make political use of the visit.

WHEN Queen Elizabeth enters the Golden Temple in Amritsar on October 14, she will be wearing brand new stockings, untouched by leather. Although ordinary pilgrims must enter the shrine barefoot, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which has lobbied hard to ensure that the visit takes place, has been evidently convinced of the need to subjugate temple ritual to imperial dignity. As she walks around the shrine in her new stockings, Queen Elizabeth will be greeted by cheering crowds, which will be "arranged", says SGPC Acting Secretary Surjeet Singh, by his organisation. The Golden Temple will have been specially decorated, as it is on festival days, and the Jathedars (religious heads) of Punjab's three most important Takhts (seats of religious authority) will have gathered to receive her, along with SGPC President Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who habitually refers to Elizabeth simply as Mallika (the Empress). But those who see in this merely a cause for amusement might do well to reconsider the issue.

The issues raised by the visit illustrate the growing ascendancy of right-wingers in the international Sikh diaspora over Punjab's politics. The fracas over Queen Elizabeth's visit to the Golden Temple began soon after her private secretary, Robin Jarvin, and the United Kingdom's High Commissioner to India, David Gore-Booth, visited Amritsar on July 22. The Labour Government in Britain was keen that the Queen visit the shrine as a gesture to the some four lakh Sikhs living in the U.K., and discreet negotiations with those concerned had long been under way. The request of Gore-Booth and Jarvin was readily accepted by the SGPC, which assured them that the Queen would receive an enthusiastic welcome and would be presented with the traditional honour of a siropa (turban). Later, both British emissaries visited Jallianwala Bagh, where Gore-Booth wrote in the visitors' book that he felt "privileged and touched" to pay his respects at a "beautiful" monument "that reminds us all of the sadness of history." Sources in the SGPC told Frontline that no plans for the Queen to visit the site of the 1919 massacre were in fact discussed, despite media speculation to that effect. Gore-Booth presumably felt that a visit might prove embarrassing, for SGPC officials say that it was pointed out that visiting dignitaries' itineraries at Amritsar had traditionally included the memorial.

Shortly after the visit of Gore-Booth and Jarvin, two wholly unanticipated developments shook this comfortable agreement. The first was the discovery, this August, of a dormant account held by Princess Catherine Duleep Singh, the daughter of Punjab's last king, in a Swiss bank (see box). Duleep Singh had been stripped of his kingdom and fortune, which included the Kohinoor diamond, by Queen Victoria. The discovery of the bank account sparked calls for the return of the riches of the Lahore durbar to the state. The second, and perhaps a more important event, was a campaign by Professor Jagmohan Singh, a Ludhiana academic and Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh's nephew, demanding an apology for the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. Queen Elizabeth's visit, he insisted, had to be preceded by a declaration by the British Parliament apologising for the "most inhuman act of suppressing fundamental and human rights." Jagmohan Singh also demanded that the Queen visit the Bhagat Singh memorial at Hussainiwala. He, on his own, tendered an apology to the family of police officer John Poyantz Saunders, killed by the freedom fighter on July 17, 1928 in retaliation for the murder of Lala Lajpat Rai, a veteran of the freedom movement.

The historical basis of a call for an apology for Jallianwala Bagh is simple. The inquiry ordered into Brigadier General Reginald Dyer's murderous action at Amritsar, which officially left 379 dead, found strong evidence of misconduct. Dyer by his own admission declared that he had ordered firing on an unarmed and peaceful crowd to produce a "sufficient moral effect from a military point of view throughout Punjab". Yet the British Government merely removed Dyer from active service and absolved his superior, Punjab Governor Michael O'Dwyer, of any responsibility. The House of Commons subsequently approved the Government's decision, while the House of Lords passed a resolution deploring even the mild action against Dyer. The British community in India and the regime's collaborators collected over 20,000 for the general, which was presented to him along with a Golden Sword. Winston Churchill, later Prime Minister, condemned Dyer's removal from active service as a "monstrous event". Punjab, like all of India, felt the wound deeply. Shaheed Udham Singh later assassinated Michael O'Dwyer in England and thus joined the freedom movement's most respected figures in Punjab.

Yet Jagmohan Singh's call for an apology might have given those familiar with the Shaheed-e-Azam's life cause for ire. The academic's locus standi to speak for the revolutionary socialist was tenuous, for Bhagat Singh himself had never expressed regret for the incident. Arrested along with his comrade Batukeshwar Dutt, when both disdained to escape after bombing the Central Legislature in April, 1929, Bhagat Singh did come to reject what he described as the "romance of violent methods". He nonetheless asserted, in his book Why I am an Atheist, that if "non-violence as policy (was) indispensable for all mass movements", the use "of force (was) justifiable when resorted to as a matter of terrible necessity". More critically, the idea that an Imperial apology would constitute a meaningful atonement for history may have seemed to Bhagat Singh a trivialisation of the issues he fought for. In his statement to the trial court, quoted in A,G. Noorani's excellent book The Trial of Bhagat Singh, the Shaheed-e-Azam defined his agenda lucidly: "The present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change. Producers or labourers, in spite of being the most necessary element of society are robbed by their exploiters of the fruits of the labour ... (while) capitalists and exploiters, the parasites of society, squander millions on their whims."

THE Ludhiana Professor's apology call did, however, have a startling fallout. Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, in a series of interviews, suggested that such a gesture would be "a sign of the Queen's greatness". "Every regime," he said in a thinly veiled attack on the Congress' role in Punjab from Operation Bluestar onwards, "is prone to committing blunders and a time comes when the past should be regretted". Badal wrote two separate letters to Prime Minister I.K Gujral, asking that Queen Elizabeth apologise for Jallianwala Bagh and that the British Government return the riches of the Lahore durbar. Then, at a 'meet the press' programme in Chandigarh, Badal reiterated his demand. He also demanded that the Indian Parliament pass a resolution calling for a formal British apology. His opponents on the Sikh right, however, were gathering forces to hit back. Tohra, whose political support structure owes much to affluent Sikhs in the U.K, went public arguing against any demand for an apology by the Queen, since she was visiting the temple as a "devotee". As the head of the Church of England, the Queen's commitment to Sikhism is somewhat opaque; Tohra was evidently addressing a non-resident audience, for whom the Queen's visit to their homeland was an important form of recognition.

In the midst of this struggle within Sikh communal politics, Prime Minister Gujral's interview to The Observer, London, arrived with explosive force. Foreign policy planners in New Delhi had been deeply concerned with Tohra's appropriation of the Queen's visit, worrying that the event would be used to embarrass the Government on Operation Bluestar and the Central Government's subsequent Punjab policy. Tohra's transparent effort to deflect attention from colonialism and its legacy suggested that this was not so distant a possibility, and on August 16 Gujral's interview let the British Government know that India would not welcome the Amritsar visit.

Why Gujral chose the medium he did is not clear - theories doing the rounds range from it being a casual, off-the- record remark to a deliberate tactic - but the fallout was devastating. If much of the media, for somewhat mysterious reasons, denounced Gujral for having the temerity to suggest that the British monarch represented an unpopular legacy, Tohra now had a perfect platform from which to silence Badal in Punjab. Under fire from all directions, Gujral soon withdrew his remarks, letting the world know that Queen Elizabeth was free to visit any part of India she wished to. Badal, for his part, backed out of his earlier position and claimed that he had never asked for an apology.

WHAT is the real significance of Queen Elizabeth's visit for the Akali hardliners? Politically marginalised in India, the religious right has long survived on international capital, which has come from non-resident Sikhs, anti-India politicians and human rights groups. The ascendancy of Badal's "moderate" faction within the Akali Dal has come to threaten the far right's hegemonic control of the SGPC from as early as 1995. The largely NRI-sponsored World Sikh Sammelan of that year marked the marshalling of the community's Western diaspora by the religious right to resist the rise of the moderates. On that occasion, Tohra had let the world know that British imperialism was in his view better for the Sikh faith than Indian secularism. Aggressive articulation of Sikh communal concerns thus offers the right its sole chance of survival in the face of electoral and political reverses. "When the Queen comes here," says Tohra's son-in-law and Punjab's Public Works Minister Harmel Singh, "she will see what has really happened in Punjab and tell the world the truth about the tragedy of Punjab."

The new Labour Government in Britain has repeatedly spoken of an "ethical Foreign Policy" and suggested that its role in South Asia must be built on a realisation of its "responsibilities as the former colonial power." If the Sikh religious right benefits from recognition by the British establishment, British "New Labour" is only keen to acquire legitimacy among Sikh voters. The Queen's decision to visit the Golden Temple has raised the questions why she has never visited any of the gurdwaras built by her subjects in her country and why visits to shrines in India are an integral component of the Labour Government's commitment to multiculturalism in Great Britain.

Most tragically, the appropriation of Shaheed Bhagat Singh's legacy by those with perhaps the least right to evoke his name has passed unnoticed. The Akali campaign of representing the socialist as a Panthic figure, giving him a beard and a turban in official publicity material, has now culminated in Badal and Tohra variously outlining the imperatives of his legacy. Ironically, the Bharat Naujawan Sabha, which campaigned aggressively for secularism in Punjab, specifically enjoined its members to have "nothing to do with communal bodies or other parties which disseminate communal ideas." "In 1928," historian Bipan Chandra has recorded, "he successfully argued that young men belonging to a religious-communal organisation such as the Akali Dal should not be permitted to become (its) members." Shortly after Jallianwala Bagh, the SGPC's predecessor body, the Golden Temple management, presented General Dyer a kirpan (ceremonial sword) and a siropa and deemed him an honorary Sikh, forgiving his smoking and shorn hair. The decision has never been revoked by the Golden Temple clergy, which claims to speak for the Sikh community.

What Punjab seems in need of is not apologies, but plain, honest history.