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Was Bhagat Singh a martyr or a terrorist? Most Indians would say martyr. But at the time of his hanging there were differences. The British definitely thought he was a terrorist. Mahatma Gandhi did not plead for his pardon when he negotiated with Viceroy Irwin. Osama Bin Laden was a terrorist and yet for many Muslims he is a martyr.
Last week, General Brar was attacked on the streets of London. While his attackers have not been caught, there is a presumption that this was a revenge attack for his part in Operation Bluestar. British police have to treat it as an assault with murderous intent as and when they catch the culprits. But its Indian ramifications cannot be overlooked. That was a most harrowing episode in the history of Indian independence. More than the decades of Naxal attacks or troubles in Kashmir or Nagaland, the demand for Khalistan was the most serious challenge to the integrity of the Indian State. Even more, it was a fundamental questioning of the idea of India as a nation.
The Khalistan issue led not only to Bluestar, where a holy shrine was besieged and attacked but its aftermath was the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the only time an Indian citizen murdered an Indian Prime Minister. What followed in Delhi in the wake of that assassination has been neither forgotten nor properly settled in the realms of justice. The electoral campaign that followed was virulently anti-Sikh and yet the Congress was rewarded with the largest majority ever. The 'Pacification' of Punjab took even longer. The apology to the Sikh people, when it came, was too late and ironically it was delivered by the first Sikh Prime Minister.
Even today, emotions run high and the assassins of Indira Gandhi as well as Bhindranwale and his followers are much worshipped martyrs. It is a wound that runs deep. And yet, Sikhs have forgiven, though not forgotten. At the same time as the attack on General Brar took place, Sikhs in UK raised their objection to a somewhat sexist and biased characterisation of a Sikh woman character in J K Rowling's latest novel, The Casual Vacancy. They said they would write to Dr Manmohan Singh and ask him to complain to the UK government. There is not much that the UK government can do about the contents of books. But the notion that Sikhs have to summon their fellow Sikhs to defend their honour is both droll and troublesome. Surely they should, as UK citizens, fight their own case the way any other community would fight if they had been insulted. Why call upon the Indian PM to fight their case? Would they have done so if the PM had been not Sikh?