Shining example: What Golden Temple can teach Hindutva warriors using Ayodhya to whip up hatred

The shrine in Amritsar offers a lesson in how opposing narratives can coexist in harmony.

WrittenBy:Abhinandan Sekhri
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With Chief Minister Adityanath setting a Guinness record of lighting most diyas at one place in Ayodhya, it was not lost on anyone how the Hindu Right wanted to keep the Uttar Pradesh town firmly in the spotlight. The rhetoric and sloganeering around Lord Ram’s birthplace that one has been hearing from Adityanath’s fellow travellers is an outcome of one of India’s longest-running and most high-profile politico-religious and land disputes. Over time, the normalisation of communalism – expressed in such thoughtless slogans as “Tel lagao Dabar ka, naam mita do Babar ka” and casual hateful comments on social media and in conversations – has worryingly spiked. TV news channels are not helping, and Newslaundry has consistently documented and critiqued shows dedicated to such bigotry. This article is about something else.

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For me, the Golden Temple in Amritsar is among the most idyllic spiritual spots. There’s something magical about the bling, music, acoustics, and ambience of the shrine. More importantly, it’s a humbling symbol of conflicting narratives surviving and coexisting side by side. Here, no one is asking for the “other” to be wiped out. A part of the temple is dedicated to Baba Deep Singh ji, complete with a story of his battle against the invading Mughal armies. Yet, there’s no prejudice displayed when Muslims enter and eat at the gurdwara.

More compelling is how a rather recent conflict is memorialised at the shrine. Just under the Akal Takht, there’s a plaque describing its history and importance and that of Kotha Saheb, the room where Shri Guru Arjun Dev would retire for the night. It includes these lines: “The Indian government caused Shri Akal Takht Saheb, the source of spiritual and temporal powers, total destruction…in June 1984, making free use of big guns and tanks. But valiant warriors of the community with a nature of continuous struggle against atrocity and cruelty gained from their forefathers attained martyrdom by facing the cruel boldly and got a sacred beautiful building built with great enthusiasm through selfless service, Kar Sewa.” 

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This denunciation of the Indian state as a tyrannical oppressor sounds even more offensive in Hindi: it’s described as “jaalim” and “tanashah”, while the terrorists who hid inside the Golden Temple are hailed as “zulm virodh nirantar sangharsh karne wali qaum ke shurvir yodha”, meaning warriors of a people that forever struggle against oppression. 

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A few yards from the plaque are several stone tablets installed by the Indian military. The tablets – engraved with the regimental crests of the Deccan Horse, engineering and drain maintenance companies, 19th Punjab Regiment – have been laid in memory of the soldiers who sacrificed themselves for the nation. Now, I hope I don’t need to spell out the profound irony, even inconsistency, in these tablets and the memorial plaque coexisting within a few yards of each other at the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, and many Hindus. If you are familiar with the history of the Indian armed forces, Operation Blue Star and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, you will appreciate that this equilibrium is not just necessary but inevitable in Punjab. If some supporters of Bhindranwale try to remove the slabs installed by the armed forces, they would likely take us back to the 1980s, when Punjab was riven with violence

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Similarly, if someone from the currently popular school of hypernationalism insisted on redrafting the memorial plaque inscription to describe those who took over Akal Takht during Operation Blue Star as terrorists and the armed forces as heroes rather than as “jaalim” and “tanashah”, it would invite a pushback, if not a violent clash.

You would be hard-pressed to find many Sikhs in rural Punjab today who see Bhindranwale as a terrorist even if they don’t consider him a hero either. Yet, there are people who revere him as a hero, even a saint. I find this fascinating whenever I travel in Punjab (and I’ve travelled extensively through the state in the last few years).

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Religious faith and social friction arising from it exist almost entirely in grey areas. One needs to be aware of the cultural and historical context while negotiating this space, acknowledging and allowing for moral ambiguity. The loud and excitable Hindu Right, or any extremist religious ideology for that matter, finds it difficult if not impossible to understand such space. Perhaps, it’s because they look to a book, divine text or commandments to provide black and white answers. This is ironic in the case of the warriors of Hindutva given that two most well-known Hindu texts, Mahabharata and Ramayana, are almost entirely about grey areas and moral ambiguity.

The futility of establishing a new equilibrium by attempting to wipe away realities that may be uncomfortable or unfair, or trying to raze structures, or renaming roads, or building and rebuilding statues and monuments is like trying to part water. More will come and replace it. (Moses: Hold my beer. Me: Ya, right!) All one is doing is setting up a new conflict point that another delusional collective will try and recalibrate, then another and another, and so on. The militant Hindu Right in India, energised like never before by political patronage, views coexistence as a zero-sum game in the pursuit of some imagined Ram Rajya. It won’t do anybody any good.

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