The Kar Seva of Sri Akal Takht Sahib
(Amrit Pal Singh ‘Amrit’)
In the month of June 1984, the Indian Army entered the Sri Darbar Sahib complex in the holy city of Sri Amritsar Sahib Ji to oust militants hiding within the complex. Several hundred people died in this army action. The building of the Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji was severely damaged.
Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji after Operation Blue Star
The Sri Darbar Sahib complex was still under Army control, when the Central Government started negotiations with Akali leaders on the issue of withdrawing the army and reconstructing the Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji. All efforts to reach a solution ended on July 13, 1984 with no results.
Mark Tully writes in his book Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle: –
Mrs Gandhi refused to withdraw the army until the repairs were complete. She said she could not trust the Sikhs to repair their shrines because of the suggestion by some eminent Sikhs that the Akal Takht should be left in ruins as a permanent reminder of its desecration.
Thus, the government was actually not interested in repairs, but it wanted to remove the marks of the Operation Blue Star.
Such marks of bullets were removed during the Kar Seva
Government advisers sought to influence policy makers that the repair of Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji should be done by a non-SGPC or non-Akali Dal leader. Chand Joshi, a journalist, writes in his book Bhindranwale: Myth and Reality: –
“The next round started with yet another set of advisers, who gave the suggestion that the repair to the damage done by the army action should be initiated through a non-SGPC Akali Dal religious leader, who would be acceptable to all sections of the Sikhs. Union Minister Mr. Buta Singh, “a man for all Asiads”, was entrusted with the job in the belief that “if he could organize the Asiad he could organize everything”. This was the same principle on which the Member of Parliament from Rai Barelli, a political unknown and an executive head of a paint company, was allowed to be a fulcrum in decision-making processes in the country, “for surely if you can run a company and increase sales you can also run the country and boost the vote bank of the ruling party”.”
Mark Tully writes: –
She had appointed the only Sikh member of her Cabinet, Buta Singh, the Works Minister, to negotiate with the High Priests. It was not a happy choice. He was a Mazhabi Sikh regarded by most Jats as a Harijan, or Untouchable. He had also been a member of the Akali Dal; so he was regarded by Akali leaders as a traitor. Nevertheless Buta Singh did eventually succeed in reaching an agreement with the High Priests on repairing the Akal Takht. He annouced this in Amritsar, but within hours the agreement had been denied by the government in Delhi. A group of senior army officers also managed to reach an agreement with the High Priests. It satisfied their security concerns but it did not apparently satisfy Mrs Gandhi’s political aims. So the army officers were ordered to renege on their agreement.
Mrs Gandhi’s political considerations were far from clear. Many Sikhs agreed with Balwant Singh, the only senior member of the original Akali Dal negotiating team not under arrest, who said to me, ‘She wants to rub our noses in it.’ Many newspaper commentators thought Mrs Gandhi was humiliating the Sikhs because she calculated that Hindu voters wanted that humiliation. The truth seems to be that Mrs Gandhi believed she could use this opportunity to break the Akali Dal once and for all. She ordered her officials to draw up a plan for taking the management and money of the gurudwaras out of the hands of the SGPC, which was of course the Akali Dal’s financier.
Thus, it is clear that Indira Gandhi had a big plan in her mind to terminate the SGPC. She wanted to constitute a Gurdwara Management Board, in which she could nominate members of her own choice. It would help her to take control of Sikh shrines indirectly. Now, she needed a ‘Sikh leader’, who could work under her directions. Buta Singh was appointed to find such a ‘Sikh leader’.
Indira Priyadarshani Gandhi with Giani Zail Singh. Giani Zail Singh was the President of India.
Buta Singh contacted many Sikh leaders and saints in this pursuit, however no one was ready to accept the Government’s terms. Chand Joshi writes: –
“Buta Singh, himself a majhabhi Sikh, fathomed the Sikh sentiment and first turned to the acting SGPC President, Atma Singh. Atma Singh however refused point-blank to have anything to do the Kar Seva under army occupation and the given situation, where every single political leader as well as those of the SGPC was under detention.
Buta Singh then approached the most venerated non-agenarian Baba Kharak Singh, himself a self-confessed juvenile criminal who had devoted his later lifetime in the pursuit of faith and religion. An angry Baba Kharak Singh, also demanded the total exit of the army from the Golden Temple, a condition which was not acceptable to the Government.”
It was natural that no Sikh leader or saint was prepared to undertake any Kar Seva, in which the Government was directly involved. It was and still is the right of the Sikhs to build their religious places on their own terms. The Sri Darbar Sahib complex was under control of the Indian Army, which had dishonored its sanctity through their actions, notably by smoking cigarettes within its precincts. How can any Sikh worth his salt accept such a building, which is constructed by people, who have no respect for his religious sentiments? How can a Sikh accept such a building, which is constructed using funds of that Government, which is responsible not only for its destruction, but also for a carnage, in which hundreds of innocent people were killed?
Buta Singh was a minister in Indira Gandhi government
However, Buta Singh did not lose hope, he continued in his search. At last, he found Jathedar Santa Singh of the Budhha Dal, who was prepared to undertake the Kar Seva as proposed by the Government.
In Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle, Mark Tully writes: –
When it became clear that Mrs. Gandhi was not going to allow the SGPC and the High Priests to repair their shrines, Buta Singh turned to the leader of a sect of nihangs or Sikh warriors, Baba Santa Singh. He was an elderly and extremely portly Sikh whose followers were distinguished for their ruggedness rather than their piety. Many of them were fond of taking opium. Santa Singh had never supervised kar sewa under the auspices of the High Priests or the SGPC. They inevitably rejected his claim to be entitled to lead the kar sewa.
In Truth about Punjab – SGPC White Paper, Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon writes: –
Subsequently, the Government brought one Santa Singh on the sacred premises and associated him with the reconstruction of the demolished building which the Government sought hurriedly to do through a Government contractor Tejwant Singh. Santa Singh was a person of known anti-Sikh and anti-SGPC antecedents. President Zail Singh, when he was the Chief Minister of Punjab, had associated him in a public procession which he had organised on the Guru Gobind Singh Marg. Santa Singh’s associates were released from the prison and he was presented an imported car and an escort to move about. Acknowledging this honour, Santa Singh called him a ‘Param Sikh‘.
It was not easy either to start the re-construction of Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji amidst the strong Sikh opposition. The Government had imposed a curfew around the Sri Darbar Sahib complex. Even members of the lay Sikh community were not allowed to enter the Sri Darbar Sahib Ji. Sikh sentiments were already hurt by the army action and now the reconstruction of the Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji by forced means angered them further. Neither the Government, nor Jathedar Santa Singh were overly concerned by this. The new building upon the old foundation was thus built under the banner of the Budhha Dal.
Even neutral journalists and those who were strongly against the militants lost their respect for Jathedar Santa Singh. They believed that such a Kar Seva would hurt Sikh sentiments. For example, Chand Joshi, a journalist who on many occasions has spoken critically of the Sikh militants used the following words for Jathedar Santa Singh: –
“Finally like a lottery ticket, from Pandora’s box the Government got hold of a Nihang chief called Santa Singh who could neither claim the religious puritanism of Bhindranwale or the mass following of any of the political leaders, but called himself the leader of “86 crores”. *
Armed opium-smoking** followers of the newly discovered “saint” then began a much publicised Kar Seva which far from mollifying Sikh feeling only helped in accelerating the feeling of hurt. Baba Santa Singh became a new spokesman who vitiated the atmosphere, but a person nevertheless considered from deck-chairs in Delhi to be the central point in the “healing process” which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had called for immediately after the action in the Golden Temple.”
(*AmritWorld.com notes that this is an error in the original text and should in fact read “96 crores”
**AmritWorld.com further acknowledges that the text in question is mistaken in this respect. Nihangs do not smoke).
Sarabjit Singh, who later became the deputy commissioner of Amritsar, accepts that it was a grave mistake to appoint Santa Singh for the Kar Seva. In his famous book ‘Operation Black Thunder: an eye witness account of terrorism in Punjab’, he writes: –
The melancholy situation soon came to a head. But in the euphoria in the aftermath of the Operation, two avoidable blunders were committed. The first was that Buta Singh, who should have known the Sikh ethos well, entrusted the reconstruction of the badly damaged Akal Takht to the Nihang leader, Baba Santa Singh. The task should have been left to the SGPC and the Sikh sangat. The second blunder, indeed an act of downright stupidity, was to remove very precious manuscripts, books and literature pertaining to Sikh history, from the Sikh library in the Temple to some secret place. There outrageous acts may not have alienated the Sikh community any further but they were seen as evidence of the malicious intentions of an overwhelming majority towards a small minority.
(Operation Black Thunder: an eyewitness account of the terrorism in Punjab by Sarabjit Singh, page 326).
Thus, we see that even people in Government service felt that it was wrong to entrust the reconstruction of Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji to Jathedar Santa Singh. Unfortunately, a few people have still not realised this fact and are trying to prove that Jathedar Santa Singh had taken the right decision.
The five head priests called for a World Sikh Convention at Gurdwara Shaheed Baba Deep Singh in the city of Sri Amritsar Sahib Ji. The Government made another mistake and imposed restrictions to prevent this convention.
However, Sikhs did not care for the Government’s orders and tuned out in millions from every corner of India to participate in this convention. They gave an ultimatum to the Government to hand over control of the Sri Darbar Sahib Complex to the Sikhs; otherwise millions of Sikhs would march towards Sri Darbar Sahib on October 1, 1984. Santa Singh was excommunicated.
The Government authorities became concerned noting the large numbers in which the Sikhs had attended the World Sikh Convention despite the imposition of strict restrictions. Control over the Sri Darbar Sahib complex was subsequently handed over to the SGPC on September 29, 1984.
Although the Sikhs had secured control over their sacred institution the newly built Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji constructed under Jathedar Santa Singh’s banner was not considered acceptable. The Government sponsored Kar Seva had hurt Sikh sentiments. The common Sikh populace began to call this act Sarkaar Seva (service to the Government), instead of Kar Seva, because labour and resources of Government departments were used for this purpose. Even Nihangs themselves did not do the Seva. A company called ‘Skipper Builders’, owned by one Tejwant Singh, had been assigned the contract to rebuild the Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji. Within a record time of one and a half months, this contract based Kar Seva was completed. Thus, the government used only the banner of the Budhha Dal, not the labour or service of the Nihangs.
The Sikhs were not wrong to air such sentiments either. This was, no doubt a Sarkaar Seva. The Sikh Sangat was not allowed to do this Seva. Sikhs could not even have the holy Darshan (glimpse) of their sacred shrine, because this so-called Kar Seva was done under a curfew imposed around the Sri Darbar Sahib Complex. Moreover, the money spent on the reconstruction of the Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji had not from the Budhha Dal, but the Government. Sarabjit Singh writes in his book Operation Blue Star: an eye witness account of terrorism in Punjab: –
It may be recalled that Baba Santa Singh, the Chief of the Budha Dal of Nihangs had been specially selected by Buta Singh to repair the damaged Akal Takht. The fabulous sum of four crore rupees was placed at his disposal for the purpose in 1984.
Mark Tully writes in his book Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle: –
Santa Singh was well paid for his defiance. The senior engineer told Satish Jacob that the nihang was given 100,000 rupees (over � 6,500) every day to keep his 300 followers happy.
In Truth about Punjab – SGPC White Paper, Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon writes: –
Santa Singh defied the order of ex-communication and continued the job at the Golden Temple which was under the possession of the army and where free entry to the pilgrims, as noted above, was not allowed. In fact, the very question of a pilgrim going there could not arise since the place had become just a reminder of a continuing tragedy and desecration. Santa Singh was paid Rupees one lac a day to keep himself and his men doing the allotted task assigned to him by the Government.
Sikhs decided to demolish the Sri Akal Takht constructed by the Budhha Dal or Jathedar Santa Singh. Buta Singh expressed his consent for the building to be demolished. Sarabjit Singh writes: –
By November 1986, Buta Singh favoured its demolition and construction of a new Akal Takht, by supporting G. S. Tohra who had made such an announcement immediately after his release in March 1985.
As it has been said above, the overriding agenda of the Government was to remove the marks of Operation Blue Star. Since many such marks had already removed under the banner of the Budhha Dal-supported reconstruction of the Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji, the Government now presented no objection for the Sikhs to rebuild the Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji as they saw fit.
The Sikhs started to demolish the building constructed by Budhha Dal or Santa Singh on January 26, 1986. Interestingly, it was Republic Day in India. Untill February 16, 1986 work commenced for the removal of the entire building. On same day, the Kar Seva to build a new Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji began.
For various reasons, it took years to complete the job. On April 13, 1997, the Maryada was reestablished in the Sri Akal Takht Sahib Ji, when Bhai Ranjit Singh was the Jathedar of this holy shrine.