The following is an extract from Cynthia Keppley Mahmood’s Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants. (1996) Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
India and the world were, of course, brought to rapt attention when Indira Gandhi was assassinated five months after Operation Blue Star. And the post-assassination backlash against the Sikhs brought another shock, as Hindu mobs abetted by police slaughtered thousands of Sikhs in cities across India. Again, significantly, this massacre was accompanied by ridicule. Sikh bodies, shaking as they burned in the streets of Delhi, were said to be “dancing the bhangra” (a Punjabi folk dance). As one woman described it, it was not only the sight of humans on fire that was horrific, but the terrible asynchrony of this vision with on-going radio commentary that was painting a wildly different picture… An Indian commentator said that the radio bulletins during the riots “could have been coming from another planet.”
Against this kind of ambiguity, the very strong assertions of the [freedom fighters] must have come as a kind of relief to people like the woman who watched bodies burning in front of her house and heard no sympathy anywhere. Whatever else they might have done with which one disagreed, in a field of outright lies and propaganda, the militants were calling it as many people in fact witnessed it. The Golden Temple complex was heavily damaged, thousands of people did burn in the streets, police did look the other way (at the least).
…Sikhs who have been initiated into the siblinghood of the Khalsa use their very bodies to refuse the silence of submission or complicity. The external symbols of faith, particularly the turban and the sword, make Sikhs a conspicuous presence in any crowd… Khalsa Sikhs take these external symbols quite seriously; people have died for the right to wear them (Sant Kartar Singh refusing to be shaved for surgery, for example) and are involved in legal battles in several nations over the right to carry swords in schools, the right to wear turbans in armed service, and so on. How can we account for this deep attachment to the externalities of faith, in a tradition that began when Guru Nanak questioned similar externalities in Islam and Hinduism?
…The amritdhari Sikh, in simply being there in an inescapably obvious saffron turban, is using his or her own body as a witness to truth. In this perpetual challenge, amritdhari Sikhs are particularly unnerving to governments trying to control them, as stated explicitly in the Indian army’s newsletter just after the 1984 events in which amritdhari Sikhs were declared outright to be “dangerous”. The five K’s, as symbols of truth in which people have invested their very lives, become then critical aspects of witness; relinquishing them under any circumstances appears to amritdhari Sikhs as unforgivable capitulation. And insults to the five K’s, a common experience of Sikhs in custody (being forced to drink the urine of a police officer as amrit), are inerasable components of [freedom fighter] consciousness. “Truth is pure steel,” the Guru Granth Sahib advises, and amritdhari Sikhs remember this stipulation through the karas they keep on their arms. They might die, but they will die as Sikhs, standing up fearlessly for truth as they know it.
…The Sikh who has been initiated in the Khalsa is not only a witness, however, but also a martyr from the moment of initiation. In the sipping of amrit he or she has committed to play [Guru] Nanak’s game of love “with head in hands,” utterly selflessly and therefore without fear of one’s personal mortality. It is the moment of initiation, the moment of imbibing with amrit, that is actually the significant moment in the creation of the Sikh martyr; the literal moment of bodily death is something of an afterthought since the amritdhari Sikh is to have “died” to his or her individual self already. The internalization of the idea that death holds no threat accounts for the extraordinary “grace under fire” of Sikh soldiers, the reported serenity of heroes under torture, and the otherwise insanely bold actions of Khalistani [freedom fighters] in combat. “Our entire nation has taken birth from the art of keeping its head in its palms,” wrote Sukha and Jinda. “The guns of evil will never frighten us.”