This is the first-person account of Principal Correspondent Kanwar Sandhu who managed to meet Baba Gurbachan Singh Manochal, founder of the original Panthik Committee and chief of the Bhindranwale Tigers Force of Khalistan. Baba Manochal is one of the troike of top militants who continues to evade the widening security dragnet.
It took a two-hour trudge along dusty byways to meet him, but this was inevitable. For, in the militant folklore of Punjab, Manochal is a key figure. Along with Wassan Singh Zafarwal, chief of Khalistan Commando Force, and Sukhdev Singh Dassuwal, head of Babbar Khalsa International, he has been a shadowy figure, evading direct contact with the media for the past five years.
An hour’s drive from Goindwal in Amritsar district and half-an-hour of a spine-rattling tractor ride took us to the point from where we started our trek to meet Manochal, whocarries a reward of Rs 20 lakh. Joined by three contacts, I set out on foot, armed with a small camera, tape recorder, torch and bludgeon. “Don’t answer if someone calls out and put on the torch only in case of an emergency,” I was instructed. Walking along narrow lanes, we often slipped into paddy fields covered with ankle-deep water. People operating tubewells offered help, mistaking us for militants. By the time we reached the designated farmhouse, my wet shoes were in my hand. There were about 15 people in the house, squatting on cots in the courtyard. Manochal came an hour later, accompanied by three others carrying a virtual armoury.
Baba, as Manochal is called, carried a. 3 8 mm pistol and assault rifle on his stocky frame. A one-time surveyor in the artillery division of the army, the 38-year-old Manochal quit when he was sentenced to a 10-month imprisonment following an altercation. On at least seven occasions, he was almost ensnared by the police. Contrary to police claims, he has been out of the country on only two occasions, once to Darra in North West Frontier province in Pakistan to buy weapons.His Punjabi is rustic, ornamented with quotes from Gurbani, and his answers candid, except on Pakistan’s involvement. Like most Punjab militants, Manochal too appears to live in a make-believe world. As far as giving in is concerned, his answer sums up his iron resolve: “There is no going back now. My promise to the waheguru is that I will never be caught alive.” Some excerpts from the interview.
Q: What exactly is the aim of this ‘struggle’ that you are engaged in?
A.The goal is simple. We want complete freedom and political power (sampooran prabhusatta). Give it any name you like-Khalistan or Sikh homeland. This Sikh raj will be in the light of the teachings of our Gurus and the Shri Guru Granth Sahib ensuring everyone’s welfare and equality.
Q. Do you have the present Punjab in mind or something bigger?
A.Let me explain. Due to the foolishness of our leaders, the area over which the Sikhs once ruled has been allowed to shrink. For the present, it is difficult to say what the boundaries will be.
What we do have in mind is the rule of Khalsa over the Delhi Takht because our war is against the Brahmin-Bania combine, which will not budge an inch without a struggle.
We shall fight to the end. Already there is trouble in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Andhra Pradesh. If dissent against Hindu fundamentalism takes the form of a national uprising, how will the Centre hold on?
Q. Are you coordinating with any other militant movements?
A. We are in touch with militants in Assam and Jammu and Kashmir. There has been some contact at the lower levels already. We are trying to form a common front. Since our enemy is one we could help one another.
Q. Which countries are helping you? Pakistan’s involvement is well known.
A. You say that, not I. I will not name any country but we are getting help from outside. Sometimes we have to buy weapons and sometimes we get weapons on the basis of an understanding which I can’t explain.
Q. Is there a chance of any settlement short of Khalistan?
A. Nothing short of Khalsa raj will be acceptable now. We shall negotiate only if Khalistan is on the agenda.
Q: But where will this place the Sikhs outside Punjab and the Hindus in Punjab?
A.Sikhs outside Punjab have been oblivious of our problems. Now I suggest that they set up a base in Punjab. It will be pragmatic, for some day they will have to shift here. We are not keen to expel or drive out Hindus from Punjab but they will have to reconcile to the existence of Khalistan.
Q. The Sikhs’anger was reportedly against Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Since they are no more is there a chance of a settlement now?
A. Whether it was the Nehru-Gandhi family or others like Morarji Desai, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar or Narasimha Rao, it has been the same for Sikhs. Only individuals change, not the thinking.
Q. Why did you decide to participate in elections and support the All India Sikh Students Federation (Manjit)?
A.Though we have no faith in the Indian Constitution, we are still in favour of participating in elections. Even after seven years we have gained little international recognition. This we will get only by wresting political power. Without this our image will remain that of killers.
If we get a majority and form a government we will pass a resolution for Khalistan. If we are not allowed to function we will say:’ ‘Kill us with bullets.” Can they do that to elected representatives?
Q. The Government has sensed this and is passing a law to disqualify those with secessionist designs from contesting. Will you still contest?
A. We will see. The Government will have to work out the parameters on who can contest. If we are not allowed to contest, we will tell the world this Government doesn’t consider us to be Hindustanis.
Q: But the militants themselves are divided on the issue of elections.
A. Our Panthik Committee was the first to start the struggle in April 1986, when it announced Khalistan and this committee has stood the test of time. Some people like Dr Sohan Singh, who are government agents, formed a parallel committee to undermine the struggle. On the issue of elections, we were clear from day one that we would contest.
Others like Dr Sohan Singh’s committee announced a boycott but helped Congressmen like Surinder Singh Kairon. They realised their mistake but could not go back on their decision.
The 1985 and 1989 elections taught us that people wanted to exercise their vote. We have not been able to prepare them to boycott polls. What was worse, these militant groups went about killing candidates-mainly Sikhs. You can spread your thoughts not through coercion but love. Our Gurus taught us this.
Q. But whether you admit it or not, militants of all hues have been indulging in extortion, kidnappings and even molestation of women. How do you explain this?
A. There are many aspects of this. Since we are underground, it is not possible to keep tabs on everyone. Frankly, if a government with such vast resources at its command can’t prevent Pilibhit-type massacres, it is unfair to expect underground groups to enforce fair play.
We, in fact, don’t want so many youth to take to militancy. Some are in it now for the heck of it. These elements are a headache for us too and we have had to kill a number of them.
Unfortunately, we have to fight on two fronts-against the Government and against some militant groups. I concede there’ve been massacres of innocents. But these’ve been retaliations against the Government’s lawlessness.
Q. Is there any hope of the militants joining Akali leaders?
A. Frankly Akali Dal leaders are irrelevant and most of them want the militants to be exterminated. Those who speak for us, do it only out of for fear of the bullet.
Q. But Simranjit Singh Mann has been speaking for the militants.
A. Mann is mentally bankrupt and keeps contradicting himself, which could be due to his torture in jail. I have met him and I have been disappointed. His bankruptcy is indicated by the people in his group.
One of them sells opium and another used to refer to Sant Bhindranwale as a Chambal dacoit and Congress(I) agent. Yet Mann claims to uphold the ideals of Sant Bhindranwale. He thinks no end of himself just because he spent four years in jail.
Q. Yet, you are reported to have met some Akali leaders during the elections?
A. Yes, some Akali Dal leaders like Sukhjinder Singh, Captain Kanwaljit Singh and Natha Singh Dalam came to meet me in my underground hide-out. But there could be no agreement. I don’t trust the Akali leaders.
Interview was originally posted by India Today in September 1991.