Baba Nam Singh Khalsa was living on the top floor of Guru Nanak Niwas at the Darbar Sahib complex when Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale moved in with nearly 30 of his men.
It was July 1982, in Amritsar.
For security reasons, Jarnail Singh did not want anyone else on the same floor. He asked Baba Nam Singh to move out. But by speaking in Punjabi, which he studied during the 18 months he had already spent in Punjab, Baba Nam Singh somehow convinced the Sikh dissident to let him stay.
“We spoke,” he said. “He knew who I was. He told me to go ahead and stay there.”
It wasn’t long before he and Jarnail Singh’s men began to bond. They spent a lot of time together on the roof of the niwas, a lodging facility for pilgrims. They also ate langar together.
“I was always invited,” he said. “I usually ate up on the roof with those guys.”
Beginning at 2 a.m., every morning, they would go to the Darbar Sahib and clean the floors, then go to the Akal Takhat and do more seva. Their routine finished at 5 a.m.
“We would do Baanees together and we would make a drink, like lemonade,” he said. “Then I would go back to the Darbar Sahib for Aasaa Dee Vaar.
“I found them to be very friendly, very dedicated.”
Baba Nam Singh Khalsa was the name Yogi Harbhajan Singh (Puri) Khalsa, also known as Yogi Bhajan, gave Norman Kreisman when he became his devotee. ‘Baba’ was part of his name, not the honorific typically given to show respect.
“I wanted to study Sikhism,” Kreisman told SikhNN, more than 30 years later. So, Yogi Bhajan sent him to India.
He was 32, in 1980, when Yogi Bhajan sent him to live in Punjab with Baba Nihal Singh, a nihung of the Tarna Dal. Although the dal was centered in the Harianvela village of the Hoshiarpur district, Baba Nam Singh lived with the nihungs in a small gurdwara in the Hakimpur village of the Jalandhar district. His room was on the roof.
“(Nihal Singh) was well known, he had a following, but I never really connected for one reason or another,” Kreisman said. “I stayed there for about six months but not much was happening. Then I moved to Amritsar.
“I had a much closer connection with Sant Jarnail Singh’s men than I did with Baba Nihal Singh’s men.”
At Guru Nanak Niwas
Baba Nam Singh picked up Punjabi while he was with Nihal Singh. But, at the niwas, he studied the language and was able to hold a conversation with the locals. He also taught an upper-secondary English class at the Shri Guru Ram Das Senior Secondary School. And he enrolled in a gyaanee correspondence course from Punjabi University, Patiala.
“Sant Jarnail Singh’s men, some of them would help me with my homework,” he said, with a chuckle.
Baba Nam Singh had been on his own in Punjab for a couple of years. Yogi Bhajan would come to visit him once a year. But that was it. He had no contact with his life back in the United States, other than care packages from his now ex-wife that were ransacked by Indian customs officials before he received them.
Then, in October 1982, a few of Yogi Bhajan’s disciples came from the U.S. on a month-long yatra. Among them was Guru Sant Singh Khalsa. That’s the name Yogi Bhajan gave him when he became his disciple, about five years earlier. He eventually left the yogi’s dharma, in 2009, and changed his name to Gursant Singh.
“I was inspired by the history of the Sikh religion,” Gursant Singh told SikhNN. He was 25 when he went to India.
“It turned out only three of us were on the yatra, the smallest ever to go to India,” he said.
There were so many problems in Punjab at that time. Sikhs were protesting every day. People were getting killed. There was so much violence, Yogi Bhajan didn’t even make his annual trip, he said.
The three visitors went to Baba Nam Singh, their fellow American, at the niwas.
“He was very Punjabi-ized!” Gursant Singh said, with a laugh. “He looked like a Punjabi, with darkened skinned. And he spoke Punjabi, fluently.”
While the two women on the yatra shared a separate room at the niwas, Guru Sant Singh stayed with Baba Nam Singh in his room.
“He was pretty American!” Kreisman said, with a chuckle. “He definitely stood out, wearing all white.” White was Yogi Bhajan’s dress code.
“I took him around and introduced him to people,” he said. “We went to Hemkund Sahib, Anandpur Sahib, and maybe to Hakimpur to meet Baba Nihal Singh.”
The American guests stayed at the niwas for about two weeks, and saw the volatile situation for themselves.
“We saw these Sikhs gathering every day in the area in front of the niwas with orange dastaars,” Gursant Singh said. “They would then walk out of the gate near the langar hall, and out onto the street and get arrested by the police. There were a lot of protests going on there because the government had not fulfilled promises about giving rights to Sikhs. There also were protests against water rights. My understanding was that they were protesting every day.
“There would be these big tent-prisons in the Punjab countryside where they would put these prisoners. It was becoming a big problem.
“We could hear bullets on the streets of Amritsar at night," Gursant Singh said. "It was pretty frightening.”
Baba Nam Singh asked if they had heard of a Sikh leader named Jarnail Singh, and asked if they wanted to meet him. The two women were not interested but Guru Sant Singh went up to the roof of the niwas.
“I took him to see Sant Jarnail Singh,” Kreisman said. “He met him once or twice… Maybe he got inspired by him and his men.”
The first time Guru Sant Singh met him, Jarnail Singh was drinking tea, surrounded by many supporters.
“He was interested because I was a white Sikh, and asked how I became a Sikh,” he said. “He was cordial, polite and very humble. I got a good feeling about him.
“I told him that I was a Christian before, and that I really liked the Sikh life style, belief in one God, and that Sikhs fought for freedom.
“I did not understand what he was saying, but just by the manner of his speech, I could see he was a good Sikh.”
Guru Sant Singh called Yogi Bhajan and asked him if he could stay in Amritsar with Jarnail Singh. At the time, he was attracted to the sant-sipaayee (saint-soldier) aspects of Sikh history.
“It was important to me how Sikhs were ready to defend their religion," he said.
He also was attracted to Sikh weaponry, and other weapons such as rifles and guns, he said. Gursant Singh had graduated from a military academy and was an expert marksman. And he often served as Yogi Bhajan’s bodyguard.
“Sant Jarnail Singh’s bodyguards carried AK47 and other intimidating weapons," he said. "I talked to them about their guns.”
Many of the firearms that Jarnail Singh's men are often pictured carrying include American-made World War II .30 caliber M1 carbines, which are considered old technology, he said.
“From what I can gather, Sant Jarnail Singh's men had very few AK47s, and most of their weapons were outdated and of World War II vintage.”
But he still wanted to stay and fight. The idea of fighting and defending oneself with weapons was important to Guru Sant Singh.
“There are lots of things going on here,” he told Yogi Bhajan’s secretary, by phone. “They are fighting for freedom, and I want to stay here and help.”
Yogi Bhajan sent back the message: “Absolutely not! Get back to the U.S.”
The visitors returned to the U.S. at the end of their yatra. And Baba Nam Singh remained at the niwas, studying to be a gyaanee.
The Indian army prepares for the invasion
By the end of 1983, Amritsar began to be fortified. Gurkha soldiers from the Indian army formed a ring around the Darbar Sahib complex, at the marketplaces. They set up several checkpoints along its perimeter. A checkpoint was basically a stand surrounded by sandbags, inside which heavily armed Gurkhas were stationed.
“We could see that from the roof, their checkpoints,” Kreisman said.
“And they were really mean little guys, I mean these Gurkhas, never smiling. They were stationed there probably for six months before the attack. Instead of getting to know the local people, they just were very standoff-ish, very unfriendly. Besides having their guns, they had their Gurkha knives on their belts.
“Everybody could see that there was a military presence there.
“We had our Kirpans and Sri Sahibs (long swords). (But) at that point we started having our own armed-guards on the roof of the niwas.”
Newspapers began to report that Jarnail Singh was talking about a separate Sikh state.
“I had mixed feelings,” Kreisman said. “If you think about it, and I would ask them: So if we have Khalistan do we also have like a dharma police? Are you going to make sure that men keep hair and don’t drink wine, just like in a Muslim country where you have, like the Taliban, where you have a police, that their job is to uphold the moral standards?
“Even though I wasn’t doing anything that was anti-Sikhi or anything, it should be really up to the individual to be dharmic. I kind of did not like the idea.
“These guys wanted a Sikh state. What goes along with that? And what about the religious rights of people who live there who were not Sikh, or who were Sikhs but were not devout? …Do we really need it?
“They said that is what we want - a fundamentalist Sikh state.
“But the idea for a separate state was floating around Punjab,” Kreisman added. “It was not exclusive to Jarnail Singh.”
Baba Nam Singh never had a personal conversation with Jarnail Singh about a separate state. The two rarely talked one-on-one. But he often heard the sant speak from the rooftop. Although his men talked about a separate Sikh state, Kreisman could not recall ever hearing Jarnail Singh using the word “Khalistan” in any of his conversations or lectures.
“He definitely thought Sikhs were being mistreated, especially in Punjab, even though they were the majority," Kreisman said. "He saw the solution to make Punjab a separate country.
"But I think the emphasis was on the mistreatment.”
At the Darbar Sahib, “they wanted some exclusionary zone where there wouldn’t be any tobacco selling or wine shops,” he added. “I mean, I agreed with that. I didn’t see why we needed tobacco sellers within the shadow of its walls.”
But now, the walls were also surrounded by Gurkhas.
Jarnail Singh’s men
“They had very old homemade rifles, country-made pistols that used shotgun shells,” he said. “One of Jarnail Singh’s men was checking this homemade pistol, he opened it, took out the shotgun shell, examined it, put the shotgun shell back in. And when he closed it, it fired. And he shot himself in the leg. So, he was in the niwas with a gunshot wound in his leg.”
Kreisman could not remember his name but he remembered that he was from Singapore. He came from a middle-class family and worked at the Singapore airport. He left his life and family to come to Amritsar and be with Jarnail Singh. And because English was his first language, he and Baba Nam Singh became good friends.
When his sister found out about the gunshot wound, she flew from Singapore to take him home, he said. She begged him to come back home.
“He talked to us, with his sister, but he refused. She left without him.”
Kreisman also remembered Jarnail Singh’s other men. They had a unique way of tying their dastaars, called 'Bhindranwale style.' It had a certain design on it. They showed Baba Nam Singh how to tie their style of dastaar, and also gave him their style of kurtas.
“They were very nice and very, very giving,” he said.
Every group had its own style. When Baba Nam Singh was living with the nihungs, he took on their uniform of blue cholaas and dastaars that were high on top.
The conspicuous American
At Darbar Sahib, Baba Nam Singh sometimes served as a translator for foreign news organizations. He particularly remembered a journalist who was doing a story on nihungs for National Geographic. He thanked Baba Nam Singh by taking him to a fancy restaurant at the mall area across from Maharajah Ranjit Singh Garden. He eventually saw a copy of the 1985 nihung issue when he was back to the U.S.
Baba Nam Singh also helped translate for a French photojournalist working for Le Figaro magazine.
Later, he helped interpret for Jarnail Singh when an American journalist came to interview him about the troubles in Punjab. He could not recall the name of the newspaper but remembered it was a large publication from New York or Washington, probably the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Baba Nam Singh had gained the trust and friendship of Jarnail Singh and his men, but he could not shake their suspicion that he was an undercover agent.
“For some reason, everybody thought I was a CIA spy,” he said, with a laugh. “In my room I had a short-wave radio… I used to listen to Voice of America or news from the BBC. That was it. But they were sure it was a way to communicate with the CIA.”
Baba Nam Singh was also followed by the Amritsar police, and stopped a couple of times. One time they took him to the police station and showed him pictures of suspects on their watch list, wanting to know if he were involved with any of them. Most were Afghans who had escaped the Soviet War in Afghanistan, and ended up in Punjab.
“They were keeping an eye on these Afghans, and me, for some reason,” he said.
“As a foreigner, they treated me differently, everybody did. They were afraid to mistreat me. Even when they took me to the police station they never touched me. If I were not American, I don’t know what would have happened.”
The police told him to stay with Jarnail Singh, at the niwas. He was under house arrest for three months because his visa had expired. It had been expired for a couple of years, at least.
“They said if they see me on the street they would arrest me. But through (Yogi Bhajan’s) connections, (President) Gyaanee Zail Singh helped me get a visa. He cleared it up from Delhi. I had to go to Delhi to get the visa on my passport and come back.”
By 1984, Punjab was turning into a military zone. Curfews were in place. And gunshots were heard at night.
“A couple of times a bus was stopped in the Punjab countryside by these masked guys, and everybody was told to get off. And Sikhs were told to go on one side and Hindus told to go on the other. And then these guys shot all the Hindus.
“Someone was saying that this was Sant Jarnail Singh’s (doing)… They blamed him. He said it wasn’t him. It was government supporters trying to make him look bad.
“Sant Jarnail Singh told me it was the Punjabi police who were doing it to destabilize the (separatist) movement, so that Sant Jarnail Singh would get blamed for it,” Kreisman said. “But he was not doing it. The Punjabi police were doing it. He told me himself. I believe him.
“Look at what happened after Indira Gandhi’s (assassination). Look at how many men they killed. The Punjab police tortured Baba Nihal Singh. He was dragged behind a jeep. He survived. But the point is that I would not put that past the Punjab police.
“His opponents were also saying that – and I never saw any evidence of this – but they were saying that Sant Jarnail Singh was being financed by Pakistan, or influenced by the Soviet Union, all kinds of things about his being manipulated by other (foreign) people who had an agenda to destabilize India. I don’t know, I never saw any of that.
“Certainly his men were true believers,” Kreisman said. “They weren’t cynical. They weren’t doing it for any political reason.”
But evidence shows that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did ask for foreign assistance. Recently released British top-secret letters circulated between the foreign office, the home office, the cabinet office and the defense ministry show that Gandhi asked Prime Minister Thatcher “for advice on plans for the removal of dissident Sikhs from the Golden Temple.” Sometime before February 1984, Thatcher sent a Secret Air Services officer to Delhi to possibly help plan the attack on Darbar Sahib. The conspiracy was kept under wraps at London until a couple of the letters were, perhaps accidentally, released and coincidentally discovered this week, 30 years later.
As tensions escalated in Punjab, Yogi Bhajan asked Baba Nam Singh to send information on what was happening.
“I read the local papers every day," Kreisman said. "He asked me to cut out articles he might find interesting, keeping abreast of what was going on in Punjab. I would cut out articles and mail it to him, articles about stuff like with Sant Jarnail Singh, the thing about those busses. He was aware of that stuff, I think, at least from other sources. But I would send him clippings of newspaper articles about those things.”
Jarnail Singh and his men knew what was coming.
“They had a kind of shaheed mentality. If you go down the street, there is Baba Deep Singh Shaheed gurdwara. They related to that. They definitely knew, and maybe even welcomed, the opportunity to die as shaheeds," Kreisman said.
“The thing to remember is that they were not there to protect the Golden Temple. Sant Jarnail Singh was there for protection. The Golden Temple was a sanctuary. The police would never go in there to arrest anybody.
“(But) the Golden Temple was attacked because he was there. Some people were angry and felt he had endangered innocent people by hiding out there."
When asked if Jarnail Singh and his men ever expected the army to come inside, Kreisman said: “I don’t think so. I don’t know if they thought that the army would actually invade the temple itself, as opposed to the surrounding area. I don’t think we ever talked about them actually going into the temple.”
It was their belief that they were going to die as martyrs, fighting for their cause outside the Darbar Sahib complex.
Two months before the invasion, known as ‘Operation Blue Star,’ Baba Nam Singh was kicked out of India.
“I was told to leave by the Indian government,” he said. “They knew. Yeah, they knew. They wanted me out.
“Before I left, things were getting a little hairy. I remember one time, up on the roof, some bullets went whizzing by us. Someone was trying to take pot shots at us. So, I remember, we all hit the ground, fired a couple of shots back.
"The Gurkhas, I’m not sure if they were just goofing around, but they definitely shot at us. Nobody got hit.
“And there were curfews,” he added. “We had to be in by a certain time.
“I had to leave right away,” Kreisman said. “I gave away things to Sant Jarnail Singh’s guys - the cassette player - I gave a bunch of stuff away.”
Baba Nam Singh never completed his gyaanee studies. But, unlike Guru Sant Singh, he would not have tried to stay and fight alongside Jarnail Singh.
“I had not felt that it was my fight,” he said. “They had grievance with the government, but I was never mistreated. And I was not particularly convinced of a fundamentalist Sikh state. I didn’t disagree necessarily. It was not what I was passionate about.”
After Baba Nam Singh left, a ‘60 Minutes’ news crew came from the U.S. to interview Jarnail Singh, just three weeks before the attack. The segment, called, ‘The Sikhs,’ aired on CBS on June 10, 1984, a few days after the invasion that spanned from June 2 to June 6.
Harry Reasoner conducted the interview. Baba Nam Singh was not there anymore, so someone else had to translate for Jarnail Singh.
Reasoner: “...This man always knew he was in danger. He was right. He died early in the fight. He had been in the temple for two years, under security within security. But he was always accessible to his followers... Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, 38 when he was killed. If he had been an American pastor, he would have been a fundamentalist. He hated the successful urban Sikhs who trim their beards and wear two-piece suits. The poor and the illiterate loved him, brought him what rupees they could spare.”
Reasoner and his crew went all around the Darbar Sahib complex, outside and inside. Outside, they saw the majority of the Sikh dissidents participating in nonviolent protests, same as what Guru Sant Singh saw.
Reasoner: “Not all the Sikhs we saw were militants... By the hundreds, they turned themselves in to the police to plead guilty to real or imagined offenses, to clog the jails and to clog the already clogged Indian bureaucracy.”
Inside Darbar Sahib, Reasoner noted that Jarnail Singh had “hundreds” of men, but that they were in the minority. Then he met with their leader.
Reasoner: “We found him at a mid-day audience. “You want to talk,” he said, “Sit down and we’ll talk. We want,” said the priest, “to bring an end to the slavery, which had been put around the necks of the Sikhs… In Sikhism,” he said, “religion and politics are inseparable from each other…” He is a Sikh and a servant of the Sikhs. “And in Sikhism,” he said, “nothing is irrational. A Sikh is never an oppressor but only defends himself and his people. “I have never,” he said, “initiated any attack with my tongue or my pen or with my sword. I only answer back or retaliate,” he said, “to actions initiated by the enemies of the Sikhs.””
Jarnail Singh spoke openly of the deaths and violence.
Reasoner: “These were not murders,” he said, “but justice. And, if necessary, the Sikhs would set up their own state.”
Back in the US
Baba Nam Singh heard about the army’s attack when he was back in the U.S. He never heard from any of Jarnail Singh’s men again, not even the one from Singapore. But some of the people he knew, some of them ended up in the U.S. In 1987, he met the son of a merchant he used to know.
“They had this souvenir shop near the clock tower,” he said. “I saw that every day. He told me what it was like. They were holed up in their house for days with some other people."
He also mistakenly told Kreisman that that the Indian army evacuated all the pilgrims from the Darbar Sahib complex before troops went in to battle the militants.
“I don’t know if at that point if regular pilgrims had been given notices to leave," Kreisman said. "The only people that were left inside to fight were probably people who wanted to be there.”
Reasoner reported that perhaps 15,000 troops invaded Darbar Sahib to kill Jarnail Singh and his couple of hundred men.
“They were alert and armed,” Reasoner said of Jarnail Singh’s men. “But we got the feeling that they were sure they were safe. Breaking into the temple would be like the Italian army raiding St. Peter’s to arrest a dissident cardinal. We were all wrong.”
According to Sikhmuseum.com, the Indian government sent 100,000 troops to isolate and seize the state of Punjab. The government reported 200 combatants killed and 493 non-combatants killed. Independent sources estimated between 100 and 150 combatants killed, and up to 8,000 non-combatants killed.
“Well, I didn’t know about that,” Kreisman said.
Baba Nam Singh had been suddenly thrust back to the U.S., to his life with Yogi Bhajan, a life and a man he did not recognize anymore.
Although Yogi Bhajan had known Nihal Singh before he sent Baba Nam Singh to live with him, Jarnail Singh was one of the few public figures he did not know at that time.
“I think he did more talking about him (Jarnail Singh) after he died than while he was alive, that he was being manipulated by foreign interests. Who knows? I don’t know why he says the stuff he says. I really don’t care.
“I’m sure I told him what I thought. (But) why would he think - just because I lived with him for a couple of years - why would I know any more than he? I mean you’re not dealing with a normal person,” he said of Yogi Bhajan.
“He told the SGPC that if they made Baba Nihal Singh jathedar of the Akal Takhat, that that would somehow protect the Golden Temple from being invaded, or some story like that. I don’t know that it’s true. It’s just something Yogi Bhajan said after the fact, after Operation Blue Star.
“First of all, it implies that he knew that something was going to happen. We don’t know if he did. And if he did, how did he know? Maybe he had connections with Gandhi or something. Who knows?”
Publications by Yogi Bhajan's organizations show he had connections with members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the Akal Takhat jathedaars, after 1981, members of the Punjab and Delhi governments, members of parliament, and a particularly tight connection with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
He knew Gandhi before he left for the United States in 1968, and was invited to her residence many, if not every, time he visited India.
Baba Nam Singh accompanied Yogi Bhajan on one of those visits to Gandhi’s palace in Delhi.
“I know he visited her is Delhi," Kreisman said. "I was part of the group that went with him to visit her. This was in the early 1980s. He went to Delhi, and we were invited to her residence in Delhi. I remember she would not allow any pictures taken except (by) her official photographer. And none of us could take pictures of the event. And I remember I had to leave my Sri Sahib at the front. I had to leave it with the guard at the front.”
Baba Nam Singh left Yogi Bhajan, and Sikhi, and closed the doors to a time that seemed more like a previous life than an old memory.
“I left because I learned from my time in India that Yogi Bhajan was not teaching real Sikhism. He was teaching his own whatever it is. And then I had to decide…
“I don’t want to be a Yogi Bhajan Sikh. Do I want to be an American Sikh in America?
"When I came back here I was very disillusioned by what I saw (at Yogi Bhajan’s ashrams). I saw people that thought they were Sikhs that didn’t know the first thing about it. They were so into their own thing, I didn’t even recognize it as Sikhism. And I didn’t want to associate with them anymore.”
Perhaps he did not find enough support around him to remain a Sikh. Baba Nam Singh left Sikhi in 1987 and went back to being Norman Kreisman. He is now a lawyer in Southern California. He has a raspy voice and talks openly, sometimes fondly, of his time with Jarnail Singh and his men. But don’t ask him about his time with Yogi Bhajan. He gets upset.
“I’ll just tell you a story and then I don’t want to talk about it anymore because I’m not interested in it,” he told SikhNN.
“We were at the Golden Temple in the morning for Aasaa Dee Vaar. And, at the stage where we were sitting, right up close, there is the place where they pass out the parshaad. But before they do, they first pass it out to the punj pyaaray. Because we were sitting up front, we were part of the punj pyaaray. So we, five of us, got it first – me and Yogi Bhajan and three other people. And what you do is you hold it in your hands, and then they put some in a bowl for the Guru.
“I went to the Golden Temple every morning for four years. I know how it works…
“So we’re supposed to hold it. And you hold it in both hands until the Guru is served. They put it in a bowl and cover it with a cloth. And then you partake it yourself. And you usually give some out to other people, too.
“(Yogi Bhajan) started eating his right when they gave it to him, before they served the Guru. You could hear this whole murmur in the Golden Temple - the people - you could hear this whole murmur in the crowd. And a bunch of people kind of turned to me, because I guess they knew I knew, and they said, even he turned to me and said, What’s going on? What’s going on? What’s the big deal?
“I said, you’re supposed to wait until they serve the Guru.
“And Yogi Bhajan said to me: “I am the Guru.””
_________________________From Sikh News Network archives.