“Why aren't Sikhs commenting?” my friend, Norman Kreisman, wondered in the days after his story, “The American who lived with Bhindranwale,” was published on Jan. 17, 2014. The article was linked and read all over the world but intelligent, normally very talkative Sikhs, weren't discussing it online. Were Sikhs snubbing him? Did they not believe him? Were they shocked speechless?
Norman, a busy 66-year-old Jewish lawyer from Southern California, did not like being interviewed because it took so much of his time and it brought back traumatic memories. He was uncomfortable with how he ended up right in the middle of Sikh history, at Darbar Sahib during 1980 to1984. Back then, he was known as Baba Nam Singh Khalsa, and he had come to live intimately with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his men. It hadn't been easy or fun for Norman to share his memories, yet he felt he owed it to santji and all the other Sikh martyrs.
His story was finally out but it left him feeling a bit let down and confused. Norman wondered if he was being shunned. And, if so, why?
Then, on Feb. 1, 2014, a representative from the Jakara Movement, a California youth group whose mission is to "reflect on our past and prepare for our future," contacted Norman and asked him to be a presenter at a Sikh academic conference at Stanford University.
Norman was stunned. Stanford is very prestigious, and being asked to speak at a Sikh academic conference without first having an advanced degree in religious studies, and submitting a paper, and being chosen by an elite panel, is a rare and unusual honor. What did it all mean?
After speaking at Stanford, Norman was invited to give his presentation at two more academic conferences, one at the University of California, at Davis, in June 2014, and one at Princeton University, in New Jersey, in October 2014.
Norman has learned from these experiences about Sikhs’ reactions to 1984. The knowledge has shocked him.
“The Stanford conference organizers, and 98 percent of the participants, were Sikhs in their 20s and 30s,” Norman told me. “Half, if not more, of the participants and speakers were Sikh women, which was great to see. It was immediately apparent to me that I was with some of the warmest, most respectful, intelligent and most sincere people I have ever had the honor to be with, all young enough to be my children.”
Norman enjoys public speaking. He was once a school teacher. And now he gives seminars to accountants and lawyers on tax law. In his presentation about Bhindranwale, Norman included his photos of India from the early 1980s. He received lots of praise and applause at all three academic conferences, and the question-and-answer sessions all ran overtime.
At Stanford, Norman spoke to about 200 young people, mostly graduate students. But his favorite presentation was at UC Davis where his audience was 150 undergraduate Sikh students.
“Most of the UC Davis conference participants came from California, and were between 18 and 22 years old,” he said. “They were born after the1984 Operation Blue Star, and most were born here in the USA. They were very eager to hear about my experiences in India. Most had visited India once or twice but had never been told about the invasion of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army. The students felt that my side of the story carried some extra weight because I was an outsider and didn't have an axe to grind. They were very appreciative of my talk and asked lots of questions both at the talk and later after the talk, at various breaks. They thanked me for my seva.”
The Princeton University conference was the most difficult for Norman, partly because of the long early-morning flight and the late night arrival. He felt less welcomed at Princeton. His audience was smaller, mixed age, quiet and serious, and failed to laugh at any of his jokes.
It was at Princeton University that Norman confronted a woman in the front row who rolled her eyes and sniffed when Norman said that newspapers in India, in 1982 and 1983, had falsely accused Bhindranwale and his men of stopping buses and murdering all the Hindus inside.
“They were Khalsa and I was there! Did she not believe me?” he wondered. “I confronted her on whether she believes everything she reads in the newspaper? Jarnail Singh and his men were idealistic young people, in their 20s and 30s. They were Khalsa, strictly living under Khalsa vows. They were very devout.”
By this time Norman had learned even more about the Sikhs’ cold and hot reactions to his story. Over and over, young Sikhs approached him after his presentations saying, “I wish my parents could see this and meet you!”
Since their parents actually lived through the Sikh holocaust of the November 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms, losing family members and friends, Norman felt outraged.
“The young people I spoke to really needed to hear from an outsider with no agenda that the (Indian) government has spread disinformation, and that santji and his men were not terrorists,” he said. “But it is their parents I am worried about.”
“My parents told me about Hitler and the death camps,” Norman said. "I shared with a conference organizer how the only people who talked to me were Sikhs under age 40, and that none of the few gray beards in attendance, people my age, even talked to me! He told me that the gray beards don't speak to them (the under 40's) either!”
“The younger generation Sikhs at my presentation knew very little or nothing about 1984! Their parents don't talk about it. Also, many of their parents believe that Sant Jarnail Singh and his men were terrorists using Darbar Sahib as protection and a base of operations, and forced the government to act. In other words, way too many older generation Sikhs have bought into the Indian government's propaganda campaign!”
In 2014, thirty years after Operation Bluestar, Norman Kreisman, the American who lived with Bhindranwale, agreed to be interviewed. Via the Internet, he watched his story read by Sikhs all over the world. Yet the only response Norman received came from the Jakara Movement, a group run by and for younger generation Sikhs, otherwise the Sikh cyber sangat universally ignored him.
Norman finds he just wants to say one more thing to Sikhs, one more time: "In the months before Operation Bluestar everyone knew that a Indian government military attack against Sikhs of some sort was brewing. Sant Jarmail Singh and his men were not HIDING at Darbar Sahib, they were there to PROTECT IT. Pure and simple."