Operation Blue Star wouldn’t be there if Sikhs had gathered together to throw Bhindranwale

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Aside from being the land of green revolution, Punjab also boasts of having one of the highest number of NRIs. Its contribution to the armed forces is already an established fact. However, in the recent past, Punjab also fell victim to the menace of drugs, which dominated the political discourse in this year’s assembly elections.

operation blue star bhindranwale

The Akali Dal-BJP combine’s perceived failure to deal with the drug crisis proved Prakash Singh Badal costly as he lost the elections decisively.

It’s in this context that the new book, Punjab, The Enemy Within, becomes  a gripping read by Sadhavi Khosla and KPS Gill. The book paints a wonderful picture of Punjab’s history in a way never done before. Together, Sadhavi and the former top cop have been able to successfully capture the history of Punjab, from it being the land of glory to how the state fell victim to unwanted terrorism.

Since Gill was the man behind weeding out terrorism from Punjab, there wouldn’t have been a better person to narrate this story.

Chapter three, in fact, is dedicated to Indira Gandhi and her role in Operation Blue Star. Contrary to the vilification that the former prime minister received all throughout her life for her role in military operations inside the Golden Temple, the authors in the book have made a bold attempt to question the role of Bhindranwale asking if it wasn’t for him, would there have been any need for Operation Blue Star?

Only last week, President Pranab Mukherjee termed Gandhi as the most popular prime minister of India till date. He made these observations while taking part in an event to mark Indira Gandhi’s 100th birth anniversary in Delhi.

As for Khosla, the other author of the book, as well as having her roots in Punjab, she has extensively worked in the state in her capacity as a social activist. She’s one of the most credible names on Punjab affairs. Her documentary on drugs, Fading Glory, had earned her plenty of plaudits last year.

In short, the book is a must read!

Excerpts from Punjab, The Enemy Within- Chapter 3

From a Gungi Gudiya to Durga, the transition that Indira Gandhi’s chronicle marked was an inspiring one for sure. What Ram Manohar Lohia thought to be an apt name for Indira Gandhi—Gungi Gudiya or a dumb doll—was later proved to be nothing but a misnomer by the tough woman. She was indeed ‘the Iron Lady’ or ‘the Empress of India’ as many of us know her today.

But, the life of this woman was no easy walk. Struggles, losses, pains, slanders—all were in plenty. The worst of it all is the irony that the Sikhs, a community that Indira Gandhi always held in high regard, did not trust her enough. The Sikhs were unable to comprehend the reason why this strong woman had to attack their most holy shrine. They did not understand that it was never a battle against the Sikhs. It was a battle against militancy, and even though Indira managed to win this battle, she lost the battle for life.

The Sikh community had survived the pain of Independence. Along with the Hindus, this community toiled hard, and together they brought Punjab’s per capita income to the highest level in the entire country. The prosperity that Punjab enjoyed for a long time is highly attributable to the Sikh community, which gradually became the pride of the nation. But then what went wrong? Why did the same community start protests against the Indian government?

Because many of the Sikhs feared the loss of their identity. Prominent amongst them were the Akalis. Their hunger for power was absolute. They needed an agenda to take the throne of power back from Indira. And so, they brought back the mighty Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The introduction of the Sant In the early 1980s, Punjab again witnessed upheaval. While the state was burning under communalism, a few miles away Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her career.

It was in 1971 that Indira got the much acclaimed fame and power. Though she joined office in 1966, she showed her mettle, years later. One of the factors that decided her success was the adroitness that she portrayed while handling the war for the liberation of East Pakistan. There was no stopping the ‘Indira wave’. Like many other adversaries of Indira, the Akali Dal also wanted the wave to come to an end. They plotted agitations and Indira needed somebody to disrupt them.

What could be termed as the biggest mistake of her political career was the introduction of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Sanjay Gandhi and Zail Singh invented the Sikh radical, and Indira agreed to the gambit.

Zail Singh, the first ever Punjabi to hold the position of India’s President, was somebody who was always seen as Indira’s biggest loyalist. A sycophant some may allege him to be, he was someone whom Indira couldn’t disagree with. So, when Zail Singh insisted on weakening the Akali Dal’s prominence in Punjab by endorsing Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a rival to the then existing Sikh leadership in Punjab, Indira couldn’t say no.

With this started Indira’s and India’s most controversial political period ever. Unhappy with his defeat in the 1977 Assembly elections, Zail Singh knew that to regain power he would have to do something that has never been done before. Sanjay Gandhi, the rising stalwart in the Congress at that time, suggested bringing some Sant onto the political front of Punjab.

As Mark Tully and Satish Jacob penned in their book, Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle: To achieve the break-up of the Punjab coalition, Sanjay took the advice of the experienced Sikh politician, Zail Singh, who had been chief minister of the state from 1972 until the Congress Party’s electoral defeat in 1977. Zail Singh advised Sanjay to try to break the Akali Dal, not the Jan Sangh.

The Akali Dal was dominated by three men— Parkash Singh Badal, a rich farmer and an experienced politician who had succeeded Zail Singh as the chief minister; Harchand Singh Longowal, like Bhindranwale a religious teacher who had led an agitation against the Emergency; and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, a cunning but unsophisticated politician with communist connections.

He headed the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee. At first, Sanjay thought of playing these three against each other. But Zail Singh, with his deep knowledge of the complexities of Sikh politics, realised that displacing one of the Akali Trinity would only lead to a strong alliance of the other two.

He suggested that Sanjay look for a new religious leader to discredit the traditional Akali Dal leadership. Sanjay sent some of the young men, who had been his aides during the Emergency, to search for a sant or holy man to do the job.

With no dearth of holy men in Punjab, a list of twenty was drawn up. Some were unwilling, while others were unsuitable. The choice eventually fell on Bhindranwale. As head of the historic and widely respected Damdami Taksal, he had a ready-made status in the Sikh community. As a rigid fundamentalist, he could capitalise on the compromises with Sikh religious interests that the Akali Dal leaders were bound to make to stay in power. There was, however, a difficulty.

Bhindranwale needed an issue, a cause. When Sanjay’s young men found him, he was travelling around Punjab with his followers preaching against the threats to the Sikh religion; but the evils of shaving beards, cutting hair, drinking and doing drugs, were hardly political issues. So Sanjay and Zail Singh looked for a cause, which was both political and religious. The strategy was simple.

They needed someone who could give the Akalis a tough time—someone like the former chief minister of Punjab—the invincible Partap Singh Kairon. But what they failed to notice was that Bhindranwale, the strong and aggressive man they were looking for, had another side which was going to be etched in the history of the entire country—his fanaticism.

Unknowingly, they gave India her Frankenstein, just to get Punjab back in control. But that was not to be. What did happen was the beginning of an unimagined disaster.

With rhetoric that rested on violence and killings, Bhindranwale’s followers turned Punjab into hell. From demands of a separate country, Khalistan, to brutal manslaughter, they resorted to any and every thing that could bring Bhindranwale on top of the Sikh leadership.

The situation got worse and Bhindranwale’s brigade eventually declared war against the state. Punjab had already seen a lot— the brutal British Raj, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and the Partition—and now it was getting engulfed by communal violence too. Day after day, Bhindranwale’s group of armed supporters killed people. From civilians to security personnel, no one was shown mercy.

On 24 April, 1980 Baba Gurbachan Singh, the Guru of the Nirankari sect, was shot dead in his house in New Delhi. The previous confrontations between Bhindranwale and the Nirankaris put Bhindranwale on top of the list of possible convicts. But he escaped the accusation, for he had the support of Zail Singh. Contrary to what Zail Singh thought, the situation, instead of getting controlled, became much worse.

On 9 September, 1981, Lala Jagat Narain, the founder of Punjab’s leading daily, Punjab Kesari, fell victim to merciless gunfire. He was seen as a supporter of the Nirankari sect and often wrote editorials that condemned the acts of Bhindranwale. Once again, police suspected Bhindranwale’s hand in the murder.

After four days, the All India Radio announced that the police had issued a warrant for Bhindranwale’s arrest. At that time, he was in Chando Kalan, Haryana. Yet again Bhindranwale escaped the bars, but this time he fled. Many claim that Bhajan Lai, the then chief minister of Haryana, helped Bhindranwale in absconding, at the behest of Zail Singh. Yes, Zail Singh had once again helped Bhindranwale, brilliantly essaying his role of being Bhindranwale’s political godfather.

But Bhindranwale could not overlook the fact that the government set his sermons on fire. His secretary used to pen down every single word that he uttered, and these documents were precious to him and his preachers.

When they were set fire to, Bhindranwale’s rage stretched far enough to consume Zail Singh and the Congress government. He rebelled. Five days after his escape from Chando Kalan, he agreed to surrender himself following incessant negotiations by the police officers. On 20 September, 1981, Bhindranwale surrendered to the police. What followed next was pure commotion and communal viciousness across Punjab.

Things went out of control when Bhindranwale was ensconced near the holiest shrine of the Sikhs—the Golden Temple. In July 1982, Akali leader Harchand Singh Longowal summoned Bhindranwale to take cover within the Golden Temple compound. He needed someone who could fight against the government, and Bhindranwale was perfect. He and his followers entered the guest house besides the Akal Takht, Guru Nanak Niwas.

That changed the life of many Punjabis, along with that of Indira Gandhi. Operation Sundown In January 1984, the Congress government tried to sway Bhindranwale into abandoning the fanatic activities that he had then resorted to.

Surreptitious talks went on behind the scenes between Bhindranwale and the government, but bore no fruit. A month later, the government’s spies infiltrated the Golden Temple. The mission was simple—to study the layout of the vast structure and its surrounding buildings.

Disguised as pilgrims and journalists, these secret agents were up for an operation that could have been the most successful of operations in Indian history. Operation Sundown was intended to get hold of the fanatic leader, Bhindranwale.

A RAW unit was formed to rehearse Operation Sundown, and the most appropriate location was chosen—the Sarsawa Air Force base in Uttar Pradesh.

The plan was an indomitable one. Rehearsals went well. But, the operation never started. What could be the reason? Nothing but Indira Gandhi’s reluctance! She never wanted to hurt the religious sentiments of the Sikhs, plus there was an innate fear of numerous casualties. Being one of the highly revered and most visited sites in Punjab, the fear of causing many civilian deaths within such a sacred place was inescapable. Mrs Gandhi said ‘no’ to Operation Sundown.

Up next was a totally devastating strait for not only Punjab, but for all of India. By May 1984, Punjab was on the verge of collapse, thanks to the seeds of militancy sown by Bhindranwale, an individual who was brought in by the Congress itself. The government was repenting, while the police was helpless.

The ruthless murder of DIG A.S. Atwal inside the Golden Temple came as a shock to the entire state, more so to the Punjab Police who seemed to have been incapacitated after the attack. Complete mayhem broke out in Punjab. The government once again tried to convince Bhindranwale to back out.

This time the discussion was led by Narasimha Rao, one of the stalwarts of the Congress party. But Bhindranwale was adamant. The situation looked grim to Mrs Gandhi. Her personal secretary and confidante, R.K. Dhawan, guided her. He was of the opinion that in order to stop the evil, Bhindranwale must be attacked.

An assurance of no damage to the Golden Temple and no loss of lives was made. But that was just an assurance, not what actually took place afterwards. Before taking things forward, Indira Gandhi tried to persuade the Akalis to help her abduct Bhindranwale peacefully. But these talks proved to be futile. Hopeless and helpless to the core, Indira Gandhi knew that the Army was her last resort. Her intuition told her that the consequences of this daring act would be terrible.

Still, she had to do the inevitable. It is ironic that Punjab, which was already inured to massacres, had to witness bloodshed once again. But, what was more ironic is that the Prime Minister’s patriot, who happened to be the President of India at that time, Zail Singh, was totally unaware of the army operation planned to take place in the Golden Temple. The fact that Zail Singh was officially India’s Commander-inChief of the Armed Forces was simply overlooked.

However, one thing was certain. While Zail Singh was the creator of the fanatic preacher Bhindranwale, he did not become his destroyer. The operation that marked the end of Bhindranwale was a tragic one. The government knew it will impact the sentiments of the nation. But what it failed to recognise was the extent of that impact, which still hounds thousands of Sikhs across the globe today.

Over the years, I have heard many Punjabis criticising the government’s decision to conduct the operation on an occasion so revered by the Sikhs—it was the martyrdom day of their fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev, personified as the ultimate martyr. The occasion was of profound significance for the Sikhs. And so, they gathered at the Golden Temple from far-flung areas.

On the other hand, the government did have a strong explanation to go ahead with Operation Blue Star on a day that held great reverence for the Sikhs. It was simple. The government could not delay the arrest mission of Bhindranwale anymore, as he was going to be more aggressive in his approach towards Hindu killings.

It is said that he was about to launch a fierce movement intended to murder Hindus in all the villages across Punjab. With the rise in the killings before the Operation Blue Star started, the doubts of the government were taking a turn towards reality, preoccupied by fear.

Operation Blue Star On the night of 2 June, 1984, Mrs Gandhi made her broadcast. While she talked about matters of great importance to the nation, she did not mention anything about the army troops that had already been sent to the Golden Temple. But, soon the information was disseminated.

Later that night, All India Radio announced that Punjab’s control was handed over to the mighty Indian Army. Several divisions of the army were deployed in Punjab. Connection with the outside world was cut off. Amritsar, the pious land of the Sikh Gurus, was dimmed. There was complete blackout as curfew was imposed on the city. The danger that engulfed it was about to come out in the open.

On the night of 3 June, transportation was halted. To ensure that no exchange of information could take place, telex and telephone lines were cut. The state, which was once known for its cheerfulness, plunged into incomprehensible sadness. The Golden Temple was sealed and no one could enter or exit its premises. But, it was not the only gurdwara which had such tight security. There were around thirty-seven other gurdwaras which the army encircled. This was to abduct the several other followers of the ‘Sant’ who had taken refuge in the gurdwaras across Punjab.

The scene at the Golden Temple was a devastating one. Thousands of pilgrims were confined to the complex, finding it difficult to ditch the barrage of bullets that were exchanged between the army and Bhindranwale’s brigade. On 5 June, the army moved towards the temple complex. The fear of killing numerous innocent pilgrims was slowly becoming real. There was no warning given to them. They had nowhere to go.

Firing left them terrified. The army’s tanks and artillery arrived in plenty to suppress Bhindranwale’s brigade. But again, a mistake was made. The army did not rightly estimate the munitions possessed by the Sikh radicals. Thus, bloodshed was inexorable. As per the government sources, 83 army men lost their lives in the blood-spattered battle of 1984. The number of civilians who died came out to be 493. However, the unofficial figures estimate that thousands perished.

It was a civil strife which shook everybody. The Sikhs started loathing the government. The highest seat of temporal authority of the Sikhs, the Akal Takht, was ravaged. And, the worst outcome was that many pilgrims lost faith in the Almighty.

The glistening Golden Temple was a sight of death. Bloodied and battered bodies dotted the once blissful shrine. This grisly battle left many questions unanswered. The one that haunts my mind all the time is that, why did Bhindranwale not surrender?

All his life he talked about Sikhism and the sacrifices that one needs to make to be one with God; to attain salvation. He, for sure, knew that Sikhs were extremely devoted to the Golden Temple. He knew the significance of the holy site. He was also aware of the large number of innocent pilgrims who were gathered at the site to pay reverence to Guru Arjan Dev on his day of martyrdom.

Then why didn’t he step out to save their lives? On my first visit to the Golden Temple, about two years back, I was surprised to see the Operation Blue Star Memorial in the complex itself.

The entrance of the memorial has an inscription that reads: Memorial in memory of the 14th head of Damdami Taksal Martyr Saint Giani Jarnail Singh Ji Khalsa Bhindranwale and all martyrs of 1984. I have no words to describe the astonishment that I faced that day. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as they call Bhindranwale today, has turned from a militant into a martyr.

In fact, there are several gurdwaras across America, London and Canada, which blatantly display Bhindranwale’s pictures inside them. I am surprised to know that there are many Sikhs in India and abroad who consider Bhindranwale an avatar of the Sikh gurus. He is called a ‘Sant’ today. But what saintly deeds has he done?

If he is a ‘martyr’ as many of his followers make him out to be—why didn’t he come out in the open to stop the imminent devastation in the shrine during the Operation Blue Star? Was he hoping to escape? If he truly did not fear death, then he could have come out and died as a true martyr, not as a coward who took no honourable retreat.

He preached a lot about the Sikh religion. He talked highly of the tradition of martyrdom. But then, why couldn’t he save his religion and the Sikhs? He became the cause for the deaths of thousands of people, not only in Punjab, but in various parts of the country. Operation Blue Star led to an episode, which had even much more gruesome repercussions for the Sikh and Hindu communities. The Sikhs blamed Indira Gandhi for the operation. They blamed her decision to attack their most sacred site.

But, did they think, even for once, how Bhindranwale and his troops gained entry into the hallowed precincts of the temple? Why did they enter at all? How and why did they carry such a huge amount of arms and munitions into the holiest shrine of the Sikhs? These are the very questions that gave birth to Operation Blue Star.

There won’t have been an Operation Blue Star if the Sikhs, who are said to be the bravest of all, had gathered together and thrown Bhindranwale out of their pious temple. As stressed by Amarjit Kaur in The Punjab Story: Actually the blow to the Sikh community has been quite profound. We are a very proud community.

We thought we were the cat’s whiskers, the saviour of all. But now it was seen that we did not have the guts to face the situation. We, the Sikhs, should have been the ones to throw Bhindranwale out of the premises of the Golden Temple.

We are now finding it difficult to admit our own failure. Our so-called dynamism and bravery has disappeared. The Sikhs, instead of acting brave at the time when Bhindranwale was lodged inside the Golden Temple, acted brave later. The subsequent fallouts were appalling. S On 31 October 1984, roughly four months after the execution of Operation Blue Star, there came up another bone of contention. But, this time the upshots were even more horrifying than ever before.

(Punjab : The Enemies Within : Travails of a wounded land riddled with toxins is available for purchase from Amazon website at Rs 440)

 

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