Correct me if I am wrong but anyone who lived through the events of the 1980s in Punjab must feel that history is being rewritten.
And much of the rewriting capitalizes on the fact that a younger generation of Indians is unaware of exactly what went on.
Let’s agree that the Sikh massacres of 1984 were a national disgrace. And yes, Congressmen were involved, no matter what the Congress may have said later. On this subject, there can be no disagreement.
But where there now seems to be room for disagreement is Operation Bluestar. In the mayhem unleashed by Rahul Gandhi’s needless refusal to apologize for the 1984 riots, everything seems to be up for grabs. And so apologists for terrorism appear on TV night after night to distort history and to glorify the indefensible, placing Bluestar on par with the riots.
Here’s what happened in the 1980s. Though Sikhs had always seemed like an integral part of the Indian mainstream, a bizarre demand for a separate state of Khalistan was suddenly raised. Sikhs started claiming that they faced discrimination and many argued – contrary to all the textual evidence – that Sikhism had nothing to do with Hinduism and that its monotheistic nature made it a more natural fit with Islam.
There was a political component to all of this. The Congress was not just fighting the Akali Dal in Punjab, it was also fighting within itself. The battle went three ways: Zail Singh vs. Darbara Singh vs Buta Singh. Indira Gandhi made Zail Singh Home Minister of India and eventually Darbara Singh became Chief Minister of Punjab. (Buta got a consolation prize.) According to Darbara Singh and his followers, Zail Singh, who was a protégé of Sanjay Gandhi, told the Congress leadership that he could break the Akali Dal’s hold on the Gurudwaras by promoting a firebrand preacher called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Though he shied away from openly asking for a separate Khalistan (“I am neither for it nor against it,” he would say), Bhindranwale became the face of Sikh militancy. Many of the militants were no better than terrorists. They murdered their enemies at will, planted bombs that killed civilians and divided Hindus and Sikhs. It was not unknown for militants to stop a bus, to ask the Hindu passengers to get out and to then shoot them dead.
Clearly something had to be done. Talks with Sikh leaders failed at least partly, according to Darbara Singh, because Giani Zail Singh warned the leaders against accepting any kind of settlement. As always happens in these cases, the moderates within the Sikh leadership were edged out and the likes of Bhindranwale took over.
History will judge Indira and Sanjay Gandhi harshly for their role in handling Punjab. First Sanjay encouraged Zail Singh to promote Bhindranwale and then, after Zail Singh moved to Rashtrapati Bhawan, Mrs Gandhi refused to act decisively against the militants. A resolute leader would have arrested Bhindranwale in 1983. But Mrs. Gandhi put her faith in talks and dialogue that went nowhere. Meanwhile, Bhindranwale grew so strong that law enforcement officers in Punjab were too scared to act against him for fear that they or their families would be targeted. So not only did the militants have the run of the Golden Temple but the police and paramilitary personnel posted in that area were too scared to prevent arms from going into the Temple.
Mrs. Gandhi believed, correctly as it turned out, that even moderate Sikhs would not be pleased if armed forces entered Sikhism’s most holy shrine. But given that Bhindranwale had to be stopped one way or the other, Mrs. Gandhi should have recognised that some form of police action was inevitable. What she needed was a suitable opportunity.
She got one in April 1983 when militants shot a Punjab police DIG A.S. Atwal dead inside the Temple and left his body out in the open to rot. If she had sent the police or paramilitary into the Temple to arrest Atwal’s killers, moderate Sikhs would have supported the action. Unfortunately, she let the moment pass. And after that, no police officer was willing to act against Bhindranwale because he knew that the government would not back him.
Among Mrs. Gandhi’s closest advisors was R.N. Kao, a legendary figure in intelligence circles who had set up R&AW. Kao recommended a commando or covert operation to either capture or take out Bhindranwale. India had no experience in these matters so Kao’s men sought expertise from Britain, Israel and other countries that had undertaken such operations.
Mrs. Gandhi rejected all covert options and one view is that the British advised against such an operation on the grounds that it was unfeasible. Finally, when IB reported that the militants were getting ready to formally declare an independent republic of Khalistan from inside the Temple, she was stirred into action.
Bizarrely, she chose the army, which had no experience of fighting in built-up areas. Perhaps she was misled by the optimism of the flamboyant head of the Western Command, the charismatic Lt. Gen. K. Sundarji, who assured her that the army would clear the Temple in no time.
The decision to entrust the operation to Sundarji must rank as one of Mrs. Gandhi’s worst mistakes. Sundarji said later that he was not given enough time to prepare and that he had inadequate intelligence, both of which may have been true. But equally, critics of the army could say that it should have just read the newspapers. By then every schoolboy knew that Bhindranwale had moved his men into the Golden Temple’s holiest spot, the Akal Takht, that a cashiered Indian army General was organising the defences, and that arms had been flowing into the Temple. Also, it betrays a strange lack of preparation to not know that on the day the army chose for the attack, the Temple would be full of innocent pilgrims marking a Sikh Guru’s martyrdom.
We agree now that Operation Bluestar was a fiasco. The army underestimated the extent of the force they would have to contend with, lost too many men and ended up using tanks, which destroyed the Akal Takht. But at the time, the mood in India was one of triumph. General Brar appeared on TV every night as the hero of Bluestar, Sundarji went on to become Army Chief and most political parties supported the Operation.
I was one of the few dissenters. I thought Mrs. Gandhi had waited too long and that the military had botched up the operation, causing anguish to moderate Sikhs including those (such as Khushwant Singh) who had spoken out against Bhindranwale.
But here is what nobody can dispute. First of all, there was no alternative to taking Bhindranwale out of the picture. Militancy in Punjab would never have ended if he was still around. Two, the terrorism of that era and the communal poison spread against Hindus by Bhindranwale and his ilk was unforgivable. Three, even as militants were murdering Sikhs and Hindus alike, the Akalis never had the guts to come out against the militants. And four, anybody who believed in the idea of India had to stamp out the Khalistan movement.
And now, here’s what I find strange about the current discourse around Bluestar.
• Bhindranwale is not being recognised for what he was: a dangerous man whose followers were murderers and who himself turned Sikhs against Hindus.
• The Akalis are spreading the idea that Bluestar was just another attack on Sikhs like the 1984 Delhi riots. It was not. The riots were a disgrace. But an operation to clear the Temple of Bhindranwale and his men was a national imperative.
• Indira Gandhi hated Sikhs. Really? If this was really true, she may have lived longer. Against the advice of R.N. Kao and various other security experts, she refused to let Sikhs be removed from her protection detail. We all know what happened next.
• Giani Zail Singh, who played a dubious and dodgy role in the Punjab crisis (just read Mark Tully and Satish Jacob’s Amritsar if you want the details) is now being hailed as a heroic figure and his acolytes appear on TV to spout lies and gibberish day after day.
• There is false and manufactured outrage over the revelation that India asked Britain for advice on how to clear the militants out of the Temple. Intelligence agencies are always in touch with each other. It was the CIA that warned us about 26/11. (It is another matter that we took no notice.) Any responsible government is duty bound to seek the best advice possible from every friendly nation on matters of national security. It is foolish to pretend that the decision to ask the SAS for advice was part of a global conspiracy against the Sikhs.
• Hindus and Sikhs are friends again. The hatreds of the Eighties have been buried. Would any of this have been possible without an operation (however badly executed and delayed) to take out Bhindranwale? Yes, we botched it up. Yes, there was unacceptable and tragic collateral damage.
But let’s say this loud and clear: If the idea of united India had to survive, then Bhindranwale had to go. And the Golden Temple had to be cleared of terrorists, murderers and militants.
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