army attack on golden temple

Thirty-eight years ago in June 1984, the army launched an attack on the Golden Temple, Amritsar on 3 June with a proclamation to “flush out Sikh militants entrenched inside the holy shrine”. An orchestrated official propaganda, managed by New Delhi power-centre sought to justify the entry of the army on the eve of Guru Arjun Dev’s Shaheedi Divas being observed in Durbar Sahib on flimsy grounds. The urgency of the army assault has been spelled out by Romesh Inder (RI) Singh, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, who had landed in Amritsar on 3 June (1984) to take over as Deputy Commissioner the next day. In his book “Before and After- Blue Star- An Insider’s Story” published by Harper Collins which arrived in the market last month (June 2022), Mr. RI Singh says the army attack was launched in hurry on the plea that intelligence inputs had alerted that the Sikh militants led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale were about to declare ‘Khalistan’, a separate Sikh state to be recognized by Pakistan.

Written three decades after the Army attack on his retirement, R I Singh reminisced in the book that nothing of that sort happened. Neither did Bhindranwale nor Akali Dal Chief Sant Harchand Singh Longowal entertain ‘ Khalistan’. After Blue Star, Sant Longowal confirmed at a press conference that some unidentified people whom he said seemed to be intelligence officials had approached and urged them separately to declare ‘Khalistan’ just after the army attack was mounted. That first-hand account– now endorsed by RI Singh– contradicts the general perception the Delhi authorities had assiduously built and propagated using the obliging media that Bhindranwale was leading the ‘Khalistan movement’. The Sikh militant leader too remained stuck to ‘Anandpur Sahib Resolution’, an Akali Dal party’s document seeking more rights for Indian provinces. Acceptance of the Resolution formed the main demand of the nearly two-year-long ‘Dharmyudh’ morcha launched jointly by the Akalis and Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple in 1982. Since the 17th century, the holiest Sikh shrine has been the epicenter of Sikh politics and their struggles.

Another book that came last year was authored by B D Pande, who had been the governor of Punjab during that turbulent period. It also endorsed RI Singh’s explanation for launching the army operation code named Blue Star in hurry. During his eight-month stay as an official head of the Punjab government, Pande noted down important developments in his dairies and sealed them with instruction to his family that the dairy contents should be published five years after his death or in 2001. His daughter, however, published them in the shape of a book “In the Service of Free India- Memoirs of a Civil Servant” 13 years after his death in 2009.

Expressing surprise over choosing June 3, Pande writes in his diary that “ the date for sending troops on June 3 (was chosen) which was Guru Arjun Dev’s martyrdom day. A large number of pilgrims including women and children had come to the Golden Temple and other Sikh shrines. Several innocent worshippers were trapped because of the subsequent curfew”. Pande, however, underlined the reason behind the quick army operation as he stated, “Later someone told me that the date had been fixed because of some intelligence reports, especially from Soviet Intelligence, which reported that Khalistan would be proclaimed from the Golden Temple and simultaneously from other gurdwaras on June 7 and 8, so pre-emptive action had to be taken.”

Viewing against the above context, one can conclude that ‘Khalistan’ was a canard deliberately spread by New Delhi to justify the bulldozing and demonizing of the tiny Sikh minority. Mounting of a sudden and powerful Blue Star operation on the Golden Temple and simultaneously on 38 other Sikh shrines after placing the entire Punjab province under strict curfew, was aimed to shock, bamboozle and crush the Sikh dissent decisively. Also, the authorities planned to demolish the Sikhs religiously and culturally too as to force them to submit to the Hindu majoritarian ethos and worldview.

It is a different story that later Khalistan became an emotional outcry of a section of Sikhs too who suffered the state repression. Such a small section of the Sikhs is still harboring a strong resentment against the Delhi rulers. Otherwise, the Sikhs largely suffered alienation as a consequence of the denial of justice as they were subjected to untold atrocities during Blue Star followed by November 1984 pogrom. Some Sikhs believe that the ‘foundation of Khalistan’ was laid, on the day the armed forces entered the Durbar Sahib, Golden Temple. But empirical evidence defies such belief as the overwhelming majority of Sikhs do not entertain the separatist demand.

Subsequent developments, on the other hand, reveal that Blue Star humbled the country’s oldest Sikhs’ political formation, Akali Dal into abject submission marking the end of the ‘regional thrust’ of the party’s politics in Punjab. Thereupon, the Akali party virtually surrendered to the Delhi rulers’ agenda of centralized polity to acquire and stay in power. By adopting a tough and unaccommodating posture against the tiny minority in the 1980s, New Delhi too decisively rejected its previous Nehru era’s secularism and laid down the foundation of the ‘majoritarian rule’ –an antithesis of democracy- in India. The morphed polity has come to stay on firm footing with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist outfit coming to the power in 2014.

Practically, majoritarian rule anywhere in the world is the negation of democracy in the real sense as it excludes minorities from the governance and reduces them to a position of ‘second-rate citizens.

During the 1980s Indira Gandhi targeted the Sikh minority to pander to the sentiments of the majority community to consolidate the latter as a larger ‘vote-bank’ base for the Congress. Thus, the Congress created a fertile political ground for the BJP’s Hindutva politics which is now menacingly inching toward the establishment of the Hindu Rashtra (Republic).

Unraveling the path to Blue Star which decimated hundreds of Sikhs and demolished the Sikh holy shrine to be followed pogrom of Sikhs in November 1984, former senior R&AW officer and diplomat GBS Sidhu says in his book, “The Khalistan Conspiracy” that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi designed a strategy to consolidate a ‘vote-bank’ among the Hindu majority ahead of January 1985 Lok Sabha elections. For this purpose, an all-powerful ‘Political Group’ was constituted at Indira Gandhi’s residence, 1 Akbar Rood with a mandate to target and demonize the Sikhs by using the obliging media. As planned, a false perception was created among Hindus that “pro-Khalistan feelings were catching the imagination of all Sikhs, both in Punjab and abroad, which has the potential of endangering the integrity of the nation”. That Group propped up “the Sikh extremism” to subjugate the Akali party’s dissent and “to vitiate and communalize the atmosphere to such an extent where Hindus were expected to feel hurt, victimized, and threatened by the acts of the Sikh community. The tiny Sikh minority’s interests could easily be ignored as they comprised less than 2 percent of the country’s population.”

“A controlled and prolonged propaganda (as designed by the Group) created a mood of vengeance amongst Hindus, demanding strongest possible action to protect national integrity and interests of the majority community from the Sikhs projected as ‘anti-national, divisive, communal and criminal forces’ bent upon disturbing the peace, harmony, and unity of the nation”.

Punjab, thus, was kept boiling. The climate of mistrust among Hindus and Sikhs was stage-managed to cause communal clashes between Sikh activists and the government/Congress-sponsored Hindu organizations. Congress Rulers in Punjab’s adjoining states- as Haryana’s chief minister Bhajan Lal and Rajasthan’s chief minister too became active to whip up communal frenzy. Sikhs passing through Haryana were attacked provoking retaliatory gun attacks on the Hindus in Punjab. Even the Golden Temple was projected as a refuge of criminals and killers by the craven media.

Analyzing the above context, what Governor Pande noted down in his dairies is an apt commentary on the situation. Media reports had impressed him too that Punjab was burning before Pande himself came down to Punjab and took over as Governor, eight months before Blue Star. He recalls, “I was surprised to see that the Sikhs and Hindus were walking together, visiting each other’s shops, and riding together on cycles and scooters”. He maintained that the administration of Punjab was comparatively quite efficient with industry and agriculture showing appreciable growth. But unending propaganda unleashed by all hues of politicians and the press “projected ‘Punjab in flames’.” He specifically underlined that “both the extremely biased vernacular press of Jalandhar and English and other language newspapers” outplayed big mischief.

Visibly upset Pande wrote that “This fake reporting is mostly carried out by Hindu owned national press … I think it is kind of death wish and I fervently pray that the most dreaded consequences of this subtle and sustained propaganda against Punjab, Punjabi Sikhs and Sikhs does not fructify”.

An ICS officer of the 1936 batch and trained under the British government, Pande was upset with developments in 1983-84. And he penned down that “the worst offenders are Hindu chauvinists and I would put the neo-fascist types on top, like the Hindu Shiv Sena of Punjab with backing from reactionary and political forces.” Referring to his one-to-one meeting Governor Pande had with Indira Gandhi towards the end of 1983, he reaffirmed that the late Prime Minister had exhibited the ruthlessness she was known for in facing and removing her adversaries. “Moreover, she added that she would not hesitate to bomb the Golden Temple if she had to “. He realized that she was willing to take the harshest measures if necessary. “I felt greatly disturbed at the thought and consequences of such action ever became imperative”, Governor Pande recalled that “she introduced what may be called immoral theory in Indian politics”.

Indira Gandhi harped on ‘foreign hand’ since 1972 whenever she wanted to use force to tackle domestic dissent. In the 1980s, it became handy for the Congress rulers to project ‘Pakistan’ as the main factor behind the Sikh extremists, Khalistan, and the arming of the Sikh militants. Pakistan involvement was played up and Pande commented “ It is done to divert attention ad to overlook the internal intensity of the Sikh problem which cropped with Indira Gandhi’s politics of discrimination against Punjab, particularly in “river waters distribution clearly in favor of Haryana”. He attempted to ascertain the facts about the alleged involvement of Pakistan. “I asked several intelligence people –from Punjab police to Army intelligence—none of them could provide any specific evidence except point to suspicion.”

Similarly, Pande pointed out that the three-layer security ring around the Golden Temple was directly managed and supervised by the New Delhi-based Home Ministry deploying 2500 armed paramilitary troops. Punjab police were in the outer ring just to assist the central forces. “This huge force had not arrested or intercepted a single terrorist for over ten-twelve months”. Interestingly, Governor Pande also dismantled the false propaganda that ‘Sikhs were killing Hindus in Punjab’. Pande says “The toll (deaths) grew as did public concern, but in all these cases more Sikhs than Hindus were killed (in Punjab)”.

In fact, Indira Gandhi wanted to prolong the “Dharamyudh Morcha” till the 8th Lok Sabha elections drew nearer and then strike with a force against the agitating Akalis to emerge as ‘custodian of Hindus and their interests”. Pande’s notes revealed the facts that supported the above observation. When Punjab Police DIG Avtar Singh Atwal was shot dead by Sikh militants while he was stepping out of the Golden Temple on 25 April 1983, Chief Minister Darbara Singh decided to send police inside the Sikh shrine to capture the culprits. It would have resulted in a show-down much less bloody than Blue Star. But Pande says “Delhi asked Darbara Singh not to allow the police to go in”.

Indira Gandhi deliberately enacted the drama of her 26 meetings with Akali leaders to propagate that Akalis are inscrutable and not ‘amenable to reason. Conceived as a two-hour sudden swoop, Blue Star turned out to be a 72-hour long bloody operation that unleashed a process of transforming Indian constitutional democracy into electoral or territorial democracy with the unabashed interplay of money and muscle. And, now the ‘majoritarian rule’ has come to stay in the country as Blue Star lent a practical boost to Hindutva politics. It also catapulted ultra-nationalist politics and its practitioner BJP onto the center stage. With the BJP coming to power, the Hindutva is seen prowling in the streets sending a chill down to the spine of minorities.

Former UNI Special Correspondent Jaspal Singh Sidhu, now an independent journalist could be reached at Jaspal.sdh@gmail.com


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