It neither ended terrorism, nor religious militant politics, in fact it manifested itself in horrific proportions.
Four days from now, the Golden Temple in Amritsar is likely to be the scene of heightened tension, with over 5,000 Punjab policemen assisted by several companies of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and Rapid Action Force keeping watch for any untoward incident.
The occasion is the 35th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, which involved the Army storming the Golden Temple on the night of 5 June 1984. The apprehension is that the call for a complete shutdown in Amritsar and a pre-decided protest march by some fringe Sikh radical organisations could lead to violence and pro-Khalistan sloganeering as the same did occur a few times in the past.
Such bandhs and protests on every anniversary have become an annual ritual in a state that for about a decade-and-a-half, starting about four decades ago, had been the horrific site and cause for terror and bloodshed across the state, nation and even some parts of the world. The trail of brutal terrorist violence in addition to thousands killed in bomb blasts and point blank shootings have also included assassinations (including that of a Prime Minister and a former Army Chief), a mid-air explosion of a passenger aircraft that killed 329 passengers and crew accounting for the largest number of innocents killed in a solitary terrorist incident, hijackings and kidnappings, including that of a diplomat (Romanian Ambassador to India). Some of the terror acts were carried out in countries as politically and linguistically diverse as Canada, the US, Japan, Pakistan, the UAE and Romania.
Revivalism, competitive militancy and selective memory make for “good” politics, especially when it involves playing with peoples’ religious emotions. The more gory the memory, the “better” politics it makes. Unfortunately, such memories in the era of instant global communication are likely to find acceptance among sections of the public, thus making a collectively accepted closure even more difficult.
In today’s digital age of instant and hyper global connectivity, Operation Blue Star has of late been figuring with greater intensity. Five years ago and three decades after the incident, a memorial to observe Operation Blue Star was built on the temple premises in April 2014 to both remind and keep alive the memories of this tragic military action.
For a majority of the Sikh community, Operation Blue Star is identified as an attack on their most revered and historic shrine and that too barely two days after Guru Arjan Dev’s martyrdom day. The Operation, interestingly named after a company selling air conditioners and refrigerators at the time, will remain a tragic event in India’s post-Independence history, from which no winners emerged. It neither immediately ended terrorism, nor religious militant politics, and in fact it ended up manifesting itself in horrific proportions thereafter as brought out in the opening paragraphs of this article. However, while the military action and its consequences are the subject of much agitation, there is little mention of or thought given to the mayhem that prevailed in the state prior to the operation.
Religious emotions apart, when viewed clinically, the Army operation conducted on the intervening night of 5 and 6 June was aimed at evicting the 37-year-old Damdami Taksal chief, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed militia, who had converted the holy shrine into an armed fortress from where he ran a virtual parallel government, indulged in wanton violence across the state and publicly spewed venom against a particular community. Bhindranwale, who had caught the imagination of sections of the Sikh community, had come to command fear among the general public, politicians, police and all other wings of the state government.
All along, the government chose to remain a silent spectator to reports of arms and ammunition, ranging from rifles to rocket launchers, being regularly transported in kar seva trucks, entering the temple complex, just had been the case four years later that had resulted in Operation Black Thunder-II (9 to 18 May 1988).
As well known British journalist and commentator Mark Tully mentions in an article published in the Telegraph, London, on 6 June 2014, “For six years, Bhindranwale had been telling Sikhs that they had become slaves of the majority Hindu population in India. His young supporters had mounted a reign of terror and murder in Punjab, attacking police, terrifying villagers and extorting money.”
Historians are still divided whether the operation was necessary and whether it could have been conducted differently. Perhaps the answer to both lies in the affirmative. The reason: the situation in Punjab essentially got to a boiling point because of unscrupulous politics played by both the Akali and Congress parties at the time, while Pakistan gleefully lent a hand.
Tragically, a professional, apolitical and secular Army was asked to undertake a severely traumatic and thankless mission by the government, which had messed up things in the first place. Lt General Brar, who was then a Major General commanding 9 Infantry Division, had just got married and was about to leave for a vacation to the Philippines with his wife, when he was suddenly summoned from Meerut to Chandimandir and was given just 48 hours to draft his plan for an unprecedented operation of such magnitude and sensitivity. As Brar brings out in his book, Operation Blue Star: The True Story, the operation was first discussed on 3 June, just two days before the operation began at 10.30 pm on 5 June.
Unprepared troops, with no training in close quarter battle warfare in built up areas and having no inkling of the operation, were moved at short notice from Meerut. The only troops which had undergone prior training for such an operation was a Company strength (about 125 soldiers) of the Special Frontier Force about which Brar was informed only a day earlier (4 June). These special troops on deputation from the Army and functioning under the Research and Analysis Wing at the top secret Establishment 22 near Chakrata in Uttarakhand, had been tasked to plan a “snatch and grab” operation code named “Sundown”, which was aimed at forcibly picking Bhindranwale from the temple precincts. But the operation was rejected after being considered too dangerous.
As both Brar and then Western Army Commander, Lt General (later General) Krishnaswamy Sundarji, were to later say, intelligence was limited and the impression given was that Bhindranwale’s men were a motley bunch armed with antiquated rifles, an assortment of pistols and revolvers and only a few machine guns.
That state intelligence was probably limited could be true considering that the functioning of the Punjab Police and even the state government at the time was near paralysed. Only a year before Operation Blue Star, a sordid incident had exposed Bhindranwale’s terror and the helplessness of the state. It was only after the government managed to obtain Bhindranwale’s assent that the body of Deputy Inspector General of Police, Avtar Singh Atwal, could be removed. The 40-year-old DIG (Jalandhar Range) was shot dead from behind in broad daylight on 24 April 1983, just when he was exiting the Golden Temple after offering obeisance.
The state had crumbled to such an extent that Bhindranwale’s followers, armed with weapons, had broken into a celebratory dance around Atwal’s body, which lay in the temple precincts for over two hours before it was removed. The police outside the temple entrance had simply fled long before. The gruesome incident unsurprisingly led to the abject demoralisation of the state machinery including that of the police, while marking the ascendancy of Bhindranwale’s fear psychosis and writ in the state. Apart from issuing perfunctory condemnatory statements, no action was taken by the political government in Chandigarh or New Delhi.
As Operation Blue Star got underway, the Army realised what a terrible situation it had got into. After making no headway to neutralise a highly fortified Akal Takht which Bhindranwale and his close aides had turned into their impregnable abode, British-origin Vijayanta tanks were ordered to fire from their main canon after receiving a clearance from Delhi at 7.30 am on 6 June, a full nine hours after facing stiff resistance from approximately 100 well armed militants entrenched in the Akal Takht building, of which all openings had been closed with bricks and sandbags, with specially created small loopholes and pill boxes to tactically well sit 31 machine guns (of a total 51 later recovered), two rocket launchers, innumerable rifles, grenades and other small arms. The Army, which was engaged in a suicidal frontal attack, had by 7.30 am lost over 50 soldiers (of the total 88 killed) with over twice that number wounded (of the total 248) in the vicinity of the temporal seat alone. In no other post-Independence internal security operation has the Army suffered so many casualties within a span of less than 24 hours.
Operation Blue Star is an event for which politicians at the Centre and the state need to take collective responsibility. Why was the situation allowed to build up in the first place? Why was the Golden Temple permitted to be converted into an armed fortress? Who promoted and mollycoddled Bhindranwale and why, are some of the many questions that need to be honestly accounted for. The then politics at play is what needs to be severely condemned and never repeated.
As Kuldip Nayar stated in an article of 8 July 2012 in India Today excerpted from his book Beyond the Lines: An Autobiography, Bhindranwale was propped up by Indira Gandhi’s late son, Sanjay Gandhi, to counter the Akali Dal, which had returned to power in 1977. What followed thereafter was an intense and long phase of religious politics that led to clashes, agitations and competitive militancy, eventually culminating in complete mayhem for over a decade. Nayar later expunged his remarks about Bhindranwale being a Congress creation from his book following protests and threats, which reflect on the subtle terror that continues to prevail even after three and a half decades.
To some extent the government learnt its lessons by exercising restraint during Operation Black Thunder-II in Amritsar (May 1988) and the almost month-long Hazratbal crisis in Srinagar (October-November 1993).
A key lesson is that political parties must never play politics with religious sentiments, while religious leaders must ensure that places of worship are never misused. In the meantime, the state and its people continue to face a perception problem with regard to Operation Blue Star. This needs to be addressed.