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Recalling a 'black chapter' in Punjab's history: Flawed decision-making that proved costly for India

The book, in many ways, is the last word on the tragic and defining years of Punjab’s turmoil that took a large number of lives.

Gulshan Luthra Sep 19, 2022
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Recalling a 'black chapter' in Punjab's history

“I have often asked people about how they perceive Operation Blue Star – was it an assault on the Golden Temple or was it an operation to clear the temple of the armed radicals who had laid siege to the hallowed space and posed a challenge to the legitimacy of a constitutionally established polity,” writes Ramesh Inder Singh, who was the District Magistrate of Amritsar from 1984 to 1987 and dealt with the turbulence in Punjab from close quarters in “Turmoil In Punjab – Before And After Blue Star – An Insider’s Story”.

The various operations by the Indian Army against militancy, including Operation Blue Star, Operation Woodrose and Operation Black Thunder I, were conducted during this period. Later, he was Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister of Punjab for five years and Chief Secretary of Punjab for over two years – and from that position, he took premature retirement from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in 2009 to serve for five years as the state’s Chief Information Commissioner, the transparency watchdog under the Right to Information Act.

Not surprisingly, he writes, most Sikhs viewed Blue Star “as a premeditated, sacrilegious invasion of their holy shrine. And that explains the backlash that followed the operation; it synthesized the sentiments of the 'quam' (the Sikh community) against the state as a collective voice. In the battle of public perception, the state had miserably failed to carry the community along. This was, more than any other factor, the cause of the fatal consequences that followed Blue Star, and it continues to haunt the community even today”.

In matters of faith, they say, reason always is the first casualty. Sacrosanct spaces require careful handling; the holier a hallowed place, the greater the sensitivity of the faithful, and still stronger their reaction if in their eyes its sanctity is violated. It doesn’t matter even if they initiate violence. The state ignored this sentiment and the consequences were catastrophic.

“Still worse was the way Blue Star was carried out. It was a disaster – ill-conceived, poorly planned, terribly executed. Consequently, for the troops, it was a pyrrhic victory. A few hundred militants were killed. But their death sowed the seeds for ethnoreligious nationalism to proliferate and generate violence far worse than what the operation had eliminated. Blue Star was not the epilogue, but a prelude to the violent struggle for Khalistan. The army won the battle, but at the cost of peace in Punjab,” Ramesh Inder Singh, known more as RI Singh, writes.

As the events unfolded, he says, it became obvious that the Central leadership and the key military advisers were not conscious of the public sentiment or the political consequences of launching a direct assault on the sacred space. The troops deployed in the operation were oblivious to Sikh sentiments. Hurriedly inducted without familiarisation with the area or even the layout of the temple, a frontal assault on well-built fortifications in the precincts, without cover or camouflage, against religiously motivated militants was suicidal. There could only be one kind of outcome – death and destruction. The holy space was desecrated, soldiers were massacred, many innocent civilians were killed and collateral damage was prohibitive.

Anticipating a situation where the army may be summoned to aid the civil administration, Lt. Gen S.K. Sinha, the then GOC-in-Chief, Western Command, had issued instructions in 1982 on the "procedure for conducting such an operation" that included its videotaping and inviting two prominent but non-political Sikhs to witness the operation. He had emphasized the need to execute the operation in a manner that would cause minimum alienation.

Later, he regretted that the psychological aspect was not factored in and the mistake "cost us dearly".

“Those in command of Blue Star – and two of them were Sikhs – did not pay heed to what had been proposed earlier by the other Generals, erroneously presuming that the operation would be swift; or rather they suffered from the illusion that the mere sight and rumbling of the heavy armaments, tanks and APCs, the flying choppers, and the numerical superiority and might of the army garrison would scare the militants out of their pigeonholes and they would not put up a fight. It was a fatal miscalculation,” the author says.

It was a flawed strategy to presume that the militants would give up on their own.

Consequently, at no stage did the troops appeal to the militants to surrender. The army commanders made no attempt to hold a dialogue or negotiate with the militants to forestall the armed confrontation. The troops launched the attack suo moto. ‘The extremists under Bhindranwale, Bhai Amrik Singh and ex-Maj. Gen. Shahbeg Singh fought because they were given no option,’ observed Lt. Gen. V.K. Nayar, who had succeeded Gen Sundarji as GOC-in-Chief, Western Command, in 1987-89.

“When the militants repulsed the attack, the top army brass responded by deploying more troops and weapons of higher caliber. When repeated frontal assaults failed, the APCs and tanks were employed, with catastrophic consequences,” he writes.

The operation also invited censure from three iconic warriors – Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, hero of the Pakistani Surrender at Dhaka in 1971 that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh; Lt. Gen. Harbaksh Singh, who saved the overrunning of Punjab by Pakistan in 1965;0 and the only Marshal of the Indian Air Force, Arjan Singh – particularly for the way it was executed.

As per the official version of army casualties, 83 soldiers (four officers, four JCOs, and 75 from other ranks) died, and another 249 (13 officers, 16 JCOs, and 220 from other ranks) were wounded.

The number of civilian casualties in the operation conducted on June 1–10 was 783. This included 26 innocent persons who died outside the temple precincts, due to stray bullets and the wounded who succumbed to injuries on later dates in hospitals.

“Eight persons detained in the army prison camp were killed on the night intervening 7 and 8 June as the guards opened fire on a group of detainees. These prisoners were suspected to be hardcore extremists and confined in a secure room. Some of them, it was reported, tried to escape by snatching weapons from the guards, who then opened fire,” the author writes.

“The list of critics is long. Suffice it to say that the armed solution in the absence of a political narrative to address the ethnoreligious Gordian knot was rife with problems.

"Before launching the assault, attempts to seek a surrender from the militants could have delegitimized them in the public eye; if they did not surrender, the blame would lie squarely on the militants and not on the security forces for the operation’s consequences,” observes the former civil servant.

The media blackout further led to the otherwise avoidable rumours of alleged excesses; it resulted in a loss of credibility for the State, as the press and public only saw the death and destruction in the aftermath of the military action and not the bloody attack the militants had unleashed on the army. 

“The inappropriate choice of a day sacred to the Sikhs to launch the operation, the excessive use of force that killed a large number of innocent pilgrims and extensive damage to the sacred shrine alienated the Sikh community; that helped the radicals multiply their ranks, aided by Pakistan, post-Blue Star,” says the author.

“A black chapter in our history. Blue Star continues and probably will continue to cause pain for a long time to come,” says R.I. Singh in the detailed 555-page book.

Based on extensive research and first-hand accounts of those who lived through those volcanic years, ‘Operation Blue Star – An Insider’s Account of the Army Operation and its Aftermath’ is an eye-opening narrative of the genesis of the Punjab conflict, the rise of radicalism and the Khalistanis, and the elimination of militancy from the state.

The book gives a graphic account of the role played by the army, police, bureaucracy, media, foreign elements including Pakistan’s ISI in India and abroad, and a section of the diaspora.

(During the crises period, there were reports in Dubai of Pakistani diplomats and officials vainly trying to intervene with the UAE authorities in favour of some local militants against their deportation from there).

The book, in many ways, is the last word on the tragic and defining years of Punjab’s turmoil that took a large number of lives.

(The author is a veteran journalist and editor, India Strategic. Views are personal)

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