How the Sikhs got alienated
I was a reporter in the Times of India when Operation Blue Star took place in June, 1984, exactly 26 years ago. The Operation was aimed at flushing out terrorists led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh Shrine.But obviously the whole strategy backfired.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who was initially against the use of any force to evict the militants was prevailed upon by some of her advisers to order a military operation. Thus the operation began in the early hours of June 6th under the overall command of Lt. General Sunderji and the operational command of Brig. K S Brar.
The TOI had assigned Subhash Kirpekar, then a special correspondent, the task of covering the military operation. Both me and my colleague, Ravi Bhatia were keen that we should be sent since we were on the crime beat but the Editor, Giri Lal Jain had given the okay signal to Subhash. Therefore we got to monitor this historic event with huge ramifications from afar (distant Delhi).
At that time, it was known that the Golden Temple complex and the adjoining Guru Ram Dass Sarai had been virtually taken over by the militants led by Bhindranwale. One terrorist, Sukhdev Singh, arrested in Delhi on the Tolstoy Marg-Barakhamba Road crossing after he and his associates had robbed a bank on Parliament Street had blurted everything out.
Of course the Intelligence agencies were aware of a lot of things but Sukhdev’s interrogation was an eye opener both for the Delhi police and the IB. I had covered this arrest after a shooting incident on January 2, 1984 if I recall correctly. Sukhdev was linked to a robbery in a jeweler store in Karol Bagh on November 29, 1983 and the Police also recovered the booty as well as arms from his native village somewhere near Karnal. The police team led by former ACP, Hari Dev had carried out this exercise under the command of Brajesh Gupta who was then the DCP, New Delhi.
Other evidence subsequently corroborated Sukhdev’s revelations. But the government kept sitting on the issue. A stitch in time could have saved nine and a major confrontation at the Golden Temple could have been averted. But the buildup continued and finally the Indian Army with the help of commandoes from its elite regiments and tank fire managed to neutralize the militants inside the Golden Temple on June 6th and 7th.
The damage was very huge. The temple had been desecrated and the Akal Takht was totally destroyed. The Sikhs, the world over were in rage and vowed to take revenge. Those who were killed included Bhindranwale, General Shahbeg Singh, an expert on military warfare who led the offensive against Indian forces and senior functionaries of the All India Sikh Students Federation and the Damdami Taksal.
The Indian Army had won but the price was too heavy. The Sikhs were up in arms and extremely angry. They openly criticized the government action and for the first time in her political career, Indira Gandhi was clueless on how to deal with the subsequent situation. She eventually was shot dead by her own security guards, both Sikhs on October 31, 1984. The killing was followed by anti Sikh riots, which were very barbaric and shameless and would always remain a blot on Independent India’s history.
The killing of several prominent Congress leaders in Delhi followed the riots. South Delhi MP and upcoming Congress leader Lalit Maken and his wife Geetanjali were gunned down on July 31, 1985 at their house. Harjinder Singh Jinda and his associates killed another Congress leader Arjun Dass on September 4, 1985. Jinda also subsequently killed General Vaidya, the Chief of Army staff during Operation Blue Star.
Delhi witnessed a multitude of terrorist strikes. The Transistor Bomb blasts on May 10 and 11 in 1985 left nearly 50 dead in the capital and an equal number at other places. Some suspects — Kartar Singh Narang, Mahinder Singh Plywoodwala and Mahinder Singh Calcutta were rounded up on May 12th itself by the Delhi Police (The charge sheet of the case was never submitted.)
The success at arresting the suspects also led to the elevation of Ved Marwah as the Delhi Police Commissioner to succeed SS Jog, a very fine officer who was brought in from Bombay to take over in the period following the anti Sikh riots. Jog went back and Marwah took over the mantle as Delhi Police Chief. He is regarded by many as the best Police Commissioner Delhi ever had.
Punjab continued to be on the boil and in April 1986 after receiving orders from then Chief Minister, Surjit Singh Barnala, the security forces carried out Operation Black Thunder-I at the Golden Temple complex to flush out 300 militants.
Militancy in Punjab did not end. In fact, there were attempts on the life of Julio Rebeiro, who was sent there as the DGP and even on Siddhartha Shankar Ray, the Governor. A build up started once again in the Golden Temple and matters came to a head when S S Virk, then a DIG with the CRPF was shot at the Temple gate near Katra Ahluwalia on May 9, 1988. Thus Operation Black Thunder-II commenced.
I had moved on to The Hindu and was covering Punjab. I reached Amritsar on May 10th after receiving instructions from my Editor, G Kasturi. It was on that day, I met for the first time, KPS Gill who had just taken over as the DGP and who was present at the press conference along with Amritsar DC, Sarabjit Singh at the Kotwali police Station. A lot of journalists had descended on Amritsar in anticipation of the Operation by security forces. There was Tavleen Singh, Badshah Sen, Shekhar Gupta, Tarun Tejpal, Kanwar Sandhu, Dinesh Kumar, Harinder Baweja, Ashwani Talwar, Avinash Singh, Satish Jacob and so on. Sanjit Sinha, an IAS officer who was the Director, Public Relations of the Punjab government and a close aide of the Governor would brief the media occasionally.
The Operation was meticulously carried out and what we learnt later had been planned by top police officials including Ajit Doval (IB), Ved Marwah (NSG) and others. The whole exercise was held in full media glare and the militants were neutralized even as journalists watched from the roof of Guru Ram Dass Sarai.
During the eight to ten days we were there, I saw Karaj Singh Thande (this is the name some Punjab police official said) being shot from top of a tower by NSG sharpshooters and witnessed the surrender of a whole lot of militants including Nirvair Singh, Malkiat Singh Ajnala and Surjit Singh Penta, a nephew of Jinda wanted in connection with terrorist strike in Delhi on June 13, 1987 and the killing of two BJP leaders on July 30, 1987.
I can never forget that Penta on seeing a top CID officer amongst the senior officials present after his arrest consumed a Cyanide capsule and before others and I released what was happening, he started frothing from the mouth. He was whisked away but declared dead shortly afterwards. One story about the whole exercise I remember with great professional satisfaction is about the code name of the Operation, which was kept a highly guarded secret. All newspapers including mine (The Hindu) had their own names. Some referred to it as Operation Flushout and others as something else.
I was the only one who got it right on the last day before anyone else could get it. We were walking back to the Amritsar International Hotel from the Golden Temple complex when I encountered two or three CRPF men walking with their guns, which they dismantled, from a post. I was walking ahead of others so I reached out to one of them and shook his hand while congratulating him on the successful completion of the operation. Then I asked him, what was the Operation called. “Operation Black thunder-II” he shot back. It was enough and the next day’s Hindu carried the name of the Operation while no one till that time knew about this. My Editor patted me on my back.
Militancy did not end and continued for a few more years. It appeared to disappear by the end of 1991. Many give the credit for this to KPS Gill or to some others. But I have another take on this, which I will write in one of my Blogs.
I am like the rest of us, very happy that Punjab is normal and the Sikhs are back in the mainstream. I can say with a lot of pride that there is no community in India, which is as large hearted, and giving as the Sikhs. I have always had the highest respect for their valour, courage and large heartedness.
What happened in the eighties is something all of us would want to forget with the prayer that nothing like this ever occurs again.