Was Lt Gen Ranjit Singh Dyal, hero of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, culpable for Operation Bluestar? Soldiers think that he, being the staff officer and not in the decision-making chain to launch and direct the attack, could not be held culpable. Hardliner Sikhs think otherwise. I am marshalling the relevant facts for people to decide for themselves.
In the late 1970s, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Congress party initiated a chain of events - which eventually led to Operation Bluestar by setting up Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to challenge the rising power of the Akali Dal in Punjab. He was supported financially and the selective killings ordered by him and transgressions of the law by his band of militants were overlooked.
In 1983, Bhindranwale had taken shelter in the Akal Takht within the Golden Temple complex. The killings of Hindus and other unlawful activities continued from within the sanctuary. The Akali Dal, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and Sikh jathedars failed to prevent Bhindranwale from violating the sanctity of the Golden Temple and its consequent desecration. Forgotten was the struggle to free Nankana Sahib and other Sikh shrines from the stranglehold of the mahants, who were treating these holy places as their personal fiefdoms.
By the dawn of 1984, Bhindranwale had become a law unto itself and was running a parallel administration from the Akal Takht. By now Indira Gandhi had fully realised that her reputation for decisiveness, a vital political asset, was being seriously undermined. She decided to act fast to restore it with an eye on an approaching Lok Sabha elections. She ignored the strong advice of Lt Gen SK Sinha, Vice Chief of Army Staff, who was in line to become the next Chief of Army Staff, against the use of force in the Golden Temple.
For the sake of her political expediency, she sidelined Lt Gen Sinha and chose the very ambitious Lt Gen Sundarji, the Western Army Commander, to carry out this task. Sundarji was full of bravado and he promised to rid the Golden Temple of Bhindranwale and his miscreants within a matter of hours. The entire operation was conceived, planned and directed by Sundarji himself.
Unfortunately, the army operation was rather ham-handed. An overconfident Sundarji was in too much of a hurry to consider other options. When foolhardy, direct assaults had failed to dislodge the militants, tanks were rushed in to virtually destroy the Akal Takht and cause other collateral damage. The timing of the attack when a large number of devotees had congregated to pay homage to Guru Arjan Dev on his martyrdom day was brazenly thoughtless, if not callous.
Maj Gen Kuldip Singh Brar, commanding 9 Division, failed to stand up to the overbearing Sundarji and was equally to blame. Had Sundarji and Brar planned and carried out the operation with tactical finesse, avoiding collateral damage to the complex and the innocent devotees, the army would have earned the gratitude of the Sikh community for restoring the sanctity of the holiest shrine.
What was the role of Lt Gen Dyal in this rather sordid course of events? He was the Chief of Staff to Army Commander Sundarji. Whenever the Army Commander is given a task or conceives it by himself, he outlines the task to his staff and the heads of arms and services and broadly also indicates how he plans to accomplish the objective. The information that has a bearing on the task, along with inputs from the heads of arms and services relating to participation of their elements, is then evaluated. If need be, more information is gathered and considered. The options available are thus thrown up and the Chief of Staff then presents these to the Army Commander, who decides how the task will be accomplished.
In this case, the whole process was short-circuited. It was entirely a Sundarji plan, ordered directly by him to Brar and directed by him on the spot. Dyal had little role in it. He being a Sikh was made the fall guy. It is an ethos of the army that loyalty travels downward. It is sad to say that neither Sundarji nor the Army Chief or the government made any effort to clear Dyal of the undeserved stigma of Operation Bluestar.
Lt Gen Dyal was an outstanding soldier who served his nation with great devotion and valour. He and his memory should be honoured.
It is commendable that most of the Sikh community has moved on and is contributing to the national momentum in practically every sphere of its dynamics. It's time Sikh hardliners also join the national mainstream and move forward.
The writer is a military analyst and historian. The views expressed are personal.