Getting candid Army generals never retire; they just fade away. But, the past has uncannily denied that comfort to Lt Gen Kuldip Singh Brar even two decades after he hung up his uniform. As the lone surviving frontline commander of Operation Bluestar, he finds himself in the spotlight again. On September 30, a day after Brar celebrated his 78th birthday by having what he calls ‘a lovely dinner’ with his wife, in an upscale London hotel, he escaped an assassination bid by knife-wielding Sikh radicals out to avenge the army action.
For once, this first-ever attack on Lt Gen Brar has not only resurrected the traumatic memories of the tumultuous summer of 1984, it has also raised uneasy questions on the pro-Khalistan outfits’ insidious intent overseas and its ramifications for Punjab. In a wide-ranging interview with Resident Editor Ramesh Vinayak at his fortress-like residence in Mumbai on Monday, the straight-talking general defended Operation Bluestar and opposed the upcoming memorial at Harmandar Sahib while making a passionate pitch for healing the wounds of the past. Excerpts:
It’s been 28 years since Operation Bluestar, and Punjab has long moved on. What do you make of the attack on you now?
Well, Punjab has adopted the path of peace. A majority of its people don’t want to revert to the conditions that existed in the 1980s. But unfortunately, there are pro-Khalistan groups very active abroad, particularly in London, Canada and Germany. Although they are away from Punjab, they continue to indoctrinate the Sikh youth with anti-India and anti-Hindu feelings and propagate the theory of an independent state of Khalistan. And they are trying to instill their ideology into the minds of the youth. Some of the youth who are unemployed and disgruntled fall into their trap.
Does this also not mean that Operation Bluestar remains an emotive issue?
That’s only and mostly with radical elements abroad. They observe June 6 as ‘Ghallughara day’. In some countries, pro-Khalistanis hold demonstrations on that day. Death threats are issued to me to keep the issue alive. On the 25th anniversary (2009) of the army action, the BBC telecast my interview, and the radicals went after me on their websites. They are completely annoyed and angered, and not prepared to accept it (Bluestar).
But, 1984 still rankles the collective psyche of Sikhs.
Well, a large section of the Sikh community has put Operation Bluestar behind. But, if you allow radicals to glorify the militant ideology by building a memorial to that event inside Harmandar Sahib, it wouldn’t take longer for that section to get smaller, and some of them to get on to the side of radicals.
Do you mean that radicals can destabilise Punjab?
It depends on how these radicals are able to influence the larger section that wants peace. The London attack on me was carried out by people in the age group of 32 to 35 years. They must be kids when Bluestar happened. What do they know about it? Obviously, they were emotionally charged by senior radicals who told them to “go ahead and carry out this task”. The attackers were not amateurs, but they were not experts either. Had they been very well-trained, I wouldn’t have been sitting here talking to you. They would have slit my throat completely and I would have bled to death. But, they were able to achieve a part of their objective.
Do you see any connection between the attack on you and the upcoming memorial in the Golden Temple?
It may not have anything to with the memorial. But, such memorials should never be allowed to come up. Sikh devotees visit Darbar Sahib to offer prayers, but when they would see this monument to militant ideology, some of them may get emotionally charged. There is a real danger of this turning a rallying point for extremists. They are calling all those killed in the army action “martyrs who fought against the Hindu raj and for an independent Sikh state”. That’s what Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale used to say all along. It’s not difficult to emotionally sway uneducated youth, and such a memorial would certainly play a role.
The SGPC says the memorial is for innocents killed during the army action.
A majority of them were terrorists or militants. And, the memorial seeks to make heroes out of them. The SGPC has been wanting this (memorial) for a long time. Akalis gave their tacit support and allowed it to come up. They didn’t stop it. There are other ways to remember those who died, but not by raising a memorial in Harmandar Sahib. It’s time to heal the wounds of the past. The memorial will reopen them. I am afraid we are once again slowly and steadily pushing the Sikh youth towards the path of militancy.
Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal says that the attack on you is an isolated incident.
If that’s the case, then why attack me? They could have gone and assaulted someone else. But, I am the radicals’ target. Had they got me, it would have glorified them. They are looking for glorification.
Both Akalis and the SGPC say you are raising the bogey of terrorism.
I don’t know what they mean by it. But, if nothing is done to stop these radicals, it would imperil Punjab’s peace. Look at Balwant Singh Rajoana, a convict in the Beant Singh assassination case. Akalis are seeking clemency for him to make him a living martyr.
Why would Akalis play with fire? After all, they, too, suffered during the days of terrorism?
Someone is playing with fire. Why are they supporting this memorial? Why do they want to save Rajoana from the gallows?
How would you put Operation Bluestar in perspective after 28 years?
I am a Sikh myself and respect Sikh sentiments. There was no intention to carry out an action of this nature. But, in 1984, things reached a point of no return, and the danger was looming large that Khalistan may be declared, which could have had very serious consequences for the country. There was no alternative left but to go in. But, it was not an attack against Darbar Sahib. It was an operation carried out to clear the place of extremists who had armed themselves with weapons and explosives and were determined to break the country’s unity. If you had seen the Golden Temple at that point of time, there was no holiness left in the shrine. There were killings and murders inside.
You were handpicked for the operation.
I don’t know whether I was handpicked or it just happened by chance. The fact is that I was deputed for this task and it’s not something I looked forward to. Not what I would have liked to do but had to do.
Was it a tough choice between the call of duty and your faith?
When you wear the uniform, your task is to preserve the unity and sovereignty of the country. You don’t think at that time whether you are a Sikh, a Parsi, a Hindu or a Muslim. I went for the call of duty in the best manner that a soldier can.
What was your assessment of Bhindranwale then? You both hailed from Moga and are from the same Jat Sikh clan.
That’s true. He was from Rode, and I from Patto Hira Singh. He had a charisma and had succeeded in motivating a large section of the Sikh community, particularly in rural Punjab. Many would see him as a prophet. The police had become so frightened of him that they were unable to function. There was no civil administration left in Punjab. He had established the rule of the gun.
Did you anticipate the kind of resistance the army faced when it stormed the shrine?
I didn’t. Because the local police either did not have the information or never gave it to us. There were no intelligence inputs on the number of militants and the kind of weapons inside. Nor did we know how well they had fortified the shrine. Initially, we had felt that they would surrender and not want bloodshed. But I knew we have to be prepared for the fight because I knew Major Gen Subeg Singh well as we had entered Dacca (Dhaka) together in 1971. And I knew they were not going to cow down. After all, they were trying to become heroes of the movement. And, if they were to suddenly give up or surrender, they would fall in the eyes of their own followers. So, I knew that the fight was on, but I still hoped till the last moment.
Intelligence agencies say there was a wealth of information on the goings-on in the shrine.
Not of the kind that the army finally found when it went in. We never knew there were grenade-making factories inside the complex or that militants had heavy machine guns as well as rocket launchers.
So, what went wrong with the Operation?
Nothing went wrong. We were up against a very strong defence at Akal Takht and the killing area in front of it. We were not able to get into that place. We had to finish the operation in one night and couldn’t wait till the next day. That’s because Bhindranwale — in audio tapes circulated across Punjab — had asked people to march to Amritsar in case the army moved in. Had we prolonged the action, it could have been disastrous.
But, the army suffered high casualty figure of 82 dead?
It was a very difficult ground operation. In hindsight, it’s easy to find faults, but I don’t want to reopen that chapter because enough has been spoken and written about it. I do feel sad about my soldiers and officers who made the supreme sacrifice regardless of their religion, caste or creed for the task I had given them. I can tell you about a Sikh officer, Jasbir Singh Raina, who, as second lieutenant then, told me: “Sir, I want to be the first to get to Akal Takht and get Bhindranwale for what he has done to the holy shrine.” And, as he entered the parkarma, his legs were blown off, and had to be amputated. His father wheeled him to the President when he was awarded Ashoka Chakra.
How has 1984 changed your life?
It has, of course, made my life very difficult. There is a constant threat looming large over me. I have been through a lot of trauma. But, one has to accept it. Not easy.
Can there be a closure on Punjab’s traumatic past?
I suppose it will take a while because a lot of people have suffered — not only in Punjab, but also in the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and elsewhere. The Sikh community has been hurt. Their wounds have to go through the healing process. Look, my throat has been slash-ed and stitched up, but it would take time to heal and get nor-mal. Similarly, Punjab’s wounds must heal. We should help that process by not inflaming passions by presenting siropas to militants’ kin and eulogising killers as martyrs.
Didn’t you let your guard down by going to London without adequate protection?
It’s for the government to decide whether I require security abroad or not. I have been going to Britain every year for the past 10 or 12 years. I never thought that this type of danger would be there. Even now I am not asking for more security. Didn’t John F Kennedy and Mrs (Indira) Gandhi have security? Security can never be foolproof. I can’t armour-plate myself. I know I am on the radicals’ hit list and they would look for an opportunity to target me again.