The jail-break and re-arrest of Khalistan Liberation Force terrorist Harminder Singh Mintoo over the weekend brought back memories of Operation Black Thunder in 1988, when Punjab’s then director-general of police KPS Gill flushed out several terrorists holed up in the Harmandir Sahib, the sanctum sanctorum of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple.
For over two days the media – including me -- watched from the roof of the western galleries of the Golden Temple, separated from the Harminder Sahib by the holy sarovar, as Black Cats surrounded the complex, waiting for the 60 or 70 young and middle-aged militants to either come out with guns firing or give themselves up. Gill had recently come to Punjab from Assam, where he had won himself laurels handling terrorists. Most importantly, he had learnt from the cardinal mistakes of the storming of the Golden Temple in 1984, which subsequently became the key motivation for the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
In the year or so before Black Thunder, though, the wind had already begun to turn against Sikh militants. As horrified Sikhs watched, militants would pull innocent Hindu civilians out of buses, separate them from Sikh passengers and shoot them at point-blank range.
All in the name of Khalistan, a separate Sikh state that simply had to be carved out of India because Sikhs, ostensibly, were not safe here anymore. Considering Hindu families in Punjab had been offering their first-born males to Sikhism, since the time of Guru Gobind Singh and Hindus and Sikhs had lived in syncretic harmony for several centuries, the indiscriminate massacres had become a cancer in the name of Punjab’s dominant religion.
The Babbar Khalsa, Khalistan Commando Force, Khalistan Liberation Force…in the wake of the death of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in 1984, several Sikh militant outfits had mushroomed, allegedly sponsored by Pakistan’s ISI. But it was a matter of time before ordinary Sikhs rose to defend themselves and their Hindu neighbours from the ghoulish methods of Sikh militants. Did revenge for the 1984 army operation have to take on such dreadful manifestations where not even Hindu women and children were spared?
Punjab’s honour was at stake. So as ordinary Sikhs protested the brutal deaths of ordinary Hindus, the gun began to be turned in their direction too. In 1987, I think, more Sikhs were killed than Hindus.
It was in this context that Operation Black Thunder took place. Before the operation I remember interviewing young Sikh militants – in trademark saffron turbans, long tunics falling beneath their knees (no trousers or ‘lungis’ beneath) and the ubiquitous sword hanging from waist to floor on a belt that was strapped across the body – who used to live in the galleries around the Golden Temple shrine. They were happy to meet journalists – especially if they were from the foreign media. One young Sikh militant I spent some time with insisted that the government had to apologise for Blue Star, the anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi, implement the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, declare Chandigarh to be capital of Punjab…
The day after the interview as I wandered the market outside the Golden Temple, a young Sikh man caught my eye. It was the same boy. He didn’t want to speak for too long, in full public glare; he said he was going to meet his family, but would return soon to the Temple.
Two days after Operation Black Thunder was launched, the militants emerged from the Harmandir Sahib, their hands above their heads, like rodents coming out of their hiding-hole. KPS Gill not only allowed the media in, to see what the militants had done to their holiest of holy shrines, but also the public. People were horrified to see that parts of the shrine had been turned into an open, public toilet. The turning-point in Sikh militancy had been reached. I’m not sure what happened to that young Sikh boy. Perhaps he was killed in the operation; I hoped he had escaped.
As for Harminder Singh Mintoo, likely a money-grubbing mercenary than ideologue, his re-arrest will surely award him his just desserts. The idea of Khalistan died in Operation Black Thunder and has no place in 21st century India. Nor should Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal take credit for his recapture. On the eve of the elections, many will see through that ploy.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior journalist . The views expressed are personal