Even 30 years after Operation Bluestar, an enduring question that still defies a logical answer is how and why the army blundered in storming the Golden Temple which was heavily fortified by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his band of armed followers in the summer of 1984.
As a police officer in the thick of things before and during the tragic denouement at the Golden Temple, I would now like to narrate my own experience of the thinking of the army at the command level just a couple of days before the operations began. It was the day when the late Lt Gen Ranjit Singh Dyal, chief of staff, Western Command, addressed a press conference in the Punjab civil secretariat, Chandigarh, in which he sent out the signal that the army had taken over the operations and would bring them to a swift conclusion. I was present at this press briefing, and so was Pritam Singh Bhinder who had recently taken over as Inspector General of Punjab police (law and order) on deputation from the Delhi police. After the meeting, I went back to my office on the fourth floor of the secretariat. I was then posted as additional DIG (CID).
Shortly thereafter I was summoned to the office of Bhinder, who introduced me to Lt Gen Dyal who was already there. The IG was known to be a blunt and forthright officer, and he straightaway told me that there were some questions which the general wanted to pose to me and that I should give frank, straight forward answers and not the usual ambiguous answers that intelligence officials were known for. The first statement that Gen Dyal made was that as per the army’s calculation, the militants, including Bhindranwale, would surrender after the initial round of heavy firing over the temple complex.
NO QUESTION OF SURRENDER
On being asked my opinion I informed him that Bhindranwale and his 130-odd followers would not surrender, but would offer stiff resistance and would rather prefer to die as ‘martyrs’. The general was not happy and questioned me as to on what basis had I given this conclusion. I explained that I had been following Bhindranwale’s career right from the Baisakhi clash in Amritsar in 1978 (I was SSP Amritsar from April 1978 to September 1981). The anti-Nirankari march to the venue of the Nirankari congregation was led by Fauja Singh of the Akhand Kirtani jatha and Bhindranwale of the Damdami Taksal.
During the next six years blood flowed in Punjab freely and Bhindranwale went from strength to strength. He openly advocated the use of violence for achievement of their cause. Thereafter, there were many developments within various political parties and in their internal divisions. Gradually, arms began to move into the Golden Temple complex and more and more militants started staying inside the complex.
Finally, Bhindranwale also shifted into the complex where he was visited by hordes of people and he spoke regularly to all of them. In every speech that he made he reiterated his conviction that the army would definitely enter the Golden Temple complex and t hey (Bhindranwale and his followers) would become shaheeds in the defense of the shrine. He made this statement dozens of times. I had read most of these speeches on a dai ly basis over this whole period and was convinced, as all our other officers in the field and at headquarters, of the commitment of Bhindranwale to force a showdown and die inside the complex. Other information flowing from other sources also led us to the same conclusion.
GENERAL UPSET AT ASSESSMENT
Dyal was quite upset at this assessment and asked me a bit haughtily as to with what would the militants fight as they had only a few ‘bandooks’ (small arms) against the fire power assembled by the army. I informed him that the army had already been briefed by the intelligence agencies as to the kind of arms and ammunition available inside and the tactics likely to be adopted under the guidance of Shabeg Singh who had been a general in the army and a known expert in guerrilla warfare. Forget the intelligence agencies, it was common knowledge as to what level of armament and manpower was at Bhindranwale’s disposal.
Finally, the general was informed that Bhindranwale knew that they could not defeat the army but would be able to make a last stand inside the complex and become shaheed. I also informed the general that I had, on a few occasions, interacted with Bhidran-wale during my tenure at Amritsar and it was my conviction based on an understanding of his psyche that he would remain committed to his resolve.
The general was dismissive of my assessment and asked me as to when the ‘Palki Sahib’ was taken to the sanctum sanctorum in the mor ning. If I remember correctly I told him that the time fixed was four o’clock. He informed us that the ‘Palki Sahib’ would be taken out at the same time after the night operation and further requested me as to whether we could make available some granthis to perform the rituals as the regular ones might not be available. He was informed that this problem would be resolved. The general further requested that a few masons be kept available in the early hours so that if there was some minor repair work to be done, they could do it before sunrise. He was informed that this also would be taken care of.
All the above statements and requests made by Dyal indicated to us his firm conviction that Bhindranwale and his followers would surrender after the first display of the awesome firepower collected outside the complex, and at no stage did he take our views seriously or even gave them a consideration. The army commanders had also failed to take into consideration that the day they chose for the operation was the martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev and that the complex was already brimming with thousands of pilgrims and followers of the Akali Dal who had come to offer arrests in the dharam yudh morcha that Sant Harchand Singh Longowal had launched. I felt like part of the chorus in a Greek tragedy that could foresee what was going to unfold but did not have the power to intervene and stop it from happening. Thereafter, I came back to my office and what followed is history — there was no surrender.
(The writer is a former Punjab IPS officer and later went on to become DGP, J&K, director general, BSF, chairman of the UPSC and Governor, Manipur)