At a whopping Rs 1,000 crore, it's the biggest damages suit filed in India's legal history. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) is seeking this amount as compensation from the Centre for material as well as psychological losses suffered during Operation Bluestar, which ended exactly 29 years ago.
The legal battle is also aimed at making the Centre admit in court that the army action of 1984 was a blunder. Thus, winning the case would be a triumph for the SGPC in more ways than one.
The SGPC had filed the suit back in 1985 to claim damages for the killing of innocent devotees, hurting of Sikh religious sentiments and destroying of historical articles and religious structures in the Harmandar Sahib complex by the army operation ordered and executed with a 'mala fide' intention.
The suit was moved to seek grant of permission to sue the Centre and others under the Code of Civil Procedures and the Punjab Sikh Gurdwara Act, 1925, and seeking directions to the Centre to tender an unqualified apology before the Sikh community for hurting religious sentiments. Then SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra (who died in 2004) was the architect of the case.
The SGPC first moved this application in the court of senior sub judge, Amritsar, on February 2, 1985. But the union ministry of home affairs (MHA), in its December 5, 1985, reply, contended that it became necessary for the government to act against certain extremists and other forces which wanted to destabilise the country. The MHA also argued that no such suit was maintainable since the entire state was declared 'disturbed' under the Punjab Disturbed Area Act.
The Centre got the case shifted from an Amritsar court to the Delhi high court in 1986 after getting relief from the Supreme Court.
Advocate Manpreet Singh Sood, whose father, late Surjit Singh Sood, prepared the case in consultation with Tohra, said the SGPC served a legal notice on the Centre before formally filing the recovery suit. "Initially, we made the union of India as a party. But later, the court of senior sub judge Tara Singh allowed our application to also make ministers of the union of India as respondents in the case," he recalled, adding that Surjit Singh persistently pursued the case till his death in 2009.
All these years, the case in the Delhi high court revolved around whether the SGPC had the money to pay the court fee of Rs 10 crore. As per the court's directions, the Registrar General heard the case and finally decided in favour of the MHA, which had maintained that the religious body was not a 'pauper institution'.
"Tohra had refused to pay the court fee on the grounds that neither he nor the SGPC had the funds for the purpose," former SGPC secretary Manjit Singh Calcutta told HT.
Calcutta, who had accompanied Tohra to most of the hearings, said it was a fact that in the mid-1980s, the SGPC was in financial doldrums as very few devotees then came to the Golden Temple or other SGPC-run shrines.
The SGPC had been seeking exemption from paying court fee, arguing that it was a statuary corporation of the Centre under provisions of the Punjab Sikh Gurdwara Act. However, the Centre contended that the SGPC budget ran into crores of rupees and there was no dearth of funds with the Sikh body. The court finally ordered the SGPC to pay the requisite fee to proceed further.
According to Calcutta, the real aim is not to seek compensation of Rs 1,000 crore or Rs 100 crore, but to make the Centre admit its blunder.
"What we argued in the case so far has all been recorded and the SGPC should maintain this document. Our counsel has clearly stated that the attack on the shrine was carried out to teach the Sikhs and Akalis a lesson for having sided with the opposition during the Emergency days. This and other points put forth have all become important court records and can never be erased.
Even the long-pending demands of Punjab were mentioned during the case hearings," Calcutta added.
The veteran Akali leader claimed that during the rule (1999-2004) of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Tohra had approached then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and deputy PM LK Advani and told them about the actual motive behind filing the case.
"Tohra advised them that their government, during arguments, could tender an apology in court for the 1984 operation for which the Congress was responsible. But they refused as the BJP, too, had been in favour of the operation," Calcutta said.
Twists and turns
The SGPC leadership drew flak in India and abroad for submitting an affidavit in the court last year, expressing the desire to withdraw the suit for its inability to pay the court fee. The issue snowballed into a controversy as Sikh intellectuals, social, religious and political leaders strongly opposed the move.
Fielding media queries on the suit, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) patron and Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, during his visit to Khatkar Kalan village on March 23 (martyrs' day), had said that his party did not have requisite funds to pay the court fee. On being reminded of the suit's historical importance for proving the Centre's blunder, Badal had said that he would ask SGPC chief Avtar Singh Makkar to reconsider the decision to withdraw the suit.
In January this year, the SGPC executive decided to pursue the case. In May, the fee of Rs 10 crore was finally deposited, setting the stage for the high-stakes case whose hearing will begin in October.
* Operation Bluestar, carried out from June 3-6, 1984, was ordered by then Congress government headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The army action was aimed at flushing out armed militants from the Golden Temple complex
* The operation was launched on Guru Arjan Dev's martyrdom day, when thousands of devotees were present inside the shrine. Militant preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, then Damdami Taksal head, was among those killed
* As per the SGPC claims, rare manuscripts, historical documents and sacred articles preserved for centuries by Sikhs were intentionally destroyed by the army and central forces after complete takeover of the complex
* The Sikh body claims that the army burnt the Sikh Reference Library, which housed rare relics and manuscripts, besides rare handwritten volumes of Sikh scriptures and 'hukumnamas' (edicts) of Sikh gurus