Life can sometimes come full circle. On that fateful night in 1984 when the Indian Army seized control of the Golden Temple, I was part of a tiny minority who regarded the operation as a disaster.
I remember going for dinner that evening to the Indian Express penthouse at Nariman Point in Bombay to find my host Ramnath Goenka and his houseguest, Rajmata Vijayraje Scindia virtually whooping with delight. Neither of them was any kind of fan of Indira Gandhi’s in normal circumstances, but that night they sang her praises.
Theirs were not isolated views. All over the country there was jubilation at the success of Operation Bluestar. News magazines wrote cover stories with all the gravitas and maturity of a Commando comic. On Doordarshan, General Brar was projected as the conqueror of the Golden Temple and discussed the operation with the swagger of General Eisenhower describing the success of D-Day.
<b1>But I had my reservations. While it was then considered blasphemous to say anything bad about the Indian Army (and perhaps it still is), I thought the military had screwed up big time. The overconfidence of army commanders had led them to underestimate the opposition they would encounter in the temple and their hubris had cost the lives of hundreds of jawans. Worse still, they had taken tanks and Armed Personnel Carriers into the temple, destroying the Akal Takht and badly damaging the Harmandir Saheb.
All this was certain to hurt Sikhs and inflame sentiments. Now, to hide the extent of the army’s ineptitude the government was telling lies (“not a single bullet hit the Harmandir”), covering up the avoidable casualties (the innocent pilgrims who were caught in the crossfire because the army decided to attack on a Sikh holy day), and overplaying the extent of the victory.
My view then — as today — was that first of all, we should think twice before using the army in such situations. (A few years later, the National Security Guard (NSG) was asked to clear the Golden Temple again in Operation Black Thunder and it did a clean surgical job.) Secondly, you should never unleash a media blitz that projects the Indian State as the conqueror of a holy shine. And thirdly, in the aftermath of Bluestar, we needed to assuage Sikh sentiments, not glory in some bogus victory.
Twenty-five years later, I have not changed my mind.
But I think everybody else has.
If you saw the assessments of Indira Gandhi’s reign on October 31 on TV channels, you will have noticed that it has now become obligatory to refer to Bluestar as a big mistake (“her biggest blunder” even) and many Sikhs now hold forth about how so many innocents were murdered by the Indian State because of Indira Gandhi’s callousness.
Some of this stems from ignorance. Many TV journos were either not born or were children when Bluestar happened. And some of it is because we subliminally link Bluestar to the pogroms in which Sikhs were massacred after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination.
In fact the truth is that as much of a disaster as the military operation was and as badly as government (and the popular media and the educated middle class) behaved in its aftermath, there was no alternative to Bluestar.
It was a mess. It was regrettable. But it was necessary.
We forget how bad things were in Punjab in the early 1980s. The Congress (in the shape of Giani Zail Singh with the blessings of the Centre) had propped up an obscure preacher called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to serve as a foil to the Akalis.
To the Congress’s horror Bhindranwale turned into a monster. He claimed that Sikhs were second class citizens in India and demanded a separate nation called Khalistan.
His followers and other militants spread a trail of terror all over Punjab, specifically targeting Hindus. Buses would be stopped. Hindus would be separated from Sikhs and shot dead in cold blood. Prominent Hindus were assassinated. Funds were raised through robberies and extortion. Women were kidnapped and kept prisoner for the sexual gratification of militants. Bombs were placed in public places to kill innocent civilians. Moderate Sikhs were threatened and murdered.
All this was carried out from the Golden Temple where Bhindranwale had taken control of the Akal Takht. Either because he had supporters in the police and administration or because the cops were scared, nobody stopped the shipments of arms that regularly entered the temple. Bhindranwale had made it clear that the violence would continue till an independent country called Khalistan was created.
Faced with this intolerable situation, Indira Gandhi blew it.
The problem was not that she acted with haste or brutality. Quite the opposite.
The problem was that she did too little for too long.
She put her faith in talks, allowed the killings to go on and funked sending the police into the Golden Temple. Even when a police DIG was murdered in full public view at the temple she refused to send the forces in.
When she did act, it was almost too late. And the operation was botched.
The real criticism of Bluestar is not that the forces of the Indian State entered the Golden Temple in 1984. The real problem is that they did not go in much earlier and take out Bhindranwale and his gang of terrorist murderers.
It astonishes me that the reality of the Punjab militancy has been swept under the carpet along with the murders of Hindus and Sikhs. Of course, the army screwed up the operation, and, of course, the Congress must take the responsibility of bringing Bhindranwale to public attention.
But how can we talk about the operation only in terms of “a murder of innocents”? How can we forget that Bhindranwale was a forerunner of Osama bin Laden in that he was a fanatic who turned against the people who had discovered him? Why do we hear so little about the terrorism that led to Bluestar and the horrors of that phase in our history?
The trouble is that the middle class has done an about-turn. Many of us are so guilty about the terrible violence of November 1984 that we have blanked out what went before. Just as we were unreasonably delighted about Bluestar when it happened, we now seek, as unreasonably, to dissociate ourselves from it.
But let’s see sense. Murderers under the leadership of a violent fanatic threatened the unity of India for no good reason (at least in the case of the Naxalites we can understand the grievances), killed innocents, drove a wedge between Hindus and Sikhs and destroyed law and order in the Punjab.
It was a terrible time. And I hope that nothing like it happens again. But if it does, we must not hesitate to use force to take out the murderers. And we should do it as soon as possible.
That’s the real lesson of Bluestar.
The views expressed by the author are personal