In the second volume of his memoir, The Turbulent Years: 1980-96, President Pranab Mukherjee shares an insider’s account of several significant events during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In this extract, Mukherjee, a cabinet minister in the Indira Gandhi government, justifies Operation Bluestar, the 1984 military action to flush out terrorists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Excerpt:
The Punjab crisis dominated Indian politics between 1980 and 1984. In 1981, the Akali Dal submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ‘of forty-five religious, political, economic and social demands and grievances, including the issue of sharing Punjab’s river waters between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and the quest for the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, and launched a virulent campaign around them’.
Very soon, the issue of the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was raised-specifically, that certain areas from the adjoining states (Una tehsil and Dalhousie from Chamba district in Himachal Pradesh; Pinjore and Kalka from Panchkula district, Sahabad block from Karnal district and the city of Ambala From Ambala district in Haryana and the union territory of Chandigarh) be merged with Punjab. The Akalis held that these areas were deliberately not included in Punjab at the time of the creation of the state, although historically and culturally they were part of it.
Though the 1973 Anandpur Sahib Resolution had called for a high degree of autonomy for Punjab, the Akali Dal was not satisfied with that proposal. In April 1981, one of its leaders, Jathedar Jagdev Singh Talwandi, called for an autonomous state to be set up in North India forthwith, wherein Sikh interests would be recognized as of primary and special importance. This proposed state of Khalistan would have its own Constitution and not be governed by the Indian Constitution. In November 1982, the foremost Akali leader, Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal, in a new elucidation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, said that a Sikh religious state with all Punjabi-speaking people within it should be created to preserve Sikh tradition and religion. In Punjab, Amrik Singh, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and several others started advocating the use of violence for a break-up of the Indian union and the creation of an independent Khalistan. Raising the slogan ‘Raj Karega Khalsa’, they claimed that an independent Khalistan was a historical necessity for the Sikh youth. Clearly, the Akali Dal was constantly changing goalposts and was not clear about whether it wanted autonomy within the Indian union or an independent state.
The Akali Dal’s organized effort to confront the government with its demands soon resulted in the rise of extremism. Both violent action as well as public incitement to violence became commonplace. Criminals, smugglers and anti-social elements took advantage of the situation and associated themselves with this movement. Even Naxalites used the crisis to expand their influence and areas of domination. Several outfits supporting the separatist movement sprouted within the Sikh community abroad, especially in Pakistan, Canada and the UK.
Taking full advantage of the government’s policy that the police would not enter any religious institution, the Golden Temple in Amritsar became a safe haven for their activities. Deliberate efforts were also made to sow bitterness between the Sikh community and Followers of other religions.
Had the Punjab movement been limited to the original demands of the Akali Dal, it may have found an easier resolution. But as it progressed, the establishment of an independent Khalistan emerged as its principal goal. It thus became a movement challenging India’s unity, territorial integrity and security.
Sadly, the Akali Dal never took a clear position regarding the hijacking of the movement by separatist elements. Instead, its leaders often used provocative language very similar to that used by the militants.
Sometime towards the end of 1981, L.K. Advani of the BJP approached me in the Rajya Sabha and expressed grave concern regarding the happenings in Punjab. Speaking agitatedly, Advani accused the government of total indifference. He said that the situation was rapidly deteriorating and the way extremists were spreading violence and arbitrarily killing people was terrible. He warned that conditions could become even more serious in the future, especially in view of the murder of Lala jagat Narain, Member of Parliament (MP), journalist and owner of Punjab’s leading newspaper, Punjab Kesari (on 9 September 1981). A staunch nationalist, Lala Jagat Narain had, in his newspaper, been strongly condemning the militants and campaigning against Khalistan.
After getting the memorandum from the Akali Dal in September 1981, Indira Gandhi invited its representatives for discussions. She sat with them not once but thrice, in October 1981, November 1981 and April 1982. Talks were held at different levels between ministers and
Akali Dal representatives; in trilateral meetings involving other political parties as well; and between government officials, from the Cabinet Secretary and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and Akali Dal representatives.
Indira Gandhi selected the ministers who would be part of the discussions. P.V. Narasiinha Rao presided over the largest number of meetings. While I, as Finance Minister, presided over some. Minutes of all the meetings were sent to the Prime Minister, even though officials from the Prime Minister’s office were part of the dialogue.
However, all these efforts failed because of the Akali Dal’s rigid stance. Even a few days before Operation Blue Star, an attempt was made to find a. solution by holding a meeting with the Akali Dal leaders who were brought from jail to the lounge of the Chandigarh airport at midnight. P.V. Narasimha Rao, Cabinet Secretary Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib and I represented the government in that meeting. Unfortunately, the talks remained unsuccessful.
Each time we came close to a consensus, militant groups seemed to increase their terrorist activities and the Akali Dal would shift its position. It often appeared as though the movement was not under the control of the Akali Dal but being manipulated by extremist Sikh groups---the Akali Dal was only providing political cover to these groups, or so it seemed.
By May 1984, it became increasingly clear that there was no alternative but military action to flush out the terrorists within the Golden Temple-particularly as the negotiations and discussions had not yielded the desired results.
On 3 June, the Indian army entered the Golden Temple in a military operation codenamed Operation Blue Star.
Some believe that this course of action could have been avoided. But the reality that confronted the government at that time was that Bhindranwale and his followers had occupied and taken control of the Golden Temple, disregarding its sanctity. Extremists had turned it into a fortress and a base for operations aimed at the separation of Punjab from India. While some of us were worried about the. reaction of the Sikh community and whether drastic action would be counterproductive, leading to a flaring-up of the communal tension, a final decision to storm the Golden Temple was taken at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA). Its members at that time were the Prime Minister, Home Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, R Venkatraman (having taken over as Defence Minister), Energy Minister P. Shiv Shankar and I. That day, no officials were present at the CCPA meet.
I still vividly recall Mrs Gandhi telling me, ‘Pranab, I know of the consequences.’ She understood the situation well and was clear that there was no other option. Aware that her own life was at risk, she took a conscious decision to go ahead in the best interest of the nation.
It is easy to say that the military action could have. been avoided. However, nobody really knows if any other option would have worked. Such decisions are always taken based on the conditions prevailing at that time. The situation in Punjab was abnormal. Urgent action was needed to put an end to the indiscriminate killings, the misuse of religious sites for terrorist activities and all efforts to break up the Indian union. Intelligence officials and the army both expressed confidence that they would be able to neutralize the militants in the Golden Temple complex without much difficulty. No one anticipated the protracted resistance.
While the Punjab situation was an aberration and a crisis of this nature is unlikely to recur, the lesson for future generations is that fissiparous tendencies have to be resisted at any cost. The Punjab crisis provided external elements an opportunity to take advantage of the disunity within India and sow the seeds of anarchy. Its wounds took a long time to heal and, even today, residual incidents do occur from time to time.
The biggest tragedy, of course, was the loss of Mrs Gandhi. Her last speech in Orissa, two days before her assassination, was prophetic. She said, ‘I am alive today, I may not be there tomorrow... I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die. I can say that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.’