Black Thunder’s silver lining
On the 20th anniversary of Operation Black Thunder, we must celebrate the demise of foolproof official secrecy, often daftly associated with all national security missions, writes Vipul Mudgal.Updated: May 13, 2008, 22:46 IST
The resounding success of Operation Black Thunder in 1988, four years after a disastrous Operation Bluestar, established the value of transparency for law enforcement agencies in this country. In the 1980s, when the Indian State was battling more mutinies than ever, success came at a critical juncture as it struggled to stay united without sacrificing democracy.
In Operation Bluestar, tanks, armoured carriers, helicopters, mortars, artillery shells, machine guns and tonnes of ammunition were used — and all within less than 72 hours. In Operation Black Thunder, that began on May 12 and ended with the surrender of militants on May 18, the ‘siege of patience’ was aided by a surgical strike and some smart media management. Both operations flushed out terrorists from a fortified Golden Temple even though the level of fortification was a lot higher in 1984 under the leadership of slain zealots, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and retired Major General Shehbeg Singh. But the isolated shots fired by sharpshooters during Black Thunder had a far more devastating effect than the entire arsenal used in Bluestar. The climax — when the last batch of militants emerged out of the Golden Temple with arms raised in surrender — was televised live all over the world.
A lot has been written on how Operation Bluestar could have been less tragic. As a media event, it was arguably India’s worst embarrassment. Militarily too, it yielded very little. It brought hundreds of casualties, stirred up army desertions, led to the assassination of a Prime Minister, and the widespread carnage of Sikhs that followed. It also scarred minds and deepened the nation’s communal divide. Parts of what transpired will never be known. A news blackout left no scope for independent agencies to document the operation. Meanwhile, Doordarshan added insult to injury when it kept repeating shots of huge recoveries of arms and ammunition rather than answering burning questions about the fate of the missing people, the real damage caused to the temple, or the actual death toll.
In contrast, the live coverage of Operation Black Thunder stood out as an example of openness. The desecration of the Harmandir Sahab by those holed up inside was the worst PR disaster for the otherwise media-savvy extremists. Their worst undoing was the disclosure that they had desecrated the holiest Sikh shrine and defiled antique utensils of immense emotional value. In hindsight, one can say all this wouldn’t have worked if the State had issued press releases, pictures and video clips instead of allowing media crews to take their own, real-time shots.
Having witnessed the seven-day siege, I came across many instances when transparency worked as a shield against misinformation by vested interests. On one occasion, many journalists and temple officials were upset when the police tried to dispose of two corpses in undue haste soon after the surrender. But later it became apparent that Amritsar’s Red Cross and district officials were rushing things because an overpowering stench from the decaying corpses was making the obligatory ‘panchnama’ very difficult. As soon as the first set of paperwork was over, a covered municipality truck was called in to take the first body away and the same routine was followed later. Hence two trucks were deployed to carry two corpses due to extraordinary circumstances.
Some self-proclaimed eyewitnesses later swore to reporters that they had seen two truckloads of dead bodies being taken away. Some even produced pictures to ‘prove’ the claim. Their presumption of hundreds of deaths could have sparked off riots in an already tense city. Fortunately no journalist bought the story. Since everything was unfolding in front of everyone, nobody gave any importance to the ‘well informed’ Akali leaders. (Mercifully, India’s neurotic 24-hour news channels were not yet born and it was still trendy to double-check facts). Some days later, when many bodies were dug out of a mound of earth inside the complex, nobody blamed the security forces. Everybody knew that these hapless people were victims of the terrorists who controlled the temple before the siege.
Once during the siege, the officials panicked when all the journalists and photo journalists, perched atop the Guru Ram Das Serai and the Guru Nanak Niwas for a vantage view, decided to leave together for their hotels. Many hadn’t slept for several nights and some were dizzy with hunger. (Amritsar’s curfew-bound markets were all deserted.) A persistent chief of Punjab’s Public Relations finally convinced them to go in batches and his subordinates produced hot ‘puri-chhole’ in a jiffy, presumably from the CRPF kitchens. Clearly, the idea was to ensure that the media were present at all times for the sake of transparency.
For the Indian State, the biggest lesson of the two diverse siege operations in 1984 and 1988 was simple: it is always simpler to manage the media than to black out news. The significance of what was achieved during Operation Black Thunder becomes apparent when we compare it with the treatment meted out to the media during Bluestar.
A day before Bluestar, the army herded together all Indians working for foreign papers and all foreign correspondents and drove them out of Amritsar in special buses. (The only foreign correspondents known to have given them a slip were Mark Tully of the BBC and Brahma Chellaney of AP. A criminal case was later filed against Chellaney, now among India’s most respected national security strategists.) After the expulsion, army technicians took over, closing offices and snapping all phone lines indiscriminately. Those trying to resist were either booked or beaten up.
An upshot of the censorship of Punjab’s press was that nobody believed the government version. Not even the death toll figures of civilians or soldiers. Initially, the authorities stated that 96 soldiers had died, but some officials promptly denied this. Khushwant Singh attributed a death toll of 379 civilians to some historians and the Akalis’ figures ran to several thousands. Rajiv Gandhi later quoted the figure of 700 soldiers dying while addressing the Nagpur session of the Youth Congress. But there was nothing official about it. Obviously there were several opinions within the government about whether it was better to play down or to play up the toll for ‘national interest’. The truth remains a casualty to this day.
For future operations, nothing works better than the rare recollections of officers of things gone terribly right during a big siege. This becomes the cornerstone of something critical for democracy: the institutional memory of seriously right or wrong steps for the security forces.
A good example of this institutional memory was the army’s exemplary restrain and openness during the siege of the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar in 1993. In Hazratbal, the army played the waiting game for over a month, and not once were Indian or foreign journalists stopped from covering the proceedings in any way they wanted. The government did not deny the fact that some known ‘anti-national’ leaders from the Hurriyat were involved in negotiations. When it allowed safe passage to some 40 terrorists, India’s anxiety about saving the holy shrine was appreciated everywhere, including in the valley.
On the 20th anniversary of Operation Black Thunder, we must celebrate the demise of foolproof official secrecy, often daftly associated with all national security missions. Rather than copying the US model of embedded journalism, which hasn’t exactly won hearts over in Iraq and Afghanistan, a mature democracy like India must showcase — and learn from — its homebred success stories.