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Why revive memories of Operation Bluestar?

Now that the painful memories of Operation Bluestar, which at best should have been left to rest, have been revived, first by building the memorial in the Golden Temple and recently by a TV channel that carried a detailed series on the army action, certain aspects of this episode need a re-look. Lt Gen Harwant Singh (retd) wrties.

punjab Updated: Jun 14, 2013 14:56 IST
Lt Gen Harwant Singh (retd)

Now that the painful memories of Operation Bluestar, which at best should have been left to rest, have been revived, first by building the memorial in the Golden Temple and recently by a TV channel that carried a detailed series on the army action, certain aspects of this episode need a re-look.

First and foremost is the question as to how this large build-up within the precincts of the Golden Temple was allowed to take place. There was no secrecy about this enormous piling up of ammunition and weapons of all description. After all, state and central police were at the scene for a long time and nothing could be taken into the temple without being checked.

Militants had not only carried out fortification of the temple complex, but according to PC Alexander, the then principal secretary to the prime minister, also put up positions on as many as 17 houses around it and fortified these under the very nose of the police. According to Alexander, vehicles bringing 'kar sewa' (food items for langar etc) were regularly bringing weapons and ammunition. Therefore, this build-up was known all the way to Delhi. Then there were these intelligence agencies, which had easy and free access to precincts of the temple and thus could have mapped a complete layout of the weapons stock. Was the police and district administration too petrified of the militants or had they been simply told to turn a blind eye to these developments?

The fact is that there was no administration worth the name: even in the district headquarters. When on April 25, 1983, deputy inspector general of police (DIG) AS Atwal was killed just outside the temple complex, and the killers leisurely walked away, the police then or later dared not follow them. Atwal's security personnel simply fled. Some police and intelligence officers, during the interview with this TV channel, stated that they did not agree with the army's proposed method of operation and expressed these views during the meeting with military commanders and yet had no workable alternative to offer nor were able to gather any intelligence regarding deployment of weapons etc.

Sinister design

What was the central government's role in this build-up to a stage where there simply was no option other than to commit the military for clearing the temple complex of militants and their control center? Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a creation of the Congress: to neutralise the Akalis by weaning them away from the support of the Sikh peasantry. But as it invariably happens in such cases, plans go awry and the end effect is counter-productive. It does appear that in all this build-up to a stage where military action became inescapable, there was some sinister design.

Alexander in his book, 'Through the Corridors of Power: An Inside Story', has dealt with events leading up to Operation Bluestar and what then prime minister Indira Gandhi wanted done. In his somewhat brazen manner and anxiety to absolve the then PM for ordering the 'operation', he laid the blame entirely at the military's door: shifting the burden of culpability and misjudgment to the military commanders.

The other issue that remains unanswered is the role of the SGPC. How did it allow the takeover of the temple complex by Bhindranwale and his militant groups? Was this august Sikh body too terrified or had it become an accomplice in, what could be termed as, an act against Sikh Maryada by turning this temple of peace and tranquility into the fountainhead of such criminal activity from where diktats for murder and mayhem were emanating.

Military had no option

The military had no option but to carry out what it was instructed to do. Those who think that the military should have laid siege and starved the militants, leaving them the only option to surrender, fail to visualise the reaction to such an action from the surrounding villages, where lakhs would have marched to the Golden Temple. After all, this temple is the holiest Sikh shrine, deeply imbedded in their psyche due to its history, its repeated desecrations and then restorations and the connected sacrifices made over the centuries. This was the other reason for the army to use heavy weapons and complete the operation the same night. The reasons advanced for the urgency to carry out the operation, which coincided with Guru Arjan Dev's martyrdom day, are not compelling enough and yet who forced the pace of military operation? Why did the militants not allow the 'sangat' to leave as soon as the possibility of military action became apparent?

Could the military have carried out the operation by a more viable tactical plan? The parikarma had been turned into, what in military terms is called, the defender's 'killing ground'. Attacks along it were suicidal. Could the Akal Takht have been entered from the rear by 'key holing' through its rear walls and 'tear-gassing' the militants holed up on the upper floors? The argument that the military could not reconnoiter the precincts of the temple complex to determine the layout of defences is a lame excuse. Dozens of military persons dressed as peasants could have looked at designated sectors. Air photos, both vertical and oblique, would have revealed most of the emplacements.

Finally, the military suffered heavy casualties and therefore, this extreme anger amongst the troops was possible. Communal feeling had percolated even among the troops, consequent to killings of a community by the militants. Discipline and good leadership is expected to overcome such emotions. The alleged killing of surrendered militants, as claimed by Akali leader Balwant Singh Ramoolwalia in his TV interview, should have been reported soon after and if found true the military would have taken action against those involved in this crime. For Ramoowalia to come out with this information 29 years later has probably something to do with his political realignment.

First Published: Jun 14, 2013 13:02 IST