Operation Blue Star: A spectre that still haunts India
Sometime in the summer of 1984, Lt-Gen VK Nayar, known more popularly – like most officers in the defence forces – by his nickname Tubby, was driving home after spending a gruelling day in his office, putting in place a military operation that was sure to be exceedingly controversial. His mind wandered to the name which could be assigned, to the yet unnamed plan, which he was working on. At some point, while looking out of the window, his car crossed a mechanic’s shop who brought air conditioners and refrigerators back to life. The signboard of the shop was possibly sponsored – or he may have done it on his own to attract eyeballs in pre-market reforms India – by a leading brand which still survives in the post-liberalization era albeit as a laggard, called Blue Star.
The General was sure that even if the name leaked out, no one would ever be able to connect a popular brand of cooling devices with the military operation the general was drawing up on paper. The senior officer was correct in his assessment and till a few years before he passed away, in December 2015, after a commendable career as a paratrooper, an infantryman, a counter-insurgency specialist and an Army commander, no one came to know that the one of the most widely-known military operations was named after a manufacturer of home appliances.
The Beginning of the End
Within days, there was a hint of what was to come as the entire state of Punjab was placed under curfew. Although most of the cities and towns in the state were now somewhat used to the constant darkness throughout dusk to dawn and rushing back home became habit before the curfew was set in place, severe restrictions in all movements and disconnection of telephone throughout the state was a sign of something more foreboding around the corner. There was further evidence of ominous developments when the media was herded out from the eye of the gathering storm: Amritsar’s Golden Temple or Harmindar Sahib, the most important shrine of the Sikhs.
It was possibly the most direct indication that Indian security forces were intending to take definite action against the hundreds of militants holed inside the gurudwara, in direct challenge to the might of the Indian state. June, every year, is a time of disconcerting remembrance in India. It is, at one level, an occasion to recall the military onslaught in, what British Broadcasting Corporation’s former India correspondent, Sir Mark Tully, fittingly called – Indira Gandhi’s last battle.
While considerable debate remains on various facets of the military strike on the Sikh temple and the political episode that necessitated it, there is no doubt that even before the last of the bodies were wheeled inside hospital morgues and the injured were discharged after their scars were taken care of, many a potential assassin would have steeled their resolves to kill the Indian premier who had euphemistically been called, by an adversary in the infancy of her tenure as prime minister, as the “only man in her cabinet.”
Importance of Operation Blue Star in Indian Politics
On another level, Operation Blue Star exists as a bookmark on the chapter of Indian politics in which the recurring theme is political incompetence. Bipan Chandra, India’s eminent but now deceased historian co-authored a book along with two colleagues that states that the Operation Blue Star “produced a deep sense of anger and outrage among Sikhs all over the country. It was seen by most of them as a sacrilege and an affront to the community, rather than a necessary-though- unpleasant effort.” Yet another scholar, much-maligned like Chandra and his colleagues as ‘leftists’ or Nehruvian historians, Ramchandra Guha wrote that Operation Blue Star “left a collective wound in the psyche of the Sikhs, a deep sense of suspicion of the government of India.”
I argued in my book on the other dimension of the events of 1984 – the mass killing of Sikhs in New Delhi and several others cities in India after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, that Operation Blue Star “severely impacted even the so-called enlightened Sikhs”. On a third dimension, Operation Blue Star is an important anniversary every year; whether it is a watershed marker, as it was in the year 2014 marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Operation, or this year just as a ‘routine’ anniversary because it has been 34 years since the cruel and easily avoidable episode.
The month of June every year is also an apt occasion to recall the exceptional military courage and daring of the soldiers, who were deployed in such a challenging situation by a set of bumbling generals, lulled into complacency purely on the basis of their fatigues.
But before this story proceeds any further, it is necessary to underscore a poignant paradox: Despite the ‘Sikh anger’, which resulted in Operation Blue Star and the consequential assassination of Indira Gandhi, out of the three generals involved in Operation Blue Star, two were Sikhs — Lt. Gen. K.S. Brar and Lt. Gen. Ranjit Singh Dyal. Besides, Sikh soldiers who were part of the group briefed before the assault was given the liberty to opt out of the Operation because it involved their temporal seat. However, no one did – an indication that Indian soldiers, like their peers in other nation, put nothing before their country. In a multi-religious country like India, this was particularly significant. It is a different matter to ponder over that if in contemporary India, military commanders would have the political courage to make a similar offer to soldiers from minority communities. In all probability, they would be excluded from the list of chosen combatants, if the target involved a religious shrine of the minorities.
Indira Gandhi’s Political Maneuver Backfires
The issue of constitutional accordance of rights to Sikhs was at the centre of the insurgency in Punjab and this dominated the discourse from the late-1970s to mid-1990s. To a considerable extent, turbulence set in during one of the murkiest phases in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s political career. During this period, she also imposed internal Emergency to whether a political challenge and her anger towards Sikhs – specifically the Akali Dal, the community-specific political party of the Sikhs – mounted because of massive opposition to her decision to curtail fundamental rights.
The Congress and Akali Dal were political rivals since independence. To give that a telling blow as ‘payback’ for backing the opposition during Emergency, Gandhi decided to prop up alternative Sikh Groups, especially young religious preacher, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as an effort to weaken Akalis. However, to her dismay, he soon assumed the proportions of a Frankenstein’s monster.
Rise of Sikh Militancy under Bhindranwale
The woes for Indira Gandhi began with Bhindranwale’s direct conflict with orthodox Sikh groups and in April 1978, in a clash involving the protégé and a reformist sect, Nirankaris, twelve Sikhs and three Nirankaris were killed. The genesis of Punjab militancy can be traced back to the day Sikh fundamentalism took root on the streets and spread deep and wide in the next decade and a half. Soon, violence consumed the state and Hindus became targets of militant Sikhs led by Bhindranwale, towards whom a significant section of Sikhs gravitated and in the process weakened the Akalis.
Indira Gandhi began succeeding in her objective but at the cost of India’s national fabric and communal harmony. Yet, no measures were taken and before most could realize, the Golden Temple became a hideout for the militants, under the belief that the government would never attack it.
While the government erred, Sikhs religious institutions and its custodians also played along, as the militants were backed by the flush of resources provided by foreign-based separatist groups. Soon, a volatile situation was created and Sikhs began to get alienated from the national mainstream.
By early 1980s, Sikh militants would often emerge from the temple and strike at Hindus or security forces – kill some, maim others – and slink back into the depths of the temple’s labyrinthine basements. Soon, matters reached a point where the government began viewing every Sikh as a possible militant or terrorist. On the other hand, by December 1983, Bhindranwale was openly revered as a Sant or Saint by large sections in Sikhs. Soon, he occupied the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs and although the head priest protested, other Sikh institutions did not back him.
The Beginning of the Operation
Matters reached a head in May 1984, when Sikh militants assassinated Ramesh Chander, editor of the vernacular newspaper, Punjab Kesri. His father, Lala Jagat Narain, past head of the paper, had been previously killed in 1981 and the latest murder added pressure on Indira Gandhi to act against the militants holed up inside the Golden temple. Eventually, the political leadership directed the military to plan a storming of the most important gurudwara. The generals, on their part, miscalculated the entire plan. Either backed by insufficient or incorrect intelligence, the generals grossly underestimated both fighting prowess of the militants and the weaponry stocked inside.
Significantly, a dismissed Major General, Shahbeg Singh, had joined the militants, because he refused to accept his guilt and argued that he was victimized because of his religious identity. He used techniques that he had learnt in the army for decades, back on them now. Untrained militants were at his command but what they lacked by training, they compensated with commitment. Religious fury was fuelling their courage and they had the strategic advantage of occupying a small and tightly built up area. While these militants knew every twist and turn in the tunnels, the army was handicapped by the absence of detailed maps – they targeted a territory about which the military leadership was simply clueless.
Eventually, Operation Blue Star continued for longer than expected and the fatalities on both sides were more than anticipated. What started on June 2 continued till the morning of June 6, when army tanks fitted with 105 mm ammunition pounded the Akal Takht – where Bhindranwale was believed to have taken refuge.
It was the final enactment in a battle, where forces on both sides had been delusional – while the army thought that the militants would buckle under the mere sight of heavy artillery, the militants, led by Bhindranwale and General Shahbeg Singh, anticipated that they would be able to hold on with the limited ammunition at their disposal before hundreds of thousands of Sikh villagers would encircle the Golden Temple forcing the army to retreat in the wake of rising international pressure.
He expected this ‘liberation’ to initiate the process of the formation of a separate and independent ‘Khalistan’. On her own, even Indira Gandhi was delusional; she did not have the political sagacity to understand what it meant to play with religious militancy, to counter influence a political rival. Moreover, she also did not comprehend the possible steps to bring the conflict to an end; neither did she estimate the damage the army operation would personally cause her and the risk she was taking.
Aftermath of the Operation
Operation Blue Star ended lives of the two most important dramatis personae in the conflict. While Bhindranwale died in the desecrated Golden Temple, Indira Gandhi was gunned down by bodyguards at her residence. The third important personality in the entire imbroglio, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, president of Akali Dal, also died a violent death, shot by militants on August 21. His crime? Besides not taking a firm enough stand prior to Blue Star, he signed a peace accord with Rajiv Gandhi. Eventually, even Rajiv Gandhi died a violent death as a result of another misadventure of the Indian state, this one involving Tamilians in Sri Lanka.
In spite of the violent denouements of Bhindranwale and Indira Gandhi, the Punjab conflict did not quite end. Militants once again took shelter inside the Golden Temple and forced the security forces to launch another ‘operation’, called Black Thunder II – no one is certain about when and where part it took place. It was a success without much collateral damage, but by May 1988 the government had learnt three vital lessons. Firstly, there was no media blackout. A writer in fact, reported on the operation and had never witnessed an intense armed conflict from such close quarters before.
Secondly, the government was better prepared with intelligence on where the militants were gathered inside the Golden Temple. Thirdly, the army was kept out and operations were conducted with medium artillery at the most. And most importantly, security forces did not step inside the temple complex till the last of the militants had either surrendered or been killed. The operation, again, did not mark the conclusion of India’s Punjab imbroglio, but after 1988, it was just a matter of time before the embers would stop smoldering.
One of the lasting paradoxes, of electoral politics in Punjab, is that Sikhs never completely deserted the Congress party despite Operation Blue Star. The first indication of this was the assembly elections in September 1985, which were swept away by the Akali Dal.
Significantly, however, data extrapolations show that the Congress won almost 25 percent of the Sikh vote, even after garnering just 32 of the 117 seats. No less than a year after the anti-Sikh carnage in New Delhi and other Indian cities, this surprising result only demonstrated that Sikhs are not a monolith, electoral or social community.
With a Dalit/Scheduled Caste population of 31.9%, Punjab has the highest proportion of the untouchable caste in the country and a significant portion of these are Sikh Dalits or the mazabi Sikhs. Because of oppressive social customs, the upper castes have discriminated against untouchables, even among Sikhs, and with the Akali Dal drawing support mainly from the upper caste Jat Sikhs, the mazabis have been staunch Congress supporters which did not alter in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star.
Even in Delhi, while Sikhs initially opposed the Congress, 1993 onwards their attitude towards the Congress changed. According to the data based on a post-poll survey, conducted by the prestigious Centre for Studies in Developing Studies based in New Delhi, the Congress secured the support of 49.5 percent of Sikhs in the 1998 assembly elections. Sikh support for Congress has risen significantly in the Indian capital thereafter, especially between 2004 and 2009 – a period when India’s only Sikh Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was nominated to the post by the Congress. As premier, he apologized for the killings of Sikhs in 1984 and paid a visit to Golden temple in March 2006; both of the acts contributed to erase the memories of turbulent Punjab.
In Punjab, after 1997, the Akalis and Congress started seeking votes in the name of development, starting the decline of identity-based politics. When Congress won the elections in 2002, as many as 84 percent of the voters made their choice on the basis of candidate or the political party and not on religious identity. The Congress lost in the 2007 elections but that was mainly due to general anti-incumbent sentiments instead of religion. However, in 2017, the Congress once again swept into office, with more than fifty percent of its seats in the, predominantly Sikh, rural area.
The Impact of the Operation on Sikh’s Lives Today
In recent years, support for Sikh separatism has declined in Punjab, just like it has internationally. Of late, Sikh separatism in the international arena has existed principally in Canada and United Kingdom. Recently during Modi’s visit to London, Sikh separatists staged protests, though considerably less vocal than those during previous visits of Indian leaders. In Canada, Sikh separatism inspired the deadliest terror attack in Canadian history: a Sikh militant group’s bombing of Air India Flight 182, which killed 329 people.
The new leader of the New Democrat Party, Jagmeet Singh has been in the spotlight since he assumed office for his stance on the issue. His appearances at Sikh separatist events have created a furore. Singh was accused of being slow to denounce posters honouring Talwinder Singh Parmar, the mastermind of the Air India bombing. In yet another controversial remark on television, Singh claimed to not know who was responsible for the Air India bombing. He has, time and again, reminded people in Canada – mainly Sikhs – that the pain and trauma of 1984 could not be left behind in their country of origin.
India has recently reiterated that it wants Canadian government to do more to prevent people from misusing their right to freedom of expression: to “incite violence and glorify terrorists as martyrs”. The demand was raised during a Universal Periodic Review session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on May 2018. The Indian government has not hidden its disagreement, with what it calls a lenient approach of the Trudeau government, towards Sikh separatism. The issue was a point of discord during Trudeau’s India visit in February 2018. Modi snubbed the Canadian premier by not personally receiving him at the airport, a courtesy he has showered on leaders of important nations. India is pursuing an aggressive policy against Sikh separatism, which it feels is on its last legs and surviving mainly due to international support.
Operation Blue Star and its aftermath may be history, however, its memory still leaves a stab of pain among Indians.