Genesis of tumultuous period in Punjab

Genesis of tumultuous period in Punjab

The Khalistan Conspiracy: A Former R&AW Officer Unravels the Path to 1984 by GBS Sidhu. HarperCollins. Pages 296. Rs 599.

Book Title: The Khalistan Conspiracy: A Former R&AW Officer Unravels the Path to 1984

Author: GBS Sidhu

AS Dulat

As the Greek tragedian Euripides says, “Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” Death was the main currency of the Punjab in the 1980s. The script, thereafter, reads like a Greek tragedy in which the main actors were doomed at the outset. Militancy, violence, bloodshed and skullduggery were to claim almost 40,000 lives, mostly innocents. Whether or not the CIA or the MI6 were involved, the upheaval was tailormade for the ISI to intervene in Punjab.

This tumultuous period witnessed the sacrilege of the holiest of Sikh shrines, and the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of the Prime Minister. It was without question the darkest chapter in India’s post-Independence history. So much has been written about that it causes fatigue or under-expectation, except that GBS Sidhu has written a story that is distinctly different, reading at times like a spy thriller, replete with agents, sub-agents, double agents, a defection, and intrigues within the system.

People close to Indira Gandhi claim that she was reluctant to send the Army into the Golden Temple, but Operation Bluestar was a huge blunder. File photo

Sidhu has a lot of telling to do. By his own admission, the Department helped build the Khalistan legend and actively participated in the planning of Operation Bluestar. Posted to Ottawa in 1976 to look into the Khalistan problem, Sidhu found nothing amiss in the Sikh diaspora in North America during the three years he was there. As he puts it, Delhi was unnecessarily making a mountain of a molehill where none existed. He reveals how in 1981, the R&AW created seven new stations in West Europe and North America to counter Khalistan activities when there were none. Neither were the officers sent always familiar with the Sikhs or the Punjab issue.

The main thrust of his book, however, lies in what he describes as Operation One and Two conducted, as he believes, from 1 Akbar Road, not without the connivance of the Department.

The problem with Punjab arose from a lack of understanding of Sikh history and insensitivity to the insecurity at times of the most formidable of minorities. In Sidhu’s telling, rightly so, the problem was of the Congress’ making, notably the Gandhi family, which in its obsession with power created a Frankenstein in the form of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, inspired by Sanjay Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh to counteract the Akali party. Gianiji denied having ever met Bhindranwale but what is undeniable is that the Sant campaigned for the Congress in the 1980 election.

The more immediate provocation, however, could have been Mrs Gandhi’s Hindu card, which antagonised not only the Akalis, but the Sikh community as a whole, communalising Punjab.

After the clumsy handling of the Emergency and the debacle in the 1977 elections, Mrs Gandhi returned to power with a thumping majority; Sanjay was riding high, but then tragedy struck. Mrs Gandhi was shattered and never the same.

Operation Two, as Sidhu refers to it, leading up to Bluestar, was even a bigger tragedy. People close to Mrs Gandhi and those working with her at that time are unanimous in their opinion that she was most reluctant to send the Army into the Golden Temple. Natwar Singh is even on record that the Army, which assured of minimum use of force, flouted her instructions. Bluestar was a huge blunder and a disaster with far-reaching consequences.

Bhindranwale had warned that if the Army entered the Golden Temple, it would lay the foundation of Khalistan. Khalistan was never a movement and may have remained a chimera, but Bhindranwale dead became much bigger than Bhindranwale alive and Punjab was to witness a decade-and-a-half of terrorism.

Bhindranwale never raised the demand for Khalistan or went beyond the Akali Anandpur Sahib Resolution, while he himself was prepared for negotiations to the very end. All talks with the more moderate Akalis had already failed. The hawks had taken control of Mrs Gandhi and so the worst was to happen and the Sikhs never forgave her for what happened. President Giani Zail Singh felt betrayed; relations between him and the Prime Minister were strained and were only to worsen in Rajiv Gandhi’s time.

For atonement, Mrs Gandhi secretly went to pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib on June 23, 1984. According to the officers who accompanied her, she was horrified by the destruction. She made both her anguish and anger known to senior Army officers. In July, she also visited Ladakh where addressing Sikh troops she referred to them as her children, but all this atonement was too little, too late. Sikh troops had already revolted at many places.

The final act of the tragedy remains a riddle. Everybody around her and Mrs Gandhi herself knew of the threat to her life and yet nobody could do anything to save her. If security instructions were flouted, they were only done at the behest of the Prime Minister, who opposed the removing of Sikh guards. Indira Gandhi had a premonition of death.

Sadly, nobody other than Dr Manmohan Singh has had the civility to publicly apologise for Bluestar or the anti-Sikh pogrom.

Recently, Gurbachan Jagat, one of Punjab’s more illustrious police officers, warned that with divisive forces at work, we could again be at the crossroads of history. If protesting farmers can be dubbed as Khalistanis, we may be slipping again.