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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 12, March 18, 2023

How A Secret Meet Between Badal and Rajiv Fizzled Out | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 18 March 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy


Living a Life Hardcover
by Ravi Sawhney

Konark Publishers Pvt.Ltd | 10 February 2023
Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 264 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 8195678637
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-8195678631

1980 brought the Congress to power in Punjab and turned the defeated Akalis belligerent. The state began to feel the heat as the Akali Dal launched a massive agitation for the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973. Although the Akalis did not create Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, they did not speak against his growing deprivation. During one such protest in which Akali leaders courted arrest in large numbers and were interned in Ludhiana, its Deputy Commissioner, Ravi Sawhney, got a message that Prakash Singh Badal, then in custody, wanted to meet him in secret.

Badal along with several party colleagues were put up in a housing complex that had been converted into a temporary jail. As a former chief minister, he was treated with courtesy and had a large room to himself. He was regularly provided with fruits, vegetables and tea. When Sawhney met him, Badal threw a bombshell: he wanted to meet and negotiate with the Congress in order to end the political impasse. If the moderate Akali leadership was allowed to go under, the Congress must realize, he said, “that coward sitting in the Golden Temple would gain ascendency” – a reference to Bhindranwale.

The conversation took place without the knowledge of any other Akali leader.
Sawhney promised to do the needful. He used his college days’ association with Rajiv Gandhi and close friendship with Arun Singh to convey Badal’s message to the son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Arun Singh reverted in a few days that Rajiv Gandhi was willing to meet Badal and would travel incognito to Ludhiana.

Since both sides desired complete secrecy, Sawhney planned a two-hour blackout late at night in Ludhiana city during which time Badal would be taken out of the jail and brought to Sawhney’s residence to meet Rajiv Gandhi. Thereafter he would return to jail before his absence was noticed. All the arrangements were firmed up including a continental cuisine dinner for Rajiv Gandhi, prepared a day in advance by Sawhney’s wife Madhu, the daughter of Romesh Bhandari, as she would be in Delhi on the appointed day.

The night before, however, Arun Singh called to say that Rajiv Gandhi would not be able to come as he had been asked by the Prime Minister to attend an air show in the United Kingdom. Sawhney immediately felt that this could not be the real reason. It was stated that Congress veteran Swaran Singh would take his place. But Badal made it clear that he would not meet anyone other than a member of the Gandhi family. Arun Singh finally admitted that close advisors had cautioned the Prime Minister against meeting the Akali Dal leaders.

“I conjectured that these close advisors must have been P.C. Alexander, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib, Cabinet Secretary, both of whom, I was convinced, had no clue of the Sikh psyche,” writes Sawhney in his revealing autobiography “Living a Life” (Konark Publishers). “Tragically, a great opportunity to end the conflict was senselessly aborted which perhaps could have avoided the more tragic events that were to follow.”

Sawhney says that in 1983, a year later and after his transfer to Delhi, he again got involved in attempts to bring about another rapprochement between the Congress and the Akalis. The Akali interlocutor was Balwant Singh, and he held meetings in secret with Romesh Bhandari, then the Secretary, Economic Division in the Ministry of External Affairs, at the latter’s residence. Bhandari was close to Rajiv Gandhi and went on to become the Foreign Secretary. “The whole process was kept so secret that the media had no clue. After several meetings we were able to work out the broad contours of a rapprochement between the Congress and the Akalis.”

The Prime Minister wanted Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to vet the agreement. He seemed happy. But in what turned out to be a huge disappointment, the Prime Minister was again vetoed by “the same coterie of advisors” against any action which they felt could lead to a resurgence of the Akalis in Punjab.

“I have often wondered what course history might have taken had the Prime Minister responded positively to these initiatives,” Sawhney writes in his just released 218-page book. “A rapprochement between the Congress and the Akalis would certainly have marginalized and diminished the influence Bhindranwale and the militants were coveting, thereby putting an end to extremism in the state and possibly Operation Blue Star and the consequential tragic events in its aftermath might have never happened.”

Sawhney may or may not be right but the story he unfolds is the first clear evidence from an insider who knew it all what turn history could have taken if people in New Delhi then did not have a myopic vision. The Punjab happenings are the best part of the book. It is an eyeopener to every student of Punjab and India’s contemporary history.

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