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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 26 New Delhi June 16, 2018

Bhindranwale Still Lives

Monday 18 June 2018, by Kuldip Nayar


Indian history is replete with tragedies which, when retold, suggest that the happenings could have been avoided. ‘Operation Bluestar’ is one of them. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a militant, holed himself up at the Akal Takht, the highest Sikh seat, and created a state within a state. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used the Army to silence his guns and sent tanks into the Harmandir Saheb. Whatever one may say, Bhindranwale continues to enjoy respect in the hearts of Sikhs.

I had a taste of it the other day when, unwittingly, I referred to him as a terrorist. Sikh historian Khushwant Singh could get away with the remark that Bhindranwale was a terrorist. But I could not. Although I explained that it was an off-the-cuff remark, not meant to cast any reflection on Bhindranwale, there were furores in the Sikh community that my apology was not taken as an apology. I was criticised for having offended the Sikhs.

Indeed, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to finish the Akalis and found an opportunity while challenging Bhindranwale. In fact, there was more to it than just what meets the eyes. According to one story which was later confirmed by her personal secretary R.K. Dhawan, the plan was to garner voters for the 1984 Lok Sabha elections which were due a few months later.

Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, nephew, Arun Nehru, and Rajiv’s adviser, Arun Singh, were at the back of the decision which forced Mrs Gandhi to order the Army to storm the Golden Temple at Amristar to flush out the militant leader and his cohorts. Dhawan was quoted as saying that the trio—Rajiv, Arun Nehru and Arun Singh—believed that a successful Army operation could enable them to win the elections hands down.

‘Operation Bluestar’ was not just Mrs Gandhi’s last battle. It was the first, and perhaps the most disastrous, of Rajiv’s blunders. A report in the Caravan magazine said that “Indira Gandhi, who had evidently approved Bluestar with the greatest reluctance, regretted the operation immediately, according to Dhawan, who was with her when she first saw images of the damage to the shrine.” President Giani Zail Singh wanted to visit the shrine to make amends but was dissuaded. He took a civilian plane on his own and visited the Golden Temple to offer his apology.

The deepest cut was that he was asked to defend the operation on AIR. Subsequently, he told me that he wanted to say no but realised that it would create a crisis in the country—the President taking one line and the government the other. He did go on air and defended the operation. He literally wept while addressing the nation.

Mrs Gandhi, too, was horrified to see the footage of the Golden Temple which was brought by Arun Singh. Arun Nehru told me that his phupi (aunt Indira Gandhi) was not willing to carry out the operation until the last minute. But then the Army Chief and also the trio, which guided ‘Operation Bluestar’, eventually changed her mind. This was mainly because Rajiv Gandhi had started dealing directly with Punjab affairs which until some time ago was handled by his brother, Sanjay Gandhi.

It is another matter that Mrs Gandhi had to pay with her life for the attack on the Golden Temple when her security guards gunned her down. Rajiv Gandhi swept to power with the biggest mandate (421 seats in the Lower House of 544 members) in Indian history following his mother’s assassination.

I was a part of the team which comprised General Jagjit Singh Aurora, Air Marshal Arjun Singh and Inder Gujral, who subsequently became the Prime Minister, to span the distance between the Akalis and the government on the one hand and Sikhs and Hindus on the other. Our finding was that the Army operation was not necessary and that Bhindranwale could have been dealt with differently. We said so in our report to the Punjabi Group which had deputed us to probe into the anti-Sikh riots that followed Mrs Gandhi’s assassination.

P.V. Narasimha Rao was the then Home Minister and he was equivocal when our team met him to appraise of the government action. All other people, including the witnesses whom we spoke to, made a case where it was clear that the government had overreacted. The anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and neighbouring areas could have been suppressed immediately. But then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi intentionally did not ask either the police or the Army to intervene. He reportedly remarked that the riots were spontaneous. He even reacted by saying that when a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake.

Now 34 years after the Army stormed the Golden Temple, the declassified British documents show that the UK military advised India on retaking the temporal seat of Sikhs, kicking off political storms in both London and New Delhi. The British Government has ordered an inquiry into the revelations and the BJP has demanded an explanation.

The revelation is contained in a series of letters declassified recently by the National Archives of the UK after the 30-year secrecy rule. In an official communication, dated February 23, 1984 and titled ‘Sikh Community’, an official with the Foreign Secretary told the private secretary to the Home Secretary that “the Foreign Secretary wishes him to be made aware of some background which could increase the possibility of repercussions among the Sikh communities in this country”.

The letter went on to say that if the British advice were to emerge in public, it could increase tension in the Indian community in Britain. However, there is no evidence in any of the communication if the British plan was finally used for the June 1984 operation.

When I was posted as the High Commissioner in London in 1990, I found that there was a prejudice against the Sikhs entering the building and one of my first actions was to throw open the doors to all. The search of only the Sikhs when entering the High Commission was discontinued.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is

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