A Fire Under Ashes — Khalistan Movement

By Agha Iqrar Haroon

“For those of us who lived through Operation Blue Star, the situation in Kashmir today brings back vivid memories. Then too, the Central government, headed by Indira Gandhi, had snapped telephone lines and imposed both a state-wide curfew and a news blackout. Residents of Amritsar felt something was going to happen but didn’t know what.

Like Kashmiris today, who could not imagine that the security build-up in the first few days of this month meant the end of the one Constitutional provision that defined them, no Amritsari could have imagined in their wildest dreams that their beloved Golden Temple would be fired upon by their own Army.

The repercussions of that assault in June 1984, in which 492 civilians and 83 soldiers died (official figures), were felt for at least a decade. A prime minister’s assassination followed by a Sikh pogrom were part of the violent aftermath, which was not confined to Punjab or Sikhs alone. Immediately however, what stood out was the secrecy surrounding the Operation. The harsh truth about Operation Blue Star came out only a year later, in a report brought out by Citizens For Democracy, headed by the renowned civil libertarian VM Tarkunde.

Even at that late juncture, ‘Oppression in Punjab: Report to the Nation’ was banned, its five authors charged with sedition, and three of them arrested. The government had already come out with a ‘White Paper’ on Operation Blue Star, but no one believed it. Indira Gandhi herself contemptuously dismissed it in Parliament as “the handiwork of bureaucrats”. What she said in Parliament in defence of Operation Blue Star however, was equally unbelievable – at least to those who dared to doubt the official version.

Then as now, the official version projected the government’s decision as absolutely justified, given the fact that militant leader JS Bhindranwale had dug in his heels inside the Golden Temple with his heavily armed followers. Then as now, came the whitewash of the terrible fallout. Desperate to restore the Akal Takht, reduced to rubble by tank fire, the Centre ultimately found a little-known Nihang to undertake ‘kar seva’, the voluntary labour with which Sikhs build their gurdwaras.

Day after day, Doordarshan – the only TV channel then available—showed Santa Singh with his followers clearing the debris at the Golden Temple. This was described as the Centre’s “healing touch”. (Significantly, there’s no talk of a “healing touch” today). The daily telecast became so intolerable that a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court asking that this propaganda be stopped. Santa Singh was immediately excommunicated; what he built was torn down.

Given the media blackout, rumours abounded. Fantastical stories of Army excesses were partly responsible for as many as 2,800 Sikh soldiers deserting their regiments. Three officers were shot by deserters; one, Brig SC Puri, died. Many deserters were jailed, court-martialled and dismissed. Later, the Army reinstated most, but the 9th battalion of the Sikh Regiment, the first to react, was never raised again”.

These above mentioned paras are from an article of Jyoti Punwani published today (22nd August 2019) in New Indian Express under the headline of “J&K: Lessons from 1984 unheeded”.

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This piece of Jyoti Punwani pushed me back to 30 years and reminded me meetings I had with several veteran Old Ravians who came to attend 125 Anniversary of Government College Lahore.

Being a Ravian (I was completing my master degree in Philosophy from GC) and a working journalist, I was deputed as Liason Officer from the Government of Punjab to handle senior guests from India. I had opportunity to meet and had long gupshups (Chit Chat) with many of guests including one former IG of Indian Punjab and three retired Sikhs Army officials from Indian Army.

A Fire Under Ashes--- Khalistan Movement
A Fire Under Ashes— Khalistan Movement

Being a reporter, I wanted to get something worth from them and requested them for interviews.

Some of our guests accepted to give on record interviews including touching the sensitive issue of “Operation Blue Star” but most of them turned down my request for interviews; nonetheless, were ready to talk about what actually happened in Golden Temple off the record. So I saved important information they shared in my memory storage.

Some of such interviews were published in the then Daily Frontier Post in 1989.

Today’s piece of Jyoti Punwani reminded me what I heard from former civil and military bureaucrats from Punjab. They told me how “Sikh Purge” was designed years before Operation Blue Star (Operation Blue Star was the codename of an Indian military action carried out between 1 and 8 June 1984 inside Golden Temple complex in Amritsar) actually started?

Many of former civil and military bureaucrats I met, thought after their retirements, they should have done something to stop Operation Blue Star. Some of them were still not ready to shun of their “baggage of Sin” (This is what they called themselves) by talking reality on record — A typical mindset of South Asian establishment.

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30 years have passed, I can only remember pointers of what I listened from Old Ravians who were former civil and military bureaucrats from Indian Punjab. They informed me that:

Mutiny of 9th battalion of the Sikh Regiment started from Bihar and spread as far as Rajasthan and over 2600 Sikh soldiers were killed by Indian Police and Army after this mutiny and their bodies were not handed over to their relatives.

One serving Brigadier was shot dead at brigade headquarters in Ramgarh in Bihar by Sikh soldiers. I did not remember name of the Brigadier who was killed but today I found that his name Brig Puri. I got these information today from Jyoti Punwani’s article.

Sikh Soldiers were under constant surveillance in Indian Air Force, Army and Indian Navy for years to come after this incident.

Operation Blue Star was planned by RAW to purge rising demand of Khalistan movement. It was planned well before it started to purge rising demand of Khalistan movement.

The Khalistan movement was a politico-religious Sikh nationalist movement which aimed at creating an independent state for Sikhs inside the current North-Western Republic of India. Even though the Khalistan movement started in the early 1940s and 1950s, it gained popularity in 1970s when former East Pakistan became “Bangladesh”. Sikhs were of the view that India helped Bangalis to form their separate country on the bases of language, culture, ethnicity then why Sikh should not get their own separate country on same basis?

Operation Black Thunder followed Operation Blue Star. Operation Black Thunder began on May 9, 1988. It was carried out by Black Cat commandos of National Security Guards (NSG) to remove Sikh militants from the Golden Temple.

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Before Operation Blue Star, Operation Woodrose Phase I was launched throughout Punjab to kill Sikh youth and Indian Army used tanks, artillery, helicopters and armored vehicles in Operation Woodrose and over 3,500 young Sikhs aged between 15 to 30 were killed in this Operation.

This information was new for me because I as reader of newspapers and as a journalists, never found such information before. I read that Operation Woodrose was follow-up of Operation Blue Star but I came to know that Phase I of Woodrose started well before Operation Blue Star.

Intelligence Units working in universities all over India were keeping eyes on Sikh students almost two years before Operation Blue Star and their (students) data had been compiled with details.

Indian Army simultaneously attacked over 45 gurdwaras in Punjab and did massacre all over Punjab which was not confined only to Amritsar.

Over 50,000 Sikhs were killed within first three weeks of Operation and businesses and shops belonging to Sikhs were looted by Indian Army and Hindu mobs.

Thousands of Sikh girls and women were raped by soldiers of Indian Army and Hindu Policemen those were sent from Delhi.

The most painful incident for Sikh retired bureaucrats was that they failed to save literature written by the gurus, and Indian army burnt down their religious books. They felt themselves “sinner” for this particular loss of Sikh religion.

Though they were quite conscious while talking with me but one of them said me something which is still fresh in my mind and today I feel his words may become reality someday.

He said:

Remember young man — We were not coward but we understood the situation very late. We had families and we had promising jobs ahead to us and we might compromise but I tell you our next generation will live with these agonies and someday pay New Delhi back what it did in Punjab and what it did with Sikhs.

May be he was right——