EVERY SUMMER FOR THE FIRST FIFTEEN YEARS of my life, my family would travel to our village of Khankot. It lay on the outskirts of Amritsar amidst pear groves, now almost subsumed by the march of suburbia. The Golden Temple—or, to use the name most often invoked by the faithful, the Darbar Sahib—lay barely ten kilometres away. A visit soon after arrival was obligatory.
Even allowing for nostalgia, its memories evoke a rare tranquility. The chant of the gurbani rises and settles over the pool that surrounds the shrine, and gives the city its name—the sarovar of Amrit, or Amritsar. As the early morning light shimmers on the water, a sprinkling of pilgrims walk on the parikrama, the pathway that surrounds the pool, heading to the causeway leading to the central shrine encased in gold, the Harmandir Sahib.
The Darbar Sahib is central to the Sikh faith. A common version of the Sikh ardaas, or plea to god, which is recited at the end of the morning and evening prayers, and on every religious and social occasion, birth, marriage and death, includes the lines: Sikha nu Sikhi daan kesh daan rehit daan bibek daan purosa daan naam daan Sri Amritsar Sahib de ishanan (Bestow to the Sikhs the gift of Sikhism, long hair, the correct code of conduct, divine knowledge, firm faith, belief, the divine name and a bath in the sacred pool of Amritsar).
Following the Punjab insurgency, which extended from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s, the number of pilgrims to the Darbar Sahib has increased rapidly. The queues to enter the shrine now extend beyond the causeway; but the sense of quiet calm remains, though it is at odds with the shrine’s history. Perhaps no place of worship so central to a major religion in India has seen as much violence within its premises.
The sarovar was constructed in 1581 by Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru. The tank was lined and the shrine completed by the fifth guru, Arjan Dev, in 1601. By that time, the Sikh congregation had grown large enough for the Mughal emperor Jehangir to see Guru Arjan as a threat to his sovereignty. He was arrested in 1606, and tortured to death when he refused to convert to Islam. For his followers, this first martyrdom in their incipient faith would become the paradigm for Sikhism’s relationship with the durbar in Delhi.
The sixth guru, Hargobind, donned two swords to represent a change in the nature of his leadership—he would be not only a spiritual guide to his disciples (piri), but also a preceptor in their temporal lives (miri). The weapons form Sikhism’s central symbol, the khanda—a pair of linked swords. The guru ensured the same symbolism was reflected in the architecture of the Darbar Sahib. Across from the causeway, facing the central shrine, which represents spiritual authority, he constructed the building known as the Akal Takht, the timeless throne, from where he administered justice like any temporal authority.
Once the line of living gurus ended with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, this authority over the Sikhs came to be vested in the jathedar, or custodian, of the Akal Takht. Through the eighteenth century, as centralised authority broke down in the Punjab, the Sikhs grew in strength. Dispersed, led by various men, groups of Sikh warriors would gather periodically at the Akal Takht to plan and direct their course of action. Those seeking to contain them would target the Harmandir Sahib and the Akal Takht.
Each person who has desecrated the shrine occupies an oversize space in the collective memory of the community. Every Sikh can recount the story of Massa Rangar, who was appointed the kotwal or ruler of Amritsar in 1740 and proceeded to host nautch parties in the Harmandir Sahib, having first removed the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, from its place. He was beheaded by two Sikhs, Mehtab and Sukha Singh, who claimed to be revenue officers coming to deposit a large sum of money.
Even better known is the story of a defender of the faith, Baba Deep Singh. In 1757, the Afghan emperor Ahmad Shah Abdali, having sacked Delhi for the fourth time, was waylaid by a Sikh contingent near Kurukshetra. Angered, he left his son Taimur Shah behind as the governor of Lahore to take care of this menace. Taimur demolished the Harmandir Sahib, but the seventy-five-year-old Deep Singh led a contingent of five hundred Sikhs to take back the complex. By the time he neared Amritsar, their number had swelled to five thousand. Clashing with a much larger Afghan army, Deep Singh was injured by a blow to the neck, but continued to fight his way to the Darbar Sahib, eventually succumbing to his injuries by the sarovar. On the parikrama, the spot where he is believed to have fallen is marked by a portrait of him carrying his decapitated head in one hand, still holding a sword aloft in the other.
The martyrdom of Baba Deep Singh resonates through Sikh history. Two centuries later, in June 1984, when the Indian Army went into the Darbar Sahib on orders from prime minister Indira Gandhi, it was to disarm and dislodge Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who according to tradition was the fourteenth head of the Damdami Taksaal, an orthodox Sikh seminary once headed, it is said, by Deep Singh. In the mythology of a faith where the stories of Massa Rangar and Deep Singh arouse intense and contrary emotions, Sikhs memorialised both Bhindranwale and Gandhi in accordance with the roles they had assumed—one the defender, the other a desecrator.
The trajectory of those two lives, both of which ended violently thirty years ago, intersected for the first time in 1977, when Bhindranwale assumed charge of the Damdami Taksaal, and Gandhi was swept out of power after the Emergency. Nowhere was Gandhi’s decision to suspend the constitution as strongly contested as in Punjab, and no party resisted it with quite the ferocity of the Akali Dal, which represented Sikh interests in the state. Over the next seven years, Gandhi, Bhindranwale and the Akali Dal would lead three fronts in a battle in which they faced off, realigned with and schemed against each other until the very end.
From the moment an Akali Dal government, in alliance with the Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), took charge of Punjab in 1977, Gandhi’s politics were guided by her desire to cut the Akalis down to size. The execution of her wishes was left to her son, Sanjay Gandhi, and her loyalist, the canny Sikh politician Giani Zail Singh, who chose Bhindranwale as their weapon. Bhindranwale saw no reason to refuse their aid; any support for his brand of Sikh orthodoxy was welcome.
By the time the Congress returned to power in the state in 1980, Bhindranwale was well on his way to becoming a popular icon, accumulating so much power that the Akalis, whom he was supposed to be undermining, ended up turning to him for help. He became the dominant political force in Punjab: by 1983, he was running a parallel state from within the Darbar Sahib complex, handing down death sentences and dispensing rough justice before adoring supplicants. Even the policemen in Punjab tasked with arresting him were reduced to seeking his protection.
Bluestar, the military operation to remove Bhindranwale from the Darbar Sahib, ended this regime—but at the cost of hundreds of lives, and the credibility of the Indian Army, which subsequently had to deal with mutinous troops for the first time in the history of independent India. Although the action has been examined in close detail in the years following the attack, the lack of planning and intelligence, and the hurry to carry it out, have never been properly explained.
In February this year, the declassification of intelligence documents in the UK revealed information about a commando operation inside the Darbar Sahib that was planned but never executed. Given this evidence, I revisited several people who had witnessed the events leading up to Operation Bluestar. In light of these interviews, it is possible to assemble a more coherent picture than ever before of the Gandhi family’s political calculations, which were central to the nature of the final operation. The dismal story of Bluestar had been set on its tracks by Sanjay Gandhi, but it now appears that its disastrous conclusion was the work of his brother Rajiv, who swept to power with the biggest mandate in Indian history following his mother’s assassination. Operation Bluestar was not just Indira Gandhi’s last battle; it was the first, and perhaps the most disastrous, of Rajiv’s blunders.
By the time the smoke cleared over the Darbar Sahib, hundreds of innocent bystanders had died. Bhindranwale lay murdered, and the Akal Takht, where he had set up his final defiance of Delhi, stood shattered. The operation was followed by the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and the organised massacre of thousands of Sikhs by Hindu mobs, led mainly by Congress politicians. In Punjab, militancy against the Indian state reached levels unprecedented in the years before Bluestar; it took a decade for a semblance of peace to return.
Over the last thirty years, the debate over Bluestar has played out between two extreme points of view: that of radicals in Punjab and abroad, who dwell on the Congress’s role while overlooking Bhindranwale’s complicity, and that of people in the rest of India, who tend to focus on Bhindranwale with little sense of the Congress’s contribution to the tragedy. Many Indians may believe the events of that June can be consigned to the history books, but their memory remains alive in Punjab. Many Sikhs continue to view the operation, and the figure of Bhindranwale, in a markedly different light from the rest of the country. Without understanding how such distinct perspectives came to exist, it may be impossible to come to terms with the history of Bluestar.
LIKE 1984, 2014 is an election year. In Amritsar, Arun Jaitley of the Bharatiya Janata Party, backed by the Shiromani Akali Dal, stands against Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress. Thirty years ago, Jaitley’s party strongly backed army action in the Golden Temple, while Amarinder Singh, then an MP, quit both parliament and the Congress in protest. That record echoed through the campaign in this constituency, where Sikhs form 65 percent of the electorate. Amarinder, regarded as personally irreproachable, emphasised that the Congress had already apologised for its role, and that it was the Akalis who had never come clean on their tacit collaboration in the operation. (It is to evade precisely these charges that the Akalis let the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee—or SGPC, the body that controls all gurdwaras in Punjab, and which they lead—construct a memorial in the Darbar Sahib complex. Ostensibly meant to commemorate all those who died in Operation Bluestar, the structure is, in truth, a monument to Bhindranwale.) Not a single candidate spoke in defence of the army action—not even Jaitley, who is heavily dependent on the support of the local Akali cadre.
In Delhi, the journalist Satish Jacob, who covered Operation Bluestar and the events leading up to it for the BBC, told me a story that demonstrates one reason for this extraordinary political circumspection. Jacob attended a wedding in Ludhiana last month at an upscale club. As he was parking his car, he spotted a sticker on a vehicle parked alongside.
“It was a photograph of Bhindranwale, with a sentence in Gurmukhi which read, ‘Lagda hai mainu wapas aaona paiga’ (It seems as if I need to return),” Jacob said. “I said this was very funny. My friend remarked, ‘No, it is not. Every second car in Punjab has such a sticker. He has become a cult. For the young in Punjab he is a big hero.”
It isn’t just stickers. In the bazaars of the state, T-shirts and other Bhindranwale memorabilia have sold briskly for years. Car stereos can be heard blaring this song, nominally banned by the Indian government, by the hip-hop star Jazzy B:
“Guru Dashmesh baghi, Nalwa veer baghi
Sada baghi ea panth parivar loko
… tey sada baghi Sarabha Kartar loko
Bhindrawala baghi , Rajoana baghi
Bhindrawala baghi, Hawara Jagtar baghi
(The tenth guru a rebel, Nalwa [Ranjit Singh’s general] a rebel
The panth [a term for the Sikh community], a family of rebels
… A rebel too out Kartar Sarabha
Bhindranwale a rebel, Hawara Jagtar [Beant Singh‘s assassin] a rebel”)
Trying to explain the phenomenon, Jacob recalled the last days of Bhindranwale. On or around 2 June 1984—about a day before the Darbar Sahib was besieged by the Indian Army, and three days before troops entered the complex— Gurcharan Singh Tohra, then the president of the SGPC, went in to tell Bhindranwale that matters were at a stage when it would be difficult to withstand the might of the army, and to recommend that he surrender while he could.
“Bhindranwale was very angry with Tohra,” Jacob said. “He told him, ‘You are not a bloody Sikh. Get out of here. I am not going to surrender.’” That afternoon, Jacob, along with other journalists, met Bhindranwale. One of the journalists asked him what he would do when the army came in. “Aan dio (Let them come),” Jacob said Bhindranwale told them. “What can they do? They’ll kill me, but we are going to give them a fitting reply.”
Jacob, who wrote a book with Mark Tully on Bluestar called Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, told me he would have picked up Bhindranwale’s story again if he could. “Bhindranwale was a rustic, but he knew that if he surrendered, he would survive, but be forgotten. ‘Banda nakli hai’ (he is a fake), they would say. If he laid down his life, like so many of the Sikh martyrs, he would be immortal. This is the line I would take. His name is still alive. Not only alive; there is a resurgence.”
JUST A SHORT DISTANCE from the Darbar Sahib, a narrow stairwell leads up to the residence of Baba Ram Singh, a general secretary of the Shiromani Akali Dal. Following Operation Bluestar, Ram Singh, who was a close associate of Bhindranwale, had been imprisoned by the Indian government. When I met him last month, he had just spent the day campaigning for Jaitley. Right away, he dismissed the arguments about Bluestar that had raged throughout the campaign. “Everyone agrees today that it was a mistake.”
Instead, he said, he wanted to set the record straight on Bhindranwale. He was upset not because the rest of India saw him as little more than a violent fundamentalist, but because so much uninformed hagiography surrounded his life among Sikhs. “What can be done?” he said. “It is a fact that his name sells.”
Ram Singh entered the Damdami Taksaal in 1967, once he had finished school. At the time, he said, Jarnail Singh, the young man who would become Bhindranwale, was already studying there, having come to the Taksaal as a child, the youngest in a family of seven brothers. Gurbachan Singh, the head of the seminary, “had himself brought him to the Taksaal, after asking his father.”
Jarnail Singh, born in 1947, was a Brar Jatt from the village of Rode in Faridkot district, and his family had long been associated with the seminary. Ram Singh came from a similar background. This was no coincidence. The Green Revolution had brought prosperity to rural Punjab, but it had also exacerbated inequalities among Jatt Sikhs, the predominant landowning community in Punjab state, as differences in landholding sizes multiplied into differences in wealth and status. Both Bhindranwale and Ram Singh’s families had to struggle for a living. (This was also the background of many of the young men who took up arms against the Indian state in Punjab after Bhindranwale’s death.)
According to tradition, the Damdami Taksaal traces its lineage back to the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who while living at the Damdama Sahib gurdwara committed from memory the text of the Guru Granth Sahib, and taught a select band of Sikhs the correct forms of reciting and understanding the holy book. The Taksaal developed a reputation for spreading the orthodox understanding of Sikhism; until the SGPC established a number of missionary colleges in recent years, it remained the source of many jathedars and ragis—singers—at major gurdwaras. It provided room for many young men, whose families were attracted to the organisation by the thought of having one less mouth to feed. The training that awaited them was rigorous. “We started by learning the proper recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib,” Ram Singh said of his extensive education. “We would learn the meaning of each word in the text, the meaning of each verse, and then would move on to the study of Vedanta. The whole process would take seven to ten years.”
By the time Ram Singh arrived at the seminary, Jarnail Singh had become, for the time being, a part-time resident, because Gurbachan Singh insisted that he return home to be married and live as a householder. The young man left reluctantly, married in 1966, and made ends meet by working his meager share of the family land.
The journalist Dalbir Singh, who worked for The Tribune newspaper, became part of Bhindranwale’s inner circle in the 1980s. In his book, Nediyon Dithe Sant Bhindranwale (Sant Bhindranwale Seen Up Close), he relates a story that Bhindranwale once told him about life on his farm. He told Dalbir that he got the worst share of both the land and cattle when they were divided up between the family. One winter, he ran out of fodder for the cattle. “I went to my brother Jagjit Singh’s sugarcane field, picked up a bundle of dried sugarcane leaves and put it before my cattle,” Bhindranwale told Dalbir. “Soon my brother came and said, ‘Oy Jarnail, who did you ask before you picked up the dry sugarcane leaves?’
“I answered, ‘Brother, I did not ask anyone.’
“My brother told me to pick up the leaves and scatter them in the same field from where I had picked them up,” Bhindranwale continued. “With due respect, I went and scattered them in the field I had gathered them from.”
Years later, Dalbir recounted, Bhindranwale was sitting with some of his followers in the Darbar Sahib complex when the door to their room opened and Jagjit Singh peered inside. “The Sant said, ‘Oy, what have you come here for?’ Jagjit began to say, ‘For the sake of your darshan.’ The Sant said, ‘Get out. The darshan is over.’”
Jarnail Singh was not one to forgive an affront; perhaps those in Delhi who attempted to make use of him never understood this. In the Jatt society he was born into, the merest slight could trigger a cycle of bloodshed descending through the generations. This was a culture mediated by the idea of honour; a man who could not stand by his word and back it up with violence did not count for much. Journalists who saw only an unsophisticated rustic in Bhindranwale overlooked the fact that his bluntness of speech and overbearing manner appealed to the Jatt Sikh peasantry.
Without his theological training, however, his manner would not have been enough to appeal to the orthodox. Whenever Jarnail Singh visited the seminary, Ram Singh recalled, he kept to himself, speaking, eating and sleeping very little. “His mastery of the recitation of the gurbani and the daily prayers stood out.”
In August 1977, Jarnail Singh was called back to the Taksaal. Gurbachan Singh’s successor, Sant Kartar Singh, had been killed in a road accident. Even as a part-timer, the appeal of Jarnail Singh, Kartar’s favoured disciple, was so strong that he was chosen to head the Taksaal over Kartar’s son, Bhai Amrik Singh, who went on to become one of his closest associates. The Taksaal had once been located at Bhindran village in Sangrur district. Like a number of his predecessors, Jarnail Singh, the impoverished farmer who could not afford fodder for his cattle, took on the name of that village, and became Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, head of one of Sikhism’s most prominent seminaries.
LESS THAN A YEAR after Bhindranwale was appointed to his chair, he became enmeshed in a religious battle which would gain him attention both in Punjab and in Delhi, and establish a pattern of action that would be repeated in subsequent years; first an outbreak of violence apparently instigated by his rhetoric, then his taking refuge in the Darbar Sahib complex, and eventual acquittal by the authorities.
On Baisakhi day in spring 1978, a heterodox Sikh sect known as the Sant Nirankaris took out a procession through the streets of Amritsar. Baisakhi is of special importance to Sikhs: on this day, according to the faithful, Guru Gobind Singh founded the khalsa, the term he used to denote all baptised Sikhs who keep the symbols of the faith. The Sant Nirankaris believed in a living guru—blasphemy to orthodox Sikhs—and their procession on this day amounted to an act of provocation.
The ruling Akali Dal had permitted the march in spite of being aware that it would anger the orthodox. Sure enough, at an impromptu meeting called by Bhindranwale and his supporters near the Darbar Sahib, Bhindranwale made a fiery speech against the Sant Nirankaris, stoking tempers. He led a march towards the procession with kirpans drawn; but the Sant Nirankaris were armed, and shot down thirteen men marching with Bhindranwale.
Following this, the Sant Nirankari chief, Gurbachan Singh, was arrested, along with several of his followers, but their trial was shifted outside the state, to Haryana. As Sikhs erupted in anger at the murders, Bhindranwale became the lightning rod for their outrage. He let neither the Akali Dal nor its leader, the Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, forget the incident. For the first time in their fifty-year history, the Akalis were outflanked by someone who spoke on behalf of Sikh orthodoxy.
This earned Bhindranwale the attention of the Congress party in Delhi. In his book Tragedy of Punjab, co-written with Khushwant Singh, the veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar describes how this came about. Indira Gandhi’s son, Sanjay, “knowing how extra-constitutional matters worked,” suggested a “sant” be put up to challenge the Akali Dal government. Two Sikh priests were shortlisted for the task, and the final selection left to Sanjay. One did not look “the courageous type.” The other was Bhindranwale. Sanjay’s friend, the MP Kamal Nath, told Nayar, “Bhindranwale, strong in tone and tenor, seemed to fit the bill. We would give him money off and on, but we never thought he would turn into a terrorist.”
A few months after the Baisakhi clash, a new political organisation called the Dal Khalsa held a press conference in Chandigarh. It would soon become clear that the group’s purpose was to support every demand made by Bhindranwale, and to take the overtly political positions that he did not. The Dal Khalsa allowed Bhindranwale to maintain the fiction, meant largely for the media in Delhi, but meaningless for an orthodox Sikh, that he was a man of religion who had nothing to do with politics.
In Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, Mark Tully and Satish Jacob claim the tab of Rs 600 for the Dal Khalsa press conference was picked up by Zail Singh, soon to be Indira Gandhi’s home minister. A veteran of Punjab politics, Zail Singh’s patronage of Bhindranwale was of a piece with his own political approach. He had trained as a preacher himself; as chief minister of Punjab between 1972 and 1977, he had confronted the Akalis on their own terms with his overt shows of Sikh religious symbolism.
Jacob told me that, years later, Zail Singh, then the president of India, asked for an explanation of the claim that he had paid for the Dal Khalsa event. “I replied, ‘Gianiji, I still have a copy of the bill,’” Jacob said. “He didn’t say anything after that.’”
Outside Punjab, the conventional understanding of the alliance between Bhindranwale and the Congress assumes the party was making use of a small-time preacher for its own ends, and propelled him to a position of significance by doing so. But as head of the Taksaal, Bhindranwale already had a certain standing among orthodox Sikhs; with or without Congress support, he was anything but small-time. In truth, the arrangement was one of mutual convenience, and lasted only as long as it served Bhindranwale’s interests.
By January 1980, when Indira Gandhi was voted back into power, Bhindranwale had grown in stature and influence. During the election, he canvassed for some of the Congress candidates in Punjab, and once even shared a dais with Gandhi.
But the denouement to the story of the Baisakhi clash made it evident that he was a difficult man to keep in check. Just days after election results were declared, Gurbachan Singh and his followers were acquitted. Immediately, Bhindranwale’s rhetoric against the Sant Nirankaris escalated, and in April, Gurbachan Singh was murdered at his residence in Delhi. Nayar writes that the Central Bureau of Investigation, in reconstructing the murder, found that seven people, “‘either close followers or members of the jatha of Bhindranwale,’ and three person [sic] were directly involved in the ‘finalisation and execution’ of the plan to kill the Nirankari chief.” The murder weapon was licensed in the name of one of Bhindranwale’s brothers, who claimed he wanted it for his bodyguard.
When Bhindranwale’s name appeared in the police report, he sought, for the first time, shelter in the Guru Nanak Niwas within the Darbar Sahib complex. Until the 1980s, the Indian police had made only one attempt to enter the precincts, and the consequences had been disastrous. In 1955, as demands grew for a separate Punjabi-speaking state, Akali Dal volunteers, sheltering in the Darbar Sahib, began marching out to court arrest. The state government grew desperate, and on 4 July police entered the temple precincts and used tear gas to disperse the assembled volunteers. The backlash was immediate; so severe were its effects that the chief minister, Bhim Sen Sachar, presented himself before the Akal Takht to apologise for the trespass.
Bhindranwale stayed within the sanctuary of the Darbar Sahib until Zail Singh bailed him out. The home minister stood up in parliament to declare that Bhindranwale had no hand in the murder of the Nirankari chief, thus ending the possibility of a trial. The Darbar Sahib had proved a safe haven for Bhindranwale; in hindsight, it seems impossible that the police did not anticipate that he would return to it.
Once she returned as prime minister, Gandhi dissolved several state governments ruled by her opponents, including that of Punjab. This was one of several major mistakes on the path that led to Operation Bluestar, as it changed the dynamics of the state’s politics. Bhindranwale quickly became a problem for the new Congress chief minister, Darbara Singh; and Zail Singh, unwilling to loosen his grip over the state’s politics, attempted to control Bhindranwale for his own purposes.
The Akalis, pushed out of power, came to seek help from their foremost opponent. The party was ruled by a triumvirate with differing political approaches. Of these men, Bhindranwale hated Parkash Singh Badal, and found little common ground with the ostensibly non-violent Harchand Singh Longowal; but Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the SGPC head and the third and most hard-line of the Akali leaders, was instrumental in creating an alliance between his party and Bhindranwale, and matters improved steadily between them over the next few years. From a battle over religious issues between Bhindranwale and the Akalis, the conflict now became a game of political one-upmanship, in which the target was the Indian state.
HINDU–SIKH DIVISIONS HAD EXISTED since the days of Punjab’s formation in independent India. As the Punjabi language was increasingly subordinated to Sikh religious demands, Punjabi Hindus attempted to disavow their mother-tongue; but Sikhs, in turn, saw this as a betrayal of a shared identity. The state’s media began to reflect this communal polarisation, and the consequences were disastrous. Less than a year after the Gurbachan Singh murder, Punjab was thrown into turmoil by another assassination—one that would demonstrate the degree of political protection Bhindranwale received from the Congress, and his ability to use it to wreak havoc on the state machinery.
On 9 September 1981, the newspaper baron Lala Jagat Narain, who owned the Punjab Kesri group of newspapers, was shot dead near Ludhiana by three men on a motorcycle. The Punjab Kesri was the state’s most influential Hindi newspaper, and as religion and language had become communal fault lines, it was considered representative of how Hindi newspapers sought to project Hindu interests, just as many Punjabi newspapers reflected Sikh interests. One of Narain’s killers, Nachhattar, was arrested on the spot. Among the two who fled was Bhindranwale’s nephew, Swaran Singh.
Among the papers Narain published was the Jagbani, a Punjabi newspaper that fiercely opposed Bhindranwale. “Sant Bhindranwale would find out about various news items in a host of newspapers through a number of supporters, but he would always read the Jagbani,” Dalbir Singh wrote in his book. One morning, having read an editorial in which Jagat Narain called the jathedar of the Akal Takht and the SGPC chief traitors, “the Sant called out to his followers, ‘Have any of you read this?’ As none of them knew anything about it, he asked one of the assembled men to read the editorial aloud.
“Everyone felt bad on hearing their religious leaders being called traitors,” Dalbir Singh wrote. “One spoke up. ‘What orders do you have for us?’
“The Sant said, ’You ask for orders when your father’s turban has been tossed to the ground and the community’s pride has been reduced to dust!’
“After a few days the news of Lala Jagat Narain’s death was published in the newspapers.”
On 12 September, the police moved to arrest Bhindranwale for the murder of Narain from Chandukalan in Haryana. But Bhindranwale was tipped off—Nayar says perhaps by Zail Singh himself—and evaded arrest, moving to the Damdami Taksaal’s headquarters at Chowk Mehta near Amritsar. The Punjab police never got the better of him. Birbal Nath, who headed the Punjab police between 1980 and 1982, suggested in his account of the time, The Undisclosed Punjab: India Besieged by Terror, that Zail Singh and Darbara Singh outdid each other in aiding Bhindranwale and his men. “On 13th September, 1981, I received a phone call from the Home Minister of India Giani Zail Singh to reconsider the question of arrest of Santji,” Nath wrote. “I told him that police was bound by Court orders.”
Bhindranwale was now persistently defying Delhi and getting away with it, and this added to his mounting popularity among Sikhs. Eventually, as arrest from Chowk Mehta seemed inevitable, Bhindranwale set the date and terms for his own surrender, specifying that a baptised Sikh take him into custody. When he was arrested on 20 September, the police clashed with his followers at the spot, and seven people died in the resulting firing. Less than a month after his arrest, on 14 October, Zail Singh once again declared before an agitated parliament that there was no evidence of Bhindranwale’s involvement in Jagat Narain’s murder. Bhindranwale was released from custody. For the second time, he had been declared innocent without being subjected to due process.
THE VIOLENCE THAT BHINDRANWALE wreaked in Punjab raised the possibility of military action against him almost two years before Bluestar—but the confrontation that culminated in the operation had its unassuming beginnings even further back, in a protest unconnected with Bhindranwale, launched by the Akali Dal.
In April 1982, the Akalis began a “nehar roko” agitation against the construction of the Satluj–Yamuna Link canal, which allows Haryana to avail its share of water from Punjab’s rivers. Indira Gandhi, making another decision for short-term electoral gain, chose not to respect the Akali call for the matter to be settled by the Supreme Court. Instead, she engineered a settlement between the Congress chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana, where polls were due in 1982, which seemed to favour the latter.
Around the time the “nehar roko” agitation began, a series of incidents aimed at provoking Hindu–Sikh violence broke out in Punjab, seemingly prompted by Bhindranwale’s political front, the Dal Khalsa. The union government decided to ban the outfit, at a meeting where the Punjab police chief, Birbal Nath, was present. Zail Singh, soon to ascend to the post of president of India, was not. “Had the HM been there, he would certainly have vetoed this,” Nath wrote. “His tendencies were well-known.” It was decided at this meeting to arrest Bhindranwale in Bombay, where he was soon due to travel with his armed jatha. But this attempt, too, became a farce. Tipped off about the arrest, his disciples had Gurbachan Singh Manochal (who became a formidable figure in the militant camp after Operation Bluestar) pose as Bhindranwale, while he escaped in a fleet of Fiat cars provided by his followers in the city.
The Bombay plan was crucial because it had become nearly impossible to arrest Bhindranwale in Punjab. According to Nath, the police were simply not equipped to deal with a fanatic corps such as Bhindranwale’s, which, guided by him, would have preferred death to surrender. To circumvent this problem, Nath decided to raise a commando company and use four armoured personnel carriers to carry out the arrest.
Through a comedy of errors, by the time the request for APCs reached the top levels of government, it had been transformed into a request for tanks. I asked Indira Gandhi’s former secretary, RK Dhawan, how this came about. “Darbara Singh asked for permission to use tanks,” he told me. When the request came to Gandhi, she refused to sign it, and gave the home minister a piece of her mind. “She said, ‘Why should tanks be used, or the army be involved?’” Dhawan said.
In spite of Gandhi’s disinclination for military action, by July 1982 it became clear that the police, foiled at every turn by the state’s political leadership, would be unable to check Bhindranwale. Nath writes that an attempt that month to arrest Amrik Singh, Bhindranwale’s close colleague, failed because the chief minister, Darbara Singh, had tipped off Amrik Singh. A second attempt some days later succeeded—because, Nath said, Darbara Singh was away in Shimla, and was only informed once the arrest had taken place.
Later that month, Bhindranwale, infuriated by Amrik Singh’s arrest, once again shifted his headquarters to the Darbar Sahib complex, this time permanently. On Bhindranwale’s return to the shrine, the Akali Dal decided to follow suit. They merged the “nehar roko” agitation they had begun against Gandhi with Bhindranwale’s group, to form the Dharam Yudh Morcha—the united front against the government in Delhi. Like the killings of Gurbachan Singh and Lala Jagat Narain, much of the violence that took place in Punjab between this time and Operation Bluestar was, directly or indirectly, connected to this band of men living inside the Darbar Sahib complex.
Nominally, the Morcha was led by the Akali leader Longowal, but the numbers turned out for Bhindranwale. At every gathering, the Akalis were forced to let him speak last, since the crowds would dissipate as soon as he was done. Throughout the alliance, Longowal and the other Akali leaders kept hoping for concessions from the central government that would allow Longowal to call off the movement and head to assembly polls in 1985 with a symbolic victory under their belt. But Gandhi was hoping for a deal that would showcase her resilience and resolution in time for parliamentary elections, due in the second half of 1984. It was the deadliest electoral manoeuvring India had ever seen. In little over a year, Bhindranwale, Gandhi and Longowal, the three protagonists, had all died bloody deaths.
Towards the end of 1982, Gandhi squandered one last chance for dialogue. On the eve of the Asian Games, due to begin on 19 November, she negated the terms of an agreement that the Indian government and the Akalis had worked hard to reach. The conditions of that agreement included the transfer of the states’ capital, Chandigarh, to Punjab, and the extension of talks about the transfer of two districts from Punjab to Haryana, but under pressure from the Haryana chief minister Bhajan Lal, Gandhi called the pact off.
PC Alexander, then the principal secretary to the prime minister, thought that decision was a significant misstep. “Whatever the justification,” he wrote in his memoir, Through the Corridors of Power, “I am one of those who hold the view that the powers that be really missed a good chance for establishing peace.” Indeed, it was the closest Punjab and Delhi ever came to a negotiated settlement. Once again, Gandhi’s focus on short-term political gain ensured that the Akalis hardened their stance. The Akalis, in turn, saw Bhindranwale as a stick to beat the government with.
In the meantime, beholden to neither side, Bhindranwale’s power continued to grow. Seated in the Darbar Sahib complex, he issued diktats on postings and appointments in the government. He decided the fate of policemen who had dared cross him. He also rallied over two hundred armed men, some from the Taksaal, others simply fugitives from the law, aware that the police could not enter the complex to arrest them. There were others, such as Major General Shahbeg Singh, a hero of the 1971 war in East Pakistan. Shahbeg had turned orthodox after he was cashiered from the army on corruption charges; he claimed he had been discriminated against because he was Sikh. His training made him especially capable of assessing the military strengths and weaknesses of the Darbar Sahib complex—during the 1971 war, he had raised and fought alongside the Mukti Bahini guerillas.
There was no shortage of money or weaponry flowing into Bhindranwale’s camp. At one point in their association, the journalist Dalbir Singh wrote, Bhindranwale offered him Rs 1 crore to start a newspaper. When Dalbir expressed his doubts about the enterprise, Bhindranwale told him they would drop the idea. “One Sten gun can be bought for eight thousand rupees. How many can we buy for a crore? If daily one magazine [of such a gun] is emptied out all the radio and television stations of the world speak of it. No single newspaper can compete with that.”
THE PUNJAB POLICE, who had tried for years to contain Bhindranwale in spite of political interference, were systematically marginalised, not only by their inability to act against Bhindranwale’s men, but also by the terrifying violence of Bhindranwale’s retribution. In her 2004 book Dreams after Darkness, Manraj Grewal wrote of the deputy superintendent of police, Giani Bachan Singh. In 1982, Manjit Singh, a disciple of Bhindranwale, hijacked a plane headed from Udaipur to Delhi. An attempted diversion to Pakistan failed, and the plane finally landed in Amritsar, where Giani Bachan Singh shot Manjit Singh dead. Two attacks on him followed; in one, his son was killed. Defeated, the DSP attempted at a truce.
Bhindranwale asked him to write a letter seeking forgiveness from the Akal Takht for “fake encounters” he had allegedly conducted. Grewal writes, “It was a signal to all employees in the state that the real power vested in us,”—Bhindranwale’s cohort—“and their government could not save them.” In return for this letter, the only assurance Bhindranwale gave the policeman was that his family would be spared. When he was killed by militants, his daughter was injured, Grewal writes, because “the men who went there begged her to get aside, saying that they had been sent to kill her father not her, but she kept coming in the way.”
On 23 April 1983, the senior police officer AS Atwal came to pray at the Darbar Sahib. Atwal had planted a mole within Bhindranwale’s camp, and had engineered an operation in which one of Bhindranwale’s close associates was killed. But it seems the mole was discovered, and used to lure Atwal into the complex, where he was shot dead. The shooters sauntered away from the spot where Atwal fell, even as his bodyguard, waiting outside, failed to react. A police complement posted barely a hundred yards away did nothing to help. The demoralisation of the force was complete.
The question of why the police failed to respond to a provocation as grave as Atwal’s murder has been raised repeatedly over the years. RK Dhawan, Gandhi’s former adviser, offered me an explanation. “The police did not have bullet-proof jackets to go in,” he said.“They were finally arranged through the then high commissioner in London, but by the time they arrived it was too late.”
AS PUNJAB DESCENDED INTO CHAOS, president’s rule was imposed in October 1983, and the likelihood of military action against Bhindranwale grew. Bhindranwale, on the pretext of a quarrel with another armed group in the Darbar Sahib, vacated the Guru Nanak Niwas, located at the southern end of the complex, and moved into the Akal Takht.
Within the government, the search for a solution to the deadlock intensified. In early 2014, documents declassified by the UK government revealed that Indian intelligence agencies contacted their counterparts in the UK in 1984, seeking advice on how to carry out a commando operation in the Darbar Sahib complex. Between 8 and 17 February that year, a military adviser from the UK conducted at least one ground-level reconnaissance of the temple complex with Indian operatives. The UK’s cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, who accessed the declassified visit report and assessment, said: “It is clear that the purpose of the visit was to advise Indian Counter Terrorist Team commanders on the concept of operations that they were already working up for action in the temple complex, including tactics and techniques.”
The documents clearly referred to the Special Frontier Force, or “Establishment 22,” a Research and Analysis Wing paramilitary group whose activities are supposed to be classified. The request to the UK for assistance has been reported before, but thanks to the declassification, it can now be confirmed that the police chief Birbal Nath’s account almost perfectly corroborates the chain of events revealed in the UK documents.
“Sant Jarnail Singh and his jatha moved out of the hostel complex and occupied Akal Takht on December 15, 1983,” Nath writes in his book. “Seeing this, a para-military organisation, which always prided itself on secret missions and ultimately let down the Government, came out with a plan to occupy hostel area and the langar, in Golden Temple.” Nath had two objections to the proposal. “What was the objective? Sant had left. Again one company was too inadequate and would be slaughtered by fire from Akal Takht and adjoining buildings. At last, in mid-February 1984, I was able to have the plan abandoned, and thus saved the para-military force from charges of amateurism and slaughter of their men.”
In May 1984, Nath made what was probably the final attempt by any party to avoid army action. According to him, on the afternoon of 13 May, a Sunday, he was called in to the prime minister’s office for final consultations. He told Gandhi that they did not have to enter the Golden Temple. “We could deal with Sant Bhindranwale from outside since I knew the topography of the place intimately.” But he was unable to convince other officials present at the meeting, and the decision to send the army into the Golden Temple was finalised. “Soon after,” Nath writes, “I learnt that the projection was to clear the Golden Temple of the armed insurgents within four hours. The operation was named Blue star.”
According to PC Alexander’s memoir, Gandhi made up her mind to summon the army on 25 May, relying on the reassurances of General AS Vaidya, chief of the army staff. Vaidya explained that he would move troops into different locations in Punjab simultaneously, surrounding gurdwaras occupied by extremists and cutting off their supplies and movement. A similar siege would be mounted around the Golden Temple, with a large number of troops. Alexander writes that Gandhi “repeatedly told the general that in any operation no damage should be done to the temple buildings and particularly to the Harmandir Sahib.” Vaidya assured her that there would be “a maximum show of force, but a minimum use of it.”
Vaidya met with Gandhi again on 29 May, and suggested some changes in the plan. They would ensure that the temple would not be damaged—but they would need to enter it. This proposal was the result of Vaidya’s meeting with Lieutenant General K Sundarji, who had direct command of operations. Alexander writes that Vaidya convinced Gandhi that he had weighed the pros and cons of the plan with his senior colleagues; they had all agreed that a siege would prolong the operation and destabilise the surrounding countryside. A quick entry and surprise attack was the best way to deal with the men inside.
“Vaidya spoke with such confidence and calmness that the new plan he was proposing appeared to be the only option open to the Army,” Alexander writes. “I can definitely state on the basis of the clear knowledge of Indira Gandhi’s thinking at that time that she agreed to the revision of the earlier plan at the eleventh hour strictly on the assurance given to her that the whole operation would be completed swiftly and without any damage to the buildings within the Golden temple complex.”
A WEEK LATER, on the night of 5 June, Lieutenant Colonel Israr Rahim Khan commanded the first batch of troops that stormed the Darbar Sahib complex.
Khan reported directly to Major General Kuldip Singh “Bulbul” Brar, who was in overall command of the operation and in touch with Sundarji. (The major general, like Bhindranwale, was a Brar Jatt, and the two men came from villages close to each other’s, but there the similarities between them ended. Brar came from a distinguished military family, and the gulf of class and education between him and Bhindranwale was deep; he had little time for the sort of orthodoxy Bhindranwale espoused.)
When I met him in his home last month, Khan, who retired as a brigadier, at first said he had little to add to Brar’s account of the operation, published in his 1993 book Operation Bluestar—The True Story. I said I wanted to hear a view from the ground, from a soldier who was actually part of the operation.
In spite of his greying hair, it was easy to see in Khan the dashing soldier Brar had sent into the complex. Once he began to speak, it was evident he remembered the action as though it had taken place yesterday. “From our debussing area, near Jallianwalla Bagh”—the famous park is a short distance away from the Darbar Sahib—“we were to approach the Darshan Deori, the main entrance. We were in the open, and they”—Bhindranwale’s men—“were all secure, with their weapon emplacements in place. There was not an inch of ground in the gully outside the Darshan Deori that was not covered by the firing.”
Shahbeg Singh’s plan of defence for the Darbar Sahib was so effective that, three decades later, Khan recalled it with something like admiration. The complex was guarded by an outer ring of emplacements positioned on the vantage points of its high buildings—the Hotel Temple View on one side, and the gumbads, or domes, on the other—and an inner ring on the parikrama, within the temple itself. At the Darshan Deori, Khan and his men descended the stairs into the complex unaware of loopholes in the walls that had been turned, he said, into “weapon pits.”
“My boys were climbing down the stairs in the darkness, because the electricity was cut. It was totally dark, and we were wondering where this fire was coming from. It takes a little time to think. It was coming from under the stairs.” The bullets hit Khan’s soldiers below the knee. “The boys,” he said, “fell tumbling down.”
The memory made Khan pause. “In which war have we suffered such heavy casualties?” he asked. “From my battalion, in the first hour—from 10.30 to 11.30 at night—we had already lost nineteen. In the ’71 war, in Shakargarh sector, I tell you, Hartosh, in the whole ten to fifteen days, my battalion, the 10 Guards, lost four men. What a gruesome battle it was in the Golden Temple.”
The army was hemmed in at close quarters, in a heavily built-up area—which meant, Khan said, that there was no way collateral damage could be avoided. “I read somewhere that Mrs Gandhi was told there would be no casualties. No person in the right frame of mind would give such an assurance to the PM.”
If there were any expectations that the security forces would meet no resistance, they were rendered utterly false. “They knew,” Khan said. “How can you build brick and mortar key emplacements overnight? It was beautifully planned. You could not close up anywhere near the temple without being hit by a bullet.”
“The commandos were grouped with me. A company each of the SFF”—the R&AW unit, the Special Frontier Force —“and 1 Para Commando was grouped with 10 Guards. We were to give them safe passage through the parikrama, until the periphery of the Akal Takht, and they were meant to capture Bhindranwale from the Akal Takht. So I grouped them, with my leading company going ahead. We entered first and made place for them to enter. We gave them a safe corridor through the parikrama till the end. There were twelve rooms in a row; we kept clearing, room by room by room.” Every room was manned.
By 1 am, Khan says, his company had captured the northern wing of the parikrama and opened it up to the special forces, but they were unable to make headway. “The moment they would close up near the Akal Takht they would come under heavy fire. They were very badly mauled. So they would fall back on the parikrama, and get in touch with Bulbul to tell him that they had lost so many men.”
“I won’t blame them professionally. Their men were dying, and all the fire was coming at them. But why some other methods were not adopted, or what they had rehearsed, is not known to me.”
At two o’clock in the morning, Brar called. “Bulbul told me on the set: ‘Israr, have a Carl Gustav’”—an anti-tank missile—“‘fired at the dome of the Akal Takht and see what effect it has.’ I set up the Carl Gustav myself; I couldn’t take anyone else’s report for granted. From the first floor, which we had captured, I fired a Carl Gustav and—Hartosh, can you believe it, what a beautiful building it was, that dome was so strong—it just ricocheted like a .303 bullet being fired into that wall. Even that leaves a one-inch dent; but nothing was visible on that dome.” Khan radioed back to tell Brar that the missile had had no effect.
“Then I don’t know what transpired between the special forces and Bulbul, that they found no other way. They were scared that after sunrise, all of Punjab would surround the Golden Temple. So whatever had to be achieved, had to be achieved before dawn. They decided on rolling down three tanks inside, and eventually used the main gun of the tank. It pierced through the dome, and there were gaping holes. That was a horrific sight. My own assessment now is that if the main gun of the tank had not been used, perhaps the Sikh psyche wouldn’t have been hurt so much.”
ALMOST EVERY COMMITMENT that Vaidya made to the prime minister went unkept. The operation took at least a full night; it resulted in the decimation of the Akal Takht; and the casualties far outstripped any estimate Gandhi had been given. There are still no credible explanations for why no intelligence on the situation was available or forthcoming to the army. Neither are there answers for why the army did not ask for more time to plan, especially as an operation at the Darbar Sahib had been under consideration since February.
In 1984, the day marking the martyrdom of Guru Arjan fell on 3 June, two days before Operation Bluestar began. The choice to begin hostilities on 5 June was highly problematic, because a curfew had been imposed around the complex days before the attack, effectively trapping a large number of pilgrims, who had nothing to do with the militants, inside the temple.
Over the years, evidence has emerged of crimes committed within the premises by security forces. Brigadier Onkar Goraya’s 2013 book, Operation Bluestar and After, An Eyewitness Account, provides, for the first time, some clarity on the number of pilgrims inside the complex during the operation. Goraya, the head of the Admin branch of the 15th Infantry division posted in Punjab, was tasked with “lifting civilian casualties, disposal of the dead and evacuation of the wounded to the hospitals, apprehending the militants, guarding them in make-shift jails in the Cantonment, and arranging for their logistics.” He placed the casualties, based on the number of bodies disposed, at seven hundred, and stated that another 2,200 persons were rounded up and interned.
Even by the most exaggerated count, Bhindranwale’s men numbered no more than 250. Were they all counted among the dead, with another hundred from other militant organisations included for good measure, it would mean that, even by the most conservative estimate, the operation resulted in the deaths of over 350 people who had nothing at all to do with Bhindranwale. Considering that many people slipped out of the complex through the numerous doors leading to alleyways surrounding it, it is safe to say the number of people inside was far higher than the three thousand or so accounted for by the numbers of those dead, injured or captured.
The army has consistently maintained that pilgrims inside the complex were given ample opportunity to leave. But Goraya makes it clear that most never heard the army’s requests to surrender and come out. A day before the operation began, he found a district administration van outside the complex broadcasting announcements in Punjabi: “All those who are stranded inside the Darbar Sahib complex are requested to come out with their hands raised above their head. They will not be fired at.” The van was parked eighty yards from the main entrance. “The devotees and pilgrims, for whose benefit the announcements were being made, were well beyond its reach,” Goraya writes.
The scene within the complex after the operation was gruesome. Goraya writes of the stench of rotting bodies in the June heat: the task of disposing of them was so onerous that the municipal workers who eventually cleared them away did so only because they were permitted to strip the bodies of their belongings. The bodies of Bhindranwale and Shahbeg Singh were recovered from the basement of the Akal Takht on the morning of 7 June, almost two days after the operation began. Bhindranwale’s body was identified by his brother and quickly cremated in the presence of a few officers and jawans.
Goraya’s book confirms an allegation of long standing: that security forces shot at least a few men in cold blood. Evidence has already been published of at least one execution: a 2006 book by Harminder Kaur contains the post-mortem report of a young man shot through the chest with his hands tied behind his back. Goraya’s story strengthens the claim that there were multiple killings of this kind. “On 7th June, around mid-day, I saw about 90 detainees sitting on the hot marble floor of the Southern wing of Parikrama,” he writes. “They were naked except for the long underwear and their hands were tied behind their backs.
“Most of them appeared to be militants. Though subjugated they retained their defiant spirit. Instead of looking down, some of them dared to look into the eyes of their captors. A second Lieutenant of the unit who had fought these militants the previous night and lost a few comrades, could not stomach such defiance. When he asked them to look down one of them spat at him. The officer lost his cool and shot him in the forehead.”
On 23 June, when Indira Gandhi visited the Darbar Sahib for the first time after the operation, Goraya was at the tail end of the group surrounding her as she walked around the parikrama. As she looked at the Akal Takht, Goraya claims, she said to General Sundarji beside her: “I didn’t ask you to do this.”
GANDHI, who had evidently approved Bluestar with the greatest reluctance, regretted the operation immediately according to R K Dhawan, who was with her when she first saw images of the damage to the shrine. Rajiv’s adviser, Arun Singh, “had gone to the Golden Temple and got footage,” Dhawan said. “She was horrified. Arun Singh was there, Rajiv was there, Arun Nehru [Gandhi’s nephew] was there. She said she had been let down.”
“Indira Gandhi was opposed to the Army action till the last minute,” Dhawan repeated. “It was convincing by the army chief and this trio that eventually changed her mind.”
Dhawan had reason to dislike “this trio”—Gandhi’s young relatives and political advisers, who had tried to sideline the older Dhawan. But other evidence supports his claim that many of the decisions leading up to Bluestar were guided by Rajiv, Nehru and Singh. Sanjay Gandhi had died in 1980; by the time of the Asian Games in 1982, it was Rajiv who had begun to deal directly with Punjab affairs. Most dialogue with the Akalis was carried out under his supervision, in tandem with Nehru and Singh.
Rajiv toed the party line and publicly shielded Bhindranwale for so long that, as late as 29 April 1984, he told reporters in Chandigarh that Bhindranwale “was a religious leader and has not shown any political affiliations so far.” By this time, violence in the state had escalated dramatically: in the first half of 1984, before Operation Bluestar, nearly three hundred people were killed.
The “corporate managerial talents” of Rajiv’s team, as the intelligence officer MK Dhar put it, were new to Indian politics, and marked by their immaturity. In his book Open Secrets, Dhar writes that in one meeting to discuss security for the Asiad, “Rajiv even spoke in favour of using ‘terrorising tools to destroy the terrorists.’” He struck Dhar as largely impatient and intolerant in his decision-making.
An inexperienced team such as this may have been spooked by premature doubts. A senior journalist who was part of Tully’s team in Amritsar told me of a conversation that, in hindsight, was extraordinarily sensitive. “I used to meet Bhindranwale regularly and he would agree to do so since I was from the BBC,” he told me. In May 1984, the journalist asked Bhindranwale what he would do if the army came in. “I remember his answer: ‘We are not amateurs.’ Pointing to the fields, he said, ‘Travelling on foot by the fields it is one hour to the border at Khalra. Shahbeg has organised a guerilla movement before, and Pakistan has offered to let us operate from across the border.’”
“I made one mistake,” the journalist said. “Arun Singh is my junior from college. When I went back to Delhi I went to meet him and Rajiv and ended up telling them what Bhindranwale had said. I am not sure what impact it had.”
That may have been one reason for the hurried nature of the operation. Whatever the motives for the rush into action, Nayar confirms Dhawan’s assertions about those who instigated it. “When I was the Indian high commissioner in London in 1990, Arun Nehru came to stay with me,” he told me. Nayar asked him who had taken the decision to go ahead with Bluestar. “He said, ‘Phuphi was very opposed to it’—that was Mrs Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi and Arun Singh were very much in favour of it. He did not take his own name, but at the time he was very much with the other two.”
When I repeated this conversation to Dhawan, he opened up further. “Arun Singh was involved in it, there was no question about it, but he was acting through Rajiv Gandhi,” he said. “The main thing was that he was in touch with General Sundarji. Sundarji had overestimated himself, and he was acting through Arun Singh.”
“As long as Mrs Gandhi was there, Arun Nehru was in the thick of what was happening between Rajiv Gandhi and Arun Singh, and he was himself part of it,” Dhawan continued. “At that time, to my knowledge, the trio was functioning together. Arun Singh—from the beginning, two to three months before Bluestar—was insisting on the army action. At that time Arun Nehru, Arun Singh and Rajiv Gandhi were all one, sharing all the things.”
Dhawan said the trio felt that as a result of a successful army operation against Bhindranwale, “they would be able to win the elections hands down. That was weighing in their minds as the elections were shortly due.”
I asked him if they expressed this viewpoint to Indira Gandhi. His answer was terse. “Definitely.”
I asked if he would say, then, that Bluestar was the first big blunder of this coterie. “Of course it was,” Dhawan said. “It was a big blunder, for which Mrs Gandhi had to pay a very heavy price.”
WHEN ISRAR KHAN FOUND OUT I came from Khankot, he laughed. “We probably camped on your fields on the night before the attack,” he told me. But if the events of Bhindranwale’s life and death are familiar to me, it is because I am linked to them not only by geography, but also through the kinship network that connects most Jatt Sikhs in Punjab.
Within minutes of meeting me at his home, also a stone’s throw from my village, Bhai Mokham Singh had placed me: a cousin of mine had married into a family he knows well. The conversation flowed easily once we had established this. Mokham Singh was a spokesperson for the Taksaal for over a decade, from before Bhindranwale took over to well after Operation Bluestar. In the years after the operation, when Sikh hardliners took centre stage in Punjab, he remained a prominent figure. For Mokham Singh, as for many in the state, perceptions of the ongoing election campaign were shaped by the past. He called Parkash Singh Badal, with whom Bhindranwale always had an uneasy relationship, “the worst of the lot.” Tohra, the former SGPC head, on the other hand, “wanted to remain with the Akali Dal, but when he was with Bhindranwale, his Sikh sentiments would awaken.”
Mokham Singh repeated the story I had heard from Jacob, about Tohra’s final meeting with Bhindranwale. “On June 2, he came to meet Sant Bhindranwale. I was there,” he said. “It turned out to be the Sant’s last meeting with a senior leader.
“Tohra told him, ‘Mahapurukh, the panth needs you. You have much to give the panth in the future. It is because of you that the Sikh don their turbans, let their beard flow free and carry their kirpans. In colleges, our boys had become clean-shaven, they would smoke two cigarettes at a time and the communists held sway over them. Today, because of you, Sikhism has seen a resurgence. You have also restored to the Sikhs their pride. And then you have given the Sikhs this agitation against the government. We all know the numbers have come because of you. The panth needs you, which is why we want to save you, and to do that we will have to withdraw the agitation. There is no other way to save you.’”
“Sant Bhindranwale told him, ‘Tohra sahib, I thank you for this suggestion. I am a Sikh of Guru Gobind Singh. I cannot bow my head. I cannot let the community be put to shame. Several such Jarnail Singhs can be taken away from the Akal Takht but the honour of the panth cannot be besmirched. I will stand firm on what we have committed to doing. If you stand with me I will be grateful: the community has reposed faith in you. But it is alright if you don’t.’”
Jacob’s journalistic encounter had rendered this meeting in dry prose. When men like Mokham Singh tell it, it acquires the grandiosity of myth. This is true of Bhindranwale’s entire life. There has never been, nor is there now, anyone within the faith to provide a counter-narrative, or even a corrective. As Mokham Singh’s stories suggested, the Akalis are in no position to do so. The myth of Bhindranwale has largely subsumed the reality of Punjab’s bloody decades.
The years between 1980 and 1995 were a period of stagnation here. Outside of militancy or the police, there were few opportunities for young men. Some went abroad, acquiring great wealth, but little control of their surroundings. To such people, who renounced a nation but kept the faith, Bhindranwale was a natural icon: in the mythic narrative that they carried with them, he fought for the faith against the Indian nation.
For those who stayed back, it was not the lack of wealth but of opportunities that rankled. The violence of those years, and the long border shared with Pakistan, meant that even the opportunities that liberalisation brought in some measure to the young in the country largely skipped Punjab, as industry and finance kept away from the state because of the threat of war.
It is not for nothing that—the question of Operation Bluestar aside—allegations and counter-allegations of drug trading in the state dominated the Jaitley and Amarinder election campaigns in Amritsar. Punjab has seen a dramatic rise in drug abuse in recent years; the problem is so pervasive among younger people that it has created fears of yet another “lost generation” in the state, which has already lost one to militancy. Jaitley claimed the problem is rooted in cross-border smuggling, for which the blame lay with the UPA government at the centre. Amarinder, on the other hand, claimed the problem had its origins in the manufacture of synthetic drugs within the state, and that the state’s Akali–BJP government was to blame.
De-addiction centres dot the landscape. On a recent visit, I drove to the Hermitage de-addiction centre, no more than ten kilometres from my village, to attend a “sharing” session. This was a gathering, almost entirely male, that met day by day to talk about the difficulties of staying clean. Their addictions ranged from drugs and alcohol to gambling; the counsellor for the day, himself an inmate of the centre, was a recovering heroin addict.
A mother, the only woman attending the session, which is open to families, came to speak of her young son, a one-time state volleyball player. “All we wanted to do was to ensure he would not ever feel deprived of anything,” she said. “Now when he begs for a couple of hundred rupees I know what it is for, and I have to say no.” The son, a wraith who must have once been a commanding figure, well over six feet tall, listened quietly.
In such a climate, the legend of Bhindranwale has acquired great potency. Bhai Mokham Singh has forsaken the gun, and has little taste for the idea of Khalistan; a holy grail for militants after 1984, the demand for a separate Sikh state was a chimera, to which even Bhindranwale in his lifetime paid little heed. But the purity of the Bhindranwale myth is something he continues to espouse. Unlike Ram Singh, the former Taksaal member campaigning for Jaitley, Mokham Singh did not drift towards the Akali Dal. Instead, he is part of a group, made up of some of his former compatriots and called the United Sikh Movement, contesting these elections in a loose alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party.
“We cannot think of the Congress,” he told me. “And the Akalis were never a real option. They were tacitly involved in the attack on the Darbar Sahib. They figured that if Sant Bhindranwale came out alive he would be finished, and if he didn’t, well—even then they would form the government. Eventually that is what happened.”
At the USM and AAP’s joint press conference in Chandigarh in January, Yogendra Yadav made it clear that Bhindranwale was no hero of his. In his turn, Mokham Singh said, “Sant Bhindranwale is a hero of ours and not theirs. As far as political support is concerned, it is not necessary that you should be agreed on all points.” It was the sort of accommodation that few in the rest of the country had considered making so far. Some young men—who might once have taken up the gun—clearly see hope in campaigning jointly for a candidate. It seems like a better alternative than any the state has offered them in a long time.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.