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1984 Assault on Amritsar: Sardar Khuswant Singh’s protest

1984 Assault on Amritsar Sardar Khuswant Singh’s protest in the Indian Parliament
The Sikh Review, June 2001

“ I have many unpalatable truths to tell. Bear with me till I have finished; thereafter you will be more then welcome to refute them if you can. Although I a only a nominated Member of this House, I make bold to assert that I speak on behalf of 14 million of your fellow citizens known as Sikhs. I go further: what you have heard, and may hear from other Sikh members of the Ruling Congress party does not echo the sentiment of the community. We have had six hours of debate during which we have heard discourses on Punjab politics, Akali factionalism, and a lot of recrimination between parties. There was total lack of a sense of gravity of the situation facing the country, which is on brink of an abyss, total absence of realization that the country is breaking up, a total absence of any viable suggestion of what we should do. My heart is very full, but I will be as unemotional and objective as I can. All I will say about the army action is that it was a tragic error of judgment, a grievous mistake and miscalculation, which will cover many pages in the history of India, Punjab and the Sikhs. I will dwell in greater detail on how to retrieve the situation. Perhaps the best of examining the thesis of the White paper placed before us is to go backwards, to see the situation today and go back to the genesis of the sorry business.

The situation today is that the religious susceptibility of every Sikh has been deeply wounded. 99 percent of these Sikhs had nothing whatsoever to do with Bhindranwale, Akalis, the government or politics of any sort. This action has humiliated the pride of a very proud people. A proud people do not forget or forgive very easily. You have divided Hindus and Sikhs: the wedge was driven by Akalis, widened by Bhindranwale and made unbridgeable by you. Sikhs who. Till yesterday, regarded themselves as more than first-class citizens are now treated worse than third-class citizens. Discrimination against them continues at airports and check points on rails and roads. It has created a sense of isolation and alienation among them. They are beginning to ask themselves: “Do Indians still regard us one of them?” This being the tradition, ask yourselves two questions. One, could any action which alienated the feelings of 14 million fellow citizens, who form the backbone of our defense services, provide more than half the food for the country and live on the most sensitive border facing Pakistan be ever justified? Second, is it really true, as maintained in the government’s White Paper, that it had no choice except to mount a military invasion on the Golden Temple? My answer to both these questions is a categorical “no”. The White paper has much to say about the Akali intransigence, its constantly changing stance, making new demands and going back on points on which agreements had been reached under pressure of extremists. It says nothing on government’s own shifting positions and resiling from solemnly given under takings. I will never go over them again, but it must be recorded that every breakdown of discussions, the Prime Minister came out with the stock reply that some matters concerned neighboring states which had to be consulted. Apparently, in two years such consultations were not concluded.

The White Paper also makes no mention of the Home Minister’s repeated statements in both the Houses of Parliament, and the PM’s assurances outside Parliament that the government had no intention to move the army into the Golden Temple. Nor does it tell us in any convincing detail how many men there were with Bhindranwale and how they came by the kinds of weapons the government now alleges they had with them. The major question, which is left unanswered, is whether or not the government had any alternative other than sending in the army into the Golden Temple. I can suggest two, neither of which has been mentioned in the White Paper. First, was a commando action, men in plainclothes, designed only to take Bhindranwale and his men alive or dead. This would have spared us the loss of innocent lives as well as the massive destruction of scared property. The second was for the army to cordon off the Golden Temple complex, occupy the Guru ka Langer, cut off the supply of food, fuel and electricity and force Bhindranwales’ men to come out of the Akal Takhat and on the Parikarma to fight. The result would have been quite different. However, neither of these alternatives was given serious consideration and, instead we had six army divisions moved into the Punjab (more then we had with six wars with Pakistan), a force led by a Lt. General and teo Major Generals, equipped with armored personnel carriers, tanks, mountain guns – all to flush out no more than 50-100 men armed with nothing more than sophisticated Light Machine Guns, antiquated 303 rifles, some hand grenades and a rusty bazooka. I visited the Golden Temple a month after the army action, interviewed many people who were in the complex at the time and saw the damage done with my own eyes. Let me tell you, and through you, the rest of country, that this White Paper has grossly underestimated the number of lives lost, over looked mentioning that the dead include hundreds of totally innocent men, women and children.

The government spokesmen have repeated ad nauseam that no damage was caused to the Harmandir; as a matter of fact, it stills bears fresh bullet marks by the score; a hand written copy of the Granth pierced by a bullet; a blind raagi, Amreek Singh was killed inside while doing kirtan; the Akal Takhat is a total wreck and, besides, the entire archives consisting of nearly 1000 manuscript copies of the Granth Sahib and innumerable Hukumnamas bearing signatures of our Gurus have gone up in flames. What is more painful about this vandalism is that it took place after resistance has been overcome. Now we are talking of the healing touch. The place of ‘honour’ in inverted commas should go to the government controlled media – All India Radio and Doordarshan, and an abjectly subservient national press. For days on end TV screen showed the Harmandir Sahib at a distance so that no damage to it could be seen: and the destroyed Akal Takhat was carefully kept out of view. At first the press told us that `3 women had been killed, then no women had been killed, then that they had been killed by a grenade thrown by an extremist. That Bhindranwale had committed suicide, he had been killed by his own men, and ultimately that he had been fallen in the battle; that hashish, opium and heroin had been found – then that this was found outside the Temple; that women of loose character were with the extremists, some of them pregnant. How more pregnant with lies can anyone’s imagination be? It is evident what you have done; you have not broken the back of terrorism.

The infamous army assault on the holiest of Sikh shrines in June 1984 marks a watershed in the history of post-Partition India. The trauma has burnished deep into the psyche of the Sikhs and has forever become part of the Punjabi folklore, wherein Sant Bhindranwale, retd General shahbeg Singh, Beant Singh, Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh, Jinda and Sukha stand tall as hero-martyrs of the modern era. The agony of the Sikhs is all the more hurtful because in June 1984 leaders of other communities maintained deafening silence; many even expressed jubilation. Majoritarian press routinely labeled Bhindranwale as a terrorist and praised Indira Gandhi. One wonders how the deeply religious people of India could suffer such paralysis under hypnotic – if meretricious – propaganda of Indira Gandhi’s government Parliament was significantly insensitive. The lone voice of the protest came from the redoubtable historian, Sardar Khushwant Singh, then a member of Rajya Sabha.

- Editor Sikh Review

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