“Blind Men of Hindoostan” Remembering Operation Bluestar
* Rear Admiral (Retd.) Satyindra Singh is a Military historian and commentator. [A-8/29 Vasant Vihar, New Delhi-110057]
‘Blind Men of Hindoostan’ is the title of a book authored by General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, published in 1993. On the dust jacket it is stated that Sundarji makes a fictional Prime Minister, his cabinet and the three Service Chiefs discuss the nuclear issue but comes up with a chilling ‘fact’, harder to believe than fiction: India has no coherent nuclear policy and, worse still, does not have even an institutionalised system for analysing and throwing up policy options! I decidedly select this title for my article as I perceive it was nothing less than acute myopia that led the leadership – political and military – to plunge into an action of disastrous proportions – I refer to Operation Bluestar – in June sixteen years ago.
One doesn’t have to be a Nostradamus to make a realistic appreciation of a situation and its attendant fallout. But see what the fall-out has been for the nation! Indiae lost a Prime Minister, a Chief of Army Staff, and had a major “mutiny” of the Sikh troops! Over five thousand lives were snuffed out in a ghastly fashion in the Capital and many other towns. What is more, over three hundred Gurdwaras, where Sikhs – and Hindus – collectively worshipped, were desecrated, damaged and destroyed. A whole community was alienated.
Many volumes have been written on this and connected subjects, both by Indians and foreigners. We, of course, have the Government’s White Paper – which is anything but white and at best, a pathetic attempt to cover up both sin and crime. Atal Behari Vajpayee said at that time that ‘it evaded more issues than it tackled’. India Today called it as Operation Whitewash.
We have many pages in Khushwant Singh’s latest volumes of ‘A History of the Sikhs’, particularly his chapter titled ‘A fatal miscalculation’. And, to quote a few lines by him : “But the government, for reasons best known to it, first let leaders of the ruling party help Bhindranwale to build himself into a leader, allowed its police and paramilitary forces to turn a blind eye to the smuggling of arms into the temple, and then ordered its army to storm it with tanks and heavy guns. Sikhs could be forgiven if they come to the conclusion that Mrs. Gandhi’s government meant to give their community a bloody punch on the nose. They were not likely to forget or forgive anyone who had anything to do with Operation Bluestar.”
We also have Mark Tully’s volume ‘Amritsar – Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle’. Lt. Gen. K. S. Brar, who was actively involved in the operation, has also written a volume which he – mendaciously – terms as, ‘Operation Blue Star: The True Story’.
There is a very pertinent volume of the monthly magazine SEMINAR (April 1985), titled ‘Using the Army’ which carries articles by a galaxy of civil and military authors, like KF Rustamji, Lt Gens ML Thapan, EA Vas and SK Sinha and Jaswant Singh, now our Minister for External Affairs. Senior Lawyer and activist, Nandita Haksar has a searching article and there is a succinct summing up of the Punjab problem by author and publisher Ramesh Thapar, in which he brings out what he terms as the ‘badly manipulated and short sighted political management by the rulers.’
On the military side, there is a valuable volume ‘Threat From Within’ by Lt Gen VK Nayar, a distinguished soldier and paratrooper who has served with distinction both in the western and eastern sectors. Nayar was the Additional Director General of Military Operations at Army Headquarters in 1984. He records his views with riveting candour and unusual freshness.
In his first chapter. ‘Punjab – an Overview’ Nayar starts by starting that “Punjab is a sad story of missed opportunities”. He goes on to say that the basic reason for the situation deteriorating has been, instead of being treated as a national problem, it has been handled as a problem of a political party with its parameters dictated by their coloured perception, with a number of people having vested interests At best, the situation was confined to terrorism without dealing with its causes and realising the effects of these actions.
In a nutshell, the discernment of the problem was not there, certainly not from the national point of view. He also mentions about the infighting within the ruling Congress I, between Zail Singh and Darbara Singh, and fully in keeping with Indira Gandhi’s policy of keeping of chief ministers on tenterhooks and not permitting them to function effectively. He said that he was amazed at the lack of realisation of the actual situation and concern for Punjab and its people.
Nayar also records that it was in November 1983, that some of them in the Army informally started taking cognisance of the situation in Punjab. All available information (not intelligence, as we were not privy to it) was collected and a view was taken. The outcome highlighted two main issues: first, that the manner in which the situation was being handled, would only make it worse and may result in it being dumped on the Army. Second, the army’s involvement would have its ramifications within the army and thereby the need to warn and prevent it.
It was, therefore, the Army’s professional and patriotic duty to convey its views to the Prime Minister, as any level lower than that would not be effective. We were firmly of the opinion that the army should not be involved and if inescapable we should be consulted before a decision was taken.
The logic and force of our arguments failed to get any response. The total response was, “you have told me !” This raises a vital question, he says. Should the Army keep silent on such issues of national importance, particularly when the Service interests and the interests of its men are involved? Nayar emphasizes that the Service and its head must convey its views to the Prime Minister on issues of national interest, irrespective of whether, at that point of time we are involved or not. We owe it to the nation and to our men.
The government doesn’t like “uncomfortable” Army Chiefs. Here it is relevant to recall that Gen Arun Vaidya’s appointment was very controversial, and his being positioned as the Chief of Army Staff by superseding Lieut General SK Sinha on other-than-merit considerations, had hit media headlines. Sinha tells the full story in his “A Soldier Recalls” published a few years ago. Besides Vaidya was a sick man sustaining himself by constant medication, even in office. This was no secret, and confirmed to me by the then Southern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Tirath Singh Oberoi.
Sadly and regrettably, over the years there has been a surfeit of pliable military leadership who are “willing to play the game”. The like of Sam Manekshaw who had the courage to take on not only the entrenched bureaucracy but also tell Indira Gandhi that the timing proposed by her in 1971 (Indo – Pak war 1971) was not suitable to the army and insisted on what he considered a more suitable time, are rare. Why ‘create a situation’ is the ethos of many of our top brass. Here I quote an incident of World War I. Admiral Fisher reporting on Admral Jellico’s failure to destroy the German Fleet at the Battle of Jutland stated that “Jellico had all the qualities of Nelson except that he does not know when to disobey”!
Major General Afsir Karim, a paratrooper and also a course mate of Lt Gen Brar, and a former Editor of Indian Defence Review, in his review of Brar’s volume, says that one wishes Brar’s attempts to explode what he calls certain ‘myths’ had been more convincing. Karim emphasises that Operation Bluestar has been considered a failure for the following reason:
Akal Takht was damaged beyond recognition even before Bhindranwale and his followers were killed or captured. Major collateral damage was caused to the Temple complex and there were a large number of civilian casualties as a result of frontal assault on a constricted space.
Karim has a telling observation to make regarding the assessment of the number of weapons in the Temple by the police. It is intriguing, he says, that if the police (and the government) really believed that the militants had only two hundred to two-fifty weapons- the majority of which were 12 Bore guns and 303 rifles – where was the need to call in the Army?
It needs to be mentioned here that, two centuries earlier, the Golden Temple had been the target of attack, on the Diwali day, in 1736 by the Mughal Army. It was a massacre of such great magnitude that people remembered it for a long time as the ‘Bloody Diwali’.
When Ahmed Shah Abdali had raided the Temple, he too had chosen Baisakhi Day to launch his attack in order to inflict the maximum casualties on the Sikhs who gather together in large numbers to commemorate the Birth of the Khalsa. The Jalianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar also took place on Baisakhi Day. The invasion of the Temple on 05 June 1984 was on the martyrdom day of Guru Arjun Dev. How such unmitigated thoughtlessness was shown beats all reason, logic, thinking and sense of proportion – and much more – unless it was to emulate the Mughals, Abdali, and others.
Many, today, who have held the highest positions in the Army condemn Operation Bluestar in no uncertain terms. General Roychowdhury, former Chief of Army Staff has stated, in his interview in a national daily (on 27 April 2000), when asked whether right steps had been taken to tackle the problem of militancy in Punjab, replied; “No, certainly not. I don’t think that right steps were taken. Operation Bluestar was totally unwarranted and a mistaken step. The party in power at Delhi at that time had taken the step more on political consideration.”
General Sundarji passed away in Jan. 1999, but left behind a partially completed autobiography titled ‘Of Some Consequence: A Soldier Remembers’ He planned to write 105 episodes, but lived only to write 33. It is his wife, Vani who writes that Operation Bluestar changed Sundarji, and his laughter was all but gone.