The Punjab Pulse
- A webinar on “Operation Blue Star: The fault lines then and now” was organised by the Centre for Socio-Cultural Studies (CSCS), Punjab, on 08 June 2020. The discussion was a follow-up of many inputs shared by the members of the Think Tank and others associated with it.
- The invitees were carefully selected from among prominent personalities in the domain of Defence Services, Police Services, Academicians, Journalists and Lawyers among others.
- A military assault, code named Operation Blue Star, was carried out by the Indian security forces on the holiest Sikh Temple, Harmandir Sahib, over seven days from June, 1, to June, 7, 1984. It is referred to by the Sikhs as the Teesra Ghallughara (Third Genocide/holocaust of the Sikhs).
- Two important factors stand out in the ill-conceived operation. First, the misplaced confidence of the Indian Army that it would be able to extricate Sant Bhindranwale and his followers within a short period of time with negligible casualties. Second, the belief held by Sant Bhindranwale that the Government of India would not dare to order an attack on the holy Harmandir Sahib. Both parties were terrible wrong in their assessment and the result was utter destruction and devastation.
- It left 493 dead and 236 wounded. The Army suffered a casualty of 83 killed (4 officers and 79 soldiers). It is widely felt that the death toll was much more than what was declared and it included many innocent civilians.
- Instead of resolving the problem, it created a bigger issue. Within five months it led to the gruesome assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 31, October, 1984, by her Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh and the absolutely terrible anti-Sikh riots across the country that followed. Militancy in Punjab continued for many years and took lives of thousands of young Sikh boys, security force personnel and innocent civilians before abating.
- As we commemorate the 36th anniversary of the very unfortunate event, there arises a need to study the environment and identify the fault lines that existed then and do so in the present context too.
- Was Operation Blue Star avoidable, if so, what options were available with the Government?
- Did Operation Blue Star have requisite legal justification or was it an arbitrary use of brutal state force?
- Have the Punjabi community in general and Sikhs in particular found reconciliation to the unfortunate assault on a religious place that is so close to their hearts?
- Is there an environment evolving in Punjab that could lead to a similar state of turmoil and violence as witnessed in the 1980s?
- What are the challenges before Punjab in the social, political, economic and security domains that need to be addressed to ensure that such a situation is not repeated anytime in the future
An Avoidable and Brutal Operation
- In an opening remark, Sardar Iqbal Singh Lalpura, a retired DIG, Punjab Police who was in service at the time when the operation took place gave his perception that the operation was essentially avoidable.
- The problem started in 1982 with the intention of getting Amrik Singh, the President of the All India Sikh Student Federation out of jail. The basis therefore was a political demand . Alongside, there were minor demands like giving more power to the state (which was the demand of other states too), transmission of Gurbani from Harmandir Sahib, declaration of Amritsar as a religious city and thus a tobacco/liquor free zone etc. The demands were not of a manner that could not have been addressed, yet. they were not met and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who could not even win an SGPC election was converted into a hero.
- This apart, when the militants had gone into the Darbar Sahib and, as yet, not dug in, they should have been removed. The best opportunity that came the way of the Government was in April, 1983, when DIG Avtar Singh Atwal was killed by militants within the precincts of the Darbar Sahib. The militants could have been flushed out citing law and order problems, yet, the issue was allowed to fester.
- The date chosen for the operation was also not suitable since it fell in the week of the martyrdom of fifth Sikh master, Guru Arjan Dev Ji. It was a time when Sikh sentiment was at the highest with many going to the Gurdwara Sahib to offer prayers. These worshippers were used by the militants as human shields, resulting in too many avoidable casualties of innocent civilians.
- Punjab was in the throes of a political and administrative flux. BSF and paramilitary forces were not in the information or decision making loop and were, in fact, in bureaucratic quarrel with the police.
- Gurcharan Singh Jagat, an IPS Officer then posted in intelligence wing, briefed the Army about the strength and weapons of militants in the Darbar Sahib premises. Hence, there was no intelligence failure, Army went in as part of a political decision that went wrong.
- The Government probably “crafted the operation” with the intention of taking political mileage in the rest of the country during election year by positioning then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a strong and decisive leader.
- One particular view is that circumstances made Operation Blue Star necessary and later it was given a radicalised sheen.
- A lot of leaders, social workers, political and religious personalities were involved in earlier negotiations. However, in the post operation scenario, the situation was termed as a law and order issue and no formal and structured attempt was made to initiate a process of reconciliation. Even today the SGPC holds a commemoration of the incident in which the families of the militants are felicitated. A library for Bhindranwale is being created within the precincts of the Darbar Sahib. This amounts to creating the man as a hero for all times to come.
- The process of reconciliation has been initiated by the Modi Government by provision of funds to meet sensitivity of Sikhs like opening of the Kartarpur corridor band other projects, moving to provide justice to the 1984 riots victims and engaging with the Diaspora on subjects that are causing anxiety to them.
- The process of reconciliation can be expedited by giving a boost to the concept of “Punjab and Punjabiat.” Congress wants to brush the matter under the carpet by saying that it stands resolved. What is needed instead is an acknowledgement the operation could have been stopped at the very outset which would, at least, create a hope for justice. All Punjabis should get together as say that it was wrong.
- There is a need to redefine the history of Punjab as the cradle of civilisation, which held Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Taxila (with its most famous university) in its undivided fold. Punjab is becoming culturally dead. Very few people speak Punjabi as their first and natural language; age old customs are being replaced with western values as is art, literature and music. This course needs to be reversed
- On the question of Blue Star and militancy having triggered the exodus to foreign countries that Punjab is presently facing, the view was that it did play a role but the bigger culprit is a stagnant economy and lack of job opportunity. Here the big perpetrator is the Green Revolutions that did not allow Industrialisation to grow in Punjab.
Social and Economic Challenges
- Today Punjab is losing its assets two times over, First when land holdings and property are sold to send a family member abroad. Second when, on the death of the older generation, properties are sold to take the money abroad. Also, those who can afford it are keeping their properties locked with no commercial utility whatsoever.
- There is a feeling among the Diaspora that Sikhs in India are being victimised. There is a need to offset this perception and create an environment of trust and security.
- On the question of Hindu-Sikh amity, it was clarified that the Sangh has clearly said that Sikhs are a separate religion but there is a common bond of Punjabiat within the Punjabi communities of all castes and creeds. This matter now needs to be taken forward.
- Corruption in the political and bureaucratic set-up is causing great setbacks to the forward movement of the state. Hence, there is a need to create new leadership and that can be done only from the base level.
- It was observed in the summarisation of the discussion that, post Operation Blue Star, many who used to visit Darbar Sahib on a daily basis reduced the frequency as an automatic reaction to the sad event. So, politics spoiled Shradha (devotion). There is a need to ensure that politics are there to serve society and not the other way around where society serves politics.
- Finally, the need to start building bridges between communities was emphasised upon. Since the culture and ideology of Punjab has remains constant in all religions. Mistrust has to be removed and lessons learnt from History.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
- In conclusion the main factors are summarised in point form as given below:-
(a) Operation Blue star was an avoidable incident in which force beyond acceptable limits was used.
(b) The process of reconciliation that should have been initiated was set aside by terming the incident as a law and order problem
(c) Reconciliation process has been initiated by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi
(d) Reconciliation will come from acceptance of the wrong that has been done and moving ahead with community amity under the concept of Punjab and Punjabiat.
(e) There is a need to nurture new leadership since the existing one has been exposed as corrupt and inefficient, unable to meet the aspiration of the Punjabis let alone the Sikhs
(f) Punjab needs to be established once again on to its noble position of being the cradle of civilisation.
(g) The feeling among Diaspora that Sikhs in Punjab and India are being persecuted needs to be dispelled
(h) There is no ambiguity about the status of Sikhs as a separate and proud religion well amalgamated with other Punjabi communities due to a shared culture.
(i) Politics spoiled the Shradha (devotion) for the holy temple, now the situation needs to be set right.