In June 1984, the Indira Gandhi government in India ordered a military assault on the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, codenamed ‘Operation Blue Star’. Led by the Indian army, it was ostensibly aimed at ‘flushing out’ Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his associates from the holy shrine.
This is the second of a two-part series exploring the events of June 1984 in an attempt to unpack its psychological, social and political after-shocks. Read the first part here.
By Tridivesh Singh Maini | OPINION |
Besides the killing of innocent pilgrims, the destruction of the Akal Takht (the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs), and the burning of the Sikh Reference Library, one of the most shameful aspects of Operation Blue Star was the treatment meted out to pilgrims who were found alive after the attack. According to eyewitnesses, a large number of young men, and even women, were shot dead.
According to government estimates, over 1,592 pilgrims in the Darbar Sahib complex were detained on 6 June 1984 after the operation ended. Out of the pilgrims found alive, 379 were arrested and first information reports (FIRs)
were filed against 365 of them, all first-time offenders, four days later. Later, on 14 June, more serious charges were filed against them by central agencies under the Indian Penal Code, Explosives Act and Arms Act.
Most of the detainees were first held at a military camp in Amritsar, then moved to Nabha jail, and finally shifted to Jodhpur jail (some of the injured were first taken to hospital and then shifted to Nabha Jail). The detainees were released in lots, beginning 1988, as part of the 1985 Rajiv-Longowal accord under Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) 321. Some of the detainees considered hardliners were released in the last lot.
This author spoke to some of the ‘Jodhpur detainees’ who are mostly settled in Gurdaspur and Amritsar to understand their ordeal, perceptions and problems.
THE JODHPUR DETAINEES
The case of the Jodhpur detainees is a reiteration of how pilgrims, many of whom were ordinary people, even those without any political affiliations, were treated by security forces with suspicion.
A lot of time has gone by and while many of the detainees are no more (100 of the Jodhpur detainees have passed away), the survivors are able to vividly recall the physical and mental trauma that they faced during their imprisonment. Despite these miseries, they have managed to survive.
There were others who were unable to deal with the situation and developed serious problems, including memory loss. A report titled ‘Operation Blue Star: The Untold Story’ has highlighted, through case studies, the sufferings that the detainees went through and the harassment which their families had to face at the hands of the Punjab police.
A section of of the detainees – such as Bhai Manjit Singh (brother of Bhai Amrik Singh, a close associate of Bhindranwale) Harminder Singh Gill, Amarjit Singh Chawla and Rajinder Singh Mehta – had been politically active, and were part of the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF).
In their book, The Legacy of Militancy in Punjab: Long Road to ‘Normalcy, Inderjeet Singh Jaijee and Dona Suri reiterate the point that far from having indulged in any terror activities, some of the detainees were totally apolitical. Even according to official versions, most of the individuals arrested were totally ‘innocent’ and were simply pilgrims or Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) employees.
After their release, they jumped into the mainstream political arena. Amarjit Singh Chawla is currently a Vice President in the SGPC, Rajinder Singh Mehta is a General Secretary in the SGPC, Gill joined the Congress party and is currently a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) of the Patti constituency, and Valtoha joined the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
COMPENSATION AND REHABILITATION
For the other detainees, compensation has been no easy task. Over 200 of them had applied for compensation in 1991, saying that they were ‘wrongfully detained and tortured’. But the case was dismissed in 2011 after a two decades-long battle.
It was only in 2018 that 40 of the detainees were able to secure compensation after Judge Gurbir Singh of the District Sessions Court in Amritsar ruled in favour of providing them compensation in April 2017. Bhagwant Singh Sialka, an SGPC member, served as the legal counsel for these former detainees. The judge stated that 40 of these appellants should get Rs 4 lakhs each, and with interest, the total compensation amount came out to be an estimated Rs 4.5 crores.
In his judgment, Judge Singh stated: “…it is a case of malicious prosecution, illegal detention and maltreatment on the part of authorities/defendants”
Significantly, the central government agencies had appealed against the court’s ruling in June 2018. Serving Punjab Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, had said that if the central government is not willing to pay the compensation, the state government would do so. Later, the appeal was withdrawn and the central government agreed to pay its share.
EFFORTS TO REHABILITATE THE DETAINEES
Apart from the compensation provided to the 40 odd detainees, some efforts have been made to rehabilitate the them. For instance, while some of the detainees were provided bus licenses to operate buses after their release, both the SGPC and the Punjab government have provided employment to others. In 2018, the SGPC offered to provide jobs to needy ex-detainees.
Many of the detainees who have retired, even from SGPC jobs, are struggling to make both ends meet.
As mentioned earlier, despite the illegal detention of the prisoners and the mental, physical and economic challenges they have faced, the central government, far from trying to compensate or assist detainees, had appealed against the state government’s decision to compensate the detainees, until the SAD took up the issue with the then Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
However, it is not just the central government. Even successive state governments and Sikh religious institutions could have done more, given the resources they possess.
Even Sikh charitable organisations and the diaspora, which have done yeoman’s service in philanthropy in recent years, have not done anything tangible for the detainees. Religious organisations as well as charitable organisations could have done more to provide for the healthcare of the detainees, and also ensured livelihood for one more member of their family.
While Punjab-based print journalists have done some remarkable work in highlighting the struggles of the detainees and in narrating their stories, very few journalists in the mainstream media have looked at this issue, except in the 1980s.
Punjabi media channels focused on Sikh issues have not just been interviewing political personalities and journalists who were witness to the tragic events of June 1984, but also in recent times, been highlighting the travails faced by the Jodhpur detainees and other pilgrims who were found alive in the complex.
One thing that emerges from conversations with some of the detainees is that in spite of facing economic hardships and troubles, they have refrained from playing up their victimhood and made genuine attempts to move on, even if life has not been fair to them.
While there are some who are in a a pitiful financial state and are literally hand-to-mouth as has been mentioned earlier, there are a few cases where individuals have used their time in Jodhpur jail to pursue further education and secure respectable jobs.
While certain sections of the national media have highlighted human rights excesses in other parts of the country, it is disappointing that they seldom get any space to those that took place in Punjab during the militancy years.
It is not only important to have open and frank dialogues over the loss of lives and the psychological impact of Operation Blue Star on the Sikh community, but also to highlight stories such as those of the detainees.
Those amongst the ex-detainees who are financially distressed, as well as other pilgrims who were trapped in the complex, should be given greater space not just in discussions, but also provided financial assistance to ensure that they are economically secure.
In doing so, the Sikh community should not just bank on religious organisations, charities and NGOs, but also on a broader collective effort that includes the diaspora.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Delhi-based political and policy commentator, and is affiliated with the OP Jindal Global University. The article first appeared at Eleventh Column. Views expressed are the author’s own.
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