1984 Punjab Tragedy: Unanswered Questions?

Indira Gandhi visits the Darbar Sahib after the Indian army stormed the complex in Amritsar in 1984

By Tarlochan Singh (Ex-MP) | Opinion |

The entry of the armed forces into the holy precincts of the Golden Temple, Amritsar on June 5, 1984 is perhaps the most unfortunate event of recent Indian History. The bloodshed that came in the wake of Operation Blue Star within the precincts of the holy place was unprecedented. The events that followed were even more tragic. A number of questions about the circumstances leading to these events remain unanswered. We owe it to posterity to lay bare the truth concerning these momentous events. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh, who had close knowledge of these events, are no more. But there are many, who are around and have not shed their inhibitions to come out with the truth.

To me, it appears that nobody has researched the causes of Operation Blue Star. It is made out that Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was promoted to counter the Akalis by Giani Zail Singh soon after he stepped down as the Chief Minister of Punjab. It is believed that the Congress party wanted to use Sant Bhindranwale against the Akalis to defeat them at the polls.

There are instances of Sant Bhindranwale opposing the Akalis in the SGPC elections and Parliamentary elections. He supported R.L. Bhatia as the Congress candidate from Amritsar. Sardar Darbara Singh became the Congress Chief Minister of Punjab in March 1980 when the Congress came to power at the Centre with Giani Zail Singh as the Home Minister. Both of them are now not alive to shed light on this aspect of Congress policy. Sant Bhindranwale used to tour Punjab and address huge Sikh congregation delivering religious discourses. From the beginning, his Jatha carried arms. Like his predecessor Sant Kartar Singh, he also kept armed men around him. This is a tradition with this Jatha. Another Sikh Sect, that of the Nihangs carries arms even to this day.

Everything was normal till the murder of Lala Jagat Narain. The Punjab Police involved. Bhindranwale in this case and issued warrants against him. At that time he was staying in the Gurdwara at Mehta near Baba Bakala, Amritsar. His arrest was dramatised. The unnecessary shooting by the police killing 8 persons there has never been probed. After his arrest he was kept in police custody but was released when nothing could be established against him. It proved a mistake implicating him in the Jagat Narain murder case. Perhaps, some people close to Darbara Singh or the bureaucrats at the helm at that time might be able to explain the fiasco.

Bhindranwale visited Delhi and Bombay. Neither he nor his followers indulged in any acts of violence. But quite surprisingly the press criticised the Centre for not arresting him. The role of the press projecting Bhindranwale unduly as a criminal remains intriguing to this day. The Punjab police attack on Bhindranwale’s camp at Chando Kalan in Haryana was another act in this drama.

It is not clear why Darbara Singh arrested two close aides of Bhindrawale thus providing him with reason to start a morcha from within the Golden Temple. The Akali Party till then was keeping aloof from the activities of Bhindranwale. A meeting of Akali party was called at Anandpur Sahib to decide a course of action. Giani Zail Singh intervened and as the Home Minister asked Paramjit Singh, the then Chief Secretary of Punjab, to request Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal to come to Delhi to meet Indira Gandhi. The Chief Secretary in turn informed Darbara Singh who asked him to keep quiet. There was no response to the invitation. Giani Ji informed me and I sounded Ravi Inder Singh, ex-Speaker of the Punjab Assembly. Ultimately, Ravi Inder Singh, himself rang up the Chief Secretary to ask him about the message from Delhi as it was not passed on to Sant Ji. This shows how the Akalis were willing to sit across the table to resolve issues but Darbara Singh and his Chief Secretary stalled the talks. This resulted in the Akalis announcing their plans of a “Dharam Yudh Morcha”. Another important question that needs to be answered is: who allowed the fortification of the Golden Temple? The entire police force was aware of arms being carried to the precincts of the Golden Temple. An Army intelligence Officer was himself at Amritsar. In all fairness, the concerned officers should now reveal the truth.

No one should ignore a hard truth that Indira Gandhi never wanted a confrontation with the Sikhs. It was she who accepted Punjabi Suba demand which was always opposed by her Father Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, she made a Sikh the President of India and had two Sikh Ministers in her cabinet. She gave the Kotwali building in Chandni Chowk to Sikhs for making a Sarai. So it stands to reason that how her mind towards Sikh changed abruptly. Here is then the big unanswered question – Who were the people who pushed her to the path of confrontation with the Sikhs? History needs a proper account of this period. Who were the men and agencies involved in this process? So far only some hints have been provided in Governor Alexander’s and Mrs. Pupul Jayakar’s and Governor B.D. Pandey’s books. The nation has a right to demand an answer from these people who are sitting quiet refusing to reveal the facts. There are some other historic facts which are worth noting. There was a complete lack of communication between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Giani Zail Singh. He had little knowledge of the planning of Operation Blue Star. He kept himself up-to-date only through the Radio and the Press. After Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi informed him of what had happened and sent Mr. Arun Singh with photographs of the damaged Akal Takht and the Golden Temple. Pity is that Arun Singh, despite being from the Kapurthala Royal Sikh family, did not know the importance of the Akal Takhat.

A day after Operation Blue Star charged with giving details of Army attack and the damage to Akal Takhat to Khushwant Singh and Prem Bhatia editor of The Tribune. Indra Gandhi personally met the President with recorded telephone talks and wanted to prosecute me. I was sent on forced leave. To my surprise after few days, I was called by Buta Singh and he told me that Indira Gandhi was anxious to undertake some immediate remedial measures for opening up the Golden Temple which had been sealed. We had a long meeting with Indra Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi at her residence where it was decided to involve Sikh High Priests to find a reasonable solution. An aircraft and a helicopter were put at our disposal. We were able to trace the Jathedars of Takhats and took them to the Golden Temple. Gen. Dayal and Gen. Brar were under instructions from the Prime Minister to provide us with full assistance and cooperation. The positive role of the acting president of the SGPC, S. Atma Singh, deserves special mention. He is perhaps one of the very few Sikh leaders who was honest, fearless and is endowed with a proper vision. He wanted to save Punjab from further oppressions and to start immediate dialogue for opening of Golden Temple. A meeting of the Five Heads Priests (Gyani Kirpal Singh Jathedar Akal Takhat, Sant Lakha Singh, Jathedar Damdama Sahib, Gyani Harcharan Singh Mahlon Jathedar Keshgarh, Gyani Sahib Singh Head Granthi Darbar Sahib and Gyani Preetam Singh, Head Granthi Akal Takhat ) was held in the damaged Darshani Deori of Golden Temple on June 17, 1984. Buta Singh and I were present to assists them in the deliberations for some time. The Supreme Sikh Council took decisions which were recorded by Giani Sahib Singh.

It was decided by them to demolish the Akal Takht and to allocate the Kar Sewa for rebuilding it to Sant Baba Harbans Singh. To normalise the situation, 14 suggestions were given in writing. Baba Kharak Singh, the most respected Sikh Sant, gave his assent to this note. Sadhu Singh Hamdard, Editor, Ajit, Rawel Singh, ex-Minister and S. Atma Singh were in agreement with these suggestions. We rushed to Delhi the same evening and were with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi for one hour. One could read agony writ large on Indira Gandhi’s face. She was keen for creating normalcy in Punjab and wanted some face-saving settlement.

She spent the next day consulting her advisers. She had an hour-long meeting with Giani Zail Singh also. On June 19 Buta Singh asked me to accompany him to Amritsar. He told me that the Prime Minister had agreed to all the points except two-that the CRPF will not be withdrawn and the case of the Sikh army deserters will be taken up later on. She had authorised him to make formal announcement in Amritsar. I advised him not to do this himself and let the Prime Minister should do this herself or the Union Cabinet Secy. Buta Singh was so sure and enthusiastic that he went ahead to inform the people. We went to the Golden Temple and met the Head Priests and they felt relieved at the settlement specially that the Army was to move immediately out of the Parikrama. The people were to be allowed entry into the Golden Temple. The Kar Sewa to rebuild the Akal Takht was to start immediately. Curfew was to be lifted throughout Punjab and most of the arrested persons were to be released.

The most important point of the settlement was a proposal that Indira Gandhi would visit the Golden Temple and offer some sort of atonement for the army action. The date was to be decided by the Jathedars. Buta Singh made the announcement in a hurriedly called press conference at the residence of SSP. Amritsar. The Army Generals and Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar, were also present. He also met Sant Baba Kharak Singh along with Dr. Gurdial Singh Dhillon. Slogans of “Sat Sri Akal” were raised by the Sangat and it was taken as a good start by the government to ease the situation.

We left Amritsar at 6 pm and reached Palam at 7 pm. K.P Singh Deo, then the Minister of State of Defence, was waiting at the airport. He took Buta Singh straight to the Prime Minister’s residence where he was admonished for making the announcement. Indira Gandhi had done a volte-face. It was announced to the nation that whatever had been promised by Buta Singh at Amritsar had been done in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the Government.

People who were responsible for this about-turn by Indira Gandhi are yet to be identified. I can say with confidence that had these decisions been implemented by the Government as per the announcement made by Buta Singh, thousands of lives would have been saved. The real tragedy started after Operation Blue Star, which gave birth to terrorism. Operation Rose wood was the name of the combing operation conducted by the Army in Punjab villages in June and July onwards. Thousands of citizens were arrested and beaten, their houses demolished, women molested and innocent tortured. And the worst was that the Golden Temple remained sealed till October 1, 1984. These factors compelled the Sikh youth to take up arms.

There can be little doubt that in the interest of peace in Punjab the June 1984 agreement with the Head Priests should have been honoured. But the important Question is who pressured Indira Gandhi to back out of the settlement reached after delicate negotiations? The nation has the right to know this. Peace in Punjab was nipped in the bud by some people around Indira Gandhi and this led to the tragedy of her assassination.

Tarlochan Singh is a former Indian MP and chairman of the National Commission for Minorities from 2003 to 2006.


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