'A barrage of lies'
As tension mounted in Punjab and the killing of innocent people by terrorists at the behest of Bhindranwale increased, the government realized that its options were closing; it had to somehow get hold of Bhindranwale again (he had been arrested earlier on charges of murder and released at the time and place of his choosing). By now Bhindranwale and his military adviser, General Shahbeg Singh, had converted the Akal Takht into a fortress and a variety of arms had been smuggled in with trucks bringing in rations for the gurdwara kitchen. The government had left it too late, and a violent confrontation was fast becoming inevitable. On many occasions I warned the government against sending the army into the Golden Temple because it would rouse the wrath of the entire Sikh community, most of which was unconcerned with Bhindranwale or the Akalis. "You don’t know the Sikhs," I once told the Home Minister PC Sethi, a peace-loving Jain. "They can be like a swarm of hornets. You put your head in their nest and you will be stung all over your face." He assured me that the government had no intention of sending the army into the Temple. So did Mrs Gandhi, more than once.
It is not known when Mrs Gandhi came round to the view that she had no option but to order the army into the Golden Temple, and who her advisers were at the time. The names of Rajiv Gandhi, Arun Nehru, Arun Singh and Digvijay Singh were mentioned. It is also unknown who chose the date when operations should commence. There is no doubt that President Zail Singh was kept in the dark. When Mrs Gandhi persuaded him to put Punjab under military rule, she did not tell him that she had decided to order the army to clear the Temple of Bhindranwale and his armed followers. When it came to Punjab or Sikh affairs, she did not trust Gianiji. And none of her advisers had the foggiest notion of Sikh traditions. They chose 5 June 1984 as the day to launch the operation. It was the death anniversary of Guru Arjun, the founder of the Hari Mandir, a day when hundreds of thousands of Sikhs were expected to come on pilgrimage from remote areas. Nor were alternative methods of getting at Bhindranwale considered seriously. He could have been overpowered by a band of commandos in plain clothes; the Temple complex could have been cordoned off; the people inside deprived of rations and access to potable water and forced to come out in the open to surrender or be picked up by snipers. It would have taken a couple of days longer, but would have been comparatively bloodless.
However, the army stormed the Golden Temple with tanks, armoured cars and frogmen, with helicopters hovering overhead to give directions. The battle that ensued lasted two days and nights. In the cross-fire almost 5,000 men, women and children perished. The Akal Takht was reduced to rubble by heavy guns fired from tanks; the central shrine which both parties had declared hors de combat was hit by over 70 bullets. The entrance (deohri) had a large portion blasted off; archives containing hundreds of hand-written copies of the Granth Sahib and hukumnamas (edicts) issued under the signatures of the Gurus were reduced to ashes. Even Mrs Gandhi, who had been assured that the operation would not last more than two hours, was horrified at the extent of damage caused to sacred property and the horrendous loss of lives. Instead of admitting that she had blundered, she decided to cover up the whole thing with a barrage of lies.
'A painful discovery'
Despite my indifference and even hostility to religion, I had no doubt in my mind that I should re-affirm my identity with my community. I regarded Bhindranwale as an evil man who deserved his fate. But "Operation Blue Star" went well beyond the slaying of Bhindranwale: it was a well-calculated and deliberate slap in the face of an entire community. I felt strongly that I must register my protest. I did not consult anyone: my wife was away in Kasauli, my daughter in office, my son in Bombay. I rang up Tarlochan Singh, the Press Adviser of President Zail Singh, and asked for an appointment with the latter. I was asked to come straightaway. I took the framed citation awarding me the Padma Bhushan under the signature of President VV Giri. Tarlochan had anticipated that I had come to return it to the government. Giani Zail Singh was in a state of acute depression. "I know how you feel," he said to me, "but don’t be hasty. Think over the matter for a few days and then decide what you should do." I held my ground. "No Gianiji. I don’t want to give myself time to change my mind. I had sworn that if the army entered the temple I would renounce the honours bestowed on me by this government." He asked Tarlochan to put aside the citation and continued talking to me. "I don’t think my qaum [community] will ever forgive me for this," he said. He was looking for some kind of assurance to the contrary. "No Gianiji, I don’t think the Sikhs will ever forgive you for Blue Star." He was in the depths of despair. "Do you think it would serve any purpose if I resign now?" I told him it was too late: whether or not he resigned, the Sikhs would hold him responsible for the desecration of their holiest shrine.
I knew Gianiji would keep my returning the Padma Bhushan to himself. I did not give him a chance. From Rashtrapati Bhavan I drove straight to the PTI. office on Parliament Street and handed over the short text of my letter of protest and about returning the award. "To kill a rat you don’t have to bring down your house," it read. The evening papers carried the news; the morning papers had it on their front pages.
What followed was a painful discovery to me. Overnight I became a kind of folk hero of the Sikhs: the first to openly denounce the government. And a villain for Hindus. I, who had always preached secular ideals and condemned Bhindranwale, had come out in my ‘true colours’ they said. I was flooded with letters and telegrams: Sikhs applauding me for having shown how a Sikh should act; Hindus denouncing me as an arch enemy of the country. Even Girilal Jain, a man I had regarded as being above communal prejudices, wrote an editorial against me. Every pressman who came to interview me asked why I had not resigned from the Rajya Sabha as well. I told them that I was not going to deprive myself of the one forum from which I could tell the government and the people what grievous wrong it had done to the Sikhs and the country.
'Such a small matter'
A few days later I visited Amritsar. Entrance to the Golden Temple was still restricted. But they could not very well keep me out. I was met at the railway station by an army officer who told me that he had been deputed by General KS Brar, who had played a leading role in Operation Blue Star, to be by my side for the sake of my safety. In fact he had been deputed to keep an eye on my movements.
I went round the parikrama and saw the devastation caused by the army. (Workmen were hastily filling in dents left by bullets and cleaning up the marble floor of blood-stains.) Soldiers were still about in considerable strength. Near the rubble that once was the Akal Takht stood a signboard in English and Hindi reading, "Smoking and drinking in these premises is prohibited." This is what our jawans had been doing after taking over the Temple. When I drew my escort’s attention to it, he ordered the board to be removed. I saw clusters of peasants gazing at the ruins of the Akal Takht with tears running down their cheeks. Doordarshan had hauled up a very frightened head-priest, Kirpal Singh, and made him read out a statement that very little damage had been caused to the buildings: "O Kirpala annha see?’" – was that Kirpal Singh blind? people asked. In the central shrine I counted the number of fresh bullet marks. In front of each there were peasant women in tears of anger, their mouths full of curses. "Inhaan da beej naas hoey!’" – May their seed perish! "Kuttian dee aulaad!" – Progeny of dogs, etc. From down below the balcony came the strains of Gurbani. It sounded utterly out of place.
For many days parties of Sikh men and women came to call on me unbidden and without appointment to condole with me. They included well-dressed ladies who spoke in English. A day earlier, Jathedar Rachpal Singh, at the bidding of Home Minister Buta Singh, had called a press conference at Hotel Imperial to explain the government’s point of view. The press, including foreign journalists, had turned up in full force. The Jathedar read out a statement and, before allowing questions, asked guests to stay on after the conference was over and be his guests for lunch. A lady strode up to the platform and slapped him across the face, knocking off his turban. "You shameless creature! Our Temple has been destroyed and you want to celebrate it with a luncheon party?" The press conference was hastily concluded. This lady, a school teacher, was among those who called on me.
Asad Farooqi, DCP, at the Parliament Road Police Station which included Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, rang me up and asked if he could see me. When we met he told me that he was at the gurdwara every afternoon to hear the speeches being delivered there. My name came up frequently and it was often announced that I would be coming to the gurdwara to address the congregation. We talked for quite a while and I told him of the death and destruction caused in Amritsar: "Zara see baat peh aap Sarkar say itney khafaa ho gayey’"– On such a small matter you have become so cross with the government, he exclaimed.
"Zara see baat! Do you know upwards of 5,000 Sikhs were slain in this single operation? You call it zara see baat!" I replied.
"Itney Mussulman yeh har saal maar daaltey hain’"– They kill as many Muslims every year, he maintained. I could not resist retorting "Aap Mussalmanon ko to maar khaaney kee aadat par gayee hai" – You Muslims have got used to being beaten regularly; "Inshallah! Sikkhon ko bhee par jaygee’" – If God wills Sikhs will also get habituated to it.
In my articles and speeches I pleaded with Mrs Gandhi to go to the Golden Temple as a pilgrim and ask for forgiveness. I assured her that Sikhs were an emotional people and the gesture would assuage their feeling of hurt. She allowed herself to be guided by her Home Minister, Buta Singh. They decided to have the Akal Takht rebuilt exactly as it was and in as short a time as possible, so that the Temple complex could be handed back to the SGPC. Money was no problem. A firm of Sikh contractors, Skipper & Co, owned by Tejwant Singh, was given a blank cheque to do the job – including getting the gold to recover the domes.
Buta Singh was aware of the Sikh tradition of building temples through voluntary labour, Kaar Sewa. Failing to get anyone respectable to lead it, he hired the services of a fat Nihang who described himself as Sultan-ul-Qaum, ruler of the community, to do the job. This Falstaff-sized man, known to be addicted to hashish, arrived with a motley bunch of followers who went through the motions of taking bricks and mortar to the site of the building. Evening after evening Doordarshan dutifully showed them on the screen. When the matter was raised in the Rajya Sabha I had to face the ire of three Sikh members sitting with the Congress: Amarjeet Kaur, Hanspal, and the new entrant, ex-Chief Minister Darbara Singh. When I described Santa Singh Nihang as "a fat old buffoon", they were on their feet to protest that my language was unparliamentary and should be struck off the records. Darbara Singh followed it up by saying, "Mr Khushwant Singh, Baba Santa Singh is a much better Sikh than you are!" I acknowledged that his observation was correct and added, "I have never claimed to be a good Sikh. But let me tell all three of you who claim to be such devout Sikhs that today what I say matters to the Sikhs; Sikhs like you have become irrelevant."
The main debate on Operation Blue Star had to await the publication of the White Paper. I stayed back in the House till the first copies of the book were released and spent long hours going over it again and again. I knew I would be the only one to speak against it, as by then the Akali members had resigned. The whip of the Congress party had lined up his henchmen to heckle me and put across the official point of view. When I was called on to speak the House was full. Right from the start, cronies of the Congress party tried to barrack me. Jayalalitha, who had been recently elected to the House, rose to my defence and asked the Chairman to let me have my say without interruption. I let loose whatever oratory I had at my command and roundly denounced the government for what it had perpetrated. I criticized the army for the ham-handed way it had done the job and quoted an Urdu couplet to illustrate the outcome of serious errors of judgement,
Voh waqt bhee deykha taareekh kee gharion nay
Lamhon nay khataa kee thee Sadiyon nay sazaa paayee
(The ages of history have recorded times
when for an error made in a few seconds centuries had to pay the price.)
Only members of the Opposition applauded my speech. Mrs Gandhi, sitting in the Lok Sabha, was kept informed of what I was saying; she described my speech as anti-national.
All the speakers who spoke after me had something to say on what I had said. Narasimha Rao, who had replaced PC Sethi as Home Minister, jibed at me for trying to pose as a military expert who could advise the army command on how to go about its job.
Excerpted with permission from the autobiography of Khushwant Singh, Truth, Love and a Little Malice, Penguin India.
Note: In documents declassified by Britain in 2014, it emerged that in February 1984, in the early stages of the crisis, the-then British government had sent a military officer to give advice to the Indian government, on the latter's "request for contingency planning on its plans for an operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib".
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.