The two men who would eventually take charge of Punjab’s destiny in later years –Amarinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal – were not in the state when Operation Bluestar was being executed. Amarinder Singh was near Shimla, playing a round of golf when the news about the army operation broke. His attention was distracted by the crackling sound of a radio in the vicinity of the golf course, which carried three key words: army, Bhindranwale and Golden Temple.
“I immediately walked up to the house [in which the radio was on] and requested the owner if he would let me in and listen to the bulletin.” The owner acceded to the request.
Amarinder’s worst fears had come true.
He promptly called off his golf game and returned to Shimla to ponder over and execute his next line of action. It had to be strategised carefully because it could have serious personal as well as financial repercussions. He called upon his colleague (Mrs) Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, who was also holidaying in Shimla, to inform her about what had happened at Amritsar.
Senior Congress leaders from Punjab, such as Gurdarshan Singh (from Nabha), Beant Singh (from village Kotli in Ludhiana), Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder (from Gurdaspur), Rajinder Kaur Bhattal (from Sangrur), Amarjit Kaur (from Patiala) and Amarinder, had decided that in the event of the Centre sending forces into the Golden Temple, they would all strongly lodge their dissent by going to New Delhi and maybe tender their resignation from the party as a sign of protest. In Amarinder’s case, he would have to resign from Parliament as well as from the Congress party.
As it turned out, none of the others resigned and some did not even reach New Delhi, citing one reason or the other. According to Amarinder, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal excused herself as one of her children was suffering from severe diarrhoea. Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder exempted herself because she had other commitments to fulfil. Beant Singh and Amarjit Kaur also managed to avoid going to the national capital with him. The only other person who lived up to his word was Gurdarshan Singh. He accompanied Amarinder to New Delhi, a tough journey under the prevailing circumstances.
From Shimla, Amarinder drove to his house in Chail from where he contacted the army commander for assistance to enter Punjab. Once all arrangements were in place, he drove to Chandimandir (a military station close to Chandigarh) where he met and lunched with the army commander.
Assured of a safe passage through Punjab, Amarinder then informed Gurdarshan Singh and both Congress leaders set off for New Delhi in their luxury cars to air their grievances to the Congress high command, a euphemism for the party president: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. On reaching New Delhi, Amarinder met Indira Gandhi at her residence and handed her his resignation.
Amarinder’s ensuing conversation with Indira Gandhi was very candid and emotional.
The prime minister, who had evidently not taken Amarinder’s earlier assertions of quitting seriously, demanded his reasons for resigning from Parliament and the party. He reminded her of their previous conversation and emphasised the very strong association of the Patiala family with the Sikh religion and its related history. She then asked him to rethink. “This was reason enough for me to not reconsider my decision,” affirms Amarinder.
Not used to hearing a “no”, Indira Gandhi got up from her chair and stormed out of the room, leaving Amarinder on his own. Torn between his religion, political future and close association with the Gandhi family, Amarinder left his resignation on her table and walked out of the room soon after.
Since the Congress high command was now worried about the growing dissent amongst senior Sikh leaders, it evoked its crisis management “mantra”. Veteran Surjit Singh Majithia from Amritsar, a former deputy defence minister and a close relative of Gurdarshan Singh, had been requisitioned to dissuade the latter from tendering his resignation. Surjit Singh Majithia was successful in his mission.
It was none other than his childhood friend Rajiv Gandhi who attempted to placate Amarinder and convince him to change his mind, as his decision would politically bring down the Congress further in Sikh esteem.
However, Amarinder stood his ground and refused to oblige. He had already stated his position and anxiety to Rajiv Gandhi earlier. To avoid the pressure from his schoolmate and senior party colleagues, Amarinder went into hiding. On 10 June 1984, he finally approached BBC’s India correspondent, Sir Mark Tully, and went public with his resignation. BBC was the first news service to announce Amarinder Singh’s quitting from Parliament and the Congress party.
The same day, Amarinder Singh also released a press note about his move and the reasons behind it. The Tribune (a widely read Chandigarh-based newspaper) reported: “Mr Amarinder Singh of the Congress (I) today resigned from Parliament in protest against what he called ‘“entry of the army into the Akal Takht’”. In a signed statement, Mr Amarinder Singh said he was also resigning from the Congress. [He also declared]: “I shall now endeavour to bring about normalcy in the state and re-establish the cordial relations between the Sikhs and the Hindus.”
A couple of days later, Devinder Singh Garcha, Congress MP from Ludhiana, also resigned from Parliament and the Congress party. Elsewhere in the country, in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar, a large number of Sikhs deserted the armed forces and Khushwant Singh, the eminent writer and journalist, returned the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award of the country, conferred on him in 1974. However, he did not resign from Parliament, which he represented through the Rajya Sabha (1980 to 1986).
Why did most other Punjab Sikh Congress leaders not resign and what made Amarinder stick to his resolve?
The answer to this question can perhaps be found in history through this excerpt from The Rajas of the Punjab: “The village Mehraj...in the modern Bathinda district was founded [by Amarinder’s ancestors] on the advice of Guru Hargobind [the sixth Guru], who had built the Akal Takht [early in the seventeenth century].”
Amarinder further clarifies: “Guru Gobind Singh had sent my ancestors a hukumnama [literally meaning a letter of command to preserve the religion]. There was no way that I could turn back from my decision.”
If it was an emotional decision taken to demonstrate his protest against the use of the army in the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, Amarinder Singh’s decision could also be hailed as a very astute political move, though it had its share of repercussions including long- term harm to financial interests.
The Congress upped its ante against Amarinder. There were a series of press releases condemning the erstwhile scion of Patiala’s decision. Several Congress leaders hailed the army action and met Rajiv Gandhi to show their support for Indira Gandhi. About twenty MLAs, including Dr Kewal Krishan, Sajjan Kumar Jakhar, Lal Singh and Jagdev Singh Jassowal, termed Amarinder’s resignation from Parliament as a complete “betrayal” of the faith reposed in him by the people. In a joint statement, they declared that the resignation was a “direct encouragement” to anti-national and communal forces. They also asserted that at a juncture “when the forces of disruption and disintegration were striking against secular forces, this step of Amarinder Singh’s was nothing short of a stab in the back of national interest and unity”.
The resignation, which clearly was an outcome of a combination of many factors, elevated, among a majority of the Sikhs, the position of the Patiala scion, who till then could only win in his home constituency. It catapulted him to a position of “persona grata” in Punjab’s politics.
The resignation can easily be referred to as his first major political manoeuvre in the complicated political chessboard of Punjab.
It was high on emotional connect, strong on religious resonance and shrewd on political wisdom. It was the hallmark of a statesman in the making, whose patriotism was never in doubt.
The decision also helped the Patiala family members in absolving themselves of an enormous ignominy, which could be attributed to the founder Ala Singh. In March 1762, Ala Singh had accepted the title of raja from the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali. Abdali was responsible for plundering of the Golden Temple twice besides killing thousands of pilgrims and filling the sacred pool with human bodies and carcasses of cattle. The founder of Patiala, Ala Singh, in Sikh history has appeared as a tainted figure, who, to attain and keep his power, had sided with the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali during his invasions of India.
Even though Amarinder continues to maintain that his resignation had nothing to do with politics, this step ushered in another key contender in Sikh politics. Amarinder justifies his move: “Our association with the Gurus and the Sikh faith is beyond politics. Politics is nothing. I have no regrets whatsoever,” claims Amarinder.
Excerpted with permission from Captain Amarinder Singh: The People’s Maharaja - An Authorized Biography, Khushwant Singh, Hay House.