In “Undercover,” the cover story in the September 2017 issue of The Caravan, Praveen Donthi profiled the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Donthi wrote in the profile that the NSA’s public persona—of a grand statesman and strategist—has been buoyed in great part by a media, “especially a cohort of national-security and defence correspondents ... that persistently repeats larger-than-life stories of Doval’s exploits from his IB days, even though these stories are typically unverified and sometimes unverifiable.” In the following extract from the profile, Donthi reports on accounts surrounding the NSA’s involvement in Operation Black Thunder II, when, in 1988, government and security forces descended upon the Golden Temple complex, in an effort to subdue Khalistani militants who had barricaded themselves inside. Doval was then the joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, or IB. Though he was mentioned in only one eyewitness account from the time, the NSA features prominently in recent journalistic tellings.
Towards the end of the 1980s, Doval was back across the border in Indian Punjab, to take on the Khalistani insurgency—India’s direst domestic security threat at the time. In 1988, his biographers say, he found himself at the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, after Khalistani militants barricaded themselves inside the temple complex. The memory of Operation Bluestar in 1984—when Indian forces stormed the complex to force militants out, at great cost to civilian life, the shrine itself, and relations between the government and the Sikh public—was still fresh. The government needed a better solution this time.
Under the command of KPS Gill, the director general of police for Punjab, government forces began a siege of the complex on 9 May, after militants set off a firefight. Snipers were positioned at high points around it, and water and electricity were cut off. The security forces started picking the rebels off. Trapped and demoralised, the rebels surrendered on 18 May, bringing Operation Black Thunder II, as it came to be known, to an end.
Gill, in response to criticism over the lack of independent observers during Operation Bluestar, invited hundreds of journalists to witness Black Thunder II. This, and the large presence of security and administrative officials throughout, meant that many accounts of the operation were published at the time and in later years. A few of these contain snippets on intelligence operations.
Maloy Krishna Dhar, who was part of IB operations in Punjab at the time and later a joint director of the organisation, described the siege in his 2005 book Open Secrets. He wrote that, in the run-up to the siege, “Certain reports received from intelligence moles lodged in the parikrama indicated arrival of fresh weapons and explosive devices.” Shekhar Gupta and the journalist Vipul Mudgal wrote for India Today, “On March 9 … officers were at the pickets watching every movement, counting heads, guns and identifying faces.”