The unanswered questions about the 1984 Punjab tragedy

Peace in Punjab was nipped in the bud by some people around Indira Gandhi, and this led to the tragedy of her assassination on 31 October 1984. Associated Press Photo
29 October, 2022

The entry of armed forces into Amritsar’s Golden Temple, on 5 June 1984, is perhaps the most unfortunate event of recent Indian history. The bloodshed that followed Operation Blue Star was tragic and unprecedented. A number of questions about these momentous events remain unanswered, and we owe it to posterity to lay bare the truth. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Zail Singh, who had close knowledge of these developments, are no more. But there are many who are around but have not come out with the truth.

To me, it appears that nobody has adequately researched the causes of Operation Blue Star. It is made out that, soon after Zail Singh stepped down as chief minister of Punjab, in 1977, he propped up Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to counter the new Akali government in the state. There are instances of Bhindranwale opposing Akali candidates in elections to parliament and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. He supported RL Bhatia, the Congress candidate from Amritsar, in the 1980 general election. That year, the Congress returned to power in Punjab, with Darbara Singh as chief minister, and in the centre, with Zail Singh as the union home minister. Neither of them is alive to shed light on this particular Congress policy.

Bhindranwale used to tour Punjab and deliver religious discourses to huge Sikh congregations. Members of his jatha, the Damdami Taksal, carried arms, as they had since the order was established in the eighteenth century. Like Kartar Singh, his predecessor as jathedar—chief—Bhindranwale kept armed men around him. (Another Sikh sect, the Nihangs, carries arms to this day.) Everything was normal until the assassination of Jagat Narain, the founder of the Hind Samachar group of newspapers and a prominent critic of Sikh extremism, on 9 September 1981.

The Punjab Police issued a warrant against Bhindranwale and sent a team to arrest him in the village of Chando Kalan, in Haryana’s Hisar district, where he was conducting a preaching tour. By then, Bhindranwale had returned to the Damdami Taksal headquarters at Gurdwara Gurdarshan Prakash in Mehta Chowk, a village in Amritsar district. The police team ransacked Chando Kalan and burned two buses belonging to the jatha. Bhindranwale announced that he would surrender on 20 September. On that day, he led a procession of almost eighty thousand supporters. Some of them clashed with the police, who opened fire and killed 12 people. This unnecessary shooting has never been investigated.

Bhindranwale spent 26 days in police custody but was released when nothing could be established against him. Implicating him in the case proved to be a mistake, only increasing his popularity in the state. Perhaps some people close to Darbara Singh or senior bureaucrats from his government might be able to explain the fiasco. Following his release, Bhindranwale visited Delhi and Bombay. Neither he nor his followers engaged in any acts of violence. However, the press criticised the centre for not arresting him. The role of the media in unduly projecting Bhindranwale as a criminal remains intriguing to this day.

It is not clear why Darbara Singh ordered the arrest of Kartar Singh’s son Amrik Singh, on 19 July 1982, prompting Bhindranwale to launch an agitation for his release. Until then, the Akalis had remained aloof from Bhindranwale’s activities. They held a meeting at Anandpur Sahib to decide upon a course of action. Zail Singh tried to intervene by asking Paramjit Singh, the chief secretary of Punjab, to invite the Akali president, Harchand Singh Longowal, to meet Indira Gandhi in Delhi. However, Darbara Singh asked the chief secretary not to pass on the message. When he did not receive a response, Zail Singh informed me about the invitation, which I passed on to the Akali leader Ravi Inder Singh, a former speaker of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha. He eventually called Paramjit Singh to ask why the message from Delhi had not been passed on. This shows that the Akalis were willing to sit across the table to resolve issues, but Darbara Singh and his chief secretary stalled the talks. Instead, the Akalis and Bhindranwale joined hands to launch the Dharam Yudh Morcha.

Another important question that needs to be answered is: who allowed the fortification of the Golden Temple? The police were aware that arms were being carried into the sacred precincts. An army intelligence officer was posted in Amritsar at the time. The concerned officers should now reveal the truth.

Moreover, no one should ignore the fact that Indira Gandhi never wanted a confrontation with the Sikhs. It was she who had accepted the demand of the Punjabi Suba movement for the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state, which had been opposed by her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, throughout his tenure as prime minister. She made a Sikh the president of India and included two Sikh ministers in her cabinet. She handed over the historic Kotwali building in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk—where the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, had been executed in 1675—to the community for establishing a serai. It is logical, then, to wonder how her mind towards Sikhs changed so rapidly. Who were the people who pushed her to the path of confrontation with the Sikhs? So far, only some hints have been provided in books by her principal secretary at the time, PC Alexander, her biographer Pupul Jayakar and the former Punjab governor BD Pande. History needs a proper account of this period. The nation has a right to demand an answer from those who are sitting quiet.

Some other historical facts are worth noting. There was a complete lack of communication between Indira Gandhi and Zail Singh, who had been elected president in 1982. He had little knowledge about the planning of Operation Blue Star and could keep himself updated only through the media. After the operation was complete, Indira Gandhi informed him about what had happened and sent Rajiv Gandhi’s advisor Arun Singh—who had been a key proponent of the attack—to show him photographs of the damaged Akal Takht. It is a pity that Arun Singh, despite being a member of the Sikh royal family of Kapurthala, did not know the importance of the Akal Takht.

A day after Operation Blue Star, as press secretary to the president, I was charged with sharing details about the attack and the damage to the Akal Takht with the author Khushwant Singh and Prem Bhatia, the editor of The Tribune. Indira Gandhi personally met Zail Singh with records of my phone conversations and wanted to prosecute me. I was sent on forced leave. A few days later, to my surprise, the minister of parliamentary affairs, Buta Singh, called me and said that she was anxious to undertake some immediate remedial measures for opening up the Golden Temple, which had been sealed. We had a long meeting with Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, and 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 five prominent priests—Kirpal Singh, the jathedar of the Akal Takht; Lakha Singh, the jathedar of Damdama Sahib; Harcharan Singh Mahlon, the jathedar of Keshgarh Sahib; Sahib Singh, the head granthi at Darbar Sahib; and Pritam Singh, the head granthi at the Akal Takht—and take them to the Golden Temple. The prime minister instructed the military commanders at the scene, Lieutenant General Ranjit Singh Dayal and Major General Kuldip Singh Brar, to provide us full assistance and cooperation. The positive role played by 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 endowed with a proper vision. He wanted to save Punjab from further oppression and start an immediate dialogue for opening the Golden Temple.

The priests’ meeting was held in the Golden Temple’s damaged Darshani Deori on 17 June 1984. Buta Singh and I were present to assist them in their deliberations. Sahib Singh recorded the decisions. They decided to demolish what remained of the Akal Takht and charged Harbans Singh of Delhi with organising the efforts to rebuild it. They prepared 14 suggestions for normalising the situation, which were approved by Kharak Singh, the most respected Sikh priest. Besides Atma Singh, the suggestions were supported by Sahib Singh Hamdard, the chief editor of the newspaper Ajit, and the Akali leader Rawel Singh. We rushed to Delhi the same evening to meet the Gandhis. One could see agony writ large on Indira Gandhi’s face. She was keen to restore normalcy in Punjab and wanted a face-saving settlement.

The prime minister spent the next day consulting her advisors and also held an hour-long meeting with the president. On 19 June, Buta Singh asked me to accompany him to Amritsar. He told me that Indira Gandhi had agreed to all the suggestions except for two: the withdrawal of the Central Reserve Police Force from Punjab and amnesty for Sikh soldiers who had deserted the army following Operation Blue Star. She had authorised him to make a formal announcement at Amritsar. I advised him not to do this himself, arguing that it should be made by the prime minister or the cabinet secretary. However, he was sure of himself and went ahead with the announcement. We went to the Golden Temple and met the head priests, who felt relieved with the settlement, especially the agreement that the army was to immediately move out of the Parikrama. The people were to be allowed entry to the Golden Temple. Rebuilding the Akal Takht was to start immediately. The curfew was to be lifted, and most arrested people were to be released. The most important point of the settlement was that Indira Gandhi would visit the Golden Temple, on a date decided by the jathedars, and offer some sort of atonement.

Buta Singh made the announcement at a hurriedly called press conference at the residence of Amritsar’s senior superintendent of police. The generals and the deputy commissioner were also present. He also accompanied the former parliament speaker Gurdial Singh Dhillon to meet Kharak Singh. Slogans of “Sat Sri Akal” were raised by attendees, which the government took to be a sign that the situation was improving.

We left Amritsar at 6 pm. An hour later, we reached Palam Airport, where KP Singh Deo, the minister of state for defence, was waiting for us. Buta Singh was taken 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 Buta Singh’s promises in Amritsar had been made in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the government.

The people responsible for this reversal are yet to be identified. I can say with confidence that had the decisions announced by Buta Singh been implemented by the government, thousands of lives would have been spared. The real tragedy started after Operation Blue Star. Between June and September, the army carried out Operation Woodrose, a combing operation throughout the state. Thousands of citizens were arrested and tortured, women were molested and houses were demolished. The Golden Temple remained sealed until 1 October. These factors compelled the Sikh youth to take up arms.

There can be little doubt that the June 1984 agreement with the head priests should have been honoured. Who pressured Indira Gandhi to back out of this 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 on 31 October 1984.