Every time the topic of Operation Bluestar is touched upon in my family, one aspect which always dominates the discussion is my father’s chilling recollection of the events that unfolded in the scorching hot first week of June, 1984.
Then a young Flight Lieutenant in the Indian Air Force, trained to fly supersonic jets, my father had taken the abrupt and surprising decision of side-stepping to helicopters. The unit to which he got posted bore the proud history of being raised in the “resplendent heights of Leh” – it comprised of the rugged Cheetahs and Chetaks, and had been stationed in Jammu since long. He was regularly sortieing to the Siachen glacier, where the Indian government had got embroiled in a messy cartographic skirmish a year earlier.
As he returned from one of the trips, the commanding officer directed him to take a Chetak (the Cheetahs were better suited to the dizzying altitudes of Siachen) and head towards Amritsar. He landed in the city on June 5. Around a dozen helicopters from various units had descended there to assist the army. Bluestar was already underway and my father got busy in ferrying senior commanders to nearby villages. While Harmandir Sahib was being flushed clean, Brigadier-level officers were administering the sanitization of rural areas. Villagers were being rounded up in systematically conducted search-and-seizure procedures.
A poignant scene that remained with him was how hordes of frail old menfolk and children as young as eleven or twelve years (those who could not be even remotely connected to terrorism), were being rounded up – their hands were tied at the back with disrobed turbans and they were thrown into the scorching fields.
The avid photographer that he was, my father had just bought a swanky new Yashica Electro-35. He had clicked thousands of panoramic aerial shots and instinctively brought the camera for that ominous trip as well. Gliding low over Darbar Sahib on June 5, carrying another Army functionary out on a survey, my father saw the Akal Takht in flames and the parikarma mauled by tanks, littered with bodies here and there. Not realizing the intensity or posterity of the spectacle, he released the shutter three-four times.
Returning to Jammu after twenty sorties, as the soldier within took a backseat, the very magnitude of the incident got to him.
Now, before I go on, it must be said that my father doesn’t fit into the Sikh caste or class stereotype. He came from an impoverished family of low-caste tailors from Tarn Taran, some 25 kilometers from Amritsar. They could never have imagined one of their own, (after surviving on scholarships throughout his life), joining the ranks of an elite government service. It was a coup of sorts. The proximity to poverty helped my father see through subtle societal constructs. Though he persevered to remain a proper kesdhari Sikh, when donning the pilot’s helmet over uncut hair became a particular problem, my father exhibited a strange sort of inward agnosticism, a healthy aversion to religious symbolism.
So, when he narrated his account of the Amritsar tour to my mother, it was with a dispassionate understanding of spiritual politics and minus any prejudice, that my father murmured prophetically, “Jo mai dekheya hai, mainun nai lagda ke hun Sikhi kattadta zyada der chupp rahegi” (After what I saw, I don’t think the staunch yeomanry of the Sikhs will keep quiet for very long). Indira Gandhi was shot dead a few months later.
And the pictures of the smoldering Akal Takht, the caved parikarma and the crimson-tinged sarovar – those could have been a priceless historical artifact, mysteriously disappeared from our house in Jammu. The hunt to locate them is still on.
I was eleven months old then. Over the years, children like me soaked up the numerous (and often conflicting) tales on Bluestar and its aftermath. We reconstructed the gruesome scenes in our minds. We have grown up with the vignette itself and the overwhelming confusion that followed, as it permeated into the Punjabi consciousness – facts started emerging gradually, only to be consumed by a sea of sentiments. The collective trauma has aroused an array of emotions – rage, hate, empathy, fear and fearlessness – yet each persons’ final disposition has been conditioned by our immediate environment. First, second and third generation Sikhs from the diaspora prefer to interpret it differently than those hailing from the homeland. But we are all, in essence, the products of its politics – we are the Bluestar Baby Boomers. We are representative of a mutated strand of Sikhism, neutered by the brutal might of the Indian state. The martial narrative of the Jatts also ended with us – they were left to feed their alter-egos and indulge in nostalgia ever after.
This piece is inspired by “The Shattered Dome”, Hartosh Singh Bal’s sensational cover story for the May issue of The Caravan. Although the dry facts highlighted in it have been widely known and there are no new revelations for the academically inclined, Bal has uncannily pieced together a riveting portrait, which, with the crisscrossing testimonials of the people in the know, aptly exemplifies the haziness around the events that transpired. It rightly captures the overall purposelessness around the whole debacle and its instigators. Even after thirty years of tireless pursuit, there is no single actor to pin the blame on. There will be no retribution or closure ever, but an attempt at memorialization – only the Sikh community seems to have that sublime trait, and knows how to strike a delicate balance between historicity and history.
It is with this overpowering emotion that I serve my own minor contestations and addendums to The Shattered Dome, mainly to widen perspectives. Having known Hartosh Bhaaji as a friend, I understand very well why he resorted to underline the Jatt Sikh archetype, a term used to define Bhindranwale and repeated often in the article. Only he has the perspicacity to deconstruct the psyche of a group that has so imperiously clutched on to the edifice of Punjabiyat. Though the term is a figurative oxymoron since Sikhism doesn’t acknowledge caste, Jatt Sikh is like the leavening agent that has fomented the identity politics at the core of this faith.
Academicians like Dr.W.Hew Mcleod in the authoritative “The Evolution of the Sikh Community” and Indubhushan Banerjee in “Evolution of the Khalsa” attribute the five symbols of Khalsa to have originated from the martial traditions of the Jatts. Diplomat turned scholar Rajiv A. Kapur in his brilliant historiography “Sikh Separatism: The Politics of Faith” advances the idea “that the beginning of Sikh militancy, traditionally ascribed to a decision of Guru Hargobind in direct response to Mogul persecution, was in fact largely the result of a growing jat influence among the Sikhs… (which) to some extent (also) prompted a Mogul reaction”.
The Jatt of Punjab is boisterous and brave. A tribal sense of honour and prestige, like a homegrown version of Pakhtunwali, lays heavy on his mind. The Kesdhari and Khalsa identities, the recognizable traits of Sikhs in the mainstream, have evolved from their sets of customs and beliefs as well.
“Dabistan-e Mazahib”, an invaluable travelogue and metaphysical treatise composed by Mohsin Fani, a 17th century Persian historian in the courts of the Mughal mystic prince, Dara Shikoh, had this to say, “(the Sikh Gurus) have made the Khatris subservient to the Jatts, who are the lowest caste among the Vaishyas. Thus most of the great Masands of the Gurus are Jatts”. The Marxist historian Irfan Habib further elaborated on this love affair with the peasantry in “Jats of Punjab and Sind”, a keynote address delivered at Punjabi University in 1971. What it all boils down to is that the Sikh idea of statism, the way they perceived their social contract with the state, their exposition of genius loci were heavily influenced by Jatt tribalism, which has continued to assert itself at various critical junctures like the establishment of the Khalsa Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, to the peasant-led movements like the Akali agitation and the Khalistani insurgency.
These medieval honor codes and edicts also pervaded into the body politic of a religion which has never shied away from an active engagement with the world and its ways, encouraging the adept to aggressively confront the spiritual and temporal divide with a unique form transcendence, miri-piri. However, it is this very duality that introduced a feudalistic and regressive streak, a Talibani mentality that enforces rigid precepts and ritualism. Even in terms of representation, the Jatts came to occupy all the positions of power and privilege in religious and political institutions. Nihang Fateh Singh ousted Master Tara Singh from the Shiromani Akali Dal, ascribing Tara Singh’s professorial leanings as a sign of weakness implicit in the caste to which he belonged, rejecting him as a meek Bhapa – a pejorative slang for the merchant-class Khatris – in an open forum. This is emblematic of the disruption in the class hierarchies of Sikhism that happened in the first-half of the twentieth century, catalyzed further by the agrarian boom. Political scientists Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Singh recorded this ascendancy in “Rise of the Plebeians”.
My mother remembers how Sikhs used to prefer tying their beards up until the eighties when the Khalistani clergy instructed them otherwise. My chacha, a small-time shopkeeper, still jokes about the random checks in buses by armed militants, singling out men with trimmed beards and making them do squats as punishment. Sikhs from the working classes, the artisan communities and the low-caste Mazhabi converts largely felt alienated and occasionally got caught in the crossfire. For them, all of it was an odd concoction of village-styled feudalism mixed with religious fanaticism, something which drove them to urban areas in the first place. It was this faint shift in perception of the hoi polloi, very hard to notice, that served as counter-narratives challenging the insurgency. The fact that Beant Singh, one of the bodyguards who assassinated Indira Gandhi, was a Chamar Sikh – often used as a trope by the clergy to confirm the egalitarian credentials of the religion, not realizing its irony – could be termed as an aberration bucking the larger trend.
It was my first visit to the hallowed premises of Seminar, a prestigious journal run by the three-most influential babas of Delhi: Malvika Singh, Tejbir Singh and Harsh Sethi. As I burst into random monologues on culture, technology and politics, snapping with excitement and wild frenzy, Sethi was reminded of a scheduled engagement. A memorial meeting had been organized for Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar, a bureaucrat and a polymath, once a close confidante of Indira Gandhi. He had passed away fifteen years ago and it confounded me why an unfeeling city like Delhi, whose institutions and elite rarely carry a nuanced sense of history, would remember a man who should have gotten buried under some footnote ages ago.
Rather childishly, I lent some of my thoughts on the man, “I know him! He did many bad things in Punjab”.I melted with embarrassment, cursing my inarticulateness. Sethi’s eyes lit up and he responded in kind, “Haan! Theek hai yaar, kisi ne thoda paisa bana liya to kya hua?” (Yeah! It’s okay buddy, what’s wrong if someone makes a little money for himself?). The likes of Sethi, who have traversed the netherworlds of power and were active participants in modern India’s intellectual awakening, never really open up in front of a menial like me. It must have struck a chord somewhere. I had the fleeting sensation of being an insider, a player.
Yet, despite all that, I was left perplexed by the pronounced innocence of Haksar, who was to Gandhi what Kissinger was to Nixon or Brzezinski to Carter. He spearheaded the ideological subversion in Punjab, the PSYWAR, providing a moral and cultural grounding to countermand separatism.
I wondered why intellectual cornerstones like Seminar and Sethi succumb to collective amnesia, preferring to be doped with the unwholesome and sometimes vile succour of the establishment. This trend of mass co-optation, which I had observed very closely, dismayed me a lot.
Purushottam Kumar Nijhawan, a veteran journalist whom I have been trying to trace for quite some time, wrote about the force-fed falsities as the violent nineties came to an end in “Suppression of Intellectual Dissidence and How the Left-Nehruvian Destroyed Punjab” – a call to arms against the Goebbelsian game that was played in the state. There was no love lost between Nijhawan and Haksar as he wrote, “Between the lines what came out was that Dr. Manmohan Singh too had come to occupy that high office mainly due to Rashpal and Mr. Haksar. He told me that Rashpal was a consummate operator, whose main function was to cast his net far and wide to catch the intellectual fish”.
Rashpal Malhotra is the founder of Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, an obscure think tank based in Chandigarh. Haksar’s intimacy with the intelligence apparatus was well known in the gossip circles of Delhi.
Punjab turned into an experiment for the security agencies, a training range of sorts. It is where the establishment and its hawks greased the state’s counter-terror machinery.
There are three interspersed streams of public consciousness for any story or event of significance – the historical narrative: woven around academic and journalistic discourses; the peoples’ narrative: subjectivity, first-person accounts, legends and folklore; and the oft ignored intelligence narrative.
“The Shattered Dome”, falling into the first two categories, breaks new ground. But again, the subliminal chatter of the intelligence agencies, their machinations and misadventures, seems too inaccessible or esoteric to be tapped. The key operatives and actors responsible, retired long ago, are in their twilight years or have perished. Crucial time has already passed and it won’t be too long before the vestiges get lost forever.
I too have tried to connect the dots on my own, approaching decorated spymasters like Maloy Krishna Dhar and Bahukutumbi Raman, but to no avail. The paucity of time and resources also impeded the effort. But the uncomfortable facts must be brought to the fore – there are no shots being fired in Punjab anymore – to pave the way for Truth and Reconciliation, to heal some of the festering wounds.
Unimpeachable mavericks like Dhar, who reneged against his very ilk at the fag end of an outstanding career, exposed the seedy nexus, its extrajudicial reach and excesses. He wrote novels like “Black Thunder and Bitter Harvest”, set in my hometown Tarn Taran, a nursery of militants at the time – the book provided a near-realistic depiction of the cloak-and-dagger work.
Dhar, who dodged many a bullet, went down fighting an unworthy adversary, cancer, in 2012. As Dhar’s son wrote in the obituary, he garnered respect from everyone and even the Khalistanis had called to enquire about his well being. “He told me about how many people in Punjab would miss him terribly, because in the midst of a terrible crisis (sic) with excesses committed on both sides, he was a rare officer.”
I am slightly surprised why Bal didn’t try interviewing A.R. Darshi, the senior Punjabi civil servant, who, like many others, went rogue after Bluestar, writing the no-holds-barred insider’s account, “The Gallant Defender: Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale”. Darshi didn’t betray his loyalties – even though he belonged to the downtrodden Balmiki community, much of the book is a gloating hagiography except for a few explosive disclosures. In one of the chapters, Darshi unwittingly exposed the names of undercover intelligence officers, who were probably running clandestine operations in Punjab even while the book was published in 1985. Names like N.F. Santook, G.C. Saxena, R Shankaran Mair, G.S. Mishra, Colonel B. Longer, Rabinder Ohri and A.I. Vasavada, supposedly from the Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing were not only mandated with political sabotage and subterfuge, but they purportedly ran assassination squads in the state – the dirtiest secret of the trade, the most tabooed topic of all. A Google search tells us that these operatives are now living post-retirement lives, frequenting places like golf clubs. Who knows, they might be eager to talk?
A very senior Punjabi politician, with no axe to grind, told me once that Lala Jagat Narain, the founder of the influential Hind Samachar group, was assassinated in a field allegedly owned by an individual who was a known informer to the agencies at the helm. It could very well have been a false-flag operation nefariously meant to polarize and communalize Punjab. Ved Marwah, a veteran from the Indian Police Service, recorded the fallout of such wily intrigues in “Uncivil Wars”. Innocent Punjabi Hindus, especially from Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Tarn Taran, were systematically exterminated or chased away; dragged out of buses and shot at point-blank range; blown to smithereens by explosions; villages were cleansed of them and scores of houses razed to the ground. This was the dark, disquieting underbelly of Sikh separatism which still remains to be explored.
Since we are already in conspiratorial waters, what about the international angle to the whole terrorism affair? Whom do we actually indict for the bombing of Kanishka, the India-bound flight from Canada that exploded midair in 1985? If one believes “Soft Target: How the Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada”, a convincing fact-fiction book authored by two creditable reporters from The Globe and Mail, Indian agencies have a lot to answer for. No wonder the book is banned by the government.
I remember sitting with Hartosh Bhaaji one evening, downing a few tots, as we pondered over the cold-blooded killing of Talwinder Singh Parmar from the dreaded militant group, Babbar Khalsa. With his state-sanctioned encounter in 1992, Parmar took many unsolved mysteries to the grave, saving the establishment undue embarrassment over past transgressions (its officiators now occupying key positions), and other grave accusations. A poster boy for the Khalistanis, he was a triple-agent at the least, a mole for anyone with a bottle of Scotch and wads of cash. Parmar typifies the duplicitous and debauched characters from both the sides that pushed Punjab into darkness.
As we emptied the glasses, Hartosh ji recalled interviewing some of the policemen party to the incident, who told him that the order to eliminate Parmar came from the very top. The consortium of criminals above, having shed their fatigues for starched-white kurtas, put the last of their kind to rest. As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Bluestar, with a new government that carries a similar checkered history of impunity, people like Parmar and innumerable other faceless, nameless men and women should never be forgotten, whatever they be worth.