Thanks to Zail Singh, Arun Nehru and M.L. Fotedar, the Centre lost two opportunities to defuse the Punjab crisis. The rest is history.
On the eve of the anniversary of Operation Blue Star – the army’s attack on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his heavily armed militants holed up inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar on June 5-6, 1984 – it is worth remembering how some leaders of the Congress party sabotaged the attempts that were being made to resolve the deteriorating situation in Punjab. Had they not done so, there would have been no need for military action in the Golden Temple – and terrorism in Punjab, fuelled by the Pakistani exploitation of Sikh sentiment, would not have spread like fire the way it did from June 1984 onwards.
Indeed, the events leading up to Blue Star are reminder of how even shrewd leaders like Indira Gandhi can become victim of the undesirable elements around them. As I explained in my book, Bloodshed in Punjab, she was surrounded by undesirable elements who lead her to the path of destruction. There were many forces working on these lines who succeeded in their mission but caused enormous damage to the country.
First act of sabotage
In the first week of April 1982, Bhindranwale visited the capital on the invitation of Jathedar Santokh Singh, who was close to Indira Gandhi and also Zail Singh, who was president at the time. Bhindranwale was moving around the capital with his armed supporters, who sat on the roof top of a bus with Bhindranwale inside, and this was a very embarrassing situation for the central government. The then home secretary, T.N. Chaturvedi and Lt. Governor of Delhi, S.L. Khurana, felt very concerned over the situation. They were in touch with the Intelligence Bureau director, T.V. Rajeshwar.
Khurana was planning to have Bhindranwale arrested in Delhi itself. Chaturvedi discussed the entire situation and its consequences with Indira Gandhi and then sent Khurana to convince her that they would be able to face the situation. Indira Gandhi asked him many questions – how would they handle the situation and what would happen if Bhindranwale died in the process. Khurana told her that Bhindranwale was always sitting inside the bus and he would not be hurt. But even if some unfortunate situation develops, we should face it, he said. Indira Gandhi consented and authorised the police to arrest Bhindranwale. Unfortunately, information about this plan leaked. Bhindranwale received a message – that he should leave Delhi as there were plans to arrest him. Intelligence reports of the time hinted at the leak originating from persons close to Zail Singh. Whatever the truth, Bhindranwale immediately shifted to the Majnu ka Tila gurudwara on the outskirts of Delhi and left the next morning for Punjab, foiling the plan to have him arrested.
The second act of sabotage took place in November 1982. Indira Gandhi had appointed a cabinet committee on Punjab, and she had asked Sardar Swaran Singh to persuade the Akalis to come for talks. Swaran Singh had a reputation as an excellent negotiator. After the Chinese aggression in 1962, talks were started with Pakistan under US pressure. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as Pakistan’s foreign minister, was leading his country’s delegation. Jawaharlal Nehru deputed Swaran Singh to lead the Indian delegation – and prolong the talks as long as possible. Swaran Singh had seven rounds of dialogue with Bhutto and after the seventh, a hassled Bhutto held a press conference in Delhi which I also attended, and attacked the Indian delegation. That was the end of the talks.
Whether for his filibustering skills or his ability to actually produce a compromise, Indira Gandhi asked Swaran Singh to take up the task of talking to Akalis who were lodged in different jails.
The veteran negotiator succeeded in bringing them to the table, so to speak. The Akalis’ first agitation had failed and they were to announce their next programme on November 4, 1982 at Amritsar. Swaran Singh had pleaded with the cabinet committee on November 3, 1982, in Pranab Mukherjee’s room in parliament house, that a situation should be created in which the Akalis are persuaded to postpone their plans as once they announce any programme from the Golden Temple, they would not be able to go back on that.
He spoke to various Akali leaders from Pranab Mukherjee’s room and a way out was found – that the government should make a statement in parliament the next day making certain assurances. A brief statement was prepared in which the government appreciated the sacrifices made by the Sikhs in the freedom struggle and assured sympathetic consideration of their demands. As for their political demands, the government said it needed some time for consultations with other states. The Akalis agreed to accept this statement.
A copy of the draft was sent to Indira Gandhi. It was at this stage, late at night, that she succumbed to pressure from Arun Nehru and M.L. Fotedar, who supported the argument put forward by Bhajan Lal of Haryana that if this statement was made, the Congress would lose the Haryana assembly elections which were due in next few months.
At their urging, the statement was changed and the next day, Union home minister P.C. Sethi made a statement on Punjab that was different from the one that had been read out to the Akalis. I know this because I had seen a copy of the original statement. Swaran Singh himself had come to parliament to listen to the home minister. After Sethi’s statement, Swaran Singh told me: “This is neither the same statement nor the same spirit’, and I am going to withdraw from negotiations.”
So it was that on November 4, 1982, the Akalis announced their next programme – declaring a boycott of the Asian games, which led to a further cleavage between them and the government. It was during this period that Bhajan Lal, who was Haryana chief minister, played the dirtiest role and prevented the entry of Sikhs – including high court judges and army officers – coming to Delhi. News of this humiliation spread like a fire not only in India but in the Sikh diaspora in the United States, Canada and many other countries and there were protests against Indira Gandhi at many places.
There is a lesson here which leaders must learn – that if they keep undesirable elements around them, they will be misled completely and this will result in great damage to the country. Between Zail Singh on one side and the Arun Nehru-Fotedar group on the other, the people advising Indira Gandhi played a very destructive role in exacerbating the Punjab crisis. If these two acts of sabotage had not taken place, I am sure there would have been no need for Operation Blue Star, and perhaps Indira Gandhi might still have been alive.
The current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre and its leaders have not learnt any lessons from the events in Punjab; my fear is that the open Hindutva agenda of the Saffron parivar may harm the country more than the tragic events in Punjab did three decades ago.
G.S. Chawla is a journalist based in Delhi.