Op Bluestar{ The audacity of incompetence

Discussion in 'Politics & Society' started by Ray, Jun 4, 2014.

  1. Ray

    Ray The Chairman Defence Professionals Moderator

    Apr 17, 2009
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    The audacity of incompetence

    The first of this three-part series concluded yesterday, saying the rise of Bhindranwale and his death with Operation Blue Star was a phase of madness. Now, an argument for why we must never forget it.

    Nobody can reconstruct the 72 hours of Operation Blue Star in 3,000 words. Or even in 30,000. Books have been written about it by the finest reporters, notably the BBC’s Mark Tully (Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, co-authored with Satish Jacob). Mark was the unofficial but undisputed dean of the reporters’ corps for two generations, and please do read this book for diligence and detail. Books have been written by the generals who led the assault. I’d pick my dear friend Lieutenant General K.S. “Bulbul” Brar’s Operation Blue Star: The True Story (UBS, 1993) for the army’s side of the story, told as honestly as possible for a partisan, albeit an exceptionally honourable one. There was also a recent series of TV documentaries put together and anchored by my old comrade and friend, Kanwar Sandhu, currently executive editor of The Tribune. Check it out for its brilliance, depth and honesty. Even I contributed my bit in some detail, with a 27-page chapter, “Blo-od, Sweat and Tears”, in The Punjab Story, published by Roli in 1984. There is no real mystery about the operation, how it started and ended. But there are others that endured for decades, and some are still unresolved. Let me talk about some of those.

    One, in fact, was resolved just last year, in the memoir (From Fatigues to Civvies: Memoirs of a Paratrooper, Manohar, 2013) written by Lieutenant General V.K. “Tubby” Nayar, whom I first met when he commanded the 8 Mountain Division at Zakhama in Nagaland, and who later honoured me by inviting me to speak at the release of his book. He was the deputy director general of military operations in 1984 and reveals, in his memoir, how the codename Bl-ue Star was chosen. Contrary to specul-a-t-ion over the years, it had nothing to do with the way traditional or devout Sikhs dress, or their colour preferences. Tubby sa-ys he was driving home, exhausted after a long day in the ops room, a codename yet to be found, and the signboard of a refrigeration shop caught his eye. It was selling Blue Star, a prominent fridge/ AC brand. Let’s go with it, he decided. We still don’t kn--ow where the names of two other rela-t-ed operations — Op Woodrose to sweep the rest of the state clear of militants and ma----intain order and Op Metal to specifica-lly catch or kill Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and members of his inner core team — came from.

    The greatest mystery of these 30 years, however, is how and why, with such elaborate planning, the army brass miscalculated on Blue Star so horribly. It is tempting to say they were arrogant and underestimated the task, but that would be unfair. More than 70,000 troops had been called to Punjab, tanks, APCs and all. Vijayanta tanks had been lined up along the final approaches of the Golden Temple much before the first shots were exchanged between the army and the militants. The media was cleared out even before the militants, all telephone lines cut and the state put under not curfew but martial law for the first and hopefully last time in our history. There was no underestimation of the task but I dare say now that there was a touching belief that the militants wouldn’t fight, and if they did, their resolve would be broken in a couple of hours. All the bandobast, therefore, was to stun them with a display of firepower, a strategy of shock and awe, decades before it was given that name in Iraq by George Bush junior. Each of the generals involved, Brar, Western Army Command chief of staff Lieutenant General Ranjit Singh Dyal, Army Commander K. Sundarji and his chief, General Arun Shridhar Vaidya (later assassinated by revenge-seeking Sikh gunmen while driving his Maruti 800 after retiring in Pune), later admitted to this miscalculation to some extent. There was a firm belief that Bhindranwale would not fight, he would surrender or try to escape.

    Just how serious this misreading was, I first learnt from a senior Intelligence Bureau officer who spoke to me in some horror after spending the first few hours with army commanders. He said he tried to tell them that Bhindranwale and his people would fight to the finish, but was not merely overruled but mocked. In fact, one of the generals pointed at some of his black-dungareed commandos, who were getting kitted out and briefed, and said, “Have you seen these bhoots (devils) of mine? The terrorists have to merely see them and they will surrender with their tails between their legs.” My IB friend, a wonderful professional and a patriot, retreated from the argument sort of fatalistically.

    The first assault by the commandos ran into trouble. One set of audacious generals had overlooked the fact that they weren’t up against some armed rabble but a small army of faithfuls led by someone just like them. In fact, a fellow general as bright, if not brighter, than all of them. Former Major General Shabeg Singh had served with each one of those serving, he had received his fame organising and training the Mukti Bahini during the Bangladesh war and was a master of guerilla warfare. He earned infamy later as he was accused of irregularities and dismissed a day before retirement. But as most human beings do, he never believed he was guilty but was victimised because of what else but his religion. He had found spiritual succour and a new soldierly cause with Bhindranwale, although now in what he saw as the service of his faith, not his republic. Just how good was he? I won’t go by hearsay, though even that makes him sound superhuman. Wading through the rubble at the Akal Takht a couple of days after the fighting, we found a copy of a book, a thin memoir written by a Pakistani brigadier who was taken PoW in Bangla-desh. It had been presented by an officer of the BSF’s intelligence branch, who had “sourced” it from across the border. It had a warm and respectful note to Shabeg Singh from his BSF fan, saying how happy he was to see high praise for the (now rebel) general from the Pakistani brigadier and what a privilege it was to present the book to him. Since it was being thrown in the rubble, I picked it up and kept it.

    In any case, the defence of the Golden Temple was not so much about high strategy or even old-fashioned guerilla warfare. It was more like a battalion-level tactical defence of a built-up complex of buildings. They provided alleys, parapets, machine-gun emplacements, tunnels, towers and lots of ancient marble walls more impregnable than modern armour. Most importantly, it had a bunch of manholes. So important, because it was inside them that he placed his LMGs, which sprayed murderous grazing fire at assault troops while guns positioned higher up rained sweeping fire. Together, they fully covered the small, open courtyard, maybe half the size of a football field, where the attackers had to expose themselves to reach the Akal Takht. This was his designated killing ground, as it would be defined in classic infantry defence manuals, specifically, in this case, following the principles of what acronym-loving armies called FIBUA (Fighting in Built-Up Areas). Manhole LMGs were so effective because they denied the attackers the basic defensive tactic of hitting the ground and crawling, because the bullets then got you in the bodies instead of merely the legs. A very large number of the jawans, therefore, were injured in the legs. Please look at the picture of a row of beds from a military hospital treating the injured after Blue Star.

    Shabeg wasn’t foolhardy enough to think he would win. His tactic was to optimise his resources, snipers behind any hiding place, every room along the parikrama infested by a gunman or two so any probing patrols would be cut down, others sprinting up and down the staircases linking just the two floors of the buildings and their parapets. His idea was to inflict as many casualties as possible and thereby delay the inevitable so that Bhindranwale’s supporters in the villages had enough time to organise mobs to converge on Amritsar and make further army operations impossible, unless Indira Gandhi was willing to inflict scores of Jallianwala Baghs in Punjab. It was a good approach that succeeded tactically. The commandos did not get very far, took several casualties and also underlined the generals’ unthinking impatience in launching them in black dungarees on white marble as it gleamed in bright moonlight. A more conventional infantry charge, by the troops of 10 Guards, a regiment genetically designed by none else than god for the assault role, was stopped as well as it spilled in from the main entrance. This was the first time the generals were made to wonder if they had miscalculated. More assault troops, launched from other directions, were similarly pinned down. Typical of the Indian doctrine in such situations, the army followed the approach of incremental escalation, and not with the best results. One infantry unit after another was thrown in, but casualties only mounted. Then an approach was tried through an APC, but again, sort of half-heartedly, in a wheeled old SKOT rather than a tracked Russian BMP with better armour and firepower. It was knocked out by a militant RPG-7 rocket launcher, and there was much recrimination on this later.

    Did intelligence warn the army of the presence of such a weapon? Or were the generals being too arrogant (incompetent?) in not anticipating this? That night, as I sat on a high terrace that did not have a view of the battleground but helped you underst-and the story with flashes, fires and explosions, I recorded the night’s noises on a tiny tape-recorder, as also some of the police and ar-my wireless conversations on a radio with the FM band (FM radio had not arrived in India yet and security forces used some of the same frequencies on which we now hear music). These conversations got more frantic as the night ended. There were nearly 3,000 infantry troops pinned down, hundreds wounded, more than a hundred bodies. This time of the year, the sun comes out really ea-r-ly, and every soldier still alive — all the th-o-usands of them — would be a sitting target for snipers. As often happens in such situations, the battlefield, the “terrain” was the best force-multiplier for the defender. He could hide and fire, whereas the attackers had to expose themselves. This was unacce-p-table, so further escalation became inevitable.

    For greater detail, I would again, shamelessly, refer you to my “Blo-od, Sweat and Tears” chapter in The Pu-n-jab Story. But even 30 years later, I can see nothing less, regrettably, than a story of inc-r-edible military courage and yet, incompet-ence. No soldier flinched, even when faced wi-th an impossible task. And the generals, who had misread and miscalculated, played on incrementally, until the dawn threatened and artillery — not heavy, but artillery neve-rtheless — was called out, along with Vija-yanta tanks that blazed with their main guns. The brutal destruction of the Akal Takht building was now launched in earnest. If Bhindranwale wouldn’t flee or surrender, or come out in a suicidal charge, he would be entombed there now. There were Vijayantas to the left of the sarovar (see sketch), firing from just a couple of hundred yards, and howitzers on top of facing buildings firing in direct mode. This was the equivalent of a sledgehammer where a psychological or, at worst, surgical strike had been anticipated. There was never any doubt who would win. But the cost, in lives, sentiment, political consequences and a legacy of anger and bitterness, had not been imagined. It is for this reason that I would call Operation Blue Star a bold, brave, audacious operation where soldiers did the profession of the arms proud, but both leaderships, political and military, showed gross incompetence.

    But the generals of one side were not the only ones who had miscalculated. Bhindranwale too made similar, arrogantly delusional blunders. He had boasted that the Sikhs in the army wouldn’t fight him. Two of the three generals involved, Brar and Dyal, were Sikhs. The first army injury, Captain Jasbir Singh Raina of 10 Guards, was a Sikh too. Brar told me in a Walk the Talk interview on NDTV 24×7, days after the attack on him in London, that while addressing his troops before the assault, he had given the freedom to opt out to everybody, particularly Sikhs, if they had any hesitation. Nobody did. Raina, in fact, volunteered to go in first. If the generals showed an underestimation of the militants’ fervour and tactical dash, Bhindranwale — and sadly Shabeg too — showed similar lack of appreciation of the ethos of their own country’s army.

    Many militants and civilians died, but the army suffered gravely too. And brutally so. This morning, responding to the first in this series, I received a touching email from K. Ramkumar, the HR head of ICICI Bank, mentioning that his cousin was part of the “Thambis” of the hapless Madras Regiment battalion that suffered severely in the assaults. It was 26 Madras, and I had the privilege of being taken under their wing, even while the wounded were being tended to. They suffered heavy casualties and when one of their assault sections managed to enter the Akal Takht, the JCO leading it was overpowered, blinded and flung from the top of the building to the marble courtyard. But the cruellest, saddest and most unnecessary loss of life was that of battalion doctor Captain Rampal, more than 24 hours after the fighting was over. He was walking around, looking for the wounded from any side to tend to, when a group of terrorists hiding in one of the basements dragged him in, demanded that none else than the head priest of the Temple be sent down to negotiate with them and when that wasn’t done, the doctor was tortured to death, his body dismembered. The officers of the battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel Panikkar, took me to their mess one evening and fed me a meal of sambhar and curd rice from their langar, which was such a blessing after a week of dry rations, and told more stories. One of these was of Lieutenant Ram Prakash Roperia of Jind, in Haryana, the baby of the battalion. His English was rather basic but like any self-respecting Haryanvi, he would speak in no other language. So everybody called him by a mockingly anglicised name: Robert Prince Ruparia. He fell to a sniper bullet on the afternoon of June 6 as he climbed down a rope ladder from the wide parikrama parapet, where several of his comrades lay flat to escape snipers. In the 46-degree sun for all of the day, they were dying of thirst and heat stroke and young Robert Prince, a baby but an officer to the core, volunteered to go down and bring water. A sniper in the Temple shot him in the neck. Roperia died three days later.

    It was while talking about his sacrifice at the sambhar dinner at 26 Madras that night that I got my finest lesson ever in leadership and a line I have used often since then, even in my farewell note to my colleagues at The Indian Express this Monday: there is a moral dimension to leadership. If there were so many soldiers lying flat on that parapet, why did the youngest, and an officer, have to expose himself to bring water. “Because,” said Panikkar, “there is a moral dimension to leadership.” If the officer is not in front, why would the troops follow him to whatever consequences? Thank you, Lt Col Panikkar, wherever you are. You gave me a lesson no life coach or famous general ever could.

    There were also many other mysteries and mythologies. What happened on the first night of fighting, for example in the sarais, from where several Akali leaders were rescued and many militants escaped, while a sudden flurry of grenades and the confusion that followed led to the death of a very large number of people, maybe a couple of hundreds, in the crossfire, many of them innocent devotees? It was later said that the army unit there, from 9 Kumaon Regiment, had lined up the Sikhs and shot them randomly. Frankly, I tried every source possible but could never confirm this. But that there were many deaths, most of them unnecessary, is undeniable. Many Sikh survivors, including some priests, back the deliberate massacre story. But my sources in the army always insist that this was just murderous confusion caused by the militants, some of whom hid in the pilgrims’ rooms in the sarais and cut down the soldiers who tried to clear them. The Kumaonis responded by presuming every room to be terrorist-occupied and fired, also resulting in innocent deaths. Thirty years later, I am still not willing to buy that deliberate massacre story, though so many survivors have repeated it. In so many decades of covering the army’s operations, I have found Indian soldiers to be mostly honourable and the officers, if anything, caring and cautious to the extent of being soft in such situations. I wasn’t in the sarais that night. But everybody knows that the Kumaonis’ company commander Major H.K. Palta was. I cannot say who killed whom and why, but among the lives lost, all Indian, was also Major Palta’s. His family now lives in Noida. If anything, the fiasco at the sarais completed, sadly, the story of those 72 hours.

    Postscript: I have many nightmares from those three horrible days, involving the bodies of fellow Indians. One is of a truck parked at the kotwali on the morning of June 7, when curfew had been relaxed for a couple of hours. An awful stench rose from the truck and what looked like blood mixed with viscous bodily fluids dripped from its leaky frame. I joined the several policemen who grabbed its rear wall and raised themselves to take a look at what lay inside. There were scores, literally scores, of bodies and nobody could say who was a combatant and who a devotee. But so many dead, fellow Indians, rotting under the 46-degree sun. A DSP we all knew well lost his composure and started screaming abuses, both at the army and Bhindranwale for causing so much death. To the right of the truck, under the same sun, sat about 50 suspected militants with their limbs tied while soldiers kept watch over them behind an LMG on a tripod and an officer, a Sikh, interrogated them in public. There was nothing physical about it, just an angry volley of basic questions. Possibly it was sights like this that spread stories of Sikhs being lined up and shot by firing squads.

    The second was a convoy of three army trucks, weaving its way through the narrow, old-city lane called Braham Buta Akhara connecting the Temple complex. Once again, I raised myself to the back of one and found three rows of stretchers on either side, with bodies of soldiers. The one on top to the right, a boy from Garhwal Regiment, no more than 19 or 20 possibly, still had beads of perspiration on his nose. He must have just died.

    Both nightmares involve my dead countrymen. Neither will ever go away.

    The audacity of incompetence | The Indian Express | Page 99

    Those in Delhi who read Indian Express are requested to keep an eye for the second and third part and post it here.
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  3. Ray

    Ray The Chairman Defence Professionals Moderator

    Apr 17, 2009
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    First Person, Second Draft: Once upon a bloody time

    There lived and died a man called Bhindranwale. Charismatic and chilling, he wrote this country’s present and future as no one has done post-Independence. A little footnote: once, he pulled my leg and I needed to check his arm-length.
    At the many events to mark the release of my latest book, Anticipating India, one question I am inevitably asked is to name the three most interesting people I have met in my life as a journalist. At one of these, a very young member of the audience, pushed me to go beyond the mainstream politicians of today. “Tell us about some others we may not be so familiar with,” she said. I let my mind slip backwards into the past. The most interesting? Why not Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. “But who was he, sir? Was he a nice guy?” was the follow up.
    Now, I understand that this is the era of the post-Google generation. Why should it bother about anything that preceded Google, and even the internet? More importantly, why recall the bad dreams, in fact one of the the worst nightmares, of our country’s recent history (yes, 30 years is recent, too)? Why blame a bright 19-year-old, even I had forgotten the man who defined my working life for an entire year (summer of 1983 to ’84), gave me many scoops, stories, memories and old reporter’s tales, but also wrote this country’s present and future as no one Indian has done in our post-Independence history. Good or bad, evil or nice.
    Though I was tempted to read out to my curious young questioner the injunction that my old friend and colleague Shailaja Bajpai holds out to her wards at our little but wonderful Express Institute of Media Studies (EXIMS), where she tells batch after batch that “Nice” is a brand of biscuits, not an adjective for reporters to misuse.
    But why did I think of Bhindranwale when pushed on that question? Maybe I was influenced by the fact that I had visited the Golden Temple twice in recent weeks, during the election campaign, so three-decade-old memories were refreshed. It struck me — sadly — that it was the first time since early childhood that I was visiting a peaceful Golden Temple as a humble devotee and getting that ultimate benediction, a kada (steel bangle) blessed at the Akal Takht. All my memories and references so far had been from the 1978-89 period of various degrees of violence. I start at 1978 because that was when, on Baisakhi (April 13), a clash took place between Bhindranwale’s supporters and a congregation of the Nirankari sect. Thirteen of his followers were killed, and suddenly an unknown young preacher became a name known nationally. I also became conscious that we were now heading for the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, not only one of the most traumatic events in our history but also one with the longest-lasting consequences. And I apologise for sounding like such a cynical, insensitive newshound, but it was also the biggest story of my career, made so particularly by the fact that when the army banished the entire rabble of domestic and foreign press on the evening of June 3, filling them into buses that dropped them off directly in Delhi under armed escort, I was among the three reporters who managed to stay back to chronicle and later tell the story. One, Subhash Kirpekar of The Times of India, way senior to us all, is sadly no more. The other was Brahma Chellaney (yes, your famous strategic pundit and TV talking head), who then worked for the Associated Press (of America).
    I may have been walking as a devotee now, head bowed on the parikrama but, instinctively and inevitably, my points of references were the two Ramgarhia Bungas (towers) on which the sandbagged machine-gun nests of militants were stockaded, the image of the bags and bodies sent flying when struck by the army’s howitzers (on June 4, 1984, exactly 30 years tomorrow), the Guru Ram Das Sarai terrace overlooking the Golden Temple, where Bhindranwale originally held court and routinely updated his hit lists — in public (basically it meant adding new names and striking out those who had been “sorted out”), the Akal Takht building, the supreme seat of Sikh spiritual and temporal power with the authority to issue Hukamnamas (the Sikh equivalent of encyclicals or ecclesiastical bulls) to the community, where he finally took control of his faith’s Vatican and where he met his end on June 6, 1984, 30 years this Friday, grenade shrapnel hitting his face first and then an entire carbine burst from an infantryman cutting him down. But not before nearly 2,000 lives had been lost, 136 of them from the army — the highest casualties suffered by our armed forces in a domestic operation ever in 24 hours — and those of anything from 600 to 1,000 innocent pilgrims. Dead, along with Bhindranwale, were his most committed lieutenants, Major General (retired) Shabeg Singh, Bhai Amrik Singh, the handsome, articulate but fiery deputy from whose father Bhindranwale had inherited the position of the head of Damdami Taksal, an ancient and conservative religious seminary in Mehta, near Gurdaspur, and several others. No, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was no saint. Nor was he even a nice man, and I would dare to defy Shailaja’s injunction here to use that word. But he was the most interesting human being I have ever met and dealt with as a journalist, and god knows I have met more than a few of those in 37 years.
    And he was one of the most talented, charismatic and, in the end, recklessly courageous. You had to be so, to make a last stand in an ancient building, fighting off repeated assaults by six of the finest infantry battalions of the army, besides the commandos, Vijayanta tanks firing from their main guns, APCs, 3.7-inch mountain howitzers, the venerable, World War II, 25-pounders, helicopter patrols, for 36 hours.
    Luring desperate assault troops and young officers into the killing ground between the Akal Takht and Darshani Deori, where the causeway to the Temple begins, and cutting them down with machine guns sited to cover every inch, and peeping out of the slits cut out of the Akal Takht’s centuries-old marble walls. You had to be reckless to fight there, knowing the inevitability of the end. Or you had to be delusional.
    There was a bit of that to Bhindranwale too. In fact, quite a bit. He had begun to believe the mythologies spread about him by himself and his devotees. That he was an embodiment of the divine, that his victory and the formation of a new Sikh state were preordained, that in a holy war against the Hindu state, his Sikhs were obviously going to win. He genuinely believed that till the last moment. To him, the only inevitability in that murderous June week was fateh, victory. Shikast, or defeat, was for “Bibi’s” (as he addressed Indira Gandhi) army. I was among the very small group of reporters whom he gave an audience to over glasses of a herbal concoction (banafsha was his preference, tea and coffee were forbidden, like all intoxicants) just before the army fully slammed the trap shut. A kind of last supper (see picture, three decades ago, you still have a reporter with sleeves rolled and back rounded in a manner that, in later years, would be your physio’s nightmare).

    Bibi and her Hindu Congress, he said, had declared war on the Sikhs, and he was ready for the last battle and victory.
    “But how will you fight the might of an entire army,” we asked, “they even have tanks lined up near the kotwali (old police station).”
    “Dus diyo ehnan nun kis taran ladoge singho, (tell them how you will fight, my lions),” he said, “you will be victorious, you just have to mentally prepare to fight Russian commandos.”
    “Why Russian commandos Santji?” I asked.
    “Because Sikhs in the Indian army won’t fight us and the topiwallahs (Hindus) won’t be able withstand us. So Bibi will have no choice but to seek Russian commandos,” he said with a smirk that, to those familiar with him by now, usually meant a death sentence. Just that in this case, it was a death sentence for himself, almost all his followers present there and thousands of others.
    My limited hack’s vocabulary and pen do not have the descriptive flourish or the turn of phrase to do a portrait of that once-in-many-generations character with any degree of fairness. He was taller than most of us, born in 1947, so a Midnight’s Child, and between 35-37 years (he died at 37), had a standout aquiline nose, wiry (healthy) vein-studded legs that stood out from his long, loose kurta that just about hung below the traditional Sikh underwear, or the kachcha, no weapon on his body barring the ritual kirpan and a trademark stainless steel arrow that he carried as a general would flaunt his swagger stick. He had brilliant, studied delivery with perfect pauses to let his audiences enjoy his wisecracks or thirst in anticipation of the punchline, infra-red eyes and, most importantly, a laser wit and repartee. Of course, you could never answer back or join an argument with him. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale did not run a parliament or panchayat in the Golden Temple. His was a medieval court with sub-medieval instant justice, and nobody would dare disagree with him or even protest when he pilloried you with cruel sarcasm or simply piled you with humiliation. My first conversation with him, in August 1983, was no different from any other visiting journalist’s, Indian or foreign.
    “Weren’t you born a Hindu,” he asked.
    “Yes, Santji, though like all Hindus, we pray at the gurdwaras as well,” I said, put somewhat on the defensive already.
    “Oh, you do, of course,” the smirk appeared, “so tell me the names of the gods you pray to in your mandir.” And then he carried on without waiting for me to answer.
    “Bhagwan Ram, Krishna, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, have you seen any of them without full head of hair and beards?” he asked.
    Even if you wanted to say that most of the Hindu iconography was clean-shaven, you did not somehow gather the courage to do so. In fact, nobody did. Christians, Muslims, Parsis, they were all given the same treatment.
    “Now, aren’t your gods like your father?” he would now ask, and you’d have no choice other than to say, yes, of course.
    “So your father never shaved and cut his hair, while you are clean-shaven. What do we call a child who doesn’t resemble his father,” he would now turn the knife or, rather, give the cue to his congregation, which would avoid using the “h” word but would break into a collective snigger.
    “That’s why I say, Shekharji (or whoever his victim was that day), keshan di hatya band kar dawo (stop murdering your hair, literally), start looking like your forefathers so we will all call you a decent, legitimate son.”
    This was the treatment every visiting journalist was subjected to, in full public view of a delirious congregation, on his or her first visit. And this somehow softened you. No journalist ever openly contested what he said or argued with him except, to an extent, two, in varying degrees. The first was our very own Tavleen Singh, herself a fiercely proud Jat-Sikh. Bhindranwale never fully got the better of her but got his cheap thrills, and amused his doting congregation by referring to her in her absence as that “Sikh patrakar who plucks her eyebrows (jehdi bhoan patdi hai)”. The other, old Satinder Singh, The Tribune’s bureau chief from Delhi and much older than all of us (he was film star Dev Anand’s schoolmate and bosom pal, and Khushwant Singh’s alter ego), got away with more. He even got Bhindranwale to laugh, genuinely laugh, not snigger or smirk when he told him, one evening, that if Khalistan became a reality, he would have to emigrate to “vilayat (Britain)”.
    “Why, Satinderji?” asked Bhindranwale, with (probably) mock concern, “don’t you think Khalistan will need budhijeevis (intellectuals) too?”
    “It may, Santji, but I will tell you my problem,” said the irrepressible Satinder, “Hindus will not let me live in India because I am a Sikh, and you won’t let me live in Khalistan because I am padhiya-likhya (well educated). So I will go to England.”

    It was the only time I saw Bhindranwale let someone else win an argument, even if it was a joke. He justified it to the audience, however. Something like, in any family, there was the odd offspring who was uncontrollable. You have to tolerate those types. Of course, Bhindranwale was still laughing, in fact, giggling. The only time I ever saw him do that in possibly 30 encounters. Once, I froze as I saw him tick off a very old woman who bent to touch his feet. He nearly threw her off her feet, admonishing: “Don’t you do this. What will people say, an 80-year-old woman and a 36-year-old sant.” Sorry again, Shailaja, but he wasn’t a nice man.
    I have said often that the subcontinent specialises in producing a unique type of demagogue, with the ability of picking up the grievances of a minority when it is most vulnerable and then magnifying and amplifying them brilliantly to create widespread popular outrage. Even in that formidable pantheon, Bhindranwale was at the very top. One of the finest accounts of the way his “court” functioned has been written by Tavleen in the chapter she wrote for a book, The Punjab Story, published by Roli Books after Operation Blue Star and later republished in 2009 on its 25th anniversary, where Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, Khushwant Singh, M.V. Kamath, Kirpekar, Sunil Sethi, the CPI’s Amarjit Kaur and I also contributed chapters. She describes the case of one Leher Singh, who Bhindranwale presented to his audience in her presence (I wasn’t there that day). His beard looked like it had been rudely hacked with a large knife. He said he was from village Jatwali in Fazilka district, bordering Punjab in Pakistan, and that his beard had been cut off by Thanedar (inspector) Bichhu Ram. Six months later, Bichhu Ram was shot dead. Tavleen wrote later how she never realised then that she had seen a death sentence being delivered.
    However devout he was, Bhindranwale was really no man of god, no realised master who had conquered ego and vanity, if other worldly desires. In any congregation, he always wanted to be the centre of attraction and hated anybody stealing the limelight. On several of those visits to the Golden Temple, I was accompanied by (or, correction, I accompanied) Raghu Rai, the greatest celebrity photographer in five decades. Raghu, with his locks, tall, wiry frame, shirts in exotic weaves and undone really low to expose oodles of chest hair, many cameras, humongous lenses dangling from his neck barely providing tantalising cover, if at all, was a real magnet for Bhindranwale’s rustic audiences, and he did not like it one bit. Particularly when, one winter afternoon at his sarai terrace, Raghu sat soaking in the sun on the parapet. He attracted a lot of attention.
    “Shekharji, tell your photowallah to get off that munder (parapet),” said Bhindranwale.
    Nobody usually asked him why, and it wasn’t such an impossible demand, so I told Raghu that Santji wanted him to get down and either stand or sit with the congregation on the floor, like me, lower than Bhindranwale.
    “Why, what is the problem,” Raghu, a prima donna if you’ve seen one (albeit a true genius with the camera), asked with just a hint of petulance.
    “Tell him, Shekharji, to get off that parapet. Or he may just roll over and die, and then the whole world will say santaan ne maar ditta (that the sant killed him).”
    This time even Raghu obeyed.
    On another occasion, possibly just a couple of weeks before Operation Blue Star, I went to see him along with my frequent fellow-travellers to Punjab and one of the greatest reporter-writers of all time, Edward Behr of Newsweek (check out his reporter’s memoir, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?). Behr was quite a spirited old man, one whom nothing would ever bother or irritate. On long drives through terror-soaked Punjab, he would regale you with stories from the battlefront, reportage as well as the years he spent as an officer in the Indian army’s Garhwal Regiment before Independence. As we got up to leave, he hobbled a bit, as old people, particularly foreigners, do because they are not used to squatting.
    “Why is the gora (white man) hobbling,” asked Bhindranwale.
    I asked Behr what Santji wanted to know.
    “Oh, just tell him my foot has gone to sleep,” said Behr, just a little dismissively, and Santji did not miss it even as I played the honest interpreter.
    “His foot has not gone to sleep,” he said, turning to his fully armed audience now, “the white man’s legs are trembling at the sight of our Sten guns.”
    Up came a spirited bole so nihal. There was no way Santji was going to let anybody, even a benign old gora journalist, walk away with the last laugh. Of course, Behr figured the joke was on him and for once he, the reporter with the thickest skin, lost it.
    “Tell them I am not afraid of these Stens,” he said, wagging his finger, “we used the Thomson carbine in the Indian army and if you dropped it accidentally, it fired three rounds, what do you guys know about guns…”
    It felt by now as if the temperature had dropped to minus 30 degrees. I grabbed Behr by the waist and dragged him out, and myself, to safety.
    By May 1984, it was evident that something catastrophic was going to happen at the Temple. Intrigue hung heavy in the air as everybody, even Bhindranwale, felt insecure. I wrote a story headlined “Temple Intrigue” in the May 15 issue of India Today, describing a string of cases of torture, assassination of suspected rivals and renegades, chopped bodies being taken out of the Temple and dumped in gutters. A lone woman shot dead Surinder Singh Sodhi, Bhindranwale’s favourite hitman, while he sat sipping tea outside a tea shop near the Temple and screamed, waving her pistol, “Maine badla le liya hai (I have taken revenge).” Next morning, two assassins shot the tea-shop owner. Several mutilated bodies then appeared in gunny bags here and there and the local police had a rough time dealing with them, fishing them out of the gutters. One of these, evidently, was that of Baljit Kaur, the Dalit woman who had shot Sodhi because she believed he had killed her husband. Policemen who put together that body said they had not seen such brutal torture before. It was in this atmosphere of rising blood-letting, revenge killings and suspicion that Bhindranwale decided to up the ante, and Indira Gandhi decided to strike.
    In Amritsar last month, I spent some time with Mohkam Singh, whose imposing figure is etched on my mind as one of Bhindranwale’s closest lieutenants, though he claims he never carried arms and my memory is not convincing enough to dispute this. He posed for pictures under a portrait of Bhindranwale, steel arrow and all, and argued passionately that his sant was not a separatist. He only demanded autonomy for states, which is the norm now. He was deliberately misunderstood, he said. That is why, because of their belief in decentralisation, the rag-tag group of Bhindranwale supporters that he leads has extended support to the Aam Aadmi Party. But then, as conversation went on, he relaxed. “Santji was no ordinary human,” he said, “remember how his arms hung below his knees, just like Guru Gobind Singh. He was no ordinary human.”
    Mohkam (three years younger than me, actually) had transported me back to the Golden Temple in 1983-84, when people looked at Bhindranwale and “pointed out” the same “fact” to you, that his arms hung lower than his knees. But, god’s own truth, they didn’t. They didn’t, if you believed your eyes. But in Punjab of 1984, so many were not willing to believe what they could see, hear and comprehend. It was a phase of madness, so eminently worth forgetting.

    First Person, Second Draft: Once upon a bloody time | The Indian Express | Page 99
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