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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 24, June 7, 2014

On Thirtieth Anniversary of ‘Operation Bluestar’: Some Thoughts on the Aftermath of the Operation

Monday 9 June 2014, by Nandita Haksar

A few days after ‘Operation Bluestar’ I was in the Amritsar home of Sardar Gursharan Singh, the legendary theatre personality. He had shown tremendous courage by publicly criticising the Punjab militants and even enacted plays in Bhindranwale’s village raising questions about the Khalistani movement.

We were in the midst of a discussion when a very agitated young Sardar walked in. He said he had heard a Supreme Court lawyer was visiting and he wanted to know whether the lawyer could help him rescue his wife.

I cannot remember the Sardar’s name but he was a garage mechanic and he lived with his family in a small house opposite the Golden Temple. Some of the men of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) had been camping on their roof. His wife had made tea for them and on the morning before ‘Bluestar’ she had asked the CRPF if it would be alright for her to visit the Temple since it was Guru Amar Das Day. And they had reassured her that it would be perfectly safe.

Amarjit, that was her name, had gone to the Golden Temple and soon after all hell broke out. She had heard shooting and seen tanks barge into the Temple. She felt an intense burning in one eye, and she later found herself in a hospital under arrest.

Her husband told us he had seen her from a distance but he was not allowed to meet her. Her eye was injured. Could I accompany him to the hospital?

However, by the time I could go the hospital Amarjit had been removed and later her husband discovered she had been transported to the high security jail at Jodhpur with three hard-core Khalistani militants.

The eyes of the garage mechanic had an expression I have rarely seen in a human being: utter helplessness. He said he had three daughters and the youngest was just a baby. I promised to file a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court.

On my return to Delhi I did file the writ petition. It came up before Justice P.N. Bhagwati. He read the petition, looked up and smiled and dismissed it. He said something to the effect that he was helpless.

I informed Amarjit’s husband in a formal letter about the rejection.

Four years later I was surprised to get a phone call from Amarjit. She explained who she was. She had been released from Jodhpur jail and now wanted to come to Delhi to thank me. Would I like Amritsari papar?

Amarjit and I met at Sriram Centre at Delhi’s Mandi House. I asked how she was. She insisted that I visit her in her home. I promised but it was after several months that I was able to fulfil that promise.

It was a small house surrounded by barbed wire. I am not sure how that would protect them. It was there that I discovered the whole reality of Amarjit’s life. The oldest daughter had dropped out of school to take her mother’s place; the middle daughter had just not been able to cope with the loss and had lost her mind; and the youngest daughter did not miss a mother she never had. For her, the eldest sister was her mother. So when a strange woman walked in and hugged her she screamed and screamed and told the woman to go away. That was what had broken Amarjit.

I asked whether she would allow me to file another writ petition and demand compensation for wrongful arrest. Obviously, I would do the case pro bono. Amarjit refused the offer: “Courts kya karenge?”

Who will give justice to Amarjit, her family members? And there are hundreds of Sikhs who were arrested wrongfully, both during ‘Operation Bluestar’ and thereafter after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Even if justice cannot be done, at least it should be acknowledged. The same goes for the Muslim victims of violence over the years from the riots in Meerut to the carnage in Gujarat. The same is true for the victims of human rights violations in the North-East and in Kashmir.

The Sikhs, Muslims, Kashmiris, Nagas, the Dalits and women are all Indian citizens but their experience of being Indian is very different. It is impossible to wipe out the memories of injustice either from their collective conscience or from individual memories.

It is true in the past the governments have tried to deal with the problem of injustice to different communities by assuaging their pain by false hopes and crocodile tears. But this government promises to treat all Indian citizens equally. It would be good to remember what Anatole France said about the right to equality: “In its majestic equality the law forbids the rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal loaves of bread, peeing in the streets.”

Injustice must be acknowledged and then perhaps we can move on. Without this acknow-ledgment the wounds will fester. The acknow-ledgement of injustice is as integral a part of good governance as economic development.

And so on this thirtieth anniversary of ‘Operation Bluestar’ I remember Amarjit and her family and extend my hand in friendship; remember them and then I may have the right to hope that she has forgiven the men who wrongfully arrested her; those who kept her detained at Jodhpur; the judge who refused to listen to her voice. I hope that she too once again feels India belongs to her as much as it does to me.

The author is a human rights lawyer and writer.