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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 27, June 20, 2009

Punjab: What Next?

Monday 22 June 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty

[(This month marked the twentyfifth anniversary of ‘Operation Bluestar’ that culminated in the liquidation of Jarnail Singh Bhindarwale in Amritsar’s Golden Temple but eventually led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi on the last day of October the same year. On this occasion we reproduce N.C.’s first reactions to the event in the ‘Editor’s Notebook’ of Mainstream (June 9, 1984).)]

It is a sad commentary on the state of our Republic that the Army had to go in for a military operation to deal with political extremists entrenched in a place of religious worship. Whether in Nagaland or in Punjab, the use of the armed forces for restoring civil order is an eloquent testimony of the mismanagement, if not the bankruptcy, of our political and administrative processes. No doubt the Army contingents engaged in the operation around the Golden Temple in Amritsar this week displayed commendable tact and restraint even under the gravest provocations persistently proffered by the extremist Bhindranwale supporters. But the Army in a democracy is meant not to sort out political acrimonies or divisions; its undivided attention is focused on the defence of the frontiers of the motherland.

In the excitement, if not euphoria, over the Army’s effective performance in quelling the menace of the terrorists stationed within the gurdwaras—compounded by the threat of grain boycott foolishly held out by the Akali leadership—one need not gloss over the record of unmitigated blunders committed at the political level. For one thing, Bhindranwale himself was for long patronised by a section of Punjab Congress politicians, of whom Giani Zail Singh has been the leading light: the long-standing political entente between the two is an open secret—an entente which continued even when he was brought to the Centre as the Union Home Minister: nor need it be forgotten that even after his elevation to the august office of the President of India he hardly renounced his interest on this score; to say the least, there is nothing on record to show that he has ever denounced Bhindranwale’s politics. When the Giani was made the President of India, it was expected that he would play a positive role in eliminating the estrangement that had already been sedulously fostered by the Akali extremists. While nobody would accuse him of having been inactive while enthroned in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, few would vouch for the President having lent a helping hand to the Government in tackling the Punjab crisis. Even if all the rumours floating around in the Capital are to be discounted, there is no gainsaying that the Giani has not so far kept to the same wavelength as the Government in its approach to Akali intransigence. Nothing else can explain his deafening silence during these critical days when the Army was asked to take over the entire State of Punjab and flush out the terrorist gangs: not a word has so far come from the Rashtrapati Bhavan over the AIR or Doordarshan to assuage the Sikh sentiments when military operations had to be conducted in the precincts of the Golden Temple complex.

If the dissonance with the President has handicapped the Government, the Prime Minister has been poorly served also by her own executive agencies in handling the protracted Punjab crisis. For one thing, she had saddled herself with a Home Minister who even in normal conditions is a misfit for the responsibilities entrusted to him. Occasionally, other Ministers appeared on the scene, like Shiv Shankar whose acumen can hardly face upto a crisis of this magnitude. The Inspector-General of Police specially dispatched from the Centre—presumably on the President’s recommendation—has hardly displayed any extraordinary talents apart from the reputation of having more than a nodding acquaintance with Bhindranwale, and there were reports that sub rosa negotiations were conducted with the extremist leader with a view to winning him over. And this was backed by a theory brought into vogue for some time—that the Bhindranwale extremists should not be lumped with the terrorists who have been on a rampage all over the State. It is quite on the cards that these terrorists—who could make a lightning strike simultaneously on thiryeight railway stations—are professionals who might be getting orders from across the border.

Was this assessment based on solid information or wishful inference of those who wanted to play soft on Bhindranwale? This is a legitimate question because when it came to the crunch, the Army had to suffer surprisingly heavy casualties when faced by Bhindrawale’s men firing from within the Golden Temple. One wonders how the Government could at all work out any clear line of approach when its functioning is in a pathetic state. The brand new Home Secretary, for instance, on the day after the Army deployment in Amritsar, confessed in innocent ‘surprise’ that the Government had ‘no knowledge’ that the extremists had medium machine-guns and mortars. One is tempted to ask what Police Inspector-General Bhinder was doing all these months, when many a visitor to the Golden Temple, both Indian and foreign, could not help noticing how heavily armed were Bhindranwale’s brigade. To take another instance: it was only after the Army fought the terrorists in the Golden Temple complex on June 6 that the Union Home Ministry woke up to alert all the State Governments to take pre-cautionary measures against any likely communal disturbance—no advance contingency plan, not to speak of a long-term strategy.

After the military operation, what next? It is certainly not going to be an easy switch-over to the political negotiating table. It was to the Army’s credit that Sant Longowal and other Akali leaders could be rescued unscathed. But after the protracted confrontation in which the Akali leadership never cared to demarcate itself from Bhindranwale’s extremism, climaxed by the military intervention, would it be in a position to negotiate with the Government for a peaceful settlement of their demands? All these months emissaries galore were moving secretly—sometimes though at cross-purposes. Will these be in a position to bring the Akali leaders to the conference table? Can the Government, on its part, rise to the occasion and bend backwards to win over the Akali leaders at a moment when they might be smarting under the humiliation of having been forced at gunpoint out of the Golden Temple complex; or, would it be a prisoner to the fear of the so-called Hindu backlash?

More urgently, the need for reinforcing communal harmony impels mass action by all patriotic forces joining hands. The Sikh community has to be made to feel that the tragic armed clashes around the Golden Temple and other gurdwaras were brought about by the misdeeds of the terrorist gangsters cowardly abusing the sanctuary of the holy shrines. Uptil now, neither the Congress nor the Opposition parties have rallied Sikh opinion against the extremists. If fraternisation does not start on a mass scale here and now, the bitter communal divide is bound to grow, and sporadic clashes already in evidence might erupt into holocaust: in this respect, Bhiwandi provides the distant signal unless timely mass action at the political level is taken. What has happened in Punjab constitutes a serious damage to the fabric of national unity.

The challenge posed by the crisis in Punjab cannot be regarded as one of mere communal disharmony. The bitter feud generated over the Akali demands coupled with the demonstration of stark bankruptcy by the political leadership of all denominations, has turned this proud and prosperous State into the broken mirror of a fragmented and tortured nation. In place of the time-tested injunction to preserve unity along with diversity, we are fast reaching a point where narrow grooves of communal loyalities are turning this country into an ugly mosaic of conflicting loyalties—which at best provides a coalition of separate communities, but very often turns it into a battleground of ugly communal warfare. If this goes on unchecked, that will be the end of national unity not to speak of secularism.

Must not the millions of this great nation rise to save its very foundations? The answer must come soon, very soon.

(Mainstream, June 9, 1984)

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