CRPF jawans keeping guard from a battlement facing the Golden Temple

No decision could have been more painful, more fraught with tragic consequences, than the one to launch Operation Bluestar. And yet, it was a denouement that was somehow inevitable.

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For close to three bloody years, Mrs Gandhi's Government had dithered and dallied as the extremist threat emanating from the Golden Temple, the most sacred symbol of Sikhism and the seat of its religious power, had acquired monstrous proportions.

From here, hit-lists had been cold-bloodedly drawn up and death squads dispatched to wreak their deadly havoc - all master-minded by the malevolent figure of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. For three long years, the chanting of the gurbani had been punctuated by the staccato bursts of gunfire as the extremists carried out summary executions or exchanged fire with security forces.

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And now, pushed to the wall, Mrs Gandhi finally did what few could deny had to be done: she gave the signal for Operation Bluestar - the biggest and most significant counter-terrorist action undertaken anywhere in the world.

The contingency had been long anticipated even though Operation Bluestar, the code name for the army's move into Punjab against terrorists, was put together in an incredibly short time. In Chakrata, commandos had trained on a large scale replica of the Golden Temple.

Consultations were held with the army with increasing frequency and by end-May, when the death-toll from extremist activity rose alarmingly, the decision was made. The signs were evident. In the dark of the night, starting May 30, camouflaged army convoys of the famed 9 Infantry Division based at Meerut started converging on Amritsar and other key towns in Punjab.

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President Zail Singh cancelled a visit to the North-east and Army Chief General A.S. Vaidya was hurriedly recalled from Srinagar. In Amritsar itself, the signals were even clearer. Paramilitary forces had been strengthened around the temple and heavy exchanges of fire with the extremists, some lasting seven continuous hours, took place with the obvious intention of letting the extremists expend ammunition and reveal their newly-fortified positions. At 9 p.m. on June 1, curfew was clamped on the holy city.

Within 24 hours, nearly 70,000 troops culled from the crack fighting formations of the army and paramilitary forces had taken up predetermined positions in the streets of Punjab and fanned out along the thousands of kilometres of roads that link the 12,168 villages in the state.

From then, events moved with bewildering rapidity. On the evening of June 2, Mrs Gandhi went on the air in a nation-wide television broadcast to declare that the Government would put down terrorism and violence in the state and appealed to the Akali leaders to withdraw their agitation planned for the next day to stop movement of grain. She also outlined the framework of a settlement that could be reached on the Punjab problem and asked the Akali Dal to accept it.

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But it was clear that the die had been cast. Simultaneously, in a series of ordinances, the Government banned the entry of foreigners into Punjab, the state governor made an official request to the Centre to call in the army, the media was gagged, rail, road and air services suspended all over the state, and all communication channels snapped. Lt-General Ranjit Singh Dayal, a Sikh, chief of staff, western command, was brought in as security adviser to the governor of Punjab.

The same ruthless efficiency was evident in the way the army laid siege to the temple, initially in the form of the 12th battalion of the Bihar Regiment. Officer-led patrols reconnoitered the area while others armed with automatic rifles and light machine-guns (LMG's) scaled roof-tops to join the CRPF and BSF men on their sandbagged pickets overlooking the temple.

By the evening, however, the strategy had changed. The army commanders realised that the roof-top positions were much too vulnerable to grenade attacks from the extremist pillboxes atop tall 18th century towers and a water tank inside the temple complex.
Operation Bluestar

Click here to EnlargeFor the first time in 400 years the recital of gurbani was about to stop in the Golden Temple. As dusk fell on June 5, commandos dressed in jet-black dungarees slipped into the temple complex through the road between the serias and the Guru Ramdass langar building. They were able to bring back safely Akali Dal leaders like Harchand Singh Longowal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra along with their key aides living in the Teja Singh Samundari Hall, Guru Ramdass Serai and Guru Nanak Niwas. The darkened sky was lit with bright red tracers and massive columns of smoke billowed from the langar building where heavy fighting took place. Foot-soldiers marching towards the Akal Takht ran into heavy machine-gun barrage from the Harmandir Sahib. Artillery pounded the Akal Takht and the heavily fortified pillboxes on top of the two 18th century towers and the langar building. During the day officers guided the fire from Chetak helicopters. On the evening of June 6 jawans charged the Akal Takht under the cover of armour and subdued the opposition after fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Bhindranwale and his key associates, Amrik Singh and Shahbeg Singh were found dead in the basement of the building. A squadron of tanks and armoured personnel carriers guarded the approaches to the temple, aiming their machine-guns at the parapets. The last to fall was the Harmandir Sahib. On the evening of June 6, 22 terrorists led by the All India Sikh Students Federation General Secretary Harminder Singh Sandhu came out with a white flag. The first phase of Operation Bluestar was over.
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The Biharis decided to set up new positions behind sandbagged windows in vacated houses. Men from the Garhwal Regiment and Brigade of Guards joined in a similar exercise later in the evening on the other sides of the temple.

Almost mechanically, patrols went about in a business-like fashion led by officers carrying binoculars, maps and notebooks, setting up machine-gun emplacements, high-perched bivouacs and sealing off the routes of ingress or escape. Simultaneously, tanks rolled into sensitive villages leading patrols assigned the task of preventing communal killings.

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The sequence of events

June 3: By late night, the whole state had been tightly secured. While the alert Biharis watched the area around the clock-tower, the main entrance to the temple and Brahm Buta Market - the extremist stronghold facing the entrance to the serai area - the Garhwalis, the Guardsmen and the Punjabis sealed the other escape routes round Chowk Parag Dass, Chhatti Khui, Atta Mandi, Baba Atal and Buddhi Lutt Bazaar.

But the intention was not yet to strike - even at this late stage the army had determined it would be a psychological war, hoping that the build-up might soften the extremists resolve. Officers went on loud-hailers asking them to surrender peacefully and avoid a blood-bath. There was no immediate response, but later the warnings were greeted with automatic fire.

Still operating on the psychological level, the jawans responded with long bursts on extremist battlements to give them a foretaste of what a frontal battle with the army could be like. But this failed to be of any deterrent value.

Quick to respond, the extremists made their intentions clear around midnight, lobbing grenades and maintaining a heavy fusillade with medium machine-guns (MMG's) - perched atop the towers and water tank, each capable of firing over 60 rounds per second.

June 4: By the morning, it had dawned on the army brass that they faced a determined insurgent army charged with religious fervour and not an armed rabble as they were sometimes contemptuously dismissed as.

A high-level decision was taken to deal with them "effectively", starting with the visible fortifications in the shape of pillboxes. The army brought in recoilless guns mounted on jeeps firing small but highly penetrative shells.

But if the officers had initially underestimated the fighting resolve of the extremists, they seemed to have miscalculated the strength of concrete in the bunkers and pillboxes as well, and the army soon realised it would need to use stronger firepower.
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They brought in 3.87cm mountain guns, powerful weapons with a short range but deadly accuracy, and the venerable 25-pounders. Recalls an artillery officer: "This indeed was the trickiest part of the operation. The temple is surrounded by extremely tall residential houses that give no clearing for gun emplacements. The temple complex itself is so congested, with the temple buildings completely out of bounds. The wind velocity was heavy and, to hit the pillboxes we had to virtually fire vertically upwards, knowing fully well that even if there was the slightest miss, or a shell got deflected by wind, it could fall on the temple, or on our own men."

Extremist fortifications being reinforced on top of the temple towers

Yet the artillery fire was accurately directed with deadly effect in the early hours of June 4. Eyewitnesses recall how shell after shell hit the pillboxes, blowing them apart bit-by-bit, and bodies flung down by explosions made an eerie sight. The best evidence of the accuracy of the shelling is the massive water tower behind the serais which still stands though with large, gaping holes.

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The men of the Babbar Khalsa group, opposed to Bhindranwale but equally zealous in the fight for the temple, had occupied the tank only to be blown to bits. Later the tank was punctured with shells to send the water gushing downwards, causing confusion among the Babbars manning the gun emplacements beneath it.

The jawans had no real reason to be satisfied with the morning's work, which later turned out to be no more than minor surgery, hardly touching the core of the malaise. This became obvious in the afternoon as the extremists opened fire with rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPG's) and rockets, one of which hit a picket, killing a Bihar Regiment jawan and wounding three.

Already quick to adjust their tactics with the discovery of new resolve and firepower in the temple, the generals again changed tactics. This time, they realised that the use of "K" vehicles - as tanks and armoured personnel carriers are called in army parlance - had now become inevitable if the temple was to be taken.

June 5: Army gunners again got down to the job of softening up the temple defences, with the cannons placed in the historic Jallianwala Bagh close to the serais firing with deadly effect and accuracy.

The casualties inside the temple mounted steeply even as the army called in police officers familiar with the area to broadcast appeals for surrender. The artillery kept up an incessant barrage throughout, with officers in two Chetak helicopters hovering over the temple complex, directing the aim of fire.

But, again hopes that the demonstration of firepower would soften the defenders' will were shortlived: the only people to surrender, later that evening, were nearly 200 SGPC employees, their women and children, and some of the labourers employed inside the gurudwara.

The siege had by now been laid for 60 hours - many more than the planners had anticipated it would take to neutralise the opposition. The generals knew they were running out of time. "Ideally, in such a situation," said an officer, "it would have been useful to continue the siege for a few days more to smoke out at least a part of the opposition. But here we could not afford that luxury."

The key constraint was the growing mob violence around Amritsar and in the whole area of Punjab west of the Beas. As word of the siege spread, thousands of people began gathering in hamlets all round Amritsar, trying to converge on the town to "defend the temple".

Extremist arms, including grenades, Sten-guns, LMGs and ammunition recovered from the complex

As helicopter-borne reconnaissance patrols scoured the countryside looking for even the smallest accumulation of people, hundreds of wireless sets in the region repeated the alarming message from the police chiefs asking all officers to "shoot at sight anyone seen on the streets and at once fire at the mobs".

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But this was unavoidable in view of the mass upsurge that was taking place in the countryside, threatening a communal holocaust. At Golwad village in the Jhubal police station area, barely 25 km from Amritsar, over 30,000 people armed with an assortment of firearms and traditional weapons had gathered under the leadership of Baba Bidhi Chand, a well-known mahant, to march towards Amritsar, vowing to save the temple and kill Hindus.

Crowds were also gathering in the same region around Ajnala and even Raja Sansi, close to the Amritsar airport. Tanks had to be sent in to contain these. And to the east, large numbers of people were also gathering round the villages of Dhandkesali, Fatehpur Rajputan and around Batala in the Gurdaspur district.

Though a large crowd assembled at Chowk Mehta, Bhindranwale's original headquarters immediately ran into an army patrol, at the village of Verka, famous for its milk products, the Punjab Armed Police failed to contain a crowd that nearly lynched two constables and took their rifles away. Mercifully, a helicopter patrol spotted the people on the march and immediately vectored on an army patrol which prevented possible communal violence.

But the officers leading the operation were not reassured by this. One later explained: "In such a situation the determination of the mobs increases on a cumulative basis. We had no doubt that with the passage of time the mobs would get bigger and angrier, and unless something drastic was done we would have dozens of Jallianwala Baghs around Amritsar alone. It is all very nice to talk in terms of effective, deterrent fire, but there is a limit to how many people you can kill out of a mob." It was this that prompted the generals to choose what one of them later called the devil's alternative - the storming of the temple complex.

June 5, night: By dusk things had come to a head. As men of the 10 Guards under Lt-Colonel Mohammed Israr, regarded as some of the finest troops in the world and trained specifically for the assault role, prepared for the H-hour, hasty consultations got underway in the serais where moderate Akali leaders like Longowal, Tohra and the Dal's official spokesman Balwant Singh Ramoowalia were hiding.

While the guardsmen geared up and the moderates hedged, another group of men was going about preparing for its job with the cool, calculating efficiency of a commando unit. Strapping on bulletproof jackets, the men made last-minute checks on their very specialised weapons and gear.

Suspected extremists being rounded up

They were an impressive lot-a hundred lean, wiry men, many of them officers, all in jet-black dungarees. For the first time in the history of the Indian Army, one of its youngest units, the Commandos, was preparing to go into action.

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As darkness engulfed the complex, 40 commandos, carrying sleek American 5.56 mm rifles mounted with menacingly large bayonets, as well as Bren-guns with telescopic sights slipped into the serais on a mission that could mean death for each of them.

Their brief was clear - to bring out the moderates safely. While other units gave covering fire, they cut off the serais from the temple area, braving fire from all sides, to ensure the safe escape of the moderates. In the process, they suffered heavy casualties: of the 40 who went in, three were killed and 19 wounded despite their bullet-proof jackets. "This was a fiery baptism, we didn't do badly," recalled one commando later.

They had managed, around midnight to extricate Longowal, Tohra, Ramoowalia, Akhand Kirtani Jatha chief Bibi Amarjit Kaur and others including senior SGPC officials. But extremist marksmen got two of their prize quarries - former Akali Dal secretary Gurcharan Singh whom Bhindranwale had accused of plotting to kill his close associate Surinder Singh Sodhi, as well as the colourful SGPC member Bagga Singh, who had made no bones about his contempt for Bhindranwale,

While the authorities whisked away the Akali leaders to the Raja Sansi contonment, the Commandos' job was far from over. They were now supposed to lead other assault groups into the temple complex.

So they slipped in again, in larger numbers this time. Splitting up into small bands, they made suicidal raids on LMG emplacements, trying to clear the passage for the main body of troops and cut off extremists positioned in various parts of the temple complex from each other, suffering heavy casualties but maintaining their tenuous hold nevertheless. It was then the turn of the infantrymen.

The first assault was concentrated on the road separating the serais from the temple complex and cut off the defenders vertically. There was bloody, expensive close quarter battle before the serais as defenders' machine-guns fired from all directions and the jawans had to fight pitched battles, often hand-to-hand, to clear each emplacement. For all practical purposes, this meant each of the scores of balconies and rooms facing the road. As the battle for the serais intensified, battle cries were heard elsewhere too.

Injured jawans in a hospital in Ambala

Infantrymen charged in from the other, narrower roads, making for the langar building, the Akal Takht and numerous extremist positions all over the marbled, colonnaded parikrama round the temple, which the faithful must walk barefooted to reach the Akal Takht and the sanctum sanctorum.

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In normal times the parikrama is awash with devout volunteers carrying buckets to cool and clean the exquisite marble structure: But this evening, the marble was destined to be turned into a gory mosaic of red and olive green as jawans, caught on a flat surface with no cover fell to the massive barrage of machine-gun fire.

Under orders not to fire even a single shot at the Golden Temple, they were caught in the middle with MMG's firing from the "out of bounds" temple and the Akal Takht building. Strategically placed in a straight line with the temple, this became more or less unapproachable.

In repeated charges, the infantrymen tried to reach the building from the flanks but the barrage of fire was impossible to penetrate. "Every inch of the place was absolutely covered with machine-gun fire," recalls an infantry officer.

"So heavy was the concentration of fire that, even in a regular war between two countries' armies, officers would never have allowed troops to peep out of the trenches. A frontal assault would have been a military absurdity," he added.

But these were unusual times and as casualties mounted, new units were pushed in. These were the Guards, Madrasis, Garhwalis, Dogras and the Punjabis. Over a hundred were hit even in the initial stages of the assault.

Says an officer: "It was so utterly frustrating for the jawans who saw their comrades die under fire from the temple and yet could not shoot back. Frankly even we never thought our men could have shown so much patience." At another, higher level, however, people were running out of patience and time. The commanders now decided on harsher methods, the use of armour.

Breaking their way in from the side of the serais, tanks and wheeled armoured personnel carriers rumbled on to the parikrama, their machine-guns blazing and jawans following. The cover of armour brought down the casualty rate steeply, but there still was no breakthrough.

Meanwhile the troops had, on the other side, virtually neutralised the serais, and much of the resistance from the Guru Ramdass langar building ended as it caught fire under heavy shelling. Carrying shoulder-fired Carl Gustav guns and grenade-launchers, jawans went from terrace to terrace, clearing out resistance. Dawn saw the sun rise on a stalemate, the terrorists holed up in the Akal Takht and Harmandir Sahib, and the army everywhere else.

Sikh protesters outside the Indian High Commission in London

June 6: When the curfew was relaxed for two hours in the afternoon, this stale mate still prevailed and the extremists remained in firm control of the temple and Akal Takht even as the army picked up its own and the extremists' dead and wounded from the other areas.

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Any approach towards the Akal Takht was still suicidal. Meanwhile, the extremists had unsheathed yet another surprise weapon in their armoury - a shoulder-fired anti-tank missile launcher that damaged one of the armoured personnel carriers. The troops relaxed and waited for night and the coup de grace.

Towards the evening, however, a decision had been taken to overcome the Akal Takht defences by using artillery fire and, for the first time, even the tanks' main cannons were used, though sparingly, to bring down the outer facade, pillars and canopy of the building. Amritsar was to remain awake for yet another night with the incessant roar of cannon-fire.

Accounts of what happened on the night of June 6 are still imprecise about the exact sequence of events, and it is impossible to say for sure when the resistance capitulated. But, apparently sometime in the course of the night Bhindranwale, along with key lieutenants Shahbeg Singh, a sacked major-general of the Indian Army, and Amrik Singh, president of the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) decided to fight the last battle from the Akal Takht basement (Ghura Sahib), after most of his die-hard defenders had fallen.

When the jawans overpowered a machine-gun nest by throwing grenades on the ground floor, one of the shell splinters hit Bhindranwale in the face. And as he desperately tried to take cover elsewhere, he was caught in bursts of Sten-gun fire.

There was an element of irony in the way the end came for Bhindranwale who, to twist a metaphor, had always lived by the Sten-gun, his weapon of preference. With his death ended a legend - of a most wantonly cruel scourge for some, of a soldier-saint for some others.

But keeping him company even in death were Shahbeg Singh and Amrik Singh, the key personae in the three-year drama of blood and gore. Only a few years younger than Bhindranwale, Amrik Singh had fought to the end, setting at rest the rumours of his clash with his mentor. Bhindranwale had, in a complicated process of succession, taken over the mantle of the chief of the Damdami Taksal, a renowned Sikh seminary from Amrik's father, Sant Kartar Singh Bhindranwale.

But while Amrik Singh's dedication could be attributed to old loyalty and religious fervour, what led Shahbeg Singh to gang up with Bhindranwale? A celebrated guerrilla warfare expert of the army Shahbeg had, as a brigadier, trained the Mukti Bahini during the 1971 Bangladesh campaign. Lt-General Jagjit Singh Aurora, who was his immediate boss as army commander, remembers him as someone "rather good at his job". Says he: "He used to trim his hair though he wore a turban. With the Mukti Bahini, he wore lungis and balaclava caps. I must say he played the part."

Originally a Gurkha Regiment officer, Shahbeg had served with the Parachute Brigade and later the Punjab Regiment too and, as major-general, commanded the Madhya Pradesh area from Jabalpur. It was here that he was charged with corruption and told to leave after a CBI inquiry.

Two months ago he had told India Today: "I am an old sick man with no interest in fighting. But I would be a liar if I said I am not frustrated and angry. In the army I was done in. But I am not as much of a guerrilla leader here as people believe."

Army sources, however, say that he was indeed responsible for the tremendously effective, fortress-like defence of the temple. The army later had more surprises. Shahbeg's young daughter as well as Amrik Singh's wife were caught manning LMG nests.

Bhindranwale's last press conference on the evening of June 2

But the last citadel to fall was the temple from where terrorists, led by the AISSF General Secretary Harminder Singh Sandhu continued to fire. Barred from firing at the temple, the jawans tried once to physically overpower the terrorists by rushing across the bridge barefoot. Many were felled by a hail of bullets and the attempt was given up. When even the frogmen failed to break in, the army decided to sit it out for as long as necessary.

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Even with the leaders accounted for, and the main battle over, resistance continued and, initially, the army suffered heavily as die-hards hiding in the maze of basements and tunnels under the temple complex kept on emerging from manholes to lob grenades or take pot-shots at army men.

It was in one of these sniper raids that the 10th battalion of the Dogra Regiment lost three officers. The extremists, living on generous supplies of roasted gram and shakarpara stored at various strategic points underground, even managed to abduct an Army Medical Corps doctor, a captain, his compounder and two jawans.

The army later traced the basement where the men had been dragged and slaughtered, and cleared it after heavy shelling. It was now yet again the turn of the commandos to wage a long hide-and-seek battle with the terrorists in tunnels and basements.

Sniping continued for almost a week and the terrorists showed up most devastatingly as President Zail Singh visited the temple. Snipers opened fire and hit the commandant of the Commando battalion standing just a few yards away from him.

Zail Singh smiled wryly as the commandos' colonel saw a bullet slip off his bullet-proof jacket and go clean through his upper arm, and kept walking coolly till the end of the parikrama.

While the Golden Temple complex was taken, the army had also gone into action, raiding over 40 places of worship - including five temples and a mosque - all over the state. Except at Tarn Taran gurudwara where five army men and the same number of extremists were killed and the Dukh Niwaran gurudwara in Patiala and a gurudwara at Moga, this hunt yielded very little. The army was now in the process of moving over to the countryside for a counter-insurgency operation of a more classic nature.

However, considering the enormous scope of Operation Bluestar and the sensitive nature of its target, it is obvious that many aspects of the operation will remain in the grey area between fact and supposition. Government sources have claimed that between 300 and 400 terrorists and 90-odd army men were killed inside the temple complex.

According to army sources involved in the operation, the casualty figure is much higher on both sides. By the evening of June 9, over 750 inquest reports had been prepared on the extremist dead alone, and many bodies still awaited clearance. It would be safe to assume that close to 1,000 extremists were killed, while army sources admit that their own dead could be as high as 200 or more.

The army and the security agencies are now analysing their own failings in the aftermath of the operations. The President, for example, raised a very significant question by asking Governor B.D. Pande and Inspector General of Police P.S. Bhindar what the police and intelligence agencies were doing while thousands of weapons were smuggled into the temple.

"It seems you had given your eyes and ears on loan to somebody," he said angrily. The intelligence agencies had also failed to establish the terrorists' foreign link by the capture of Chinese, American and Pakistani weapons, Pakistani passports and men.

And, if it was the time for the intelligence agencies to do some soul-searching, the generals were still reflecting on the experiences of the onerous task assigned to them. Said Lt-General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, GOC-in-C, Western Command: "We went inside with humility in our hearts and prayers on our lips."

Added his deputy, Dayal: "We in the army hold all places of religion in equal reverence." The army had played its part living up to its secular traditions. The three key generals planning the operations were Sikhs, so were four of the six battalion commanders participating in the action, and the troops too had a fair sprinkling of Sikhs.

Yet the army brass was now worried by the wave of desertions in some of the Sikh units. The generals say it is very insignificant, a passing phase. Said one: "Some of this had been anticipated. But the cost-benefit ratio still worked out favourably. Let's face it, what we fought in Amritsar was not a battle against a stray bunch of hoodlums. It was war against Khalistan."

{mosimage}In a long-term perspective, however, the war had barely begun. The success of Operation Bluestar depends largely on the all-crucial second phase of the blueprint. With Bhindranwale and his key lieutenants exterminated, it is clear that the back of the extremist movement has been broken.

Without a charismatic leader to inspire them, the remaining extremists hiding in the countryside within and outside Punjab have little scope for major mischief. The second phase calls for the army to remain in Punjab till all evidence of extremist presence is eliminated, while a parallel political campaign is launched to restore the state to normalcy and search quickly for a political solution.

But the danger now lies outside the country as well. The more sophisticated weaponry found inside the temple clearly indicates that outside elements were involved. Most of the heavier weapons bore Pakistan or Chinese markings.

The Government has made it quite clear that it suspects Pakistan, but that attitude has now become a case of crying wolf so it is likely to hold little water. The presence of at least two circumcised Nihangs among those killed at the temple would lend some credence to the allegation.

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Already, in London's Bayswater Road, self-styled Khalistan leader Jagjit Singh Chauhan has set up Khalistan House, the seat of his so-called government in exile. The threat from him and his followers has been dismissed lightly by the Indian Government but there is a real danger of the fringe elements in his following taking to terrorist activity against the more vulnerable Indian-related targets outside India. If they adopt the kind of tactics and fanaticism that European terrorist groups did, the Government will find itself in a tight spot.

As the reactions among the Sikhs showed, a lot of political and emotional groundwork still remains to be done to convince them that the army had not inflicted a crushing defeat on their community but only cleared their own holy shrine of people who were as much a threat to them as to the rest of the country. Nothing characterised this distrust better than the sudden discord in some of the Sikh units of the army as wild rumours spread.

It began at Sriganganagar, a border town in Rajasthan where over 400 jawans of 9 Sikh Light Infantry rebelled, only to be subdued later after a series of skirmishes. This was followed by the most serious of the mutinies at Ramgarh near Ranchi in Bihar where, charged by the rumours that their women were being raped by the army in Punjab, 1,438 recruits revolted, killing Brigadier R.C. Puri, the regimental centre commandant, wounded three other officers and escaped with weapons, to surrender after bloody gun-battles with armymen in five different places in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Similar desertions took place in Pune, Thane, Jammu, Siliguri, Silchar and Alwar. Army spokesmen, however, called these "insignificant".

Tragically, the desertions were a direct result of the wild rumours that were flying around after the siege took place. With the press gagged, the only source of information was All India Radio and Doordarshan, both badly lacking in credibility.

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But whatever the Government's wisdom in clamping a media black-out resulting in the dangerous rumour - mongering, it made full use of television to try and convince the Sikhs at least that the Harmandir Sahib, the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden Temple, was undamaged and the holy relics including the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikhs, intact.

But simple jawans fired by rumours in far away cantonments can hardly be blamed for rebelling when adverse reactions came from even people who constitute the cognoscenti among the Sikhs. The most surprising example was of Khushwant Singh, a bitter critic of Bhindranwale, his style of politics and his Khalistan demand.

Speaking to India Today after returning his Padma Bhushan he said: "My main objection is that the Government allowed the situation to build up, allowed them to take arms in and out when every gate had an armed post. What were they doing? They can't get away saying there was no alternative; why was it allowed to reach this point?"

Similar objections came in from Lt-General Aurora who too has been leading a campaign in favour of the Akali moderates to isolate Bhindranwale. Says he: "Even if Bhindranwale was a rebel and a rabble-rouser, the effort should have been to isolate him and strengthen the moderates who are patriotic people.

But just the reverse has been done. The consequence is that now every Sikh feels that he is a suspect in the eyes of the country unless proved otherwise. I totally deprecate the action. I think it is a terrible thing to happen. In what way has it improved the situation?"

This view found support even among some non-Sikhs. Said former Union cabinet secretary Nirmal Kumar Mukerjee: "I think the Sikhs, to a man, will feel that the community has been given a tight slap across the face. What we have, as a result, is an alienated solid Sikh sub-nationality. I am afraid this may give fillip to the Khalistan demand. Bhindranwale dead may be a lot more trouble than Bhindranwale alive."

From the Government's point of view the raid had become the last resort after repeated rounds of talks with the Akalis failed to come up with a solution. Said Union Home Secretary M.M.K. Wali: "Of late, the killings were becoming completely wanton and senseless. Moreover, we had evidence that the extremists were threatening and influencing the Government functionaries, including the judiciary. Moreover, there was every possibility of the Akali morcha beginning on June 3 turning violent."

Government spokesmen also argue that those Sikh intellectuals and moderate leaders who now accuse the army of having desecrated the temple could themselves have done something substantial earlier to prevent it becoming a terrorist hide-out. Said a senior bureaucrat: "The moderate leaders and the SOPC have proved to be absolutely ineffective in safeguarding the sanctity of their own shrines. What the army did was only an effort to throw out those indulging in sacrilege."

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Among the people who justify the army actions is Lt-General S.K. Sinha, the former vice-chief of the army staff. Says he: "It is a matter of regret that the army had to enter the Golden Temple, but there were no options left. After all, commandos were forced to enter Mecca to flush out terrorists. Here in India, the head priest of the Vishvanath Temple had to be arrested from inside the temple. It is a tragic example of poor intelligence that they were not aware of the arms build-up inside the temple." But he too feels that the Government followed a policy of "drift and indecision for far too long".

There is certainly no faulting the army for having carried out its operation, and the Government for having at last gathered the political will to act decisively on Punjab. But the Government has been blamed with not only not strengthening the moderates, but trying to tar them all with the same brush, resulting in the present situation where there is no prominent Sikh leader it can talk to; no one who they believe can command the respect of the entire community.

Whatever hopes remained were dashed last fortnight as former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and former Union agriculture minister Surjit Singh Barnala were arrested in Chandigarh under the National Security Act.

True, Barnala had made some angry statements, but he was badly heckled by hotheads among his own supporters as he tried to stop them raising pro-Khalistan slogans at a gurudwara congregation. Said Badal, in a voice choked with anguish: "The feeling of alienation among the Sikhs has now become powerful. Wittingly or unwittingly, Mrs Gandhi has laid the foundation of Khalistan." Similar reactions came from Sikhs all over the country.

A surprisingly candid reaction, on the other hand, came from the aged Bhai Man Singh, the head granthi of the historic Patna Sahib gurudwara. He said: "My main job is to recite the Guru Granth Sahib and I do not know very much about Punjab politics. The army or police should not enter holy shrines as this spoils their sanctity. But if they had to, who was responsible for this? It was the people who created the situation."

But while reactions were varied, and often clearly defined along communal lines, they only underlined the fact that, even if the army action in Punjab was justified, it only marked the beginning of a long haul to restore the state to its old, pre-1980 state of peace, prosperity and tranquillity. And if that is to be achieved, the first step would be to make a strong effort to prevent the Hindus from claiming victory. Mrs Gandhi, at a public meeting on June 11, warned that what happened in Punjab "should not be celebrated as a victory".

That there is still plenty of goodwill between the two communities was visible on the morning of June 4 when the Sultanwind Road market was burnt in Amritsar. In one corner stood Sohan Lal Bhatia, a son of Bhagmal Bhatia, the famous Jallianwala martyr, accusing the Government of having had his shop burnt by creating communal tension.

All along, Sikh neighbours - all wearing the orange turban, a sign of protest, helped put out the fire and salvage the remains. "I have no complaint against the Sikhs. Politics will make animals out of any people," said Bhatia.

It is this store of goodwill that the Government now needs to tap. While in the towns the pro-RSS and highly committed Arya Samaj workers will have to be contained, in the villages a different, though equally firm strategy will have to be followed with the simple, illiterate jathedars who lead the peasants.

In fact the army took the first step in this direction by ordering that no jawans accept any water, cold drinks, lassi or food from people in the streets. This would discourage the increasing tendency on the part of the Hindus to look after the jawans posted in their area and to patronise them.

That is just one step to overcome the alienation which strong law and order action inevitably brings in its wake. In the Punjab villages, for example, the people are bitter with the army presence even if the conduct of the jawans has been upright. But the simple Punjabi peasant finds the tank patrols and cordon-and-search operations an unpleasant factor.

The opposition, possibly for the first time since the Bangladesh war of 1971, unanimously supported Mrs Gandhi's action in the temple. In her turn the prime minister at a 100-minute meeting with opposition leaders in New Delhi on June 13 told them the Government would bring out a white paper with all the facts about the army action.

The army and the Government will have to tread carefully in the Punjab countryside. As a police officer in Chandigarh remarked: "The point is that the army will have to fight most of its future international wars along the Punjab plains. I am sure the jawans would value having the population on their side." Unfortunately, the current situation has arisen in the kharif sowing season, making life extremely difficult for the farmer who can hardly stir out at night.

On the political level, the Government has already made a beginning by broadcasting the gurbani live on All India Radio from the Golden Temple. Official sources also give strong hints of more unilateral concessions as the situation stabilises in the state. Said an official: "We are treading slowly and cautiously. Our first worry was preventing a communal holocaust; and touch wood, till now nothing has happened."

The tragedy is that this too is a view from one side of the fence, for if you ask an ordinary Sikh, the death of nearly a thousand of his community at the Golden Temple, is holocaust enough, even if it happened in the course of an armed fight.

The very magnitude of the killings and destruction has left him nonplussed, isolated and insecure. Even more than maintaining law and order on the ground, it is thus necessary to reassure the Sikhs. And the only way to do it now is by handing over the task of applying the balm to the wounds of beleaguered but progressive and virile community to a benevolent political leader.

With President's rule already nine months old, the Constitution demands that the state be returned to popular rule within the next three months. Mrs Gandhi will now have to initiate the search for someone acceptable enough to take over the reins of a state caught even more deeply in the quagmire than Assam was a year ago.

Politically, socially or emotionally, it will not be an easy task. The army's action has touched the nerve of a sensitive community. It has been a watershed, and its crossing is fraught with long-term dangers.

The sense of alienation that is now evident is understandable, but it cannot obviously be allowed to harden. And harden it will if all those who were in one way or another responsible for letting Punjab come to this pass do not look into themselves for their own share in the blame but instead try and derive advantage.

The Sikhs need to ask why they allowed their temple to be stockpiled with arms. The administration must answer why it so quickly dissolved into ineffectiveness. And the Government why it allowed the whole problem to burn for three long years.

If there is no introspection, if there is no understanding, and forgiveness and humanity of the kind preached by all religions, the embers of Operation Bluestar will burn a long, long time and may even ignite again.


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It was a blistering April afternoon in 1984. A white Ambassador car drove into the driveway of a modest Lutyens Delhi bungalow, 1 Safdarjung Road, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's residence. A tall bespectacled man got out. He was known only as DGS or director general security, a key official in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) who controlled a small air force and two covert paramilitary units, the Special Frontier Force and the Special Services Bureau. Three years earlier, DGS had raised another unit, called the Special Group or sg, for clandestine counter-terrorist missions in Punjab and Assam. For the past two months, SG personnel, all drawn from the Army, had been training in secret at a base near Delhi for a critical mission.

CRPF personnel take position for the siege of the Golden templeDGS was ushered into the living room where a pensive Mrs Gandhi sat with a salt-and-pepper-haired gentleman wearing thick black glasses-Rameshwar Nath Kao, 66, the reclusive spymaster who had built the external intelligence agency, RAW, in 1968 and used it to train Mukti Bahini guerrillas during the Bangladesh war in 1971. He had returned to government as Mrs Gandhi's senior aide in 1981 and was now her de facto national security adviser. More important, he was a key adviser on the Punjab problem. For over two years now, India's most prosperous state had been engulfed by communal violence. A radical group of Sikhs led by a fiery religious preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, 37, had declared war against the state. His motley group of armed supporters had, by 1984, murdered over 100 civilians and security personnel. The radical militant leader had then been ensconced near the Golden Temple since 1981 with his heavily armed followers, shielded by his proximity to Sikhism's holiest shrine.

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DGS briefed Mrs Gandhi on a surgical mission that fell short of a military strike to evict the rebels. Operation Sundown, he explained, was a 'snatch and grab' job: Heliborne commandos would enter the Guru Nanak Niwas guesthouse near the Golden Temple and abduct the militant leader. The operation was so named because it was timed for past midnight when Bhindranwale and his guards would least expect it.

SG operatives had earlier infiltrated the Golden Temple, disguised as pilgrims and journalists, to study its layout. Then, for several weeks, over 200 SG commandos had rehearsed the operation on a wood and Hessian cloth mock-up of the two-storeyed resthouse at their base in Sarsawa in Uttar Pradesh. Commandos would rope down from two Mi-4 transport helicopters onto the guest house and make a beeline for Bhindranwale. Once they captured him, he would be spirited away by a ground assault team which would drive in. There was a possibility of a firefight with the militant leader's bodyguards and civilians who could rush in to protect him.

Click here to EnlargeMrs Gandhi's listened to the details impassively. She had just one question. "How many casualties?" Twenty per cent of the commando force and both helicopters, dgs replied. Mrs Gandhi grimaced. She wanted to know how many civilians would die. The RAW official did not have an answer. No one did. That was it. Mrs Gandhi said no and Operation Sundown died before the first helicopter could take off.

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Just two months later, Mrs Gandhi ordered the Army to flush militants out of the temple. Eighty-three armymen and 492 civilians died in Operation Bluestar, the single bloodiest confrontation in independent India's history of civil strife. Machine guns, light artillery, rockets and, eventually, battle tanks were used to overwhelm Bhindranwale and his mini army and the Akal Takht, the highest seat of temporal authority of the Sikhs, was reduced to a smoking ruin. In the maelstrom of Bluestar, Sundown and its extensive preparations got buried in RAW's secret archives.

Three decades later, Operation Sundown resurfaced in an unexpected location-London. On January 13, the United Kingdom was shocked by declassified letters dating to February 1984 that revealed that Margaret Thatcher's government had helped India on "a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple". This plan, according to a top-secret letter from the principal private secretary of then British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe to the then home secretary Leon Brittan, was drawn up by an officer of the Special Air Services (SAS), UK's elite commando force. The letter, written four months before Bluestar, sparked fears of a backlash from the UK's Sikh community, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron to order an inquiry into the findings.

Festering Wound

Operation Bluestar still touches a raw nerve in India and abroad. On September 30, 2012, four Sikh youths attempted to murder retired Lt-Gen Kuldip Singh Brar on London's Oxford Street. Brar, who led Bluestar, and a frequent visitor to London, survived. Two of his attackers were handed down a 14-year sentence in December last year. The new revelations about a possible British role in the build-up to Bluestar have already inflamed passions. "This obviously raises huge questions over the role of the British government at the time," Labour MP Tom Watson told bbc on January 13. Watson's constituency, West Bromwich East, has many Sikh constituents. New Delhi has so far not responded to the revelations. Brar calls reports of sas involvement in Bluestar "utter nonsense".

At the Golden Temple after BluestarRetired RAW officials and former members of its secret military wing, however, tell a different story. The sas assistance was not for Bluestar, a pure army assault, they told india today. It was to vet Operation Sundown, a commando raid. As revealed by B. Raman, former head of raw's counter-terrorism division, in his 2007 book The Kaoboys of R&AW, two MI-5 intelligence liaison officials at the British high commission had scouted the Golden Temple complex in December 1983. They briefed a senior sas officer sent by the UK to Delhi who deemed the special operation feasible. The sas expertise was sought by Mrs Gandhi's spy chief R.N. Kao who had a personal equation with several foreign intelligence chiefs.

Though Sundown was aborted, some of the commandos who had trained for it spearheaded a near-suicidal frontal assault on the heavily fortified Akal Takht during Bluestar and stayed till the last militant was flushed out of the temple three days later. This is one reason those officers, long since retired, refuse to be identified. "My anonymity is my only protection," says one of the officers who live
s in a metro.

If Kao was unhappy with Mrs Gandhi's rejection of Sundown, he didn't show it. In fact, his thinking was in line with her extreme caution. Weeks earlier, RAW station chiefs in foreign capitals, particularly those with large Sikh expatriate populations, had warned Kao of the adverse fallout of a military operation to flush out the militants. Kao had personally led the parleys with overseas Sikh separatists to persuade Bhindranwale to vacate the Golden Temple. "They promised him a lot," says a former RAW chief who is close to Kao, "but delivered nothing." "Another possible reason for the commando operation being called off was the influence of a 'soft group' within the Congress headed by Rajiv Gandhi which favoured a negotiated settlement with Bhindranwale," says Mandeep Singh Bajwa, a Chandigarh-based analyst.

In January 1984, the government had instituted secret talks with Bhindranwale at the behest of Rajiv. But within four months, hardliners on both sides prevailed. In late April 1984, Satish Jacob of bbc's Delhi bureau saw trucks carrying construction material into the temple. He also saw a slim, fair man of medium height in a white salwar kameez and sporting a flowing beard. Major General Shabeg Singh was a war hero who had trained Mukti Bahini fighters in 1971 but was stripped of his rank and court-martialled on charges of corruption just before he was to retire in 1976. Now, as the military adviser of Bhindranwale, he oversaw conversion of the five-storeyed Akal Takht into a fortress. "We're doing it for the community," the soft-spoken former general told Jacob.

Indira Gandhi gives the Go-ahead

By May 1984, Punjab teetered on the brink. The daylight murder of dig A.S. Atwal inside the Golden Temple in April 1983 had paralysed Punjab Police into inaction. And the thousands of paramilitary personnel sent by Delhi after it dismissed the state government in October 1983 had failed to prevent the state's descent into chaos. On May 11, 1984, Bhindranwale rejected the final settlement offered by Mrs Gandhi's think tank led by Narasimha Rao to the Akali Dal. Soon after, Army chief General Arun Kumar Vaidya became a frequent visitor to Mrs Gandhi's office. Her personal secretary and confidant R.K. Dhawan was present at one of those half-hour meetings. "Gen Vaidya assured her there would be no casualties and there would be no damage to the Golden Temple," Dhawan told India Today. On June 2, talks with the Akalis collapsed.

As Mark Tully and Satish Jacob wrote in their 1985 book Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle, "Mrs Gandhi was not a decisive woman, she was very reluctant to act, and she only fought back when she was firmly pinned against the ropes." The Army was her last resort. She green-lit Operation Bluestar. Dhawan says two "extra-constitutional authorities" in Rajiv Gandhi's inner circle, who would later become key figures in his Cabinet, were responsible for her change of mind. "They told her the military option was the only solution," he says. The mantle fell on the Western Army commander, the flamboyant Lt-Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji. He had briefly considered a plan to starve out the defenders but junked it fearing an uprising in the countryside.

Bluestar bloodbath

Shortly after 10.30 p.m. on June 5, 1984, 20 men in black dungarees stealthily entered the Golden Temple. They wore night-vision goggles, M-1 steel helmets, bulletproof vests and carried a mix of MP-5 submachine guns and AK-47 assault rifles. The men of sg's 56th Commando Company were then the only force in India trained for room intervention, the specialised art of fighting in confined spaces. Each commando was a sharpshooter, diver and parachutist and could do 40-km speed marches. Some of them wore gas masks and carried stubby gas guns meant to launch CX gas canisters, a more potent tear gas. Three months before this night, the commandos had stayed around the temple and rehearsed for Operation Sundown. Some of them still sported the beards they had grown for their undercover work as volunteers in the Golden Temple's langar. When the plan was called off, they returned to their base in Sarsawa. They had flown into Amritsar the previous day at the request of Lt-Gen Sundarji.

The three battalions that Lt-Gen Brar's 9th Infantry Division sent into the Golden Temple that night were trained to fight a conventional combat on the plains of Punjab and in the deserts of Rajasthan. They would overwhelm the enemy by sheer force of numbers. The commandos, who spearheaded the assault, made use of stealth, speed and surprise to achieve results. Soon after arriving, one of the sg officers had briefed Lt-Gen Ranjit Singh Dayal, Sundarji's chief of staff, on a plan to capture the Akal Takht by blowing off its rear wall. General Dayal, a paratrooper who had captured the Haji Pir pass in an unconventional operation in the 1965 war, immediately overruled it. "There must be no damage to the Akal Takht," he said. The commandos were to capture the sacred building by using gas to flush out the militants, he said.

The Army had clearly underestimated the defences. As soon as they entered the temple, a sniper shot the unit's radio operator clean through his helmet. The rest took cover in the long gallery of pillars that led to the Akal Takht. Light machine guns and carbines crackled from behind impregnable walls of the temple, their multiple gun flashes blinding the commandos' night-vision devices, forcing them to take them off. The commandos and infantry soldiers cautiously advanced, sheltering behind rows of pillars. Those who tried to advance towards the Akal Takht were cut down on the marble parikrama. An armoured personnel carrier bringing in troops was immobilised by a rocket-propelled grenade. "Shabeg knew the Army's Achilles heel," says an SG colonel. "He knew we couldn't fight in built-up areas."

Post-midnight, remnants of the sg unit and the Army's 1 Para huddled near a fountain at the base of the Akal Takht. The area between the Akal Takht and the Darshani Deori that led to the Golden Temple had turned into a killing zone, covered by Shabeg's light machine guns. Attempts by the para-commandos to storm the defences were repeatedly beaten back. They lost at least 17 men, their black dungaree-clad bodies lying prone on white marble. Commandos who tried to fire the CX gas canisters discovered that the Akal Takht's windows had been bricked up. The only openings were horizontal slots out of which machine guns poured deadly fire. The commandos neutralised two of the machine gun nests by dropping grenades into them but the Akal Takht was impregnable. Then, around 7.30 a.m. on June 5, three Vickers-Vijayanta tanks were deployed. They fired 105 mm shells and knocked down the walls of the Akal Takht. Commandos and infantrymen then moved in to mop up the defenders, tossing gas and lobbing grenades inside the building.

The temple premises resembled a medieval battlefield, one sg trooper recalls. Bloodied and blackened bodies lay scattered around the white temple parikrama. In the basement of the blackened, still-smoking ruin of the Akal Takht, the commandos found the body of Shabeg. The Army recovered 51 light machine guns, 31 of which had been concentrated around the Akal Takht. "Normally, an army unit (of around 800 soldiers) would deploy this quantum of firepower to cover an area of about eight km," Lt-Gen Brar recounted in his book Operation Blue Star: The True Story. Shabeg, he believed, wanted to hold out until daylight in the hope that there would be a popular uprising among the people when they get to know of the army action. The former war hero had extracted a bloody price on an army he felt had wronged him.

'Oh my God,' she said

Around 6 a.m. on June 6, 1984, the phone rang in R.K. Dhawan's Golf Links home. Minister of State for Defence K.P. Singh Deo wanted Dhawan to convey an urgent message to Mrs Gandhi. The operation was a success, he said, but there were heavy casualties-both armymen and civilians. Mrs Gandhi's first reaction was anguish. "Oh my God,†she told Dhawan. "They told me there would be no casualties."

It took the Army two more days to clear Bhindranwale's men from the temple's labyrinthine corridors. The commanding officer of the sg contingent, a lieutenant-colonel, was seriously wounded by a sniper as he escorted President Zail Singh around the temple on June 8.

Operation Bluestar inflamed Sikh sentiments and triggered a mutiny in certain Indian Army units. It also led to the death of Mrs Gandhi: Her two Sikh bodyguards gunned her down on October 31 that year. The communal holocaust in which over 8,000 Sikhs were murdered by mobs around the country-including 3,000 in Delhi-fanned another decade of insurgency in Punjab. In the aftermath of Mrs Gandhi's assassination, sg commandos, several of whom had seen action at the Golden Temple, were rushed to 7 Race Course Road to guard Rajiv Gandhi and his family round-the-clock for a year. They had plenty of time to wonder if history would have turned out differently had they been given the chance to carry out Operation Sundown.

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