Wednesday 17 June 2009

OPERATION BLUE STAR'S UNHEALED WOUNDS


Operation Blue Star’s unhealed wounds
Momin IftikharThe storming of Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of the sacred Sikh Shrines, on 6 Jun 1984, stands out as the bloodiest benchmark in gauging the state sponsored trend for victimization of minorities in India. Even the passage of a quarter century has not wiped out the pain of the Sikh nation and the lingering embers of a smoldering insurgency continue to haunt India with the consequences of the Operation that so thoroughly alienated the dynamic community. The fateful day triggered a sequence of events that inexorably led to killing of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh body guards on Nov 1, 1984. The communal violence that followed the assassination, left over three thousand Sikhs dead in its wake, mostly in Delhi. The Congress leaders who led the berserk Hindu mobs were identified. It is a pity though that they still have to be dispensed the wages of their sins by the judiciary. The Sikh backlash that manifested itself in form of a full fledged insurgency was ruthlessly crushed by targeting the Sikh nation as a monolithic body; no discrimination having being exercised in identifying innocent from the guilty. The fateful day is observed by the Sikh community in remembering the excesses committed by the Indian state in demolishing to dust the most revered icon of the Sikh religion.Even as the Indian State dealt with it through overkill application of brute force, the problem that lay at the bottom of the operation Blue Star was essentially political and not military. The Sikhs, in the 70’s were getting restive on grounds that they as a community were being sidelined by the Hindu majority. The Anandpur Sahib Resolution adopted in 1973 by a widely attended Sikh conclave articulated the Community’s grievances distinctively. The demands included Punjab’s control of Chandigarh, which it shared with Haryana, demands for political autonomy, fair distribution of river waters, recognition of Sikhism as a distinct religion and bestowment of a holy city status for Amritsar, housing the Akal That in the Golden Temple. Sikhs have always been acknowledged as an enterprising nation and the community could, in eighties, lay claim to a galaxy of its members holding the highest posts within Indian Army and the civilian bureaucracy, yet the sense of being discriminated against was mounting. The aspirations took the shape of a political struggle led by Akali Dal; nothing out of the ordinary in a democratic dispensation. However, Indira Gandhi’s response to this peaceful struggle was typical of her megalomaniac character. In order to create divisions in the Sikh movement she began to patronize the messianic figure of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to act as counterweight to the Akali Dal. But here her political instincts went deadly wrong; the Sant proved a steel willed radical who resisted diktat and began to chart a course of his own to take over the Sikh movement. Adopting the slogan of Khalistan, he raised the flag of mutiny defying the state authority with impunity and pushing the moderates to the sidelines. Sikh radicals, in large numbers gravitated in his direction like iron filings to a lodestone. As Indian Punjab resonated with the shouts of Khalistan he took morcha in the Golden Temple, becoming nerve center of a throbbing secessionist movement. Ever true to her instincts Indira Gandhi resolved to fight fire with fire by shunning the option of political discourse and resolved to rub the Sikh pride into dust - ignoring the well known backlash that was ominously taking shape around Akal Takht. Operation Blue Star was thus conceived whereby she reposed her trust in Lt Gen Sunderji, bypassing the Army Chief Gen AS Vaidya and ordered the elimination of Bhindranwale through force notwithstanding the assured destruction of Akal Takht and perpetual scarring of the Sikh psyche through such a brazen act of sacrilege. The assault on the Golden Temple was a heavy handed affair involving six infantry battalions, supported by heavy infantry weapons, tanks and artillery. The damage to the venerated Temple was so extensive that it had to be later pulled down and re-constructed. The initial official line on fatalities, as reported by The New York Times on June 7, was 308 dead, including 48 soldiers. By June 26, the official death toll had nearly doubled to 600. Unofficial military sources and journalists placed the number at between 1,000 and 1,200. The Times published reports from The Associated Press stating that the toll ‘could be as high as 2,000.For 400 years Golden Temple had remained an icon of Sikh faith, pride and veneration and it was inconceivable that it could be desecrated by the Armed Forces of secular India. Its destruction engendered a wave of communal hatred and an urge for retribution that has haunted India ever since. Indira Gandhi paid for the transgression with her life when two of her most trusted Sikh bodyguards – Satwant Singh and Beant Singh - riddled her with bullets on 31 Oct 1984. The anti Sikh violence that followed her assassination led to the killing of at least 3000 Sikhs by frantic Hindu mobs. According to BBC, Congress Party officials were openly urging Hindu rioters to kill Sikhs. This further exacerbated the Sikh hurt who sought retribution for the grave state sponsored injustices. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale got etched in the folklore as a ‘shaheed’ and a hero and elevated in veneration to the status of a ‘Sant’. To honor him, June 6 is observed every year as the martyrdom day of Bhindranwale at the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh Faith. Anti Sikh violence gave a boost to the demand for Khalistan and a full-fledged insurgency picked up inside Punjab extending to attacks on Indian assets in foreign lands. Air India’s plane was blown up on June 23, 1985 which killed all its crew and 329 passengers. Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, who signed the Rajiv-Longowal Accord on 29 July 1985, was killed just three weeks later while praying inside a gurdwara. Gen A.S.Vaidya, who was Indian Army’s Chief of Staff when Operation Blue Star was launched, was gunned down in Pune in August 1985. Chief Minister Beant Singh was blown up along with twelve others by a suicide bomber on July 31 1995 at Chandigarh for letting down the Sikh Cause. An enduring and deep rooted alienation of the Sikh nation has emerged as the lasting legacy of Operation Blue Star. The lingering hurt from that Operation and its aftermath have left the Sikh psyche deeply scarred. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India, as a politically accepted phenomenon, has only deepened the chasm separating Sikhs – Hindus communities. Unless the Indian state learns to respect the rights of its minorities, the chasm of this communal hatred is only likely to deepen.

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