The National Identity V: The operation that really broke the back of Sikh extremism and Indira Gandhi's lasting legacy
It seems fitting that in the 31st Anniversary week of Operation Bluestar, the National Identity talks about Sikh extremism. Widely viewed as an overreach of the Indian state, the operation was a near total disaster. Battle tanks entered an area so pious that all devotees leave their footwear outside. The first wave of assaults by the Indian Army had to be called off after heavy casualties and the intelligence on the ground was patchy at best, resulting in wide scale destruction to the structure itself. Worst of all, the operation didn't put an end to Sikh extremism or separatist sentiment in the state of Punjab. That credit goes to a much less heralded operation, an operation conducted jointly by the National Security Guard (NSG) and the Punjab State Police, Operation Black Thunder I and II in May 1988. More importantly, unlike Bluestar, this operation was conducted in front of the full glare of the world media.
"An impression has been assiduously created that Punjab is not being dealt with" - Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in her address to the nation before Operation Bluestar, June 1984
Indira Gandhi's address to the nation set the ominous tone for the operation - Mrs. Gandhi felt that she had to assert her authority in an anarchic state. She was prepared to go to extreme lengths before the General Elections, to weed out any doubt the nation had over her "iron" will. The nation had already witnessed her autocratic nature during the Emergency years, and Bluestar would be no different. Overnight, telephone lines in Punjab were cut, the media driven out in trucks and the Army settled in to carry out the operation. She would never have imagined that the operation which actually ended Sikh extremism would be carried out in the opposite fashion, by her son - the media encouraged to shoot as much film as they desired, drives carried out to educate the state's population against supporting the movement and most of all - without the enduring 21st century symbol of oppression - Battle Tanks. Battle tanks rolling into Berlin, Prague, Amritsar and Tbilisi all carry the same symbolism - foreign occupation or state oppression.
Operation Black Thunder was conceived by the Home Ministry and carried out by the State Police and NSG (NSG falls under the auspices of the Home Ministry and not the Defense Ministry). The non-involvement of the Army in the operation itself also ensured the Ministry of Defense stayed out of the picture. This also ensured another factor vital to the operation's success - a largely local blockade force which didn't alienate the residents of Amritsar or the people of Punjab (a key element missing in the Kashmir valley). The Government had largely failed post Operation Bluestar to impose any real sanctions on the extremists or even rein them in. The Golden temple again became a safe haven for Sikh terrorists and this time, when pressured by the nation to respond, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi didn't fall for any of the traps his mother fell into.
"The other problem of a siege was that, once laid, word would have spread to the hinterland within 24 hours. Every villager in Punjab would be told the Golden Temple was under siege. In those days, every rumour or fact was exaggerated; such messages are sent out emotionally, thus surcharging the atmosphere. People would have picked up their swords or lances and hundreds of thousands would have converged on Amritsar and the Golden Temple and besieged the army that was besieging the Temple! We can't fire at these people, and we can't surrender, so what are we to do? We didn't want such a situation to arise" - Lieutenant General KS Brar, commander of Operation Bluestar
Already wary of the Army after Operation Brasstacks, Rajiv Gandhi entrusted the operation to the NSG and State Police. Since the state was no longer under President's rule, the head of Operation Black Thunder would be Director General of Police, Punjab, KPS Gill and not an Army general. Without the threat of a charismatic leader swaying the masses or Pakistani recognition of a separate country of Khalistan, a siege was feasible. He employed what he called a "patient pressure" tactic whereby the local blockade would ensure dwindling supplies to the militants holed up inside the temple and snipers would continue to take out terrorists. At the end of the week long operation, 43 terrorists had been killed and around 400 surrendered.
The enduring image of the operation- the last few terrorists walking out of the temple complex, defeated, was broadcast to the world in real time. Whereas very few people believed the Government's version of Operation Bluestar, Operation Black Thunder was reported by the world media without any censorship. There were instances when the entire media contingent would want to go back to their hotel and Pubjab's PR would implore some of them to stay back and offer hot "poori-chole" from the BSF mess as a snack (as told by Vipul Mudgal of the Hindustan Times who covered the operation). The state wanted every minute of the siege to be covered by the media, so no false accounts of extra judicial killings, indiscriminate firing and damage to the shrine would be circulated. This transparency also ensured that when bodies were dug out of a mound of earth inside the complex, the world knew the real culprits - the terrorists who butchered the people who controlled the temple before them.
The ground work for the success of this operation also lay in the "winning hearts and minds" strategy that the state police adopted in the years leading up to the operation. The state police spent the intervening years between 1984 and 1988, conducting large drives in the villages and towns of Punjab, cautioning the people against falling for the extremist allure and also urging mothers and fathers to ask their sons to give up weapons. The Army was largely used for setting up a "safe perimeter" around the villages and towns, thus ensuring that it didn't earn any more black stains after Bluestar. It also ensured the "drity work" of going into these villages and towns was conducted by the local force, as opposed to a "central force", and lowered language barriers and inhibitions. The success of the operation is even more remarkable given that the Punjab accord, also known as the Rajiv-Longowal Accord, signed in 1985, was largely rejected by the political parties of Punjab. In fact, Harcharan Singh Longowal, one half of Rajiv-Longowal, was assassinated by terrorists who opposed the Accord.
In successfully conducting this operation, which is credited with breaking the back of the separatist Khalistan movement, the Indian government laid a template for future sieges on Indian soil - involvement of the local police, commandos trained for the purpose, direction from the Home Ministry and most importantly presence of the media. These simple elements ensured that India institutionalized the memory of a critical element of democracy - right steps and missteps of her security forces.
"But the government, for reasons best known to it, first let leaders of the ruling party help Bhindranwale to build himself into a leader, allowed its police and paramilitary forces to turn a blind eye to the smuggling of arms into the temple, and then ordered its army to storm it with tanks and heavy guns. Sikhs could be forgiven if they come to the conclusion that Mrs. Gandhi’s government meant to give their community a bloody punch on the nose. They were not likely to forget or forgive anyone who had anything to do with Operation Bluestar." - Kushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs
Operation Bluestar and Black Thunder also enshrined an even more valuable lesson for federalism in India - never to promote insidious regional parties in a fight against a powerful state government. Even though on the surface, Indira Gandhi wanted to centralize to a higher degree, she wanted to achieve that by supporting local parties who would eat up enough vote share of the strong opposition parties in state elections. The state government is constitutionally meant to be strong in India and Indira Gandhi's lasting legacy will forever be her short sightedness in promoting various regional parties to undercut Congress's main state rivals and help Congress keep power at the Center and the State level. Her fatal miscalculations led to the unrest in Punjab, Kashmir and ultimately India's first non-Hindi speaking bifurcated state. Instead of curbing regionalism, she set India on the path of general elections in which state rather than national issues matter and coalition governments are the outcome.
That her short sightedness also planted the seeds which would give Indian politics a "second" national party is scant consolation.
This post does not mean to belittle Operation Bluestar, which was carried out under very different threat perceptions and with a much higher level of fortification of the temple complex. More importantly the forces inside were, led by Sant Bindranwale himself and Major General Shabeg Singh. Many things could have been done better though, and this post simply aims to recognize the one operation that got most of them right.
The National Identity VI: Naxalism in India
The National Identity IV: The day the Indian Army nearly went rogue
The National Identity III: The Cold Start doctrine