Before noon on a hot June day in 1984, I was aboard a rickety Haryana Roadways bus to my beloved Naani’s house in Chandigarh to enjoy a spell of golf and pampering following a strenuous assault on the Class X Board examinations. A military history buff and a passionate reader of Commando comics, my youthful imagination was stirred when our bus snaked through innumerable convoys of troops draped in camouflage nets on the GT Road from Delhi. I wondered if our nation was preparing for war. Luckily, I just about sneaked into my grandmother’s house in Sector 11 when curfew was imposed.
I was imprisoned. I stood for hours at the gate watching Army trucks patrol the streets of this genteel neighbourhood. I darted out one afternoon to collect labernum flowers — strewn, unadmired and untrampled on the pavements — for my grandmother only to be rudely shooed back by soldiers in a jeep. The mystery of the Army tailing me from Delhi was soon resolved. Then PM Indira Gandhi addressed the nation on AIR and spoke of the need to storm the Golden Temple, the revered shrine of my community. My paternal Aunt, a God-fearing lady entirely free of malice, rang up, quoting her relatives from Amritsar. She spoke of Army truckloads spilling over with bodies of Sikh pilgrims, dumped in mass pyres and plumes of smoke rising from the Holy City as the bones and flesh of the innocent crackled and hissed. The truth, however, is certainly far less dramatic. The fact was that the Sikh psyche had been irreparably scarred.
As passion inflamed my heart, my late father, a senior civil servant then serving with the Government of India, counselled me. Mrs Gandhi had criminally blundered by delaying the flushing out operation and had let Bhindranwale and co. arm themselves to the teeth. Yet, at the same time, we as a community had failed because we had not objected strongly enough to armed desperadoes desecrating the temple’s sanctity. Four of my father’s colleagues, including a dear Uncle, went on protest leave against Operation Blue Star.
My father summoned me back to Delhi as soon as curfew lifted. He had a terrible premonition of darkness looming. On October 31, as I loitered about in school for a meal break, we were informed that Mrs Gandhi had been assassinated. We were granted a holiday right then. Sikhs spoke of divine retribution and fondly quoted the statement published in a Southall publication soon after Blue Star: that the bullet designed for Mrs Gandhi had departed the barrel.
In the evening of November 1, a mob of 700 stood outside our bunglow behind Parliament House baying for our blood. As fortune would have it, KK Paul, who later rose to become Delhi Police Commissioner, lived down our road and spotted the smoke coming out of a Sikh MP’s house right next to his, which had just been torched by the mob. He sent in a burly Sikh officer with a posse of cops to our house. The mob was turned back. Later that night, as we dowsed our lights and told our domestic helps to put out word that we were out-of-station, a lone Sikh was caught by a mob of 100, bashed on his head with a boulder, and dowsed with petrol siphoned from a motorbike tank just 20 yards from our bunglow. Our domestic helps, who were guarding our gate, recounted that horrific slaying to us later. They could never extinguish that memory. On the day of Mrs Gandhi’s cremation, we fled our bunglow at 3 am and took shelter with Paul, whose wife, Omita, proved a very reassuring host.
Strangely, none of the `brave gun-toting followers’ of Bhindranwale rushed to Delhi to take on the murderous mobs. Perhaps, the communalists hoped it would trigger migrations and help create Khalisthan. Perhaps the socio-economic mix of Delhi’s victims did not sync with the concerns of a section of the Punjab peasantry that spearheaded militancy. The 1984 Sikh pogrom has never really inflicted that deep a wound on the Punjab Sikhs arraigned against the Indian State though it has served as a handy political tool to whip the Congress with. With time, the pogrom’s scars may heal but the Sikhs will never forgive or forget Blue Star. No `invader’ who has dared enter the Golden Temple through history has gone unpunished; neither has any Sikh `luminary’ with an over-weaning ego, aka Bhindranwale. Interestingly, Lt Gen KS Brar `Bulbul’ starts off his rather racy account of the battle in his book (Operation Blue Star: The True Story) by remarking that both Bhindranwale and himself belonged to the Brar-Sidhu gotra of the Jat Sikhs.
As the memorial for Blue Star gathers steam, a deep schism surfaces. Many articulate people from Punjab’s minority community voice apprehensions in newspaper letter columns. Memories of passengers pulled out from buses, segregated and shot, migrant labourers mowed down sleeping at tubewells, shopkeepers butchered on their stools and RSS workers slayed while exercising. These are not just memories but genies of a collective consciousness that can come loose again. The years of armed militancy have left another odious legacy: a police and bureaucratic regime spoilt rotten by the heady years of President’s Rule. But armed militants have dared not rise from their cold pyres. Perhaps, the Gurus sitting in the Heavens above had not sanctioned all that Bhindranwale and his men committed in their august names, and had dealt militancy an early and deathly blow.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN TIMES OF INDIA ON JUNE 6, 2012 ON ANNIVERSARY OF OP BLUESTAR OF 1984 IN AMRITSAR