Punjab in the 1980s: The Dark Phase
– An Insider’s View –
The decade long phase of tumult, terror, turmoil, travails, tribulations and troubles that besieged Punjab in 1980s and 90s has been variously described by eye-witnesses, bureaucrats, defence, intelligence personnel, journalists, Human Rights activists; and there are reports of various NGOs, as well.
Given the enormity of the situation that has left deep scars - physical and psychological - on the psyche of the Punjabis, each of the writings reflects a different perspective, a different view, a different opinion, a different analysis and a different conclusion.
There are also two White Papers, one issued after the Operation Bluestar by Government of India in July 1984, and the other ‘Truth about Punjab’ by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. Besides, availability of a vast treasure trove of literature in soft as well as hard copy pertaining to that period.
Yet, an inconclusive debate continues as to what factors contributed to the creation of circumstances that resulted in the eruption of terrorism, death, destruction and pain; how engaged relations between the Hindus and the Sikhs morphed into estranged relations bordering on communal division; economic loss and much more.
What remains relevant even today are some questions: Was military action - across Punjab - the only means to put an end to militancy? Who all should be apportioned the blame for what Punjab underwent and why? Are the Sikhs, or to be more precise, Sikh leadership of that time to blame for the suffering of the people? There are views for and against these and similar questions and doubts that still persist. The veil of secrecy is yet to be unveiled, mystery still to be solved. This seems a bit difficult in the absence of or unavailability of authentic documents/record of the minutes of the formal or behind-the-scene- (secret) meetings/negotiations New Delhi held with political parties, notably the Sikh leadership - both religious and political – represented primarily by the Shiromani Akali Dal and other stakeholders, including doves and hawks.
Then there are the un-kept or broken agreements, promises that New Delhi had made but were never executed, much to the embarrassment of the Sikh leadership and consternation of Punjab. One need not elaborate on these, as these are already in public domain and memory. The jury is still out on many known and many unknown aspects of what Punjab underwent then. Punjab continues to carry that baggage of ‘discrimination’, debris of broken agreements, promises and wears the badge of a victim of persecution - some real, some perceived.
Rummaging through the debris of that painful period, leafing through the available literature, one comes across an array of views and traces of bruised emotions, sentiments, hurt religious susceptibilities and sensitivities. The wounds have not coagulated, not yet. Why have the wounds failed to heal? Has there been a deliberate attempt, on both side of the aisle, to keep the ambers of memories of that dark phase glowing? Is it by design that these unresolved issues are raked up by the stakeholders at their convenience or to denigrate Punjab, Punjabis? Will the people forget the past, forgive the perpetrators or continue to enable the self-serving Sikh leaders to exploit religious sentiments for political interests and feed their ill-perceived idiosyncrasies at whim?
Why talk or write once again about all this in the life of the border state now? It is because those remembrances have been rekindled in the book: In the Service of Free India – Memoir of a Civil Servant by B. D. Pande, published by Speaking Tiger Books -2021.
Bhairab Datt Pande had come to Chandigarh as Governor in October 1983. He remained in the Raj Bhawan till July 1984. The chapters - Punjab: the Sikhs and the Hindus; Punjab -the Anandpur Sahib Resolution; experience as Governor, Punjab: 1983-84; Punjab: 1984; and Punjab: 1984 and after make an interesting read in this book.
By and large, one is tempted to believe what he writes and agree with what he discloses, describes, recounts and shares - his first hand experiences, thinking in the corridors of the Centre, the talks/interactions -overt and covert- he had had with the key functionaries of Indira Gandhi and state politicians, bureaucrats and ordinary Punjabis - both the Sikhs and the Hindus - during his nine month tenure.
On the face of it, he has made sweeping statements and generalized most of the issues. There are passages with which one may disagree with him. Given his service profile, positions at which he worked in the Government make his narrative creditable and believable. He gives glimpses of what went on in Delhi’s corridors of power and provides sufficient academic cuds to chew to the intelligentsia, intellectuals, political analysts and students of history.
The impression one gets after reading the five Punjab-centric chapters towards the end of the book is: What had happened in Punjab was by design not by accident and politically orchestrated. The National Press and the Hindu media in the State had connived and colluded to present a distorted picture, give an exaggerated, false and negative narrative of happenings in Punjab and create an atmosphere of scare; denigrate the Akalis; and blame Pakistan for stoking terrorism to weaken the ‘sovereignty and integrity’ of the country.
What Pande reveals reflects his frustration and helplessness at times, on the one hand, and his anguish and resolute attempts and attitude to be as independent, autonomous as possible within the Constitutional frame-work in which a Governor operates, on the other hand. His ‘story’ also mirrors his empathy and sympathy for Punjab. He seemingly has a soft corner for the way Akalis went about espousing State’s or Sikhs’ cause without antagonizing the Hindus or disturbing communal harmony, amity and peace. In his narrative, he pours his heart to describe Punjab situation and swings between hope and despair.
If that be so, the question that comes to mind is: Is Governor an ‘agent’ of the Centre? May be, may not be. Was he or was he not? Pande seems to be an exception.
Pande discloses that he carried his resignation in his pocket whenever he was ‘summoned’ to Delhi, and had offered his undated resignation to P C Alexander, who was the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. At times, he had to return without meeting the Prime Minister, though he had been called to meet her. His recall of events, happenings, talks the Centre held directly either with the aggrieved political parties or with fringe stakeholders may, perhaps, help knowledgeable person to join the dots, fill the gaps and revisit their own assessment on what had happened then and why, and who all should be apportioned the blame for the Punjab tragedy.
At several places, the author gives instances and specifics how he refused to sign on the dotted line or act the way some power players in New Delhi wanted him to - say against certain members of the bureaucracy, including the Police and trouble rousers in society. Incidentally, he has high regard and praise for Punjab Police. He credits it with ‘success’, in effectively dealing with militancy and its operators. He emphatically writes that Punjab Police alone caught militants, engaged in encounters, while the paramilitary forces deployed in strength failed to show any such ‘success’ in this respect, not even at ‘nakas’ across the state.
He was strongly opposed to ‘fake’ encounters. In fact, he was also totally opposed to multi-layered security ring of paramilitary forces around the Golden Temple or the SGPC complex. These forces had nothing to their credit when it came to neutralizing militants or catching them at any given point of time.
Pande also writes about the pressures put on him to tell him how to or how not to run the state administration. Such pressure came from the Rashtrapati Bhawan, whose occupant then – Giani Zail Singh – had his own agenda; preferences, prejudices against individuals politicians and bureaucrats since he had been the Chief Minister of Punjab. The other key operators who tried to meddle included the then Cabinet Secretary Krishnaswami Rao, the Home Minister, P C Sethi etc. He mentions how once the high and mighty pressurized him to release a Hindu outfit leader, Pawan Kumar Sharma, who was arrested for rioting. Even Haryana Chief Minister Bhajan Lal had joined the chorus.
It is pertinent to mention here that the entire book is written from ‘memory’. He admits that much when he says he paid no heed to the advice the then Vice-President Justice Hidayatullah gave him to “keep notes of all conversations and important developments, as they would be useful in future. But there it is –such contemporary documents are not with me”.
In the 25-page chapter, Punjab: the Sikhs and the Hindus, Pande covers a whole gamut of issues, presents a wide-angle view of religio-political developments, beginning his narrative around 1849, and eventually converges on the ‘Punjab situation and problem’. To build up the narrative, he begins his ‘story’ that unfolded after the defeat of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, when the Sikhs, as a community, were left totally “disorganized and demoralized”.
He gives a bird’s eye-view of developments, turns and twists in the geo-political and religious discourses; rise of the Hindus, Muslims and Sikh fundamentalism. He also writes about the time of Guru Nanak, the Bhakti movement; the birth of the Khalsa and how Guru Gobind Singh transformed the Sikhs. He briefly mentions traditional “enmity” of the Sikhs against the Muslims - the wicked role of Moughal rulers, including Aurangzeb and Nadir Shah.
Pande writes about relations between the Sikhs and the Hindus -the free inter marriages between the two and standing together during the Great Calcutta killings in 1946 and in Punjab in 1947 at the time of the Partition - and subsequent distancing between them, post-partition; the role of British to divide and rule and how they attempted to placate the Sikhs and commissioned writers to record about their valour and history; encouraged them to set up their own educational institutions; the coming up of the Chief Khalsa Dewan; formation of the SGPC; the emergence of Shiromani Akali Dal; and the numerous agitations, protests by the Sikhs’ religio-political leadership for liberation of Gurdwaras etc.
He recalls the curious historical phenomenon when in the period 1880-1890 several new “creeds and sects” struck roots in central Punjab. Of those three were among the Sikhs –Nirankaris, Namdharis and Radhasoamis. He also refers to the clash between the Sikhs and Nirankaris in Amritsar in 1978, which proved to be a turning point in Punjab situation.
The role of the Sikhs during struggle for Independence; the Jallianwala Bagh massacre; the emergence of Arya Samaj movement in Punjab etc. also find a mention in the book. Much of the chapter is devoted to the historical aspects, including the role of the principle communities and the main political party - the Congress - in the pre- and post-Independent India, the negotiations with the British; the issue of Punjab being made a Linguistic state post-1947 and the opposition to this by Punjabi Hindus, who in the Census-1951 recorded Hindi as their ‘mother tongue’, though they spoke Punjabi at home. All such developments created deep fissures and fault-lines in the relationship between the communities.
The seeds of discord between the two can be said to have been sowed then. Here is a quote from the book on this: “If the Hindus had declared Punjabi as their language –what a different territory it may have been. But then:
‘Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these –it might have been’.
That acrimony, prejudice still persists and pulsates at the subterranean level. Pande refers to the framing of the Constitution, how Sikh members not putting their signatures to it; the Akalis stir for State’s legitimate ‘rights’, ‘non-fulfillment’ of the agreements, promises the Congress leadership and the Centre had made.
Let me conclude narrative of the chapter with the following passage from the book: “The consistent setbacks on the political front for the Akalis, a feeling of frustration among the Sikhs as a whole, despite all round prosperity and a growing fear that under the influence of modern movements, Sikhs as a community may lose their identity and become merged with the Hindu masses, gave rise to a Sikh fundamentalism and a growing cry to go back to the tenets of Sikhism propounded by Guru Gobind Singh.”
His next stopover is Punjab: The Anandpur Sahib Resolution.
Before summing up what Pande has written on this issue, it is pertinent to mention that Khushwant Singh had also written a full chapter on the ‘Anandpur Sahib Resolution and other Akali demands’ in his two part book: ‘A History of the Sikhs’. This topic is in Volume 2: 1839-1988. It is an elaborate and exhaustive account of the political battle -of -wits and of one-upmanship between the Akalis and the Centre. The Akalis’ frustration, exhaustion , helplessness, haplessness forced on them by Indira Gandhi often made them squirm, as also more determined to pursue their demands and take course to peaceful agitations, protests, ‘Morchas’ and ‘Andolans’: resulting in ‘jail bharo’, ‘rail roko’, ‘rasta roko’ etc. programmes. Such political discourse, insistence by the Akalis, on the one hand, the obstinate, obdurate stand of the Centre, on the other hand, contributed to Punjab eventually plunging into militancy or terrorism.
The Anandpur resolution included both religious and political issues, and called for recognizing Sikhism as a religion ‘separate’ from Hinduism. It also demanded devolution of more powers and more autonomy from the Central to states. Khushwant Singh focuses on the response of the Centre to the Akali demands, and aims to provide a better understanding of what drove the Akalis and the government towards another conflict. It first shows the Akalis charging the government of being anti-Sikh and constantly adding to their list of demands, to which the central government responded by applying delaying tactics. Indira Gandhi continued to play political games with the Akalis.
Pande says the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973 was actually the most ‘comprehensive’ charter of demands prepared by the Akalis, on behalf of the Sikhs. Furthermore, it also emerges there were no less than three versions of the resolution, which are interpreted in different ways by the Akali leaders. The demands listed in the resolution are examined in detail in the chapter.
A version available on the Internet says the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, 1973 was ‘authenticated’ by Sant Harchand Singh Longowal at the 18th All-India Akali Conference at Ludhiana in October 1978. It reflects the aspirations, expectations of the Sikh Panth, since the Akali Dal claims to be the sole representative of the Sikh Quom.
Pande, writing on the Anandpur Sahib resolution, divides it into three broad sections: economic, religious and political. One need not reiterate details under these three sections. Suffice to say that the resolution was seen as ‘secessionist’ in some quarters, while it found abundant support in some other quarters. It was also a talking point during elections. (It was recently in the news when the Akalis tied the knot with the Bahujan Samaj Party for Assembly elections -2022.)
The account of the resolution in the book is academic. It revolves around the number of rounds of talks held -open and secret, who all participated at what level and how each time, even when an agreement was reached, including consent of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale, the efforts were deliberately, calculatedly thwarted by India Gandhi, much to the chagrin of the mediators, including Sardar Swaran Singh and Capt. Amarinder Singh.
At one place Pande writes: “Why were the talks with Akalis failing, and what were the major differences which could not be resolved? It will be difficult to give an exact and correct account as I never saw any documents on this –I doubt if they exist – and secondly not even the participants were fully aware of why the talks failed”. Then, he goes on to discuss major demands and gives reasons for their non-acceptance, as per his understanding.
Pande also writes about the role of moderate and hard-line individuals and organizations which had surfaced, both at home and abroad, in the wake of the growing uncertainties and the fluid political situation in the state. In this context, he writes about some terrorist events in 1982 and 1983, that “caused the situation in Punjab to deteriorate rapidly”.
The chapter gives enough space to highlight the estranged relationship between the Punjab Police and the central security forces - CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) and the BSF (Border Security Force), deployed for law and order. He says seldom there was any exchange of or sharing of intelligence reports/information between the former and the central agencies. And, at times, Punjab Police would hear of or learn about an incident only from New Delhi channels. Such a communication gap, due to lack of faith and trust between the security forces, also precipitated the matters.
He concludes: “So, I sum up the Punjab situation at the beginning of October 1983 as one full of frustrations, with no light on the horizon. Peace parleys or talks with Akalis had also ended in failure….. The gap between the Sikhs and the Hindus was widening and they sat apart, formed separate foursome in golf. The alienation was felt more in the intellectual circles and the educated classes than in the rural peasantry or workers in factories…”
His impressions as Governor, Punjab: 1983-84 reveals how the Centre judged, looked upon and rated individuals before being considered for key appointments in the state. Even their religio-political leanings and ideologies, if any, were taken into consideration. The two individuals who he identifies in this regard are: Chenna Reddy and A P Sharma. The comments are attributed to Giani Zail Singh, who believed that while the former had a “roving eye” the latter was a “die-hard Hindu, almost a chauvinist”.
He recapitulates his formal, first visits to the Golden Temple, the Durgiana Mandir and Jallianwala Bagh soon after he took over. On his visit to Sikh history museum he writes: “In this museum are portraits of people who had been martyred in the cause of their religion. There are scenes of torture inflicted on them. The whole thing leaves an indelible impression on the mind – a long history of sacrifice, struggle, and martyrdom. This is deeply embedded in the mind of every Sikh especially the youth, from early childhood….”
Pande laments that ‘the atmosphere and propaganda was totally anti-Punjab”. This impression he formed after meeting with local ordinary citizens, community leaders, politicians of all hues, across the state. Even in that period of turmoil, he talks about continuous growth in agriculture and industrial sectors, Punjab doing well in small savings scheme, women’s and adult education, and even winning Red Cross awards at the national level.
His aim was to blunt the false narrative that Punjab was a failed state. He expresses his anguish, after listing such achievements, when he writes, “Then why this unending propaganda that Punjab is in flames, that Punjab is going down, that progress is halted”? He puts the blame for such negativity at the door-step of “Hindu owned national press”. and in his unrelenting style goes on to write: “I think it is a kind of death wish and I fervently pray that the most dreaded consequence of this subtle and sustained propaganda against Punjab, Punjabi Sikhs and the Sikhs does not fructify. Our leaders are doing all that is possible in this direction and there is nothing to restrain them. They do not see the writing on the wall. The worst offenders are the Hindu chauvinists and I would put the neo-fascist types on the top, like the Hindu Shiv Sena of Punjab with backing from reactionary and political forces…”
The first meeting Pande, as Governor, had with Indira Gandhi a few days after he took over makes a shocking read (page 252). Here is the relevant quote: “The meeting was pleasant enough and I reviewed the situation in Punjab. Mrs. Gandhi however stressed her determination to stamp out these terrorists and said that all measures must be taken to do that. Moreover, she added that she would not hesitate to bomb the Golden Temple if she had to. I listened to this somewhat spellbound as I could not believe that she would go to such lengths. I realized that she was quite serious and was willing to take the harshest measures necessary. I felt greatly disturbed at the thought and the consequences if such actions ever became imperative…After my meeting with Mrs. Gandhi I felt that there was going to be a clash in our approach to the Punjab problem…”
The Centre, to be more precise, the Prime Minister, was un-favourably inclined for a “political settlement” despite such advice coming from diverse quarters. This was because “that would have given the Akalis strength independent of India Gandhi in Punjab…. Sensing this difficulty, I wrote out an undated letter of resignation and when I went to see P C Alexander later, I gave it to hm. I told him that whenever Mrs. Gandhi decided I should go, all he needed to do was to fill in the date in my letter and hand it over to her. I would leave Punjab instantly. He did not take the letter and said it should not be necessary…”
The chapter also gives glimpses of bias against the Punjab police in the “extremely biased vernacular press of Jalandhar and English and other languages newspapers”, undercurrents of corruption, favourtism, nepotism etc. in the administration.
I take up the last two chapters- Punjab: 1984; and Punjab: 1984 and after together. The former was written on May 09, 1986. Primarily, these chapters give in a chronological order, more or less , developments leading to the Operation Bluestar at the Golden Temple (reluctance of the Army to step-in, warning given by the military top men to Pande of the fall-out of such an action, and how later those who led the Operation went full throttle; the consequent revolt and desertions in some Army units); fast-pace negotiations with the Akalis, who had announced a string of programmes to usurp food grain movements outside Punjab; growing incidents of acts of violence, terrorism, killings; Pakistan factor in aiding militancy –there was suspicion but no evidence as such, he writes. (One begs to differ with the author. Initially, most of the arms and weapons recovered from militants, supplied by Pakistan, were of Indian origin. It was only later AK-47 and other armaments with POF: Pakistan Ordnance Factory markings were recovered.
He also writes about the six-point broad terms/ conditions of settlement agreed to by Akalis to solve the Punjab imbroglio; the unimplemented Rajiv-Longowal Accord (reached between the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sant Harchand Singh Longowal); visits of the President and the Prime Minister to the Golden Temple after the Operation Bluestar; the killings of the Sikhs post-assassination of Mrs. Gandhi on October 31, 1984.
Pande writes: “Riots broke out in many places, especially in Delhi. According to eye-witnesses and popular belief, the mobs were instigated and sometimes led by Congressmen. In Delhi alone, 2,500 Sikhs were killed. A similar number were killed in Kanpur, Bokaro and other cities….Property of the Sikhs that was burnt, destroyed and looted ran into crores of rupees. With the inclusion of Operation Bluestar, the total number of Sikhs who lost their lives due to the Army action and mob violence was around 7000 - far exceeding the terrorist action or the number of Hindus killed in Punjab from 1982 till date…”
(The author had had a wide administrative experience: He rose to be the Cabinet Secretary and had worked his way up diligently, and had engaged himself with the intricate politico-administrative system at various levels at home and abroad. He was awarded Padma Vibhushan in 2000. Born on March 17, 1917, he died on April 02, 2009.)