NEW DELHI: Indira Gandhi decided to send the army to the Golden Temple in 1984 as a last resort and only after getting repeated assurances from then army chief A.S. Vaidya that not a brick of the Sikh shrine would be harmed, recalls P.C. Alexander, the powerful principal secretary to the former prime minister.
"What happened was not planned. Things happened in the Golden Temple much against what had been approved by her and what had been indicated to her by the army chief," Alexander, one of Gandhi's closest confidants, told IANS in a telephone interview from Chennai.
It has been 25 years since Gandhi was assassinated on Oct 31, 1984, by two Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for her ordering army troops to storm the Golden Temple complex in June 1984.
Tracing the events leading to the "difficult decision" to send the army June 5, 1984 to liberate the temple from Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the militant Sikh leader, and his cohorts rooting for a separate state, Alexander stressed that Gandhi's efforts all along were to find a political settlement.
"When she returned to power in 1980, she held a series of meetings with Akali leaders like Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, Parkash Singh Badal and Surjit Singh Barnala to find a solution to the Punjab problem," said Alexander.
"But the Punjab situation was taking a dangerous turn.
"Bhindranwale was pursuing a policy of creating a rift between Sikhs and Hindus. He was organising an unofficial army and was spewing venom against the Hindu community. Money was flowing in from Britain, Canada."
"Finally, when he occupied the Akal Takth and Harmandir Sahib, Mrs Gandhi realised that even if all their demands were granted, they will then also insist on a separate state," he said.
The 88-year-old Alexander, who also served as governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, recalls vividly the fateful meeting on May 25, 1984 that was to culminate in the army action inside the Golden Temple and subsequently Gandhi's assassination Oct 31, 1984.
"Indira Gandhi had called a meeting to discuss the Punjab situation. Army chief, General A.S. Vaidya, RAW chief R.N. Kao, minister of state for defence K.P.Singh Deo, and I were present at that meeting."
"She was assured by Gen. Vaidya that force will not be used inside the Golden Temple. She made it clear to Vaidya that the holy book will not be touched and not a single brick will be damaged and made Vaidya repeat these assurances many a time.
"Finally she gave the go-ahead, subject to these conditions," he said.
"Four days later, (May 29, 1984), Vaidya again met her and said it was not possible to launch the operation as planned earlier as Bhindranwale and his men were heavily armed. He said it will be a risky operation but we will do our best not to harm the shrine.
"Mrs Gandhi listened to him. But in the end she agreed as she respected the army a lot. I trust my general," Alexander recalled Gandhi telling Vaidya.
"However, the operation did not go as planned. The tanks had to be used as there were a large number of people armed with sophisticated weapons who were well-entrenched inside the temple."
In retrospect, Alexander said Gandhi was anguished by all that had happened but her decision emanated from her belief that she had the superior knowledge to decide what was good for the country.
"Mrs Gandhi did not find fault with the army. She never said she was let down by the army. She was very proud of the Indian Army and of Sikh heritage. Ironically, she was killed by Sikh soldiers in uniform."
Having worked with Gandhi closely during her last stint in power, Alexander feels that her image as an 'Iron Lady' was really an invention of people who never knew her. "She was very safe and gentle. When a journalist famously described her she was the only man in the cabinet, she was outrageously angry as he thought the comment was very patronising."