It’s deja vu. For those of us who lived through Operation Blue Star, the situation in Kashmir today brings back vivid memories. Then too, the Central government, headed by Indira Gandhi, had snapped telephone lines and imposed both a state-wide curfew and a news blackout. Residents of Amritsar felt something was going to happen but didn’t know what.
Like Kashmiris today, who could not imagine that the security build-up in the first few days of this month meant the end of the one Constitutional provision that defined them, no Amritsari could have imagined in their wildest dreams that their beloved Golden Temple would be fired upon by their own Army.
The repercussions of that assault in June 1984, in which 492 civilians and 83 soldiers died (official figures), were felt for at least a decade. A prime minister’s assassination followed by a Sikh pogrom were part of the violent aftermath, which was not confined to Punjab or Sikhs alone. Immediately however, what stood out was the secrecy surrounding the Operation. The harsh truth about Operation Blue Star came out only a year later, in a report brought out by Citizens For Democracy, headed by the renowned civil libertarian VM Tarkunde.
Even at that late juncture, ‘Oppression in Punjab: Report to the Nation’ was banned, its five authors charged with sedition, and three of them arrested. The government had already come out with a ‘White Paper’ on Operation Blue Star, but no one believed it. Indira Gandhi herself contemptuously dismissed it in Parliament as “the handiwork of bureaucrats”. What she said in Parliament in defence of Operation Blue Star however, was equally unbelievable - at least to those who dared to doubt the official version.
Then as now, the official version projected the government’s decision as absolutely justified, given the fact that militant leader JS Bhindranwale had dug in his heels inside the Golden Temple with his heavily armed followers. Then as now, came the whitewash of the terrible fallout. Desperate to restore the Akal Takht, reduced to rubble by tank fire, the Centre ultimately found a little-known Nihang to undertake ‘kar seva’, the voluntary labour with which Sikhs build their gurdwaras.
Day after day, Doordarshan - the only TV channel then available—showed Santa Singh with his followers clearing the debris at the Golden Temple. This was described as the Centre’s “healing touch”. (Significantly, there’s no talk of a “healing touch” today). The daily telecast became so intolerable that a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court asking that this propaganda be stopped. Santa Singh was immediately excommunicated; what he built was torn down.
Given the media blackout, rumours abounded. Fantastical stories of Army excesses were partly responsible for as many as 2,800 Sikh soldiers deserting their regiments. Three officers were shot by deserters; one, Brig SC Puri, died. Many deserters were jailed, court-martialled and dismissed. Later, the Army reinstated most, but the 9th battalion of the Sikh Regiment, the first to react, was never raised again.
Many lessons could have been learnt from these events, but none seem to have been. The sudden and prolonged shutdown of communication in the Valley has similarly led to rumours, even across the border. Pakistani journalists have been asking whether Kashmiri reporters—whose names have been flashed on their TV screens—have been shot dead for covering protests.
Youngsters from the Valley studying outside Kashmir have imagined that the worst has befallen their families. The psychological impact of such a shutdown is far worse today, when everyone is just a click of a mobile phone away, than it was in 1984.
Security officials claim the communication shutdown achieved its goal: making mass street protests difficult, thereby reducing casualties among security forces. But the message that came through loud and clear from the clampdown was that the powers that be regard everyone in the Valley as untrustworthy.
Operation Blue Star led to a rise in militancy in Punjab and alienated Sikhs everywhere. Khushwant Singh, who even supported Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, immediately returned his Padma Bhushan. It took a decade to end the Punjab violence and longer than that for Sikhs, specially in Punjab and Delhi, to emerge from their isolation and feel again that yes, this was their country. Have the scars inflicted by the Army assault on the Golden Temple been erased? The answer lies in the SGPC’s decision to keep the bullet-ridden entrance door of the Temple as it is, even after the renovation of the Golden Temple is complete.
All this happened with a community whose bonds with the majority community have always run deep. In contrast, Kashmiris’ relationship with India has been fragile from the very beginning. The vile comments made by BJP leaders and followers about marrying Kashmiri girls and buying land there now that Article 370 is diluted, couldn’t have helped.
But the Valley’s Sikhs, and the Pandits who chose to stay behind, have boldly spoken out against the dilution of Article 370. Their forebodings that the Centre’s undemocratic decision will result in an increase in militancy and communal hostility need to be taken very seriously. What also emerges through their statements is the sense of identification they share as Kashmiris with the majority Muslims of the Valley. That’s a ray of sunshine amid the dark clouds that have engulfed Kashmir since August 5.
(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)