On 3 June, 35 years ago, began probably the greatest miscalculation in India’s independent history: Operation Blue Star. It was a miscalculation by both antagonists. The Army thought Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s “rabble” would give in without a fight, and he thought no government will be able to show such intent and even if it did, there will be an immediate Sikh uprising. Every anniversary brings back the same questions and curiosity about what really happened in that most traumatic of internal military operations. I covered it first-hand and it has stayed with me all these decades. Here’s an updated version of my reconstruction. Hope this will bring more updates/clarity to this vital turn in our contemporary history – Shekhar Gupta.
Nobody can reconstruct the 72 hours of Operation Blue Star in 3,000 words. Or even in 30,000. Books have been written about it by the finest reporters, notably the BBC’s Mark Tully (Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, co-authored with Satish Jacob). Mark was the unofficial but undisputed dean of the reporters’ corps for two generations, and please do read this book for diligence and detail. Books have been written by the generals who led the assault. I’d pick my dear friend Lt. Gen. K.S. “Bulbul” Brar’s ‘Operation Blue Star: The True Story (UBS, 1993)’ for the Army’s side of the story, told as honestly as possible for a partisan, albeit an exceptionally honourable soldier.
There was also a relatively recent series of TV documentaries put together and anchored by my old comrade and friend, Kanwar Sandhu, formerly executive editor of The Tribune (and now an MLA of AAP in Punjab). Check it out for its brilliance, depth and honesty. Even I contributed my bit to the history of Op Blue Star in some detail, with a 27-page chapter, ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’, in The Punjab Story, published by Roli in 1984. There is no real mystery about the operation, how it started and ended. But there are other mysteries that endured for decades, and some are still unresolved. Let me also talk about some of those.
One, in fact, was resolved in 2013, in the memoir (From Fatigues to Civvies: Memoirs of a Paratrooper, Manohar, 2013) written by Lt. Gen. V.K. “Tubby” Nayar, whom I first met when he commanded the 8 Mountain Division at Zakhama in Nagaland, and who later honoured me by inviting me to speak at the release of his book. He was the deputy director general of military operations in 1984 and reveals, in this memoir, how the codename Blue Star was chosen. Contrary to speculation over the years, it had nothing to do with the way traditional or devout Sikhs dress, or their colour preferences.
“Tubby” says he was driving home, exhausted after a long day in the ops room, a codename yet to be found, and the signboard of a refrigeration shop caught his eye. It was selling Blue Star, a prominent fridge/AC brand in pre-reform India. Let’s go with it, he decided. We still don’t know where the names of two other related operations — Op Woodrose (to sweep the rest of the state clear of militants and maintain order) and Op Metal (to specifically catch or kill Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and members of his inner core team) came from.
The greatest mystery of these 30 years, however, is how and why, with such elaborate planning, the Army brass miscalculated on Blue Star so badly. It is tempting to say they were arrogant and underestimated the task, but that would be unfair. More than 70,000 troops had been called to Punjab, tanks, APCs and all. Vijayanta tanks had been lined up along the final approaches of the Golden Temple much before the first shots were exchanged between the Army and the militants. The media was cleared out even before the militants, all telephone lines cut and the state put under not mere curfew but martial law for the first, and hopefully last, time in our history.
There was, therefore, no underestimation of the task but I dare say now that there was a touching belief that the militants wouldn’t fight, and if they did, their resolve would be broken in a couple of hours. All the bandobast, therefore, was to stun them with a display of firepower, a strategy of shock and awe, decades before it was given that name in Iraq by George W. Bush. Each of the generals involved, Brar, Western Army Command chief of staff Lt. Gen. Ranjit Singh Dyal, Army Commander K. Sundarji and his chief, General Arun Shridhar Vaidya (later assassinated by revenge-seeking terrorists while driving his Maruti 800 after retiring in Pune), subsequently admitted to this miscalculation to some extent. There was a firm belief that Bhindranwale would not fight, he would surrender or try to escape.
Just how serious this misreading was, I first learnt from a senior Intelligence Bureau officer who spoke to me in some horror after spending the first few hours with Army commanders. He said he tried to tell them that Bhindranwale and his people would fight to the finish, but was not merely overruled but mocked. In fact, one of the generals pointed at some of his black-dungareed commandos, who were getting kitted out and briefed, and said, “Have you seen these bhoots (devils) of mine? The terrorists have to merely see them and they will surrender with their tails between their legs.” My IB friend, a wonderful professional and a patriot, retreated from the argument sort of fatalistically.
The first assault by the commandos ran into trouble. One set of audacious generals had overlooked the fact that they weren’t up against some armed rabble but a small army of faithfuls led by someone exactly like them. In fact, a fellow general as bright, if not brighter, than all of them. Former Maj. Gen. Shabeg Singh had served with each one of those serving, he had received his fame organising and training the Mukti Bahini during the Bangladesh war and was a master of guerrilla warfare. He earned infamy later as he was accused of irregularities and dismissed a day before retirement. But as most human beings do, he never believed he was guilty, but was victimised, because of what else but his religion. He had found spiritual succour and a new soldierly cause with Bhindranwale, although now in what he saw as the service of his faith, not his republic.
Just how good was Shabeg Singh? I won’t go by hearsay, though even that makes him sound superhuman. Wading through the rubble at the Akal Takht a couple of days after the fighting, we found a copy of a book, a thin memoir written by a Pakistani brigadier who was taken PoW in Bangladesh. It had been presented by an officer of the BSF’s intelligence branch, who had “sourced” it from across the border. It had a warm and respectful note to Shabeg Singh from his BSF fan, saying how happy he was to see high praise for the (now rebel) general from the Pakistani brigadier and what a privilege it was to present the book to him. Since it was being thrown in the rubble, I picked it up and kept it.
In any case, the defence of the Golden Temple was not so much about high strategy or even guerrilla warfare. It was more like a battalion-level tactical defence of a built-up complex of buildings. They provided alleys, parapets, machine-gun emplacements, tunnels, towers and lots of ancient marble walls more impregnable than modern armour. Most importantly, it had a string of manholes. So important, because it was inside them that he placed his LMGs, which sprayed grazing fire at assault troops while automatics positioned higher up rained sweeping fire. Together, they fully covered the small, open courtyard, maybe half the size of a football field, where the attackers had to expose themselves to reach the Akal Takht.
This was his designated, killing ground, as it would be defined in classic infantry defence manuals, specifically, in this case, following the principles of what acronym-loving armies called FIBUA (Fighting in Built-Up Areas). Manhole LMGs were so effective because they denied the attackers the basic defensive tactic of hitting the ground and crawling, because the bullets then got you in the bodies instead of merely the legs. A very large number of the jawans, therefore, were injured in the legs, including the young Sikh 2/Lt. Jasbir Raina who volunteered to lead the first platoon of 10 Guards. He was awarded the Ashok Chakra, the highest peacetime gallantry award, and came to accept it from the President on a wheelchair. Please look at the pictures of rows of beds from a military hospital treating the injured after Blue Star.
Shabeg wasn’t foolhardy to think he would win. His tactic was to optimise his resources, snipers behind any hiding place, every room along the parikrama infested by a gunman or two so any probing patrols would be cut down, others sprinting up and down the staircases linking just the two floors of the buildings and their parapets. His idea was to inflict as many casualties as possible and thereby delay the inevitable so that Bhindranwale’s supporters in the villages had enough time to organise mobs to converge on Amritsar and make further Army operations impossible, unless Indira Gandhi was willing to inflict scores of Jallianwala Baghs in Punjab.
It was a good approach that succeeded tactically. The commandos did not get very far, took several casualties and also underlined the generals’ unthinking impatience in launching them in black dungarees on white marble as it gleamed in bright moonlight. A more conventional infantry charge, by the troops of 10 Guards was stopped as well as it spilled in from the main entrance. This was the first time the generals were made to wonder if they had miscalculated. More assault troops, launched from other directions, were similarly pinned down. Typical of the Indian doctrine in such situations, the Army carried out incremental escalation, and not with the best results. One infantry unit after another was thrown in, but casualties only mounted. Then an approach was tried through an APC, but again, sort of half-heartedly, in a wheeled old SKOT rather than a tracked Russian BMP with better armour and firepower. It was knocked out by a militant RPG-7 rocket launcher. There was much recrimination on this later.
Did intelligence warn the Army of the presence of such a weapon? Or were the generals being too arrogant (incompetent?) in not anticipating this? That night, as I sat on a high terrace that did not have a view of the battleground but helped you understand the story with flashes, fires and explosions, I recorded the night’s noises on a tiny tape-recorder, as also some of the police and army wireless conversations on a radio with the FM band (FM radio had not arrived in India yet and security forces used some of the same frequencies on which we now hear music). These conversations got more frantic as the night ended.
There were nearly 3,000 infantry troops pinned down, hundreds wounded, more than a hundred bodies. This time of the year (early June), the sun comes out really early, and every soldier still alive — all the thousands of them — would be target practice for snipers. As often happens in such situations, the battlefield, the “terrain” was the best force-multiplier for the defender. He could hide and fire, whereas the attackers had to expose themselves. This was unacceptable, so further escalation became inevitable.
For greater detail, I would again, shamelessly, refer you to my “Blood, Sweat and Tears” chapter in The Punjab Story. But even 33 years later, I can see nothing less, regrettably, than a story of incredible military courage and yet, incompetence. No soldier flinched, even when faced with an impossible task. And the generals, who had misread and miscalculated, played on incrementally, until the dawn threatened and artillery — not heavy, but artillery nevertheless — was called out, along with Vijayanta tanks that blazed with their main guns. The brutal destruction of the Akal Takht building was now launched.
If Bhindranwale wouldn’t flee or surrender, or come out in a suicidal charge, he would be entombed there now. There were Vijayantas to the left of the holy sarovar, firing from just a couple of hundred yards, and howitzers on top of facing buildings firing in direct mode. This was the equivalent of a sledgehammer where a psychological or, at worst, surgical strike had been anticipated. There was never any doubt who would win. But the cost, in lives, sentiment, political consequences and a legacy of anger and bitterness, had not been imagined. It is for this reason that I would call Operation Blue Star a bold, brave, audacious operation where soldiers did the profession of the Army proud, but both leaderships, political and military, showed gross incompetence.
But the Army generals were not the only ones who had miscalculated. Bhindranwale too made similar, arrogantly delusional blunders. He had boasted that the Sikhs in the Army wouldn’t fight him. Two of the three generals involved, Brar and Dyal, were Sikhs. Brar told me in a ‘Walk the Talk’ interview on NDTV 24×7, days after the attack on him in London, that while addressing his troops before the assault, he had given the freedom to opt out to everybody, particularly Sikhs, if they had any hesitation. Nobody did. Lt. Jasbir Raina, in fact, volunteered to go in first. If the generals showed an underestimation of the militants’ fervour and tactical dash, Bhindranwale — and sadly Shabeg too — showed similar lack of appreciation of the ethos of their own country’s Army.
Many militants and civilians died, but the Army suffered gravely too. And brutally so. Responding to my earlier writings on this subject, I received a touching email from K. Ramkumar, the HR head of ICICI Bank, mentioning that his cousin was part of the “Thambis” of the hapless Madras Regiment battalion that suffered severely in the assaults. It was 26 Madras, and I had the privilege of being taken under their wing, even while the wounded were being tended to. They suffered heavy casualties and when one of their assault sections managed to enter the Akal Takht, the JCO leading it was overpowered, blinded and flung from the top of the building to the marble courtyard.
But the cruellest, saddest and most unnecessary loss of life was that of battalion doctor Capt. Rampal, more than 24 hours after the fighting was over. He was walking around, looking for the wounded from any side to tend to, when a group of terrorists hiding in one of the basements dragged him in, demanded that none else than the head priest of the Temple be sent down to negotiate with them and when that wasn’t done, the doctor was tortured to death, his body dismembered.
The officers of the battalion, led by Lt. Col. Panikkar, took me to their mess one evening and fed me a meal of sambhar and curd rice from their langar, which was such a blessing after a week of dry rations, and told more stories. One of these was of Lt. Ram Prakash Roperia of Jind, in Haryana, the baby of the battalion. His English was rather basic but like any self-respecting Haryanvi, he would speak in no other language. So everybody called him by a mockingly anglicised name: Robert Prince Roperia. He fell to a sniper bullet on the afternoon of 6 June as he climbed down a rope ladder from the wide parikrama parapet, where several of his comrades lay flat to escape snipers. In the 46-degree sun for all of the day, they were dying of thirst and heat stroke and young Robert Prince, a baby officer, volunteered to go down and bring water. A sniper in the Temple shot him in the neck. Roperia died three days later.
It was while talking about his sacrifice at the sambhar langar at 26 Madras that night that I got my finest lesson ever in leadership and a line I have used often since: there is a moral dimension to leadership. If there were so many soldiers lying flat on that parapet, why did the youngest, and an officer, have to expose himself to bring water? “Because,” said Panikkar, “there is a moral dimension to leadership.” If the officer is not in front, why would the troops follow him to whatever consequences? Thank you, Lt. Col. Panikkar, wherever you are. You gave me a lesson no life coach or famous general ever could.
There were also many other mysteries and mythologies. What happened on the first night of fighting, for example in the sarais, from where several Akali leaders were rescued and many militants escaped, while a sudden flurry of grenades and the confusion that followed led to the death of a very large number of people, maybe a couple of hundreds, in the crossfire, many of them innocent pilgrims? It was later said that the Army unit there, from 9 Kumaon Regiment, had lined up the Sikhs and shot them randomly.
Frankly, I tried every source possible but could never confirm this. But that there were many deaths, most of them unnecessary, is undeniable. Many Sikh survivors, including some priests, back the deliberate massacre story. But my sources in the Army always insist that this was just murderous confusion caused by the militants, some of whom hid in the pilgrims’ rooms in the sarais and cut down the soldiers who tried to clear them. The Kumaonis responded by presuming every room to be terrorist-occupied and fired, also resulting in innocent deaths.
I am still not willing to buy that deliberate massacre story, though many survivors have repeated it. In so many decades of covering the Army’s operations, I have found Indian soldiers to be mostly honourable and the officers, if anything, caring and cautious to the extent of being soft in such situations. I wasn’t in the sarais that night. But everybody knows that the Kumaonis’ company commander Maj. H.K. Palta was. I cannot say who killed whom and why, but among the lives lost, all Indian, was also Maj. Palta’s. His family now lives in Noida. If anything, the fiasco at the sarais concluded, sadly, the story of those 72 hours.
Postscript: I have many nightmares from those three horrible days, involving the bodies of fellow Indians. One is of a truck parked at the kotwali on the morning of 7 June, when curfew had been relaxed for a couple of hours. An awful stench rose from the truck and what looked like blood mixed with viscous bodily fluids dripped from its leaky frame. I joined the several policemen who grabbed its rear wall and raised themselves to take a look at what lay inside. There were scores, literally scores, of bodies and nobody could say who was a combatant and who a devotee. But so many dead, fellow Indians, rotting under the June sun. A DSP we all knew well lost his composure and started screaming abuses, both at the Army and Bhindranwale for causing so much death. To the right of the truck, under the same sun, sat about 50 suspected militants with their limbs tied while soldiers kept watch over them behind an LMG on a tripod and an officer, a Sikh, interrogated them in public. There was nothing physical about it, just an angry volley of basic questions. Possibly it was sights like this that spread stories of Sikhs being lined up and shot by firing squads.
The second was a string of three Army trucks, weaving its way through the narrow, old-city lane called Braham Buta Akhara connecting the Temple complex. Once again, I raised myself to the back of one and found three rows of stretchers on either side, with bodies of soldiers. The one on top to the right, a boy from Garhwal Regiment, no more than 19 or 20 possibly, still had beads of perspiration on his nose. He must have just died.
Both nightmares involve my dead countrymen. Neither will ever go away.
An earlier version of this piece was published on 4 June 2018.