A month or so after the last AK-47 wielded by the last Khalistani terrorist had fallen silent in Punjab in the autumn of 1993, I had travelled through the State to see for myself the return of peace in the land of perpetual happiness. In those days there wasn’t much of a choice when it came to travelling by road — it was either an Ambassador or a Fiat; I opted for the former. As we sped along highways, stopping at randomly selected villages and towns for chai and food, I recall marvelling at the calm that prevailed.
It was a different calm that I had encountered during my visits to Punjab in the late-1980s — the mood would be sullen, the tension palpable, the air heavy with distrust and disquiet: You could almost cut through it with a knife. True, even in those dark days of fear and senseless killing, when death could strike anybody at any moment, the Sikhs of Punjab — Sardarjis, as we Bengalis fondly refer to them — had not lost their sense of hospitality for which they are famous. One could settle down for a meal in the home of a recently-met person with amazing ease.
Yet, neither boisterous back-slapping over extra-large Patiala pegs of whiskey served from bottles that would appear as miraculously as their contents would disappear, nor casual banter over the delicious food that would follow could hide the melancholy and anger that was all pervasive. Operation Bluestar at the Darbar Sahib complex in the summer of 1984 had left a deep wound. There was no healing balm; instead, subsequent tragedies of that terrible year of retribution and counter-retribution deepened the festering wound, scarring the collective Sikh psyche.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards whose job it was to protect her from assassins; they turned on for ordering Operation Bluestar that had left the Akal Takht destroyed and the Harmandir Sahib riddled with bullet holes. Operation Bluestar was a success insofar as it cleansed the Darbar Sahib complex of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his gang of Khalistani hoods. But scores of innocent people, caught in the crossfire, died for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mrs Gandhi, who had once feted Bhindranwale to inflict political damage on the Akali Dal, basked in the glory of what proved to be a pyrrhic victory. Little did she know that she would have to pay with her life for a decision that was and remains questionable: Was she wrongly advised or did she act on her own? Within hours of her tragic death, Congress goons were out in the streets of Delhi (and other cities and towns) extracting a terrible, blood-curdling ‘revenge’: More than 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in Delhi alone.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of Punjab’s saga of death and disquiet, anger and agony. The bombing of Kanishka, Air India’s Flight 182 from Toronto, off the Irish coast was a measure of the horror that loomed large in the form of Khalistani terrorism. It was a long, slow, often painful, journey from 1984-85 to 1993 when the ISI-armed and funded violent separatist movement over which Pakistan couldn’t stop gloating was finally put down by KPS Gill, one of the toughest police officers India has ever seen, and his ‘boys’.
That’s where I began this story: My journey through Punjab in the early-winter of 1993. Punjab was once again smiling and bubbling with life. Nobody talked of the 1980s — the past was referred to in passing, without rancour or longing. Yes, I met parents who still grieved for sons they had lost, killed by either Khalistani terrorists or policemen. I met young widows who faced a bleak future. I met orphans who were toddlers. But then, no asymmetric war of attrition has ever been fought and won without collateral damage.
Since then, I have visited Punjab quite a few times. And the past no longer seemed relevant as the State gradually returned to what is quaintly called ‘normalcy’ — cynical power politics, aspirational prosperity and urbanisation overwhelmed memories of the 1980s. Twenty-eight years is a long time in a State’s history, if not that of a nation, and long enough for public memory of unhappy events to fade, fleetingly revived by sepia images tucked away in dusty corners.
So it would seem. But obviously that’s not true. This past fortnight’s events — the murderous attack of Lt Gen KS Brar, who led the forces during Operation Bluestar, in London; the decision to build a memorial to ‘martyrs’ of the Army action at Darbar Sahib (does that include Bhindranwale and his thugs?); and the ‘honour’ bestowed by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee on the kin of the two men who killed Gen AS Vaidya, the Army chief who planned Operation Bluestar — are cause for concern. Clearly there is mischief afoot and an effort is on to rekindle a fire that died many years ago, a fire that had been lit by Mrs Gandhi to teach the Akalis a lesson and hobble them politically.
Who could that be?
— The writer is a journalist, political analyst & activist