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The New York Times on Operation Blue Star
By PUNEET SINGH LAMBA
The Sikh Times, Jun. 2, 2004
Photo: The Akal Takht, an important component of the Darbar Sahib complex (also known as the Golden Temple complex), was reduced to rubble at the conclusion of Operation Blue Star.
Note: Every quote in this essay actually appears in The New York Times, dated June 3, 1984 through June 27, 1984, the period of reporting surveyed. Upon request, The Sikh Times will fax the newspaper page containing the quote of the requester's choice.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the commencement of Operation Blue Star, the Indian army's offensive into the Darbar Sahib (also known as the Golden Temple), aimed at the epicenter of the armed movement for Sikh autonomy in the Indian state of the Punjab.
The issues that were at the root of the Sikh rebellion were never resolved and continue to fester even today. However, as evidenced by Manmohan Singh's recent appointment as India's first Sikh prime minister, the agitation has been dormant since the mid-1990s when it was brutally supressed by the Punjab police under K.P.S. Gill's command.
Operation Blue Star was an event of international significance and received worldwide press coverage. This essay describes the events as they were portrayed to the world by The New York Times, arguably the planet's most influential newspaper.
The Roots of Sikh Revolt
The New York Times' coverage of the devastating event began on June 3, 1984 with a relatively evenhanded review of the history of Sikh grievances and their expression over the years. All of the major issues were mentioned: Chandigarh (which was built as a replacement for the loss of Punjab's pre-1947 capital, Lahore, but is currently shared with the state of Haryana), demands for political autonomy, contention around the fair distribution of river waters, the plea for Sikhism to be constitutionally recognized as a distinct religion, and the desire for holy city status for Amritsar, the site of the Darbar Sahib, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs.
The Times aptly summarized the Sikh sentiment in a sentence: '[Sikhs] contribute more to India than they receive.'
When reporting began, the '22-month-old campaign for autonomy' was justly described as a 'moderate' and 'non-violent' effort that had been hijacked by armed radicals. However, by June 27 (the end date of this survey) the newspaper's tagline for the uprising had been politicized to simply 'a two-year-old Sikh terrorist movement' with little or no mention of its peaceful past.
A rare Times editorial on the subject reprimanded then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for facilitating the rise of Sikh radicalism, 'There was a nonviolent Sikh protest movement [led by the Akali Dal, a political party representing the Sikhs], but it was eclipsed when the Prime Minister rebuffed its demands, opening the way for Mr. Bhindranwale and his armed gangs.'
However, the gutsy editorial drew the line at economic concessions, 'Sikhs complain that New Delhi has unfairly creamed off the Punjab's prosperity to spread its wealth among poorer states. This is an unavoidable inequity in any federal system. To make an exception for the Punjab would amount to economic partition of India. If Mrs. Gandhi can be faulted, it is for failing to give greater recognition to the Sikh religion, whatever the risks of stirring comparable demands by other minorities.'
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the Radicals
Reporting from New Delhi for The New York Times, Sanjoy Hazarika described Damdami Taksal, the Sikh seminary where Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was groomed and eventually appointed chief, as 'a fundamentalist Sikh sect.' The article described his most trusted lieutenant, Amrik Singh, as 'a leader of the recently formed Dishmish Regiment, which has taken responsibility for several assassinations of Hindu politicians.' Hazarika added, 'Indian officials say they believe the Sikh extremists hoped to start Hindu-Sikh riots with their killings and force Hindus to migrate from the Punjab to other parts of the country.'
In a letter to the editor, James W. Michaels, a one-time foreign correspondent in India and then editor of Forbes Magazine, wrote, 'When traditional societies modernize, they frequently spew up reactionary groups which violently challenge the new society.' He added, 'To assume [that] these fanatical groups can be negotiated with is to ignore their irrational and fascist nature.'
Also reporting from New Delhi, William K. Stevens wrote, 'every time the Akalis and the Government seemed to be making progress toward a settlement, the militants led by Mr. Bhindranwale would unleash a new round of terrorist killings in Punjab. Each time, the negotiations were suspended.' However, the report neglects to mention that in each case the government ended negotiations and it was unreasonable to assume that the Sikh moderates exerted much influence on the Sikh radicals.
The paper readily acknowledged that the circumstances of Bhindranwale's death during the operation were shrouded in mystery. Three distinct versions were reported. One, 'he died in a hail of bullets during a battle with troops.' Two, he was killed by members of the Babbar Khalsa, a rival group loyal to moderate Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal, after he 'rebuffed their appeal to join forces in the fight.' Three, his 'own supporters killed him when they wanted to surrender but he refused.'
Although most accounts placed Bhindranwale's dead body in the basement of the Akal Takht, the paper reported, 'Maj. Gen. K.S. Brar, who commanded the assault, said the body had been found outside the Akal Takht.'
The paper added that according to Government officials, 'No one claimed the body [which] was cremated with full religious rites.'
Relaying 'autopsy reports from Punjab,' quoted in The Indian Express, the paper noted that Bhindranwale's body 'contained 14 bullet wounds, including six in the head.' However, the paper added, 'One of the generals said the radical Sikh leader had suffered a severe head wound but appeared to have no other injuries.'
Indira Gandhi and the Motive for Army Action
Among the catalysts for Operation Blue Star, the newspaper cited a planned 'campaign of non-cooperation with the Government, starting Sunday [June 3].' The paper added, 'This, it is feared, could lead to the blockage of supplies of grain, water and electric power to the rest of India.'
The paper also stated that the goals of the armed movement, led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, were 'unclear' and that 'Bhindranwale may settle only for amnesty for the many crimes committed by the extremists.'
The Home Secretary, M.M.K. Wali, was quoted as prophesizing, '[Operation Blue Star] will break the back of the terrorist movement.' The paper also reported that Wali 'predicted that the country at large, including most Sikhs, would applaud the action.' Wali, and by extension New Delhi, couldn't have been more off target. Sikh reaction to New Delhi's attack on their holiest shrine was overwhelmingly negative. It took India more than a decade to snuff the resulting armed movement for Sikh autonomy.
On June 8, after major action had ceased, Indira Gandhi was reported as saying, 'it might still be difficult to reach a negotiated settlement.' The paper noted, 'Mrs. Gandhi's statement suggested that she might be preparing to adopt a tough line in future talks with [the Sikhs].'
The following paragraph, quoted from The New York Times, is a textbook illustration of Mrs. Gandhi's cunning: Months ago, she said, the smashing of the terrorist movement might have made it easier to reach a negotiated settlement. But now, she said, if the moderates 'were aware of what was happening and did nothing to stop it, the situation is completely changed.'
Indira Gandhi was reported as saying of Bhindranwale, 'there had been nothing religious in his preachings.' However, as retired Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora aptly pointed out in a report by James M. Markham, 'only last month Mrs. Gandhi's son Rajiv had praised him [Bhindranwale] as a man of religion.'
A piece by James Traub further lambasted Gandhi, 'The root of India's problem is that Mrs. Gandhi seems unable to accept the legitimacy of any opposition: Compromise is foreign to her nature.'
An editorial referring to Gandhi's 'credibility problem' hammered the final nail into her integrity coffin: 'the Prime Minister appears to disdain conciliation.'
According to the newspaper, the operation involved six army infantry battalions and a detachment of commandos.
Citing an 'army officer' the paper reported, 'The decision to use the army was made a month ago [and] troops who were sent into the state [on June 2] had planned to enter the Golden Temple on [June 3].'
The paper added that according to an army general four of the six senior commanders who took part in the storming of the shrine were Sikhs.
The complexity of the situation was not lost on the paper as it observed, 'The Golden Temple has been the headquarters of both the radical and moderate wings of the Sikh movement. Mr. Bhindranwale and Mr. Longowal have been living in the same quadrangle for months.'
In addition to the operations at the Darbar Sahib, 43 gurdwaras across the Punjab were simultaneously raided by the army with the objective of purging them of armed radicals.
The Moderates, Led by Harchand Singh Longowal
Sikh historian, author and one of India's most widely read columnists Khushwant Singh was quoted as forecasting, 'If they [the moderates led by Longowal, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, and Parkash Singh Badal] surrendered, they are lost forever to the Sikh community.'
As it turned out, it did not take long for the moderates to have much of their credibility restored. Tohra subsequently served several more terms as president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.), the religious parliament of the Sikhs. Badal was re-elected chief minister of Punjab. Yet, Khushwant Singh was partly vindicated when in 1985 Longowal signed a 'Memorandum of Settlement' with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and was subsequently assassinated by Sikh radicals.
Casualties and Arrests
The initial official line on fatalities, as reported by The New York Times on June 7, was 308 dead, including 48 soldiers. By June 26, the official death toll had nearly doubled to 600. Unofficial military sources and journalists placed the number at between 1,000 and 1,200. Brahma Chellaney of The Associated Press, perhaps the only journalist who had managed to stay on in Amritsar despite the ban, was a rare eyewitness to the events. The Times published reports from The Associated Press stating that the toll 'could be as high as 2,000.' Finally, Dr. Jagjit Singh Chauhan, an exiled Sikh separatist, claimed, 'more than 10,000 people have been massacred by this fascist regime of Mrs. Gandhi.'
The paper also reported, 'Government sources estimate that about 4,500 people have been rounded up but they say some prominent militants are still at large.'
Army Desertions and Mutinies
As in the case of casualties and arrests, the official figures on desertions and mutinies were much lower than the unofficial numbers. A report from The Associated Press, reproduced in The New York Times, stated, 'Since the assault an estimated 5,000 Sikh soldiers have risen in rebellion in nine Indian states.' An army officer was reported to have observed that all Sikh units throughout the country had been placed under 'constant surveillance' by non-Sikh units.
In a refreshingly honest piece of reporting, Sanjoy Hazarika noted, 'Some newspapers, like The Times of India, have taken a pro-Government approach, saying desertions are not serious and have been contained. But The Indian Express, which is fiercely independent, has reported on the scale of unrest with reports from centers where desertions have occurred.'
Civilian Sikh Reaction in India and Abroad
Describing the situation at New Delhi's largest gurdwara, Bangla Sahib, a report stated, 'Loudspeakers in the temple here broadcast Sikh prayers and anti-Government slogans and eulogies of Mr. Bhindranwale.'
It was reported that Amarinder Singh and Devinder Singh Garcha, both Congress party representatives in the lower house of parliament, had 'resigned in protest.' Zail Singh, a Sikh and then president of India, was quoted as having 'rejected demands for his resignation' because he said, 'If I resign, I would be violating the oath of office that I've taken to uphold the Constitution [of India].'
Aurora and other 'establishment Sikhs' formed the 'Committee of Concerned Punjabis.' Aurora opined that most Sikhs regarded Zail Singh's apparent endorsement of Operation Blue Star as a 'greater sacrilege than the earlier use of the shrine by heavily armed terrorists.' He described Bhindranwale as 'a limited man' and characterized Gandhi as 'vicious, cold, calculating' and guilty of 'building up Bhindranwale as a counterweight to the Akali Dal in the 1970s.'
Hundreds of Sikhs protested, sometimes violently, at India's high commissions and consulates around the world, including New York, Washington, London, Vancouver, and Hong Kong.
Ujagar Singh, 'president of the New York-New Jersey branch of the North American Akali Dal,' described the situation in India as 'a tyranny of the majority.'
Tejinder Singh Kahlon, 'a lawyer [and] president of the Sikh Cultural Society in New York,' described Operation Blue Star as 'immoral' and accused Indira Gandhi of 'laying the foundation for a separate Sikh state.'
Voicing support for Bhindranwale, Gurcharan Singh, 'executive director of the Sikh Heritage Institute in New York City,' said, 'We do not consider him an extremist.'
Jagjit Singh Chauhan, a former 'deputy speaker of the Punjab assembly' who claimed to be Bhindranwale's 'closest friend' and to have 'received his last message,' declared himself president of the 'Republic of Khalistan.' In this capacity, he 'named a Cabinet, set up a bank account [and issued] blue-and-gold passports, postage stamps and Khalistan dollars.'
American converts to Sikhism, led by 'Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji,' who held the title 'Chief Religious and Administrative Authority of the Sikh Dharma for the Western Hemisphere,' and Sat Jiwan Singh Khalsa of Brooklyn, New York, planned a 'meeting at Espanola, N.M., on June 23-24, 1984 to formulate a joint program of action in response to developments in the Indian state of Punjab.'
The paper observed, 'Mrs. Gandhi is reliably reported to have conveyed in private the belief that the United States has been meddling in Punjab [and] The Indian Express quoted Indian intelligence officials, who were not identified, as having said the C.I.A. had 'masterminded' a plan for funneling weapons through Pakistan to the followers of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.'
However, apart from a smattering of 'Pakistani passports' allegedly found in the Darbar Sahib, officials produced little evidence to backup the repeated claims that had become 'a staple of Mrs. Gandhi's polemic over the years.'
On June 24, The New York Times reported, 'During the visit [to the Darbar Sahib], Mrs. Gandhi was told that some Sikh scriptures had been damaged during the battle.' However, there were no details about several irreplaceable items of immense historical value (e.g. handwritten copies of the Adi Granth, the Sikh scripture) found missing from the ashes of the Sikh Reference Library at the Akal Takht.
Also, conspicuously missing was any mention of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973, which, despite some confusion regarding the authoritative version, is perhaps the most comprehensive articulation of the entire set of Sikh grievances.