The ‘People’s Captain'
Amarinder Singh Chief Minister, Punjab, India
He would fly in out from Amritsar and other secret locations trying to negotiate peace for Punjab by meeting Bhindranwale, Harchand Singh Longowal, the Akali Dal president, and other stakeholders.
After attending twenty-eight meetings, Amarinder decided to call it a day in early 1984, as he felt let down by both the government and the Akalis repeatedly. ‘It was frustrating to watch meeting after meeting collapse on petty issues such as naming or not naming a train,’reveals Amarinder.
The same circumstances would foist on Punjab, a situation the scars of which haven’t healed in spite of the passage of over three decades. The events of 1984 gave a gash which will be hard to cure, first of them being the storming of the Golden Temple, the holiest of the Sikh shrines by the Indian Army. The objective of the Operation, codenamed ‘Blue Star’ was to flush out Sikh militants, mostly belonging to Bhindranwale’s group, who had taken sanctuary inside the Golden Temple complex. Executed on June 5, 1984, Operation Blue Star left a trail of death, destruction, and desecration in the temple complex.
Amarinder reminisces about the events just before the army attacked. On learning of the possibility of the government handing over the Punjab civil administration to the military to be followed by army action within the Golden Temple complex, Amarinder had rushed post-haste to meet Indira Gandhi and to caution her against taking such a drastic step. ‘I had emphasized that it would be a big blunder and that any army action could destabilize the nation.’
Indira Gandhi, who was firm about her decision, told him that the army was skeptical about limited action and was keen to conduct a full-scale operation to evict the militants. Amarinder, nevertheless, persisted with his efforts to dissuade her: ‘I told her that she should consider other options since the Indian Army was capable of executing any plan, even with one hand tied behind its back.’ According to Amarinder, she had assured him that she would consider his suggestion.
On 10 June, Amarinder resigned from Parliament and the Congress in protest against what he called ‘entry of the army into the Akal Takht’. In a signed statement, he said he was also resigning from the Congress.The resignation, which clearly was an outcome of a combination of many factors, elevated, among a majority of the Sikhs, the position of the Patiala scion, who till then could only win in his home constituency. It catapulted him to a position of ‘persona grata’ in Punjab’s politics. The resignation can easily be referred to as his first major political maneuver in the complicated political chessboard of Punjab. It was high on emotional connect, strong on religious resonance and shrewd on political wisdom. It was the hallmark of a statesman in the making, whose patriotism was never in doubt.
To avenge the desecration of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, on the morning of 31 October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards in New Delhi. Beant Singh (thirty-five years old) and Satwant Singh, who was just a little over twenty-one, pumped thirty bullets from their weapons into Indira Gandhi’s sixty-seven-year-old frail body at her residence, 1 Safdarjung Road. The Congress party, in power at the Centre instantly unleashed its ‘teach-Sikhs-a-lesson’ onslaught. Written by the top Congress leadership, the script of such an onslaught was designed to set in motion a pogrom, which was almost as heinous and as gruesome as the 1947 partition massacres. Amarinder was one of the first political leaders from Punjab to witness the Delhi massacres. Along with his friend Ravi Inder Singh, who owned a private plane, he landed at Safdarjung Airport on 1 November. What Amarinder witnessed and heard over the next four days during his visits to refugee camps and gurdwaras was heart-wrenching. The shocking reality shook his belief in god as he saw men, women, and children of his community being hacked, burnt and raped. It enraged him to see how his former Congress colleagues were at the forefront leading the carnage, including H.K.L. Bhagat, Lalit Maken, Arjan Dass (all three now deceased), Dharam Das Shastri and Sajjan Kumar as revealed by victims who had taken refuge at camps, where about 50,000 affected Sikhs were lodged. ‘It was clear that it was a government-sponsored event; otherwise, the loss could have considerably been minimized,’ he says. (Some of the cases related to the 1984 riots are still pending in court, more than three decades later.)
Deeply aggrieved and profoundly hurt by the 1984 incidents, Amarinder Singh along with thirty-two prominent Sikhs floated what came to be called the Sikh Forum on 7 February 1985 in Delhi. Its prime mandate was to take up issues concerning the community as well as find ways to develop national pride amongst its members. The Sikh Forum’s landmark ‘achievement’ was to publish a full-page advertisement (in Amarinder Singh’s name) in a slew of national newspapers on 18 March 1985.