By Brigadier Iqbal Singh (Retd)
For the benefit of our readers we have decided to publish extracts from “THE PUNJAB CRISIS AND HUMAN RIGHTS,” by S. Iqbal Singh of University of Chicago. Mr. Singh’s work stands out distinct as an objective and analytical study of a subject that has been distorted out of all proportions especially by those who have been laboriously endeavoring to justify the Army action as inevitable.
Mr. Singh’s approach is none motional and solely motivated by his anxiety to sift the truth from out of the smoke and dust screen of confusing hues. The extract below deals with the myth of the presence of “Terrorists and Criminals” inside the Golden Temple.
. . . With regard to the presence of terrorists inside the Golden Temple, a Member of the Indian Parliament, Subramanian Swamy, who five weeks prior to the military attack lived in the Golden Temple for three days wrote: “While I was staying in the Golden Temple I heard nothing but praises sung in Kirtans (hymns set to music) to Rama and Krishna.” He said that the terrorists were residing in villages and not in the Golden Temple and prophetically cautioned: “If the government commits the blunder of entering the Golden Temple . . . Punjab will be on fire.” He had prefaced his warning with the observation that “the (Punjab) State is India’s backbone. There can be no India without a stable, peaceful and prosperous Punjab. If Punjab disintegrates, then ultimately India will.” He probably had Punjab’s geostrategic location, agricultural bounty and martial traditions in mind when making this observation.
Contrary to the Government claims the Golden Temple was not a suitable “sanctuary” for law breakers since it had been surrounded by police and paramilitary troops from mid1983 onwards, who searched most of the incoming and outgoing people for arms and explosives? Furthermore, it would be imprudent for a person to commit a crime, say a hundred miles away, and then travel all the distance to seek shelter in the Golden Temple in the light of the watchful presence of the troops around the temple precincts. Here a significant although little-known fact, confirmed by the Indian Home Minister P.C. Sethi, needs to be remembered that there were many instances in which criminals who had taken shelter inside the Golden Temple were apprehended by the Temple administration and handed over to the police. The Sikh tradition has always approved giving shelter to the discriminated, oppressed and persecuted but not to the criminals.
Rightly, the question about the presence of “terrorists and criminals” in the Golden Temple precincts has caused concern to all right-minded people the world over. According to Manchester Guardian Weekly, “In the last two years thousands of ‘terrorists and political agitators’ have been shot in Kashmir, Assam and Maharashtra. Now it is the turn of Punjab and the Sikhs. . Indira Gandhi’s justification was that it was a base for Sikh terrorists.” The Manchester Guardian goes on to analyze the suitability of the Golden Temple as a base for law breakers.
“The one requirement for terrorism is secrecy. One would not advertise and plan terrorism from, say, the concourse of Waterloo Station. Similarly, the Golden Temple with its famous four doors to emphasize its welcome to pilgrims and visitors from the four corners of the globe irrespective of race, had to say the least, serious limitations that would, religious considerations apart, have precluded its use by any group intent on serious terrorism. A secret telephone number is a useful asset for organizing terrorism. The phones into the Golden Temple were known to, and tapped by police. Inside, right up to the time of the government attack, pilgrims and visitors, including the foreign press, were free to go into any part of the Temple complex. Outside a heavy police presence had existed for more than a year at each entrance to the Golden Temple.” After the assault, awake talkie set had indeed been recovered from the Golden Temple which could have been ideal for directing “terrorist” activities in Punjab. However, the set had a limited range of few miles. Furthermore, no matching sets to link up with his gadget were found either after the assault or during the “‘search and cordon” phase of military operations. While the possibility of the presence of a few lawbreakers in the Golden Temple complex cannot be ruled out with certainty because of the sheer size of the daily prayer congregations, from the foregoing it may be fair to deduce that those inside the Golden Temple were dedicated armed Sikhs who, as the events proved later, chose to defend the holy precincts to the last man against the military intrusion in keeping with the Temple’s longstanding tradition. Had they indeed been criminals seeking refuge from the arm of the law an indication of the timidity of their temperament and character it is unlikely that they would have resisted the military assault in the manner they did. Criminals and terrorists seldom like to shed their own blood.
Fortifications in the Temple
It is true that as government threats to enter and desecrate the Golden Temple increased over the months, parallel attempts to build up defenses to deter such a sac religious attack also increased. General Arora had also pointed out that it was only after February 1984 that defenses in the Golden Temple complex were prepared. According to Manchester Guardian “the ‘fortifying’ of the Golden Temple was nothing but a response to increasing evidence that Mrs. Gandhi was determined to solve the ‘Sikh question’ by striking at the very heart of Sikhism.” There are numerous reports that well before the actual attack; Army had practiced assault on mock up models of the Temple complex in Chakrata, UP state.
In a democratic setup it is essential that due process of law is allowed to take its course. The Government failed to issue arrest warrants against the alleged “criminals and offenders” who were Suspected to be hiding inside the Golden Temple. This is also true in respect of the Sikh leaders like Langowal, Tohra and Bhindranwale who were inside the Temple at the time of the military assault. This aspect is best explained in the words of Dr. S. Swamy, the well-known Indian Member of Parliament, who three weeks before the military assault wrote:
“The Government keeps saying that criminals were hiding in the temple area. Only once, about a year and a half ago (late 1982), the government sent a list of 40 criminals to the SGPC (democratically elected temple administrative body). On examination the SGPC found that of the 40 listed, 18 could just not be in the Golden Temple. Some were in Pakistani jails for hijacking, some in Canada and West Germany by the government’s own admission in Parliament, a couple of them were dead, and a few others had been released on bail. The remaining 22 could not be located inside the temple by the SGPC’ screening committee, since the particulars supplied was vague. Later, in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian Parliament), the home minister, P. Sethi admitted these facts. Since then, no further lists have been sent to the SGPC, and yet the government keeps declaring that criminals are hiding in the Temple complex.”
It was a monumental tragedy that thousands of innocent people were killed in the absence of the “due process of law” on the part of the authorities. The warrants of arrest for even the prominent persons including Sant Bhindranwale were prepared after the operation Bluestar. In any event, as Swamy after his stay in the Golden Temple observed, “the cases (which were yet to be char sheeted) against the two Sants are all political of sedition against Langowal and of giving inflammatory speeches against Bhindranwale.” In fact Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi publically declared three weeks before the military assault that Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a religious man. From the limited legal view point how can government label its citizens as criminals and terrorists without first going through the due procedures prescribed by law? This process entails first, preferring a charge against a suspected person, second making attempts to arrest him, and third, in the event of evasion of arrest on the part of that person, declaring him proclaimed criminal offender.
Arms inside the Golden Temple
About the presence of weapons inside the Golden Temple there has been a three hundred years old tradition under which an armed guard has always been provided for the protection of the Temple. This tradition emerged as a response to periodic attacks on the Temple by armies from across the Khyber Pass. The British and the post independent Indian governments honored this tradition and had therefore licensed 28 weapons for the purpose. This fact was confirmed on the floor of the Indian Parliament during question hour on March 7, 1984. Indeed there were many times more weapons than the permitted numbers for various reasons — for instance Indian President Zail Singh, in his capacity as the Chief Minister of Punjab and later as India’s Home Minister (Minister responsible for law and order) had issued numerous licenses to people who were in the Temple at the time of military assault. After examining this issue carefully Parliamentarian Swamy said it would be “wrong to say that there cannot, and ought not to be, firearms inside the Golden Temple because the government had permitted” the same there.
Loss of Innocent Life
Heavy loss of human life resulted from the military assault, mostly among innocent pilgrims many of whom were women and children. They had assembled in their thousands to pay homage on one of the holiest days in the Sikh calendar and were trapped inside the Temple premises as a result of the military encirclement prior to the assault. There are varying accounts of the number of people killed as a result of the Army action; Government of India claimed that 554 civilians and 92 army personnel were killed. The New York Times placed the death toll at 1,200 and Chicago Tribune at 2,000, a senior police officer who resigned his commission as protest against the Indian Government’s action placed the number killed at 20,000. Khuswant Singh, the well-known historian and Member of Parliament, placed the death toll at 5,000. One of the high priests of the Golden Temple who witnessed the massacre counted 4,000 dead inside the premises alone. According to his account narrated to Joyce Pettigrew, “many of them were women, children, old people … Those caught and those who surrendered were shot When they (the soldiers) entered the sewadars’ quarters (temple up keepers’ quarters) they stripped several girls naked, did bhangra (a type of folkdance) then raped them.”
While the gun battle ensued in one part of the Golden Temple complex consequent to the military assault, “in another part over a thousand pilgrims including children and old people quite unconnected with the separatists were locked into a courtyard and attacked with grenades and machine guns. Those left alive were then prevented from leaving the building, many wounded were left to bleed to death. When they begged for water Army soldiers (denied) them the same. Eventually the wounded were taken to hospital but the uninjured were kept in detention and some 3,000 dead, including many who were only unconscious, were piled high in trucks and removed.” Till to date no list of the dead or missing persons has been issued by the authorities.
Apparently the number of people killed, both civilians and soldiers, is much higher than the official figures. Rajiv Gandhi, Indian Prime Minister, in the face of the opposition’s criticism of Government’s handling of the Punjab situation disclosed three months after the military action that “700 jawans (soldiers) were killed in the action” in the Golden Temple. This is in marked contrast to the figure (92 killed) given by Indian Government. In coordination with the military action thousands of civilians were arrested as “suspected terrorists” including children. The exact figures are difficult to ascertain because of the press censorship and Government of India’s inability so far to release the list of those arrested.