(A Report By Punjab Human Rights Organization)

The operation Black Thunder IT (May 918, 1988) and Afghanistan are a far cry from each other. Ostensibly the two have nothing in common. Yet the fact appears to be that the operation has a lot to do with Moscow’s plan to pull out its troops from Afghanistan

The first indication of the working of the Government of India’s mind on Afghan Punjab tie up came from Union Energy Minister, Vasant Sathe, known to be Rajiv Gandhi’s “think tank,” when addressing a public meeting at Hussainiwala on March 23, 1988, he “warned of the crisis deepening in Punjab after settlement of the Afghan issue” (Indian Express: March 24, 1988). Mr. Sathe added that “the danger was that Pakistan would divert its forces from the Afghanistan border to the Indian border and would do the mischief to divide India with the help of its agents.” The Union Minister in this connection recalled India’s support to the creation of Bangladesh and said the Pakistan had not forgotten its loss in the east.

Mr. Sathe said Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi wanted peace in Punjab. He took the initiative towards that direction by releasing (Bhai Jasbir Singh and other) head priests.

Rajiv’s Political Bulldozers

Elaborating, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi asserted that his government was working “in a planned way to solve the Punjab tangle” and events were shaping as envisaged. Operation Black Thunder II, he said, was not a random exercise but was a part of the “plan”. Addressing a Press conference at Delhi soon after his arrival from an eight day tour abroad, the Prime Minister said: “If necessary, bulldozers will be pressed into service — both political and diesel operated bulldozers to complete the Golden Temple corridor plan” (Indian Express: June 13, 1988),

In between, Punjab Governor, S.S, Ray announced (on the heel of Bhai Jasbir Singh’s release) that the Prime Minister had a “definite plan” on Punjab and that he would unfold it at the appropriate moment. The Governor also stated that Bhai Jasbir Singh had been released “with a certain objective in view.”

A question put to Union Minister of State for Home, P. Chidambram by India Today’s senior Editor Prabhu Chawla was: “Most of the Centre’s political solutions so far appear to have ended in fiasco. Will the Rode option meet with the same fate?”

  1. Chidambram’s reply was: “I cannot say that all of them have failed. Let us wait and see, Release of Rode and others was a calculated political risk. Sometimes it pays, sometimes it does not, and It is too early to say whether Rode will be able to assert his authority or not. If he does, so much the better.” (India Today: June 15, 1988).

Asked whether he ruled out an immediate political solution in Punjab, the Union Minister of State further said, “I have repeatedly said that the final solution to the Punjab problem has to be a political one. But we cannot opt for a political solution unless we send a clear message that the Government cannot be pressured by the militant activity.”

“They were not heeding Rode”

Prem Bhatia, a pro-establishment journalist of Delhi, told B.B.C. soon after the operation: “militants did not heed even Ragis and Rodes. Unless irritants (militants) were removed, no political dialogue was possible in Punjab. The operation was aimed at removing the irritants.”

The statements of Chidambram and Bhatia put together reflected Delhi’s hope and aspiration that the operation would pave the way for a dialogue in Punjab to “resolve” the issues.

It will be of interest to recall that Indira Gandhi, too, had made a similar statement soon after Operation “Blue Star in June 1984. She had bitterly complained by way of justification of the operation that “Sikh leaders were not talking to us.”

While this thought process, sometimes aired publicly, at other times not made known clearly, was on in Delhi, quiet preparations were being made by intelligence units of security forces at Manesar to eliminate in one go as many militants as possible.

“On March 9 when Jasbir Singh Rode was anointed Akal Takht head priest, officers (of intelligence agencies) were at the pickets, watching every movement, counting heads, guns and identifying faces. Some officers stopped trimming their beards for the occasion but vital walk inside the temple.”

Prior to his anointment and later, Bhai Jasbir Singh made statements that caused many an eyebrow to be raised by more discerning Sikhs.

“Referring to reports that threats were being issued by certain elements to extort money from devotees and some of them were also tortured to death, Bhai Jasbir Singh said steps would be taken to cleanse the Golden Temple and restore its dignity” (The Tribune: March 10, 1988).

Jasbir Singh Seeks Cleansing of Complex

The very next day of his anointment Bhai Jasbir Singh constituted a committee of his confidants to go into the allegations of “misuse” of the Golden Temple complex with a view to “cleansing it of the antisocial elements.”

Dutifully, “representatives” of militant organizations, according to Sher Singh Sher, Vice President of All India Sikh Students Federation (Gurjit faction) endorsed the views of Bhai Jasbir Singh (The Tribune: March 11, 1988).

After bestowing “siropas” (robes of honor) on militants at a function at his residence near Ghanta Ghar inside the Golden Temple Parikarma, Bhai Jasbir Singh told newsmen that he had established contact with militants and had held consultations on the crucial issue of forging their “unity” (The Tribune: March 16, 1988).

Sushil Muni took note of Bhai Jasbir Singh’s moves in Amritsar and said in a statement at Delhi on March 16, 1988: “If the high priests succeed in ending the politics of gun, we can also appeal to the Government not to impose the Emergency in Punjab.”

Rejecting militants’ resolve to hold “Sarbat Khalsa” at Akal Takht on Baisakhi Day, Bhai Jasbir Singh stated on March 22, 1988, that a convention of Sikhs would be held at Damdama Sahib near Bathinda that day. He announced that he had made a vital progress to forge “panthic unity” during his discussions with the underground Panthic Committee members. The Jathedar was hopeful of establishing a “direct contact” with key militant leaders before Baisakhi. He promised a “new program” at Damdama Sahib but changed his mind. On the other hand, he announced the merger of two factions of the All India Sikh Students Federation (A.LS.S.F).

Evidently, Bhai Jasbir Singh was trying hard not only to bring under his umbrella the two wings of the A.LS.S.F but also other militant organizations. His major success was Bhai Gurjit Singh’s decision to throw his lot with Bhai Jasbir Singh. The change in Bhai Gurjit Singh’s attitude was reflected for the first time when he announced on April 25, 1988, through the Press his “loyalty” to Akal Takht Chief and his opposition to Giani Jagir Singh and Bhai Nirvair Singh, spokesmen of the militant Panthic Committee. Bhai Gurjit Singh also backed the Akal Takht Chief’s “cleansing move.”

“We will pick up bodies”

Sensing that a fight between militant groups within the complex was in the offing, the Punjab Police supremo J.F. Rebeiro stated on May 4, 1988 that “we would pick up the bodies and the problem will solve itself out.” He, however, regretted that the militants were not obeying the Jathedar (The Tribune: May 5, 1988). Carrying forward the slogan of “militant unity” Bhai Jasbir Singh next attended to the problem of holding a meeting of militants. On April 4 Bhai Jasbir Singh told newsmen that a joint meeting of all militant organizations would be held soon after Baisakhi “to chalk out a new program to achieve the Sikhs goal.” He had met militant representatives individually but was “‘yet to meet them jointly.” (The Tribune: April 5, 1988).

According to a few Amritsar based journalists, Bhai Jasbir Singh proposed a meeting of top leaders at Golden Temple, Amritsar, on May 2, 1988. But that meeting somehow could not take place. There was widespread speculation that the meeting would be: held at the Golden Temple on May 9. Obviously top leaders refrained from entering the Temple because they were suspicious about Bhai Jasbir Singh’s moves.

Militant’s suspicions were not wholly ill-founded. They were under a very close watch by intelligence agencies. Santokh Singh Kala was also sitting along with intelligence officers somewhere near, overseeing the movements inside the complex with the help of binoculars and helping authorities identify the most wanted men.

While the Prime Minister declared later that the operation Black Thunder II was not a random exercise but was a part of a well thought out plan, the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (I) President, Beant Singh, said the “border fencing” and the operation “Black Thunder II“ were a part of the plan to solve the Punjab tangle.” (Indian Express: June 15, 1988). (To Be Continued)

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