to Punjab, tanks, APCs and all. Vijayanta tanks had been lined up along the final approaches of the Golden Temple much before the first shots were exchanged between the army and the militants. The media was cleared out even before the militants, all telephone lines cut and the state put under not curfew but martial law for the first and hopefully last time in our history. There was no underestimation of the task but I dare say now that there was a touching belief that the militants wouldn’t fight, and if they did, their resolve would be broken in a couple of hours. All the bandobast, therefore, was to stun them with a display of firepower, a strategy of shock and awe, decades before it was given that name in Iraq by George Bush junior. Each of the generals involved, Brar, Western Army Command chief of staff Lieutenant General Ranjit Singh Dyal, Army Commander K. Sundarji and his chief, General Arun Shridhar Vaidya (later assassinated by revenge-seeking Sikh gunmen while driving his Maruti 800 after retiring in Pune), later admitted to this miscalculation to some extent. There was a firm belief that Bhindranwale would not fight, he would surrender or try to escape.
Just how serious this misreading was, I first learnt from a senior Intelligence Bureau officer who spoke to me in some horror after spending the first few hours with army commanders. He said he tried to tell them that Bhindranwale and his people would fight to the finish, but was not merely overruled but mocked. In fact, one of the generals pointed at some of his black-dungareed commandos, who were getting kitted out and briefed, and said, “Have you seen these bhoots (devils) of mine? The terrorists have to merely see them and they will surrender with their tails between their legs.” My IB friend, a wonderful professional and a patriot, retreated from the argument sort of fatalistically.
The first assault by the commandos ran into trouble. One set of audacious generals had overlooked the fact that they weren’t up against some armed rabble but a small army of faithfuls led by someone just like them. In fact, a fellow general as bright, if not brighter, than all of them. Former Major General Shabeg Singh had served with each one of those serving, he had received his fame organising and training the Mukti Bahini during the Bangladesh war and was a master of guerilla warfare. He earned infamy later as he was accused of irregularities and dismissed a day before retirement. But as most human beings do, he never believed he was guilty but was victimised because of what else but his religion. He had found spiritual succour and a new soldierly cause with Bhindranwale, although now in what he saw as the service of his faith, not his republic. Just how good was he? I won’t go by hearsay, though even that makes him sound superhuman. Wading through the rubble at the Akal Takht a couple of days continued…
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