The audacity of incompetence

The first of this three-part series concluded yesterday, saying the rise of Bhindranwale and his death with Operation Blue Star was a phase of madness. Now, an argument for why we must never forget it.

There were Vijayantas to the left of the sarovar, firing from just a couple of hundred yards. There were Vijayantas to the left of the sarovar, firing from just a couple of hundred yards.
Written by Shekhar Gupta | Published on:June 4, 2014 12:31 am

from the main entrance. This was the first time the generals were made to wonder if they had miscalculated. More assault troops, launched from other directions, were similarly pinned down. Typical of the Indian doctrine in such situations, the army followed the approach of incremental escalation, and not with the best results. One infantry unit after another was thrown in, but casualties only mounted. Then an approach was tried through an APC, but again, sort of half-heartedly, in a wheeled old SKOT rather than a tracked Russian BMP with better armour and firepower. It was knocked out by a militant RPG-7 rocket launcher, and there was much recrimination on this later.

Did intelligence warn the army of the presence of such a weapon? Or were the generals being too arrogant (incompetent?) in not anticipating this? That night, as I sat on a high terrace that did not have a view of the battleground but helped you underst­and the story with flashes, fires and explosions, I recorded the night’s noises on a tiny tape-recorder, as also some of the police and ar­my wireless conversations on a radio with the FM band (FM radio had not arrived in India yet and security forces used some of the same frequencies on which we now hear music). These conversations got more frantic as the night ended. There were nearly 3,000 infantry troops pinned down, hundreds wounded, more than a hundred bodies. This time of the year, the sun comes out really ea­r­ly, and every soldier still alive — all the th­o­usands of them — would be a sitting target for snipers. As often happens in such situations, the battlefield, the “terrain” was the best force-multiplier for the defender. He could hide and fire, whereas the attackers had to expose themselves. This was unacce­p­table, so further escalation became inevitable.

For greater detail, I would again, shamelessly, refer you to my “Blo­od, Sweat and Tears” chapter in The Pu­n­jab Story. But even 30 years later, I can see nothing less, regrettably, than a story of inc­r­edible military courage and yet, incompet­ence. No soldier flinched, even when faced wi­th an impossible task. And the generals, who had misread and miscalculated, played on incrementally, until the dawn threatened and artillery —  not heavy, but artillery neve­rtheless  —  was called out, along with Vija­yanta tanks that blazed with their main guns. The brutal destruction of the Akal Takht building was now launched in earnest. If Bhindranwale wouldn’t flee or surrender, or come out in a suicidal charge, he would be entombed there now. There were Vijayantas to the left of the sarovar (see sketch), firing from just a couple of hundred yards, and howitzers on top of facing buildings firing in direct mode. This was the equivalent of a sledgehammer where a psychological or, at worst, surgical strike had been anticipated. There was never any doubt who would win. But the cost, in lives, sentiment, political consequences and a legacy of anger and bitterness, had not been imagined. It is for …continued »

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