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‘It was wrong to keep media out of Amritsar during Op Blue Star. Without them,there were rumours and a lot of mutinies’

Lt Gen (retd) K S Brar speaks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV 24x7’s Walk the Talk about leading Operation Blue Star and the lessons learnt.

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
October 9, 2012 3:25:36 am

After the recent attack on him in London,Lt Gen (retd) K S Brar speaks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV 24×7’s Walk the Talk about leading Operation Blue Star and the lessons learnt

I am in Colaba in south Bombay and my guest this week is an old general who,sadly,is not being allowed to fade away although that might have been his wish—General K S Brar,Bulbul to friends. General,these are odd circumstances. You and I only meet in odd circumstances.

We met in 1984 during the time of Operation Blue Star and now we meet here again.

And you tried very hard to fade away quietly.

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I jump into my Nano car,go off to the golf course,play a game of golf and get back. But now,my movements are going to be restricted. I have to be a little more careful.

Was there a point in your life where you thought that life is back to normal,as it is in Punjab?

Never. Because whether the situation in Punjab improves or deteriorates,as far as I’m concerned,there was always a very serious threat to me. After Operation Blue Star,Bhindranwale’s relatives,his followers,the Babbar Khalsa,the Khalistan Commando Force,all his soldiers who died in the temple,their relatives,they all swore revenge in front of the Granth Sahib. Who were they going to take revenge on? Mrs Gandhi (who was the Prime Minister),General A S Vaidya (the army chief),General K Sundarji (the army commander),General Dayal (Gen Sundarji’s co-commander) and General Brar (I conducted the operation). Now,at this point of time,with Mrs Gandhi assassinated,General Vaidya assassinated,and General Sundarji and General Dayal having died natural deaths,I’m the only one left. I knew that once they have given a threat of this nature from a holy place,they are going to carry it out some day or the other. There have been threats all along. I have been receiving letters,phone calls and there are messages being posted on websites—‘We are going to kill him. Being a Sikh himself,he dared to enter the bastion of Sikhs.’

Let’s go back to 1984 Operation Blue Star. You did enter the bastion of the Sikhs,your fellow Sikhs. What was going on in your mind when you were told to do it. Was it just a soldierly response—theek hai,order hai,karna hai? Or did you think for a moment and swallowed hard,saying,what am I being asked to do?

We just got married a few months earlier. And we were going to Manila for a honeymoon.

You were a Major-General then. Commanding a division.

I was a Major-General. We were leaving for Delhi the next day and catching the evening flight to Manila. We had our air tickets,we had our travellers cheques,we were all set to proceed to Manila and we get a phone call in Meerut about 7 in the evening to say that you are required for a conference in Chandimandir tomorrow morning.

Chandimandir,near Chandigarh,used to be the II Corps headquarters those days.

Yes. So we drove from Meerut to Delhi. I caught the morning flight from Delhi to Chandigarh. I arrived in Chandimandir and told my wife that I’ll be back in the evening and we’ll catch the flight (to Manila). I’m rushed to the operations room. Maps on the wall and I’m still wondering what’s going on. I am told,‘You know the situation in Amritsar is very bad’ and I said yes. The Brigadier General Staff gave me a briefing and it appeared to me that I am being sent off to carry out an operation. So in the middle of all those briefings I said,“I am proceeding abroad tonight. I have been sanctioned annual leave for my honeymoon.” And so he looked at General Dayal and they whispered to each other and then he said,“Bulbul,your leave is off. You go another time. There’s an aircraft waiting outside to take you to Amritsar. Give orders to your division to move from Meerut to Amritsar immediately. I give you 36 hours to settle down there and make your plans and I shall come there for my first briefing. The temple has to be cleared at the earliest. Time is at a premium. Khalistan could be declared any day. Bhindranwale is at the peak of his popularity. He has got the entire countryside in Punjab as his followers. He’s a guy who has almost been able to be accepted as a prophet.”

If I were to edit this part of history,I would replace the word ‘popularity’ with ‘power’. If he had such massive popularity among the Sikhs,then the people of Punjab would not have put that chapter behind them the way they have done. Because ultimately,terrorism in Punjab has been fought by Punjabi Sikhs.

Of course. So I got to Amritsar and got my staff and we got down to making plans. I didn’t even know the layout of the Golden Temple. I had never been there,so I did a quick reconnaissance,met the local civil administration,the police. They weren’t of any help,as they were defunct for many months. Bhindranwale was in full control. They weren’t able to give me any information about what was happening inside the Golden Temple.

People may not remember,but General Ranjit Singh Dayal was Gen Sundarji’s deputy,he was the lion of Haji Pir Pass. He got the Mahavir Chakra. He got Haji Pir Pass in that very difficult war.

He was a fantastic soldier and so we made our plans.

And a fellow Sikh.

Yes. I’m a Sikh. I didn’t give it a second thought. If you were to carry out a task,you don’t think of religion,you don’t think of caste. Here is your task,how best do you carry it out? You have sworn to defend the country,to ensure the integrity of the country is not broken. And there were dangers that we may go the Bangladesh way. As a Sikh going into a shrine,it’s not an easy thing to do. At the same time,you feel that it’s something you have to do. And the main thing is that you pray and hope that the operation wouldn’t start,that they would surrender,they would see sense.

Can I make a little disclaimer? I’ve had a strong personal professional view that the one big blunder that all of you made in Operation Blue Star was throwing the media out. Although you did not manage to quite throw me out. I stayed back and for a while all of you complained about the fact that I stayed back. If I may say so,it was we who first revealed the fact that you used tanks and artillery. Was the idea that somehow it will remain hidden from the rest of the country that you used tanks and artillery?

I don’t know what the idea really was because this was something that my superiors thought of. But I agree with you that the media must remain there. They must see everything. And I think that after that we have learnt a lesson.

So,do you now agree that throwing the media out and putting an information blackout in Punjab was wrong?.

It was completely wrong.

Because what happens in those situations is,if there is no credible source of information,people believe all rumours,and the worst rumours become the truest.

Well,a lot of mutinies which took place,they took place in far-flung areas. And who were these guys who mutinied? Those who had heard the rumours that the Golden Temple had been destroyed….

…and all young Sikhs are being massacred,all Sikh women are being kidnapped.

That’s right. A rumour is a terrible thing and if the media had been there,they would have quickly projected exactly what was happening.

And they would have brought some bad news as well. Bad news travels out anyway.

Of course.

Because I remember facing a great deal of opprobrium at that point from the establishment for revealing the facts. Facts are to be revealed,that tanks and artillery were used. All of Amritsar would have seen tanks being rolled in. You can’t bring tanks in suitcases.

Why should you hide anything? If you hide anything,it seems you are covering up a lapse.

When you were told to put all the media in buses and then drive them out of Amritsar,did somebody question that?

Luckily,I wasn’t told because my job was the operation inside.

So did you reflect on it later with Sundarji and others?

Yes. I think that everyone realised. That’s why,ever since then,every operation we’ve undertaken…

…you’ve embedded the media. Tell me something. It’s a personal thing I want to know. Until what point was I cursed for not having left Amritsar and at what point did that begin to be seen in a different perspective?

I don’t think you were cursed at all. At that particular time,everyone was so involved that no one had the time to see which journalist has stayed behind and who hasn’t gone and what is happening.

Describe the scene that night. White marble parikrama,a moonlit night,your initial commando charge in black dungarees. Bhindranwale’s forces,not just amateurs,led by a fellow…

…General Shabeg Singh.

A fellow officer from your ‘71 war vintage.

Not only that,he was my instructor in the academy,I was his cadet. Then in the ’71 war,we both linked up when we were going into Dhaka. So we fought the ’71 war together.

You were commanding the 1st Marathas,which entered Dhaka ahead of others.

That’s right and he was with the Mukti Bahini. And when I did go around outside the Golden Temple to have a look and carry out a reconnaissance,later on,those who surrendered and those who were captured,they told me that General Shabeg Singh had told Bhindranwale,“I know who that guy is. He is General Brar. We fought together in the ’71 war. He is a Jat Sikh. He is not going to let us have an easy battle. We have a tough time ahead of us.”

But he did a masterful tactical job of creating what you soldiers call a killing ground in front of the Akal Takht,on that marble.

That was masterly. He got a lot of us.

He covered with automatics from all sides,including machine guns.

He made it almost impossible for us to enter the Akal Takht. We suffered a lot of casualties.

Once you entered,he made it impossible for you to exit and take the casualties out.

Exactly. And we couldn’t delay it. We had to finish this before dawn,before first light,as we call it. Because,if we hadn’t finished it before dawn,the news would have travelled to the hinterlands. By 8 or 9 in the morning,we would have had thousands of Sikhs with spears and guns and all,heading to the Golden Temple and surrounding us.

At which point did you decide to bring the heavy stuff,the tanks and the guns?

When we couldn’t physically enter the Akal Takht and time was running short. We couldn’t afford for it to be daylight. We couldn’t afford a situation where the Army has been surrounded outside.

Were you surprised at the kind of resistance you faced? Did you underestimate them?

I won’t say we underestimated them but the information given to us indicated that there were not so many people and that they didn’t have the type of weapons that they should. Intelligence was lacking. And you may say underestimate,but they fought well. They fought like lions. It’s only when Bhindranwale died that there was a mass exodus out. People were rushing out and General Sundarji said to me,“Bulbul,what is happening?” I said,“Sir,they are all rushing out.” So he says,“There can be only two things in this. Either he has escaped or he’s dead and therefore the leader has gone. And without his inspiration,they are going to give up the fight.” And of course,I got the news that he is dead and we got his body. That evening,I got a call from the Information and Broadcasting Minister in Dehi,H K L Bhagat,who says to me,“General,we have news that Bhindranwale escaped that night.”

You mean the government in Delhi thought he had escaped?

Yes,and that he is in Pakistan and they are going to show him on the 30th of June on television. So I said,“I’m very surprised,sir,because I know he is dead. We’ve seen his body,his disciples have touched his feet. The police have identified him. We are handing over his body to his relatives. So,how has he escaped?” To make matters worse,the next day a hawk came and sat on the tree outside the Golden Temple and hundreds of people came rushing in there and they said Bhindranwale’s spirit has come to tell us that I’m alive. Now this caused a little more commotion that he is alive and that his spirit has come. So it was very disturbing. Even I must admit that on the 30th of June,I watched…

We were sitting with Bhindranwale at his last interaction with outsiders before the assault began and I remember something he said to his followers. He said,“We have to prepare to fight Russian commandos.” He said,Bibi,as he referred to Mrs Gandhi,will send Russian commandos,because Sikhs will not fight,and topi wallas (non-Sikhs) will not be able to fight us. And there was a spirited response from his followers. Maybe there was overconfidence there. But,was there overconfidence with you too?

Firstly,they thought we won’t go in. They said Indira Gandhi won’t have the guts to send the army in. And he had already sent a message to all the villages in the hinterland that if the army dares to come in,come immediately and surround this place. So,he felt that we are not going to go in.

So,if you were to go back and conduct that operation again,first of all,would you still do it or would you think again?

I would still do it but I would refine it.

How would you refine it?

I would try some different tactics,of trying to get in over a period of time,sneak in some people.

As you sneaked into Bangaldesh in lungis before the war had started

Exactly,sneak in some people—Sikhs—mingle with them,get all the information about them. At the same time,sneak in some guys from the Intelligence. Speak to the Shiromani Akali Dal and SGPC and try and make them understand that it’s no use.

And certainly not cut off all the phones in Punjab?

Not cut off the phones.

And not throw the media out?

Not throw the media out. You are hurt about the media being thrown out.

I’m not hurt. I stayed back. But I think it hurt India greatly to have thrown the media out. I think it hurt the Indian Army greatly to have thrown the media out.

Mark Tully and all had to leave.

And it hurt the Indian army because I do believe that if the media had not been thrown out,maybe both bad and good news would have come out,faster.

But there would have been accuracy in the news.

Maybe the mutinies would not have taken place. I covered the court martials of some of these alleged mutineers from Jabalpur. The story was the same. They were young Sikh boys who had heard something from somebody.

And they were emotionally charged. Their senior officers did not explain things to them.

But they were not going to believe that until they heard it from something credible,and that something credible was not Doordarshan.

I suppose so.

So do you have a message now for your fellow soldiers?

My message is,look,in this country,with the type of militancy that crops up every now and then,with our neighbour trying to fuel insurgency in the country,whether it’s in the North East or in Kashmir or in any other part of this country,you may be called upon to carry out similar operations against your own people. Whether you’re an Assamese or a Christian or a Sikh or a Hindu or a Parsi or a Muslim or anyone,just put your religion,caste,creed,everything aside. You’re wearing the olive green uniform. You have sworn and taken the oath that you will fight for your nation and you will defend your nation and you will carry out the task given to you in the best traditions of a soldier. It’s a call of duty and you will get ahead for that call of duty.

Message to fellow Sikhs?

My message to fellow Sikhs is,too much blood has flown. Now we need to heal our wounds. Don’t revive those wounds. Try and realise that there has to be unity between the Sikhs and the Hindus and everyone else. There is no point in the younger generation,who have not seen that period,now being reminded of it. It’s just like adding fuel to the fire. All that’s happening is,some of these pro-Khalistani groups operating abroad and in Punjab are propagating their views and indoctrinating the youth to the ideology which leads to the ensuing type of violence and mayhem,as happened in the early 80s.

And a message to the people who attacked you in London?

My message is,what are you going to gain by killing a 78-year-old man? If you have to do it,do it one-to-one. There’s no point in four guys going for one person. And then you run away after that. It’s an act of cowardice. I’ll just stay out there and fight it out till the end.

And all of that said with a smile on your face. Once a soldier,always a soldier.

Transcribed by Arun Subramanian

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