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Operation Bluestar: 'Right decision, wrong implementation'
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September 14, 2004 15:22 IST
Last Updated: September 15, 2004 15:11 IST
The decision for a quick commando action instead of a siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out terrorists was taken by army generals at the 'eleventh hour' taking then prime minister Indira Gandhi by surprise.
P C Alexander, who was principal secretary to Gandhi and later to her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi, says this in his just released autobiography.
The initial plan, as spelt out by then army chief General A S Vaidya, was an 'effective siege' involving cutting off telephone lines, electricity, water, food and inflow of men and weapons, says Alexander in Through the corridors of power published by Harper Collins, India.
However, four days after briefing Gandhi, Gen Vaidya got back to her and said that it was the 'considered opinion' of the generals commanding the operations that while the siege could work for the smaller gurudwaras (where extremists had stocked arms and ammunition) it could not work in the case of the Golden Temple.
Gandhi, writes Alexander, was 'taken aback', but she 'respected their professional judgement' and did not interfere with those in command of field operations.
She expressed concerns about how the commando action would be carried out, what if the terrorists offered stiff resistance, if the temple would suffer damage and whether such an action could have any adverse effect on the loyalty and discipline of Sikh jawans in the army.
Explaining the changed stance, Vaidya said the army feared that a siege of the holiest shrine could lead to a mass upsurge among Sikhs in the countryside and mobs might start moving towards Amritsar. They could prevent the army from entering the temple. The army would not only have problems controlling them but also faced the possibility of coming under attack from behind.
Addressing her concerns, Vaidya asserted that strict instructions would be given to the army to ensure that no damage was caused to the temple under any circumstances.
"Indira Gandhi did not consider Operation Bluestar a mistake. The mistake was in the manner of implementing the decision and not the decision itself," Alexander, who was privy to the behind the scene developments, notes.
The main action at the Golden Temple commenced on June 5 1984. Appeals were made asking militants to come out and surrender 'but only 129 persons came out and some managed to escape without even being noticed by the armed forces'.
When the commando action was undertaken, 'most unexpectedly', they came under heavy fire and then the army realised that it was up against terrorists well-equipped with machine-guns and other sophisticated weapons, and well entrenched in secure passages inside the buildings in the complex.
"The entire strategy and the tactics had to be changed quickly. Eventually, armoured personnel carriers and tanks had to be brought in to tackle the situation. They (army) also realized that there was no possibility of ensuring the surrender of the militants without causing damage to the buildings."
As the operation ended within a couple of days, Alexander points that senior officers had 'not anticipated' a mutiny by Sikh jawans.
Looking back at the army operations, he questions the rationale of the generals in changing their strategy at the '11th hour fearing that it could be frustrated by a frenzied mob'.
"Second, when they opted for a commando action, should not the officers in charge of the operations have collected the necessary information about the deployment of militants within the temple, the arms and ammunition under their control and third, should not the senior officers in command of the various army units consisting of large numbers of Sikh soldiers explain to the jawans the real reasons behind the army operations?"
According to Alexander's analysis, the fear of mobs gathering at the temple to frustrate the siege was not well founded.
"It is very doubtful whether the Sikh masses would have responded to (militant leader) Bhindranwale's call in such large numbers as to have caused a real threat to the powerful Indian army.
"...the mobs, if any came forward, could have been handled with the effective imposition of curfew and other appropriate action," he writes.
"It becomes clear from the details relating to the operation that the commanders came to know about the nature of the weapons and the strength of the extremists only after they found that the commandos, whom they sent in first, could make little headway and were being picked off by extremists from extremely well-fortified positions inside the temple."
Stating that the Golden Temple was easily accessible to intelligence teams for several weeks before the operations, Alexander writes, "If correct information about their (militants') numbers and weapons was available, it is doubtful whether they (army) would have gone ahead with the changed plan of operations in the manner they did, which necessitated the entry of tanks."
On the issue of mutiny among the jawans, Alexander is of the view that he top brass should have put it in no uncertain terms that the objective of the army action was not the capture of the Golden Temple or other places of worship but to flush out militants who had forcibly occupied these places and converted them into arsenals and centres for directing acts of terror and violence.
"There has indeed been a failure somewhere at the top levels of the army command to take these normal precautions."
Observing that the army was given no deadline to complete the operations, he points that 'the lack of proper preparation before launching the operation undoubtedly led to the most unexpected reverses for their (army generals') plans'.
Yet, it was Gandhi's 'consistent policy' never to criticise the army in private or in public.