'The Khalistanis get bulk of the money from abroad.'
'Where did Amritpal's Mercedes come from, which costs well over Rs 60 lakhs?'
'Where does his fleet of vehicles come from?'
'Local Punjabis can certainly not contribute this kind of money.'
"Why was no action taken against Amritpal for 6 months?" asks retired Punjab chief secretary Ramesh Inder Singh.
Thirty-seven years after Operation Blue Star, R I Singh -- who was appointed district magistrate of Amritsar a couple of days before Operation Blue Star -- wrote Turmoil in Punjab: Before and After Blue Star, An Insider's Story, a fascinating account of the genesis of the Punjab conflict, the rise of Sikh radicalism and the elimination of militancy.
'Nobody comes out untarnished -- not serving officials, not senior politicians, not journalists, not commentators and, of course, not the militants,' noted the distinguished sociologist Dipankar Gupta about Turmoil in Punjab.
An eyewitness, and at times an actor, as the events unfolded, R I Singh -- a rare civil servant to receive a Padma Shri when in service -- drew attention to the deep ethno-socio-religious fault lines that still persist in his book.
"The basic social and ethnic fault lines which caused turmoil in Punjab still exist. They can erupt," R I Singh tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih and Nikhil Lakshman at his home in Chandigarh. The first of a multi-part, must-read, interview.
Why did you want to write this book? Why do you think this book is important in today's context?
I could not write this book earlier as I was still in service. I thought this was the right time because passions would have died down with the passage of time and one could take an objective view of events that took place in Punjab for two decades.
Secondly, I felt that the literature available about Operation Blue Star was of three types.
1. Instant history, written by journalists who flooded Amritsar soon after Blue Star and wrote quick stories. There are many books, including by some eminent persons like Mark Tully, that have enjoyed very wide readership.
2. The second category defends Operation Blue Star, for example, Lieutenant General Kuldip Singh Brar's Operation Blue Star, The True Story. I felt these books do not give accurate accounts, but are dressed up versions because there is a tilt in what they convey.
3. The third category is by Sikh scholars or radicals, which are an all-out condemnation of what happened in Punjab.
I felt the truth lies somewhere in between and I must convey what I saw, give the views of all three types of literature available and leave it to the reader to make up her/his mind.
How have those the years leading to Operation Blue Star and after impacted the course of Punjab's history? What are the reverberations that are still felt today?
I feel it is time that we seek closure because it's difficult for Punjabis and for Indians to forget this period of history. We lost a prime minister, an ex-army chief and thousands died in Punjab, innocent as well as militants.
These two decades impacted not only Punjab, but the entire country. Post-Independence, so far as internal affairs of India are concerned, no other event has impacted our history as Blue Star.
It changed the course of history.
I thought it's time that the book leads to dialogue and closure. You can't forget history, but you can draw lessons from it and move forward.
I even suggested that if need be, we could have something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa [set up in 1995 to uncover the truth, human rights violation and heal the country after the period of apartheid].
In most of the cases, no impartial or objective public inquiries were conducted in Punjab, which gives the scope for different perceptions to plead their case.
I have also dealt with what Sikhs should look for in their future. Those who talk about Khalistan are a very microscopic minority. They don't realise that the Westphalian model of sovereignty is not relevant anymore.
It is through excellence that people/communities can rise up. For example, Ajay Banga is set to become chairman of the World Bank because of his excellence.
Today, Punjabis and Sikhs are an international community and can establish the pre-eminence of the Panth by excelling in those countries. Just like the Parsis in India or Jews in the USA who are microscopic minorities but have stood out.
The basic social and ethnic fault lines which caused turmoil in Punjab still exist. They can erupt and it's for us to learn a lesson from what happened and move forward.
Do the wounds of Operation Blue Star and after still fester?
They still fester because on every anniversary of Blue Star there is a revival of past memories.
A basic issue that is raised, for example, is the number of people who died inside the Golden Temple. The government, of course, has given a firm figure, but various people who were involved in the operation have given conflicting figures.
This leads to exaggerated claims like those by MP Simranjit Singh Mann [Shiromani Akali Dal Amritsar] who says 20,000 people died.
Similarly, there are conflicting versions about the library inside the Golden Temple that was burned. Both Lieutenant Generals Brar and Jamwal have given conflicting versions, and General Brar has himself conflicted his version in an interview to The Times of India.
These kinds of situations give opportunity to those who want to exploit the scenario, because ultimately, it's a battle of perceptions. If well-established truths and facts are not in the public domain, there is always scope for exploitation.
What are some of the faultlines in Punjab that continue to exist?
Parallel to Blue Star and around the same time, Punjab was going through economic distress mainly because the Green Revolution had reached a plateau.
In response to the economic hardships faced by the farmers, the Akali Dal stopped the movement of food grain from Punjab. The Bharatiya Kisan Union was doing an agitation and had gheraoed the Raj Bhavan for almost a week.
The base of the Akali Dal was in the farming community and they were concerned about losing their base if the BKU took the lead.
The Akalis pre-empted it and rode on that demand and gave a call and then we know what happened. Even today, Punjabis are considered prosperous by Indian standards of the economy, but then this is an aspirational world. Since 1984 -- or rather, from 1990 to 1994 -- when militancy was eliminated, Punjab's economy has nosedived.
Per capita income and GDP has declined -- from the number one state in per capita income, we are now 16 or 17.
Today, as per the national survey, the income of an agrarian family which includes labour of the family is Rs 27,000 per month. It is, of course, higher than other states where farmers are earning Rs 6,000-Rs 7,000 a month, but is less than a peon's salary in the secretariat!
In an aspirational world driven by communication technology, children can see what the future holds and that is the reason for the exodus abroad.
They would prefer sweeping Heathrow airport because they don't see a future here. This discontent is one of the biggest fault lines.
What is your assessment of the social or ideological faultlines in the state?
Let me tell you, Punjab society is far more harmonious. The Hindus and Sikhs of Punjab are totally integrated communities. There is no conflict and there have never been any riots or inter-community clashes in the state. Punjab is not the same as the Hindu heartland, if I may use that expression.
But a microscopic minority will always create trouble.
Who is this microscopic minority and who is the Khalistani?
Firstly, they are a very small number, not even 1% of the total Sikh population.
Secondly, why are they raising these issues? One of the basic reasons for this and which I have mentioned is the inefficiency of the state.
Action must be taken when it is called for.
For example, Avtar Singh Atwal, the DIG who was shot as he came out of the Golden Temple in 1983 -- his body was lying for two hours while the DC (district commissioner) and SSP (senior superintendent of police) rang up the chief minister (Darbara Singh), the chief minister rang up the prime minister (Indira Gandhi) when action should have been immediate.
In the case of Amritpal Singh, why was no action taken against him for six months during which he had been talking about Khalistan?
He removed the benches from the gurdwara in Jalandhar against the wishes of the management, yet no action was not taken [in December 2022].
These six months provided him the opportunity to create a base. By administering amrit sanchar [one of the four initiation rites of Sikhism] he tried to gain credibility to establish his leadership.
Undertaking activities like drug de-addiction centres, amrit sanchar etc gives them popularity. Once credibility is established, people view you as a reformer and then the problem arises when you switch over slowly to enlarging your area of operation.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale also started the same way, but there was a difference. He was head of a Sikh seminary which carried out social work activities.
In Amritpal's case, of course, he came straight away and started talking of Khalistan.
How do you account for Amritpal's ascent?
He exploited the frustration of youth and economic distress. A number of agitations are going on in rural Punjab: The Insaf Morcha is seeking release of prisoners; the BKU Ugaraha Group is agitating all over on various issues; the Fazilka agitation where farmers are protesting against a liquor factory -- these are symptoms; the pimples on the body.
And these can be exploited and can flare up at a short notice. There is also a link of the agitations with the aspiration of those applying for visas to go abroad.
Simranjit Singh Mann has gone on record in front of a camera saying we charge money to issue letters on the party letterhead for those seeking asylum because of excesses being committed on them.
I heard the other day that someone who was part of an agitation blocking the road at Mohali (after the police action against Amritpal and his associates) was doing it for his son, because he wanted his photographs in the newspaper (so his son could seek asylum abroad, alleging State repression).
The industry of migration is also a part of the Khalistan industry.
The Khalistanis get bulk of the money from abroad. Where did Amritpal's Mercedes come from, which costs well over Rs 60 lakhs? Where does his fleet of vehicles come from? The local Punjabis can certainly not contribute this kind of money.
Pakistan's ISI is also ever ready to fuel and bankroll it.
Moreover, drones have further complicated the scenario. There was a slowdown in smuggling in Punjab after the fencing on the border, but today that fence is ineffective because drugs can be flown over the fence.
The smuggling route has been changed because of the intense patrolling by the BSF and the Punjab Police. Large quantities of drugs have been diverted by traffickers and have been seized in ports in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
The administration needs to be upgraded to cope with these situations. If you do not do that, these benefits can pass.