Wednesday, June 4, 2014

When All India Radio delayed its news bulletins

1984, June 3

In the evening, All India Radio kept announcing that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would address the nation at 8 pm. Those days no one had even heard of internet or mobile phones. Television itself was just making a beginning. Black and white ones, that too in a few homes.

Breaking news happened in either one of the three main news bulletins on AIR or in the morning newspapers. There were no expert panelists on televisions to speculate on why the PM was unusually addressing the nation. Discussions were restricted to neighbourhood friends.

Mrs Gandhi was in her fifth year as Prime Minister after spending over two years out of power. Any major policy announcements? Was she going to call early elections? But why should she? Or has there been some major crisis?

At the stroke of 8 pm, instead of the PM's address to the nation, there was an announcement that due to some technical problems the Prime Minister's speech is delayed. AIR began playing instrumental music.

8.15 pm. No speech.

8.30 pm. No speech.

8.45 pm. No speech. No Hindi news.

9 pm. No speech. No English news.

Only repeated announcements that the address is delayed, and that the news bulletins would be broadcast after the Prime Minister's address to the nation.

Suspense mounted. I don't know if that was the first time ever AIR had missed its major 15-minute Hindi and English news bulletins at 8.45 and 9. Most unusual. No clue to what was happening.

If I remember right, around 9.30 pm, Mrs Gandhi finally came on air. My father and I intently listened to know what was the speech all about. It was an anti-climax of sorts.

She said (using words to mean that) the nation was in the throes of a crisis, riven by fissiparous forces (an expression I learned those days) who were bent of splitting and destroying the nation. She called on the people to stay together to preserve the "unity and integrity" (two words she always used) of the country. She said disruptive forces (another common phrase those days) would be crushed with an iron hand. She sought everyone's support to uphold the "unity and integrity" of the nation ....

Escalating violence in Punjab

She went on and on for about 15 or 20 minutes. There was no major announcement. The big internal crisis she had been battling for about two years was the large-scale violence in Punjab. A wedge had been driven between Sikhs and Hindus. There were killings almost every day. The person everyone spoke about was a young revolutionary named Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrenwale.

He was leading a fight for a return to original Sikhism. The history is complex, and the roots are partly religious, partly political. Though Punjab was created as a state for the Sikhs, politically Congress dominated over the parties that spearheaded the movement. Akalis lost elections. There have been constant complaints that Sikhs were being discriminated and Punjabi language was being sidelined in favour of Hindi. A few Akali Dal leaders created the Anandpur Sahib resolution in 1973 that called for a number of steps to restore the pride and place of the Sikhs.

The resolution was never talked about much, until early 1980s, when Bhindrawale, leader of the Damdami Taksal group took it up. He said fighting for all the things mentioned in the resolution will solve a number of problems of Punjab -- one of the critical ones was the demand for larger share of irrigation water. The demand for return of Chandigarh to Punjab too cropped up.

Mrs Gandhi saw red. She felt the Anandpur Sahib resolution and the agitation (which subsequently took a violent mode) were divisive and disruptive in nature threatening the "unity and integrity" of India.

What was initially started as a peaceful agitation, soon became quite radical and then militant in nature. Intra-Sikh rivalries played out on the streets. There were many instances of violent clashes between police and agitators. In 1982, Bhindranwale and his armed supporters moved into premises of the Golden Temple.

Violence was becoming the order of the day. In 1980, Baba Gurbachan Singh of Sant Nirankari sect shot dead. In 1981, editor of Hind Samachar group Jagat Narain was killed. The same year a plane was hijacked to Pakistan. In 1982, Punjab CM Darbara Singh escaped assassination attempt.
In 1983, deputy inspector general of Punjab Police A. S. Atwal was shot dead while he was leaving the Golden Temple. In 1983, there were a few instances of Hindus being killed, and there was a feeling that things were spiralling out of control.

Though, things were looking alarming, Mrs Gandhi didn't announce anything related to Punjab in her address to the nation. What she said wasn't anything different from what she used to tell at every public function or when she spoke to reporters.

But I went to bed with an eerie feeling that something was happening or was about to happen. The hint was the delay in the PM's address and the consequent late broadcast of night news bulletins. It was very unusual.

1984, June 4

The next day morning we got to know in the 8.10 am English news that Indian Army had launched a full-scale military attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in a bid to flush out the armed people. Heavy artillery and powerful guns were used. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers took part.

The operation was planned and coordinated by Army chief Gen A S Vaidya and vice-chief Lt Gen K Sunderji.

There were not many details in the 10 minute or 15 minute news bulletins on AIR. The next day's papers too did not carry much information. Not surprisingly, as we came to know later that the entire operation was planned and coordinated in total secrecy. There was complete censorship on news from June 3 with large parts of the fortified city under curfew.

The only alternative to the AIR was the BBC and the Voice of America. There was in-depth coverage in BBC's South Asia Survey at 7.15 am, Radio News Reel at 7.45 am and at 8.15 pm (BBC discontinued both the programmes later).

It was a full-scale battle in Amritsar as Army faced fierce resistance. The operation was over only on June 10. Bhindrenwale died on June 6. Casualty figures were disputed. Unofficial figures are close to 1,000 armymen and over 10,000 civilians died in various parts of the city during the 10-day operation that began on June 1.

We also got to know that Indira Gandhi's speech was delayed as it underwent revision after revision as her advisors differed on what the speech should contain.

Controversial decision

All the conversation everywhere was about Operation Blue Star. There were two sides to the dabate, and what was right depended on which side you were on.

Mrs Gandhi's argument was that it was right to send armed personnel into the temple since the temple itself had been used for storing arms. She said it was wrong for Sikh groups themselves to take arms into the temple in the first place.

But the counterargument was that it was okay for Sikhs to take arms to their temple. But it wasn't right for others to do so. The temple belonged to the Sikhs and not to the Army. Many Sikhs I spoke to felt the forceful entry of the Army with arms into the temple was definitely not right. They felt government let the situation escalate, and they could have explored many other options to get the militants out.

In fact, it's said Indira Gandhi had been earlier advised against the move by some top Army personnel. She was told to use alternative methods to get them out of the temple. It was also said Mrs Gandhi with political considerations in mind had allowed the situation to fester for long time in the beginning.

But at the end of it all, it was sad that such a beautiful temple had become a battleground. Impressive structures were riddled with bullet marks. Some buildings were completely destroyed.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in five months. The Army chief Gen Vaidya was assassinated in Pune in 1986 by Sikh gunmen six months after his retirement.

But the troubles weren't over. Infiltration of separatists continued. On May 1 and 2, 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had to send in paramilitary troops to the temple to arrest separatists. But this time, there was no media blackout and it was far less controversial.

It has been peace since then. How the cycle of violence in Punjab was put down is a different story altogether.

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  1. There were certainly alternative methods to flush out the militants from the religious shrine. Should have cut off all supplies like, Power, Water and Gas to start with, deny entry for public for the time being and so on.
    Let me admit this was also the opinion of my then Paki boss, a well educated pro Indian.

    1. Indeed. The PM shouldn't let the situation worsen to this extent, esp since the issue was such a sensitive one .