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Operation Wood Rose: Mass Oppression

Unfortunately Blue Star did not mark the end of a tragic chapter in the history of Punjab. The phase of oppression was continued with great virulence because the motives which prompted it were no different from those that had staged the bloody attack on the Golden Temple. What needs stress is that both Blue Star and Wood Rose assaults were part of the single process, which was the product of a planned thinking to which we have referred earlier, with clear instructions to destroy the Sikhs and their moral strength that had sustained their Morchas.

Sikh sentiments which were already deeply hurt received another jolt when the Government launched the second phase of the military action under the ironic name of ‘Operation Wood Rose.’ This exercise was conducted in the immediate wake of ‘Blue Star’, when the army unleashed a reign of terror on the Sikh populace in the countryside with instructions to torture, humiliate and destroy them. When soldiers asked the Officers who was to be considered the enemy, they were apparently told that all Amritdhari Sikhs (baptised Sikhs) were terrorists. The result, needless to say, was havoc and led to the first wave of able-bodied youths fleeing across the border for their survival. Indian Express reported:

“Some divisions are engaged in stemming the militants in Punjab and most districts, in fact, have a brigadier commander at the helm of the law and order machinery. A drive down the highways into the countryside in Punjab shows that heavier weapons, including some armour, have been marshalled for support.”144

Ruthless repression was let loose in the State in the name of mopping up ‘terrorists’. Thousands of Sikh men, women and children were rounded up on the suspicion of being ‘terrorists’. Sikhs of all hues and shades were looked upon with suspicion. The wrath of the army was especially directed against the Amritdhari Sikhs (baptised Sikhs) who were described as dangerous people. A Circular (No. 153) was issued in the July issue of ‘Batchit’, an official magazine circulated throughout the army, directing the army personnel to keep track of all Amritdhari Sikhs who were to be treated as suspects. It read as under:

“Although the majority of the terrorists have been dealt with and bulk of the arms and ammunition recovered, yet a large number of them are still at large. They have to be subdued to achieve the final aim of restoring peace in the country. Any knowledge of the ‘Amritdharis’ who are dangerous people and pledge to commit murders, arson and acts of terrorism should immediately be brought to the notice to the authorities. These people may appear harmless from the outside but they are basically committed to terrorism. In the interest of all of us, their identity and whereabouts must always be disclosed.”145 The above makes it plain that the obvious aim could only be to liquidate the Amrithdharis or broadly speaking any Sikh youth who could be considered an Amritdhari; for no one was going to see the lists of those who were administered Amrit.

The plan was to shoot and kill Amritdhari Sikhs wherever and whenever possible. Thus a genocide of the Sikhs was committed in the midst of a rigid press censorship and a blanket ban against international pressmen entering the State. No record was kept of the figures and names of those killed in contrived or fake encounters. In this connection a few observations of the CFD are noteworthy: “There is no dearth of men who are ready to identify Amritdharis and disclose their whereabouts. One such Amritdhari’s presence in village Sadu Lai, Amritsar District was reported to the Army. Sohan Singh (32) of Longowal village of Gurdaspur—a small agriculturist had gone with his wife and small daughter to look after the land of his father-in-law who had fallen sick.

“Some army men suddenly came to my father’s house when we were sitting down to eat and asked my husband if he was an Amritdhari. He said he was a religious Sikh. The army men were abusive, they pulled his beard, opened out his turban and said “Sikhs are badmashes (scoundrels);’’ my husband said, “I am a small peasant, it does not matter if people think bad of me.” At that those men threw him on the ground and began to beat him badly, then they dragged him out of the house and took him in their jeep.”

The statement was made by his wife.

Bhajan Partap Singh of village Tarseka, Amritsar District, who was in the lock-up next to the room where Sohan Singh had been put, told us what had happened there:

“I could hear him cry and ask for water, I think an employee perhaps was going to give him some water when I heard someone abusing him, ‘Is he your Sala?” Others who were in that camp used to hear him shriek and one day everything was quiet. We came to know that Sohan Singh’s eyes had been gouged out and every joint of his body had been broken with the steel rods. Later when his body was handed over to his widow and his elder brother Baldev Singh, they found that the eyes were not there, the body was just pulp without joints and it had become unusually long; the Army bad handed it over to the S.H.O., Jandiala, District Amritsar, who had entered the case as one of suicide, and before giving the body to them, the police made the widow sign a statement that it was a case of suicide; there was no post-mortem report to prove that the man had died of torture; Sohan Singh’s body was brought to his village Longowal and cremated there.”146

There had been cases where Amritdhari Sikh soldiers were asked to remove their Kirpans. When they refused to do so they were harassed, ill-treated, charge-sheeted and produced before the officers to punish them for disobedience of orders. The contents of the circular spread alarm in the Sikh community. A petition was filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court by tome prominent Sikhs to get a directive issued to the army authorities to withdraw the Batchit Circular in question as suggestions given therein were not only detrimental to the Sikh religion but were also responsible for inflaming communal passions among the Hindu soldiers to kill the Sikhs in Punjab. The High Court examined the case and issued an order asking the army authorities to withdraw the Circular.147 Evidently the order of the High Court for the withdrawal of the Circular could hardly undo the impression indelibly registered in the minds of the soldiers who had received the earlier instructions and acted on them.

For months after the assault on Darbar Sahib, it was undeclared martial law in Punjab, the wrath of which fell only on the Sikhs. Any Sikh youth who wore a yellow or blue turban or had a kirpan on his person was captured, humiliated and harassed. Flag marches by the army were carried on to strike terror in the Sikh populace. Terror was let loose on unarmed citizens in the name of curbing ‘terrorism’. Invariably, the entire male population of a village was ordered to come out with hands up and made to stand in the scorching heat of the sun for hours at a stretch, without allowing them to answer the call of nature. Public flogging of Sikh youth was done on the slightest suspicion. The extreme humiliation of youngsters in and out of police custody produced a deep-seated revulsion against authority. The stark brutalities inflicted on them forced them to leave their houses and live underground. It was reported that more than 8000 people were either missing from their houses or were detained during the Army action in Punjab.148

The CFD reported:

“It was an undeclared, unilateral ruthless war against hundreds of innocent defenseless men and women in far-away tiny villages of Punjab from where their voices do not reach the rest of India. Though many of these villagers were on bail and some had come out of jail only a couple of days before they met us, they showed amazing self-control and fearlessness and without any hesitation told us their story mentioning the names of police officers who had tortured them and had demanded and in several instances accepted huge bribes, if they wanted their women not to be molested or their sons and brothers not to be killed in encounters’. In the name of curbing terrorism, unabashed state terrorism has been unleashed on the Sikhs branding them as criminals. Arbitrary arrests and McCarthy style witch hunt, sadistic torture of Amritdhari Sikhs and cold-blooded shooting down of young men in false encounters, are common occurrences; even village women are not spared, they are being harassed and beaten up, dishonoured and taken away to Police Stations or to unknown destinations and kept there, sometime for more than a month. It is all male-police —there is no sign of women-police in the villages. The demand is that the women must produce their missing or absconding husbands and sons; women after women came to meet us from different villages to tell us what they had been facing for the last one and a half year; fields are not cultivated, the police whisk away the servants, cattle is not fed, crops cannot be harvested; a woman saddled with children with no man in the house to help and all the time the police-fear haunting her is a common story in the villages...Swinging between hope and hopelessness, afraid of the police, in many villages women have locked up their houses and have disappeared; in Verka village, for instance, houses were not even locked—they were lying empty, deserted... For months the civil authorities had almost ceased to function. It is only under a military dictatorship that army officers could drag a Sarpanch to the Army Camp and order him to produce some weapons which he was suspected to possess and when he could not he was made to stand in a deep pit and earth piled inside till it reached his neck. We found that the Army was hated not only by the common villager but by their own retired Havaldars and Captains, for in several cases they, being Amritdhari, were the targets. To-day the image of the Army is of a communal, corrupt, cruel and a grossly insensitive force.”149

The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, which made a coverage of Government actions in Punjab reported:

“The pattern in each village appears to be the same. The army moves in during the early evening, cordons a village and announces over loudspeakers that everyone must come out. All males between the age group of 15 and 35 are trussed and blindfolded, then taken away. Thousands have disappeared in the Punjab since the Army operation began. The government has provided no lists of names; families don’t know if sons and husbands are arrested, underground, or dead.”150

The CFD reported;

“The President of India had given awards to our brave army in appreciation of their dangerous mopping up operation. Buildings once tall and imposing stand like so many haunted houses, eerie and empty with bombed out walls, mangled girders and gaping wounds—mute witnesses to wanton destruction. Though we had been told in Delhi that the Army had been withdrawn, the Army was there in Amritsar, even 8 months after the Operation Blue Star. The convoys still rumble along. Big Brother stands fully armed, using constant vigil on all who enter or leave the Temple Complex, himself almost invisible.”

The C.F.D. further noted:

“Before evening falls every passing vehicle is searched, passengers are hauled out, luggage is examined, creating an artificial atmosphere of danger impeding normal life. Sikhs, in particular are insulted—Professor Virk of Guru Nanak University was slapped during checking.”151

How sheer living had become hazardous and insecure in Punjab during those days was explained to the CFD by Narinder Singh, Sarpanch of Kala Sangha:

“If anybody objects to the illegal actions of the Police, he is at once arrested and falsely implicated in an Arms Act case. Innocent persons are tortured. We cannot describe the extent of lawlessness of the police. For two months the wife and aunt of Tarsem Singh were taken away by the police. They want money—as much money as they can extort.”152

CFD recorded the comments of one Kirpal Singh, who said;

“When General Dyer killed people in Jallianwala Bagh, the bodies had been given back to their relatives but strangely our own Army killed our own people and did not return the bodies to their relatives. Thereafter a reign of terror was let loose in this area. Any Sikh youth who wore a yellow or blue turban or had a kirpan was captured, humiliated and shot. I had given a memorandum to Major General Jamwal, who was the Army Commander at that time here. Those Army men are the same who had been served by the Punjabis—especially by the village people—in the battle fields, with lassi and paranthas which they carried on their heads.”153

The CFD heard a frightening story from Gurmeet Singh of Khanna Chamara village, how Army Officers interfered in people’s private lives. He reported:

A Christian girl was getting married and there was a party in the village. Being falsely informed that there were terrorists, the army came in the village in three vans, surrounded the village and a drunken Major entered the house of the bride with a few of his men; he ordered all male guests to come out with hands up and the women guests to dance. The ladies were made to dance all night under threat; we men were blind-folded, vilely abused and taken to the military camp and kept there for two nights, then we were handed over to the police. At the police station we were insulted, humiliated, beaten, without any charge sheet; it was only after the Panchayat came with the villagers to the police station and pleaded with the authorities about our innocence that we were released.”154

Sixty year old Boota Singh of village Pagthana Baardwala said,

“My son Ajit Singh (20) is untraceable since Army action in June; my house has been raided 10 times during the last eight and a half months and my three other sons and myself have been arrested five times, taken to a CIA staff, kept there, tortured for one month, then released for a couple of weeks, then again taken, again interrogated, again tortured, then released again for a few days. Time and again it is because of the intervention of the Panchayat that we are released; I was released only yesterday (May 5, 1985). My son Pritam Singh is still in custody. We are very much harassed. We are never produced before a magistrate but continuously ordered to produce my missing son Ajit Singh.”155

Boota Singh said in anguish,

“We have no desire to live. About 100 Army men suddenly raid our houses in the night, pounce upon our sleeping sisters and ladies and small children. We are not even allowed to harvest. Death is better than this life.’156 Young Rajwant Kaur of Shahpur Guraiya was alone in her house with two of her small nephews-her brother had gone to Golden Temple and had not returned since June Army action; her old sick father, who could not even sit up had been taken away at least ten times since December. On May 4, at night my sister-in-law and her one year old baby were taken away, I do not know where. For the last six months our crop is not being allowed to be harvested. The labourers were threatened and they have all left; there is none to look after the land or the cattle.”157

CFD was critical of the Government for acting in a partisan manner. The report said that “soon after the Operation Blue Star the Government inducted a number of CRPF and BSF officers from outside Punjab to deal with the terrorists. The Sarpanch of village Haruwal bitterly complained that the D.I.G., S.P., A.S P., even the S.H.O. are all Hindus and every day they are arresting only Sikhs. Recently Inspector Kirpal Singh of the B.S.F. came on leave to my village and he was arrested. When I went to the police station for his release, the S.H.O. threatened to arrest me. It was only after badly insulting Kirpal Singh that they released him. I feel so harassed that I have no desire to live. Daily I have to go to the Police Station for the release of innocent persons from 7 a.m. in the morning till late at night; death is better than this sort of situation and constant harassment.”158

For months after the Blue Star holocaust it was undeclared army rule in Punjab. That the civil authorities had ceased to function will be clear from the following incident reported by the C.F.D.: ‘An accused with eyes tightly bandage..’ was produced before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Shri Cheema. The Court ordered the bandage to be removed. The orders were obeyed; after hearing the case the Court ordered that the accused should be sent to jail and not returned to Army custody; at once a Junior Commissioned Officer in the Army entered and clearly told the Magistrate in Hindi, “Goli Khayega or remand dega” — in the retiring room the order of the court sending the accused to jail was torn up and replaced by a remand order. Cheema complained to the Sessions Judge and the District Magistrate who brought the matter to the notice of the Brigadier, who expressed regret but the matter remained there.”159

The above narration is based on the disinterested evidence and conclusions of singularly public spirited and prominent Indians from outside Punjab. It reveals unmistakably the objectives of the masters who planned and ordered the genocide and the officials and men who faithfully executed it without any abatement in their sadistic, malignant course of military duty. It gives a peep into the feelings and sentiments of the people who suffered the genocidal oppression. Such has been the fate of the Sikh masses at the hands of their own ‘democratically elected masters” who are supposed to protect their human rights and their “national army” which is supposed to secure their safety against external aggression. One cannot help noticing the contrast between the approach and thinking of those who not only systematically planned these operations and supervised their malevolent execution and, on the other hand, the reaction and the feelings of men, women and children in the rural areas who had not just heard the stories from a partisan press or a communal demagogue but whose bleeding limbs had either suffered the tortures or witnessed with tearful eyes the death, destruction and molestation of their near and dear ones. The sophisticated understanding, planning and approach of those who over a long period planned the process present a sharp contrast to the reactions, feelings, perceptions and thinking of the mass of the Sikhs who became the human objects of that policy and process.

The reaction of the two communities to the attack on the Golden Temple presents another noteworthy contrast. On the one hand was the entire Hindu community supporting the action either through the press or their representatives in democratic institutions or spokesmen of Government or Administration or arm chair academicians and on the other hand was the mass of the Sikh community, literate or illiterate, sophisticated or unsophisticated, urban or ruralite condemning the action with one voice. Still another contrast is between the thinking of those persons who issued instructions about the considered criminality of Amritdhari Sikhs as the targets of their plan of persecution and elimination and the heroic resurgence of the Sikh youth since it invoked in them the glorious memories of the Sikh tradition created by the Sikh Gurus and the unprecedented valour shown by the Sikhs in struggling to supplant the Mughal administration that had repeatedly issued orders for the elimination of every Sikh. It is the same contrast of outlook that it would seem never contemplated the spontaneous revolt or reaction of the Sikh soldiers in the Indian army at what they thought to be deeply immoral stab at their faith.

Those who conceived and planned the bloody attack seemed to have an assessment and understanding of Sikh history and ethos and yet it seemed they never visualised the full consequences of the action. The feeling of the Sikhs and even some non- Sikhs was that memories of Mehtab Singh and Sukha Singh had been revived and the chances of a serious threat of retribution against the visible authors of the stroke had been raised. What we seek to emphasise is the unpardonable bankruptcy of understanding and thinking of those who contemplated the attack. They failed to see that they were creating serious dissensions in the Defence forces, jeopardising the very life of the Prime Minister and what is worse invoking the entire community to fall back and fight on the basis of its religion, ethos and history towards a line of action which could be increasingly destructive for the country as such. In the context of realities and the events that have happened, no cool historian can avoid the inference that those in charge of the destinies of the nation created problems which no rabid Sikh could create much less an enemy of the country. It is true that a historian of current history can have no access to Government plans and papers that led to this bloody attack but in case those assessments failed to take into account the risks of the step envisaged, the judgment of the historian would be evidently uncomplimentary for the suicidal decision, the adverse results of which are still unmeasured and far from being at a close. Revolts in the army are very major events especially when they take place during peace time in a national army. These invariably signify the folly of those who are at the helm of affairs and yet we are not aware of any commission or enquiry committee appointed to make an assessment of the debacle and suggest remedial steps.

Drastic steps in history have often been the result of miscalculation at the highest level i.e. those who are inexcusably ignorant of the realities of the context. Such steps have been seen to have jeopardised the fate of empires. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre ordered by Dyer was a grievous blunder which shook the very foundations of the Empire but the men at the top tried to retrieve the position by cashiering Dyer and O’ Dwyer and appointing the Hunter Commission. But in this case, though the event v/as of a much greater magnitude than the Jallianwala Bagh episode, the executors were decorated and rewarded, only to add fuel to the fire.