Backgrounder - Punjab
The genesis of the terrorist movement in Punjab was rooted in a long and continuous process of decline in which intricate and often unscrupulous political manoeuvres systematically undermined democratic processes in the State. After Independence and the tragedy of Partition, political parties in Punjab continued to pursue a divisive politics that laid inordinate emphasis on the separation of communal identities, and that resulted in the ‘reorganisation’ of the Punjab State on ‘linguistic’ lines. This meant its trifurcation in 1966 into a Sikh majority Punjab and Hindu majority Harayana and Himachal Pradesh. The ‘reorganisation’, however, failed to create the necessary basis for a communal vote, and the share of the ‘Sikh parties’, specifically the Akali Dal, remained well below 30 per cent through the late Sixties and the Seventies, with more than half the Sikh population unequivocally rejecting their ideology and methods of communal mobilisation. The Akalis were, consequently, never able to do better than to cobble together unstable coalitions in Punjab. At the same time, the ‘secular’ formations, including prominently, the Congress (I), also adopted the politics of alternating communal incitement and appeasement, as they made a bid not only for the popular vote, but equally for the control of the religious affairs of the Sikhs through the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the body that administered Sikh religious affairs and places of worship. This incendiary mix of unprincipled politics and the manipulation of religious identities and institutions gradually brought the lunatic fringe of the Sikh far right to the centre stage of the State’s politics, pushing it into the spiral of violence that was to consume 21,469 lives in a little over a decade of strife, before the movement for ‘Khalistan’ was comprehensively defeated in 1993.
The incident to which the genesis of the terrorist movement in Punjab is traced, occurred in April 1978. The 13th of April marks the birth of the Sikh Khalsa, and had been chosen in that year by the Nirankari sect to hold its annual convention at Amritsar. The Nirankaris are accused of apostasy by the Akalis and by other fundamentalist Sikh groupings. A gang of a few hundred members of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Fauja Singh attacked the Nirankari convention. There was a long history of such clashes, but on this occasion, 13 Sikhs were killed, including Fauja Singh, along with three Nirankaris. Over the next six years, until his death in June 1984, Bhindranwale was to propagate a creed of unadulterated hate, mobilising the political frustrations of the Sikhs from a fundamentalist religious platform. Despite his virulence, he was propped up by the ‘secular’ Congress (I) in the SGPC elections of 1979, though only 4 of his 40 candidates won. He also canvassed for Congress (I) candidates in the General Elections of 1980.
In the meanwhile, the 62 Nirankaris, including the head of the sect, Baba Gurbachan Singh, charged in connection with the killing of 13 Sikhs in the 1978 clash had faced trial and were acquitted on the grounds that they had acted in self defence. This was evidently an unsatisfactory resolution of the issue, and in April 1980, Baba Gurbachan Singh was shot dead in Delhi. The first information report (FIR) named twenty persons for the murder, including several known associates of Bhindranwale. With the government failing to act against Bhindranwale, his killer squads struck again, this time claiming the life of another proclaimed ‘enemy of the Sikh Panth’, Lala Jagat Narain, the proprietor of the Hind Samachar Group, publishers of the popular daily, Punjab Kesri, and a bitter critic of Bhindranwale. This resulted in a flurry of deceptive moves, apparently to arrest Bhindranwale, countered by a succession of manoeuvres to help him escape the consequences of his actions. Eventually, however, he barricaded himself inside the heavily fortified Gurudwara Gurdarshan Parkash at Chowk Mehta. What followed was a farce that made the a laughing stock of the Punjab Police and transformed Bhindranwale into a veritable icon among the Sikhs. The Gurudwara was surrounded by the police, but no attempt was made to arrest Bhindranwale. Instead, senior officials went in to ‘negotiate a surrender’, and Bhindranwale declared that he would ‘offer himself for arrest at 1:00 pm on September 20, 198, after addressing a ‘religious congregation’. His terms were meekly accepted. At the appointed hour, he emerged to harangue a large crowd of his followers armed with spears, swords and a number of firearms. Among those present were a prominent Akali leaders. Having aroused the rabble to a pitch, Bhindranwale ‘surrendered’ to the police. Even as he was taken away, the mob opened fire on the police, a pitched battle ensued, and 11 persons were killed.
The very same day, three motorcycle-borne ‘storm troopers’ opened fire in a market in Jalandhar, killing four Hindus and injuring twelve. The next day, one Hindu was killed and thirteen people injured in Tarn Taran. For 25 days, violence exploded all over Punjab, while Bhindranwale was held in custody, not in jail, but in the ample comfort of a government circuit house. These incidents included the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Lahore. On October 15, Bhindranwale was a free man again, after the then Home Minister, without the benefit of any inquiry or judicial process, announced to Parliament that Bhindranwale was not involved in the murder of Lala Jagat Narain.
Bhindranwale now appeared invincible. With truckloads of men armed with sophisticated automatic weapons, he stormed across the Punjab, and even through the nation’s capital, with impunity. When the government hesitantly arrested one of his close associates, Amrik Singh, the President of the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF), on July 19, 1982, Bhindranwale decided to move into sanctuary of the Golden Temple complex. What followed was a continuous sequence of sacrilege and desecration, as the holiest shrine of the Sikhs became the centre of terror in Punjab.
It was not Bhindranwale alone who operated out of the Golden Temple. Bibi Amarjit Kaur, the widow of Fauja Singh who had died in the 1978 clash with the Nirankaris, had at that time itself entered the Temple with another member of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, and had created a terrorist group, the Babbar Khalsa, who were responsible responsible for a multitude of heinous crimes over the next decade and a half. These crimes included, according to the boast of the Babbar Khalsa’s chief assassin, the murder of 35 Nirankaris. A troubled entente existed between the Babbars and Bhindranwale’s forces. A third armed group had come into existence in the Golden Temple complex around the faction-ridden offices of the SGPC in Guru Nanak Niwas.
Between 1981 and 1983, the terrorists had killed 101 civilians, with 75 of these killed in 1983 itself. They included A.S. Atwal, a Deputy Inspector General of Police, who was killed in broad daylight at the main gate of the Golden Temple complex in April 1983. His body guards simply fled in the face of the attack, and a police post nearby was abandoned. The killers danced a celebratory bhangra over the dead body, and then sauntered back into the Temple. A steady stream of tortured and mutilated bodies began to appear in the gutters behind the Guru Nanak Niwas – Bhindranwale’s ‘temporary residence’. Fearing an attempt by the government to arrest him, Bhindranwale then moved into the Akal Takht, and began fortifications. Between January 1, 1984, and June 3, 1984, the terrorists killed 298 persons on commands that emanated from the headquarters that had been established in the Golden Temple. On June 3, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Army to clear the Temple, and the hastily executed Operation Bluestar virtually destroyed the Akal Takht and damaged many other revered buildings within the complex. More than a hundred Army officers and men died in the Operation, and over 550 innocent civilians were killed in the cross fire. The damage Bluestar did was incalculable, and it was compounded by Operation Woodrose, the Army’s ‘mopping up’ exercise all over Punjab, intended to clear extremist elements from all Gurudwaras in the State. Mistrustful of the State Police, and lacking credible intelligence sources, the indiscriminate sweep of Woodrose pushed many young men across the border into the arms of welcoming Pakistani handlers. And then, even as Woodrose drew to an end, the evil was incalculably compounded by the pitiless massacre of Sikhs in what were perceived to be Congress-I government-sponsored riots of November 1984 in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two of her own Sikh security guards.
Operation Bluestar and the November 1984 massacres have been described by K.P.S. Gill as "the two most significant victories for the cause of ‘Khalistan’…not won by the militants, but inflicted…. upon the nation by its own Government… These two events, in combination, gave a new lease of life to a movement which could easily have been contained in 1984 itself."
After the army, it was the turn of the ‘political solution’. The Rajiv Gandhi government, having, in its first days, remained a mute spectator to the anti-Sikh riots, decided to force the ravaged State through a hasty and ill-timed election. Negotiations were initiated by the central government in mid-1985. The Akalis, led by Harchand Singh Longowal, assisted by S. S. Barnala and Balwant Singh (of whom Longowal and Balwant Singh later fell to assasins), showed great eagerness to reclaim their hold on events in the State. But the Centre’s ‘strategy’ went well beyond the ‘moderates’ in the Akali Dal, and the government also initiated a dialogue with representatives of the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF), at that time a frontline terrorist grouping. The talks with the AISSF, however, broke down on trivial differences, mainly because of the Centre’s inclination in favour of the Akalis. However, the elections eventually took place – but only after Longowal’s assassination on August 20, 1985. Sympathy and the lack of any serious opposition in the September elections brought the Akali’s to power, now led by Barnala, with a sweeping majority (73 out of 117 seats).
One of the first acts of the Barnala government was the appointment of the Bains Committee, which released, en masse, over 2000 extremists at that time under detention. The impact on terrorist violence was palpable – not only because those who were released simply resumed their activities, but also because others saw in this act a restoration of the immunity they had enjoyed in the pre-Bluestar phase. 1985 had seen a total of 63 civilians and eight policemen killed by militants. As the Bains committee began its work, in just the first three months of 1986, 102 civilians and 10 security men fell to the terror.
Barnala also surrendered the Golden Temple to the terrorists once again. The shrine was restored to the Akali controlled Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) on January 22, 1986. In less than a month, the terrorists, led by the Damdami Taksal, were in complete control. By the end of April , a ‘Panthic Committee’ had been constituted to coordinate all terrorist activities, and a ‘Declaration of Khalistan’ was issued by the Committee from the Golden Temple (April 29, 1986). A day later, the Barnala government ordered a mock search in the Temple with ample advance notice. Not unexpectedly, "no one of note was caught", but the incident was sufficient to provoke a split in the Akali Dal, and, from that point onwards, Barnala’s existence was entirely dependant on the Congress-I’s support. During Barnala’s tenure of a little over 19 months, the lives of 783 civilians and 71 security men were lost to terrorist violence.
The violence escalated continuously as both the political and the police leadership failed consistently to define an unambiguous response to terrorism. The sophisticated Kalashnikov assault rifle [the AK-47], supplied by Pakistan’s covert agencies, was introduced into the terrorist armory in May 1987, and terrorism entered a completely new and deadlier phase. The impact was immediate and dramatic. The scale of killing was directly connected with the gun-power available to the terrorists – and did not recede to the pre-1987 level until the terrorists were finally crushed towards the end of 1992. By comparison, the Police were poorly equipped with with World War II vintage .303 rifles, or the equally obsolete bolt-action 7.62s. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was marginally better off, with 175 Self Loading Rifles [SLRs] per battalion. But even the SLR was no match for the sheer lethality of the Kalashnikov.
Nevertheless, the police had begun to commit itself for the first time in this long-drawn war. Between May 1987 and April 1988 terrorists killed 1533 people in Punjab (a monthly average of over 127), including 109 policemen. In turn, 364 terrorists were also killed. But the vacillating and directionless policies of the government, and the complete inability, indeed visible reluctance, of the State to impose the rule of law – even in cases of the worst acts of terrorism and where the perpetrators were apprehended by the police – swelled the ranks of terrorist forces. Terrorism, which had, in the past, largely been restricted to the districts of Amritsar and Gurdaspur, now had another four districts – Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Faridkot – firmly in its clutches.
The government, however, persisted in its opportunistic quest for just any kind of deal with the terrorists to the very end. On March 4, 1988, 40 high profile prisoners – the Jodhpur Detenues, including Jasbir Singh Rode – were released in a ‘goodwill gesture’ as part of a compromise with terrorists. They simply walked into the Golden Temple, where Rode was installed as the Jathedar (head priest) of the Akal Takht and the terrorists began to build up internal defences within the Temple around the parikarma. The terrorist response to the Government’s ‘goodwill gesture’ was unequivocal. An unprecedented 288 people – including 25 policemen – were killed in March and another 259 [including 25 policemen] in April.
With nothing left to trade, and 2866 lives [2207 civilians, 177 policemen, 482 terrorists] lost to between October 1985 and April 1988, the Centre decided that it was finally time to enforce the laws of the land. This time, however, it was not the army that was called in. Operation Black Thunder was executed squarely under the charge of the Punjab Police – backed up by the elite anti-terrorist force, the National Security Guard [NSG] and para-military forces. Its objective was identical to that of Operation Bluestar – to clear the Golden Temple of the entrenched terrorist forces. Unlike Bluestar, however, this was achieved in a clean, economical and near-bloodless action, executed under the fullest glare of the media – both national and international – within a week between May 11 and May 18, 1988.
Though only a fraction of the terrorists operating in the State were apprehended during Black Thunder, the Operation generated crucial structural transformations in the terrorist movement. After the macabre exposures relating to the activities of the extremists in the Temple, the movement for Khalistan could never recover the facade of religiousity that had attended it in its early years, and became increasingly and manifestly criminalised. Moreover, the Gurudwara as sanctuary and safe-house for terrorists and their leaders ceased to exist. Divested of the sanctuary of the Golden Temple and the Gurudwaras, the leadership was forced to live life as fugitives in the Punjab countryside; on the one hand, their own deeds exposed them, and on the other, the deeds of their followers compromised them even further, since they were now believed to be condoned, even encouraged, by these leaders.
Immediately after Black Thunder, an enormous exercise to reorganise the Punjab Police was carried out, transforming a force that was widely perceived as demoralised, cowardly and incompetent, into the spearhead of the successful counterterrorism campaign that was to follow.
In the days following Black Thunder, however, the terrorists ravaged Punjab. 343 civilians were slaughtered in May alone. They included 30 migrant labourers working on the Sutlej-Yamuna canal in Ropar district; another 45 migrant workers gunned down in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh; and 20 killed in a bomb blast outside a temple in Amritsar. These reprisal killings were a demonstration that Black Thunder had not decimated their numbers in significant measure, nor undermined their capacity to strike at will.
But the police made demonstrations of its own. The swift redeployment and reorientation of forces bore immediate results, and the civilian casualty rate fell rapidly. The first six months of 1988 had seen 1266 civilians killed – an average of 211 casualties a month; in the second half of 1988, 688 civilians were killed – a high figure, but nevertheless a radical improvement – with the monthly average down to 114. The terrorists, moreover, began paying a heavy price. On July 12, ‘General’ Labh Singh, the head of the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), at that time one of the most active terrorist gangs, died in an exchange of fire with the police. Avtar Singh Brahma, another dreaded terrorist, was among the 68 terrorists killed that month.
By January 1989, the terrorists had been pushed into a thin strip along the border, with over 70 per cent of their strikes restricted to just three of the twelve districts in Punjab – Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Ferozepur. This proportion was to remain a constant throughout 1989 and well into 1990.
It was only natural to focus attention on this area. In March 1989 a massive composite Special Operation – bringing together the forces of the Punjab Police, the CRPF and the Border Security Force (BSF) – was launched in the entire Mand area (a patch of marshland primarily lying in the Amritsar and Ferozepur districts, but flowing over into Kapurthala and Jalandhar as well), Ajnala, Jandiala, Tarn Taran and Batala (along the river Beas). Cordon-and-search combing operations became a regular feature in this terrorist heartland, yielding a steady stream of arrests and seizures of arms, ammunition and explosives, and mounting pressures on the extremists that they found it progressively harder to bear. The impact was compounded by highly focused intelligence-based operations, as well as by the effective use of ‘spotters’ – captured terrorists who helped identify former associates. By May 1989, the anti-terrorist drive had completely blunted the capabilities of leading terrorist groups to strike at soft targets. The organisations that that had been reduced to a negligible presence included the Khalistan Liberation Organisation (KLO), the Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan (BTFK) and the Babbar Khalsa, the last of which had perhaps the most dedicated and resourceful, and the most dreaded, cadres.
The top terrorist leadership – the two ‘Panthic Committees’, one that was eventually headed by Dr. Sohan Singh [Panthic Committee (SS)], and the other dominated by Gurbachan Singh Manochahal and Wassan Singh Zaffarwal [Panthic Committee (M)] – was by now based entirely in Pakistan, and exercised only loose control over their increasingly criminalised ‘followers’. Beyond making various ‘statements’ to cadres in India and issuing exaggerated threats of reprisal against those who were ‘defaming’ the movement through acts of extortion, rape and the murder of innocents, this leadership in exile did nothing about the wave of extortion and crime that was unleashed against the civilian population in the State by the proliferating gangs claiming allegiance to them. Violent turf wars broke also out between various gangs. There was already a deep and basic difference at the highest level of leadership, divided as it was between two irreconcilable ‘Panthic Committees’ (a third ‘Panthic Committee’, propped up by the Damdami Taksal, was also to emerge later, in September 1989). Pakistani handlers had made repeated attempts to mediate in order to bring about some sort of rapprochement between these groupings, but were entirely unsuccessful. The basic conflict, however, centered around control over the narcotics trade and gun-running.
The terror in the State had, till this point, been absolute. Public cooperation with the police was meagre, and even in the case of orchestrated public executions by small terrorist gangs, there was virtually no protest or resistance from the people at large. But all this began to change towards the middle of 1989. Since at least some of the police weaponry had been upgraded after Black Thunder, there were a substantial number of discarded .303 rifles available in police armouries. A Village Defence Scheme (VDS), and a system of appointing Special Police Officers (SPOs) was devised to arm and train volunteers in vulnerable villages to resist terrorist action at the local level. By April 1989, 2350 weapons had been distributed in 451 villages, and the VDS was to play a significant role to the very end of the war against terrorism.
There were other signs, small but nonetheless significant, of the turning tide. On June 6, a bus was hijacked by terrorists near village Talwandi Ghowan, PS Kathunangal, in the Majitha Police District, Amritsar. The Hindu passengers were forced off the bus and were about to be executed, when two Sikhs, Avtar Singh and Rajwant Singh, intervened to save their lives. They were shot dead, and two other passengers were seriously injured. The incident generated a great deal of revulsion against the terrorists among Sikhs in Punjab. Then again, just a month later (July 7), when a terrorist opened indiscriminate fire in the Tarn Taran bazaar, he was over-powered and beaten to death by the shopkeepers – an event virtually unimaginable even a few months earlier in this heartland of the terrorist movement.
By July, moreover, a number of hard-core and listed terrorists had moved out of the Punjab and set up operations in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh, not as a measure to expand their areas of operation, but to escape the increasing pressures in Punjab.
The pressure also forced a change in tactics and weaponry. Militants in Punjab were advised to increasingly resort to the more surreptitious device of the timed or remote controlled plastic explosive device rather than the AK-47, which required them to be present at the moment of execution. Explosive handling became an integral part of training in the camps across the border after April, and some of the first significant seizures of plastic explosives and sophisticated timing devices were made in May 1989.
The flood of weapons in the State also assumed new and disturbing proportions. Till this point, weapons acquisition had to be financed by the terrorists themselves through extortion and narcotics smuggling. Suddenly, in July, messages were sent out that weapons "which had accumulated in Pakistan for which no payment is to be made" could be acquired by the simple expedient of sending "large numbers" of terrorists across the border.
The augmentation of the terrorist arsenal led to a substantial escalation of terrorist activities. But civilian casualties were held down throughout 1989, even as the losses inflicted on the terrorists, and by them on the police, mounted. Pakistan was strenuously and openly directing the terrorist campaign at this stage, to the extent that terrorist training camps were being organised even within 75 metres of the international border (in the Ferozepur sector). Border crossings remained a continuous and daily occurrence along the 533 kilometre long international border Punjab shared with Pakistan, and could never really be effectively checked, despite 122 kilometres of fencing that had been erected by August 1989.
By the end of the third quarter of 1989, a fairly high rate of civilian, terrorist and police casualties notwithstanding, the militants had been pushed inexorably into a corner. Almost 76 per cent of all terrorist incidents in 1989 were contained within four police districts along the border (out of a total of 15 police districts at that time): Majitha, Tarn Taran, Batala and Ferozepur. More significantly, of the fifteen police districts in the State, 10 were only marginally affected by terrorist activities, with several months in the year passing without a single killing there. At the end of the year, four of these districts had an average civilian casualty rate of less than two a month; in another six districts, casualties ranged between 2-5 a month. It was only in the four ‘core districts’ that the average rate ran into the double digits.
Even within these districts, the terrorists’ sway was not absolute. By the 4th quarter of 1989, just 13 police stations accounted for nearly 65 per cent of all terrorist crime [and 64 per cent of civilian casualties] in these critical districts. And out of the 217 police stations in the entire State, nearly half the killings had taken place within the jurisdiction of just these 13 police stations.
Politics, however, intervened once again. A general election was now imminent, and a deeply discredited regime at Delhi, swamped under charges of corruption and nepotism, and lacking entirely lacking in a clear perspective on Punjab, decided to press ahead for elections in the parliamentary constituencies in this State as well.
The All India Sikh Students Federation had, by now, decided to complement its underground activities with an over-ground role. It combined with Simranjit Singh Mann’s pro-militant United Akali Dal [UAD], and the extremist front organisations swept the poll, with 10 of the 13 seats going to candidates backed by the alliance. Before demitting office, Rajiv Gandhi ordered the release of Simranjit Singh Mann, and of Harminder Singh Sandhu and Atindar Pal Singh of the AISSF. All cases against them were arbitrarily dropped to give expression to what was then, perhaps, a proposition unique to Indian justice administration, that a man elected to Parliament may not be tried for any crime that he may have committed.
The V P Singh government that took oath of office on December 6, 1989, brought with it preconceptions, attitudes and a pervasive confusion that surrendered the initiative to the terrorists even before they engaged. The defining incident with regard to this Government’s policy on terrorism occurred within the first week of its installation. The daughter of the newly appointed Home Minister was kidnapped in Kashmir (on December 11, 1989) by what was then an incipient terrorist movement in that State. The government’s response was absolute capitulation – and, within days, Kashmir simply exploded into a full-blown insurgency that is yet to be brought under control. The message to extremists all over the country was abundantly clear: this government had neither the will nor the understanding to define and implement a cogent and resolute policy against terrorist violence.
While the government dithered, terrorist-affiliated overground organisations initiated an unprecedented secessionist campaign that was to reverse all the gains of the preceding years. For over five years (since Bhindranwale’s death) the movement had been divested of a public voice, speaking only the language of the bullet and the bomb. But now elected Members of Parliament spoke openly of ‘Khalistan’. A closely coordinated and aggressive programme of agitations and demonstrations, with a high level of coercive mobilisation, was simultaneously launched in collaboration with escalating terrorist activities.
This incendiary mix of politics, religion and intimidation culminated in a campaign of disruption that pinned down ever-increasing numbers of security personnel, progressively reducing the force available for operational duties. This strategy of quasi-political mobilisation was backed up by a massive and well-coordinated campaign by another group of terrorist front-organisations masquerading as human rights activists. ‘Fact finding committees’ comprising sympathisers or pro-militant politicians were set up after each police operation. At a time when an average of over 200 people were being killed in a month by the terrorists, these ‘human rights’ activists insisted that every action by the security forces was an unjustified ‘excess’ or an ‘atrocity’. It was an extraordinary and highly successful campaign.
Worse still, the terrorists now directed a virulent and intensifying campaign of intimidation and murder against the security forces, especially in the lower ranks. The year 1990 alone saw 506 policemen killed – a majority of them while they were at home on leave. 19 members of their families were also killed by the terrorists – a number that was to rise sharply to 134 in 1991, as the terrorists made the families of policemen their favoured soft target in a concerted bid to demoralise the force.
The mounting tide of violence and open political subversion was compounded by irrational and arbitrary force withdrawals by the V.P. Singh government. The bogey of Assembly Elections in the State was, moreover, kept constantly alive throughout this phase, perpetuating an element of political uncertainty and constant political jockeying between both the over-ground and underground militant groupings. It was only in September, with the extension of President’s rule, that the question was briefly settled, only to be reopened shortly thereafter by the Chandrashekhar government that replaced V.P. Singh.
Meanwhile, the scope of political activity among parties and organisations of (relatively) moderate propensities had been completely eliminated. On May 14, the terrorists made an attempt to kill Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the SGPC President – and a ‘moderate’ Akali only if the definition was stretched to its very limits – on the Ludhiana-Patiala highway near village Pahwa. Tohra, an ex-MLA, H S Rajia and a gunman were injured, while the driver of the vehicle died on the spot. Rajia succumbed to his injuries in hospital. Less than a month later, Balwant Singh, an ex-Finance Minister of the State, was gunned down in Chandigarh. The traditional Akali parties simply went into hibernation, and no other national or regional party had, at this juncture, a functional State wing in Punjab.
After eleven months, the V P Singh government collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions, and the new Prime Minister, Chandrashekhar, heading a minority government with outside support from Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress-I, was to preside over another vacillating regime for a further seven months.
The Army was inducted into the State in November in what was called Operation Rakshak-I, which followed the pattern of conventional Army interventions in internal disturbances, certainly exerting substantial pressure on militants in the border districts – where the bulk of deployment had occurred – but failing to alter the course of militancy in any significant measure. In fact, what Operation Rakshak-I did was to partially squeeze militancy out of the border districts and into virtually the entire State.
The Chandrashekhar Government played out its final gamble in Punjab when it forced the State to join the rest of the nation in the mid-term elections slated for June 1991 (though elections were staggered in such a way that Punjab would go to the Polls after the process had been completed in the rest of the country). In April, the government announced that elections to the parliamentary and State Assembly constituencies in Punjab would be held simultaneously. The terrorist groupings split down the middle, with those broadly owing allegiance to the Damdami Taksal deciding to participate, and the second group affiliated to the Panthic Committee (Sohan Singh) deciding in favour of enforcing a boycott.
A large number of the 2146 candidates who filed nominations for the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections were overtly or covertly supported by terrorist organisations. By the time the nominations closed, even the groups officially boycotting the elections had hedged their bets by surreptitiously putting up candidates. 211 of the candidates had clear terrorist links, and 34 were at that time behind bars. 41 candidates had ‘history sheets’ (police records) that enumerated offenses including political assassination, hijacking and murder; another 48 were relatives of prominent listed terrorists.
Many of the candidates had refused police protection, declaring that they would make their own arrangements for ‘security’. They now began to move openly around the State with large groups of illegally armed terrorists as their ‘bodyguards’. In the meanwhile, the Panthic Committee (SS) let loose a campaign of liquidation that was eventually to claim the lives of 27 candidates. On June 7, an explosion damaged the cavalcade of the Minister of State for Home at Gill Road in Ludhiana (the MoS was contesting the Ludhiana Parliamentary seat). On June 15, 74 train passengers were massacred. Despite the enveloping mayhem in the State, the Army had, inexplicably, been withdrawn from the State, and para-military force levels had been cut drastically. However, the ill-conceived gambit for elections in Punjab was abandoned after Narasimha Rao was sworn in as Prime Minister on June 21.
It was during the General Elections of 1991 that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. The Congress-I rode back to power on a wave of sympathy, and Narasimha Rao was sworn in as Prime Minister. But the chaos created in Punjab by the preceding 18 months could hardly be contained by an electoral victory at the Centre. The years 1990 and 1991 unambiguously belonged to the terrorists.
Almost as many civilians were killed by terrorists in these two years, as in the preceding 12 – the entire span of the terrorist movement in Punjab. Between 1978 and 1989, there were 5070 civilian casualties; in 1990 and 1991, they were 5058.
The area of conflict now covered the entire State. After Black Thunder, terrorist crime had been confined mainly to the border districts. But by the end of 1991, the ‘terrorist heartland’ had extended itself from 13 police stations in four border districts [64.6% of terrorist crime in the 4th quarter of 1989] to over 47 police stations that now accounted for 61% of the greatly enhanced terrorist crime in a widely dispersed area. Only four of the 15 police districts registered a monthly average of civilian casualties below 10. This was easily cancelled out by another four, where civilian casualties were in excess of 20 per month. In Ludhiana, this figure stood at over 44 per month.
While the levels of terrorist violence in the border districts remained high, the command centre of terrorist operations shifted gradually to the Malwa region, with Ludhiana and Sangrur as its core. The greater dispersal of terrorist activities was, in substantial measure, intensified by Operation Rakshak-I which exerted a great deal of pressure in the border areas. In the absence of a co-ordinated policy of containment, the top terrorists were gradually ‘squeezed out’ into the Malwa and Doaba belt. Four border police districts (Tarn Taran, Majitha, Batala and Ferozepur) accounted for 878 killings by terrorists in 1991, as compared to 774 in 1989; this, however, represented a significant decline as against the 1341 civilian casualties inflicted in these districts in 1990. But 1991 also saw 535 civilian killings in Ludhiana (1989: 58; 1990:161), 278 in Sangrur (1989:8; 1990:65), and a total of 2591in the State (1989: 1168; 1990:2467). Distress migrations, which had come down to a mere trickle of ones and twos in a month in 1989, rose to 2524 families through 1990 and 1991 (averaging over 105 families per month).
Viewed in isolation, these figures may suggest that the police and had, once again, withdrawn into a defensive shell in the face of this widening arc of terror. This was far from the truth. Indeed, it was a paradox of the Punjab situation at that time that, while the police (both State and central forces) engaged continually, and while terrorist casualties rose constantly, the killings of civilians also registered sustained and alarming increases. Significantly, despite the terrorists’ claim that they were fighting for the ‘Sikh cause’, it was overwhelmingly the Sikhs themselves (over 70 per cent of those killed by terrorists in 1990-91) who were the victims of their terror.
This was largely due to the renewed successes in terrorist recruitment, which had virtually come to an end in 1989. At that time, the strength of listed and unlisted terrorists was estimated at no more than 1,200. By the middle of 1990, this number had risen upwards of 5,000, and rose above this level throughout 1991, despite the continuous and escalating losses suffered by militant groups. In 1989, under a relatively stable political dispensation, 703 terrorists had been killed, and militancy appeared to have been on the verge of total defeat. In 1990, 1320 terrorists lost their lives, in 1991, another 2177 fell – and yet, the terrorist movement grew from strength to strength.
The successes over the preceding eighteen months had spawned dozens of new militant groups and revived many others that had long been defunct. There was an air of absolute certainty, of consummate confidence, that their ‘war’ against the Indian state was in its terminal stages, that their goal, ‘Khalistan’, was imminent. ‘Governments in exile’ appointed themselves in America and the UK; ‘Prime Ministers’ and ‘Presidents’ of ‘Khalistan’ waited in the wings for the impending victory. Brutal turf wars between terrorist groupings grew in number and intensity, keeping pace with the sweep and power of their actions against the people of Punjab and the security forces, as their final goal appeared tantalizingly within reach.
The degree to which this anarchy had fed upon the regime of political license, of submission and appeasement of the preceding dispensations became clear as soon as an unequivocal policy was enunciated and implemented on the ground.
When Narasimha Rao took over as Prime Minister, the very possibility of ‘political solutions’ in the Punjab had ceased to exist. The various Akali factions, including those openly sympathetic to the militant cause, had been completely marginalised during the aborted elections of June 1991, when the terrorists decided they would rather ‘represent’ themselves. Simranjit Singh Mann, the leading overground representative of the terrorist cause, had himself been forced out of that election, though many militant nominees were to contest under the cover of his faction, the UAD (Mann). The other main political leader of the militant cause, Harminder Singh Sandhu of the AISSF, was long dead by this time, murdered by terrorists of the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), an affiliate of Sohan Singh’s Panthic Committee, in January 1990. The ‘traditional’ Akali parties had, of course, withdrawn into a shell of compliant self-preservation. In any event, with the numerous and continually multiplying factions of political and terrorist groupings in the State, there was no identifiable leadership with whom a dialogue could be initiated, even if the inclination had existed. The terrorists themselves, of course, had no reason to negotiate at this point, convinced as they were that they were poised on the very edge of victory.
An escalation of terrorist violence, at this stage, was inevitable. June itself had seen 245 civilians and 54 security men killed. July, August and September cost another 659 civilian and 123 security men. In October, the violence peaked, with 297 civilian and 53 police casualties. The political compulsions of the Rao Government made a response inevitable, with mounting pressure exerted on the Centre by the Punjab State units of the Congress-I and the Communist Party of India.
In November 1991, the Centre finally took action. The army was re-inducted in Punjab and the forces were given an unambiguous mandate – order had to be restored in the State, and grounds prepared for the election that fell due in mid-February, when the existing Parliamentary sanction for President’s rule came to an end. K.P.S. Gill was transferred back to the State as DGP shortly thereafter. These steps were reinforced by the provision of adequate force in the State, backed by an uncompromising policy of political non-interference. Law and order was entrusted to the professional agencies of the state within whose constitutional mandate they fell.
What emerged now, was one of the most unique experiments in multi-force counter-terrorist strategic initiatives and integrated command structures. Unlike previous operations, the Army and the police (both State and para-military) acted in complete concert, with a clearly defined institutional structure of cooperation and consultation. An officer of the rank of Inspector General (IG) from the Punjab Police was attached to each Corps of the Army deployed in Punjab. A Superintendent of Police (SP) was assigned to each Brigade. Police contingents were attached to every Army battalion, so that comprehensive and coordinated actions could be taken independently by each unit in all emerging circumstances, and there was total sharing of all intelligence, to the extent that police control rooms had representatives of the Army present
The pattern of Army deployment during the run-up to the elections was also significantly innovative. Traditionally, Army commanders have preferred massive presence in specific sensitive locations. During this phase and right through the election period, however, the Army was deployed all over the State; more importantly, it was split up to section level in order to saturate the entire countryside.
Adequate force – a total of 220 para-military companies – was also provided for the protection of candidates in the elections, with an entire platoon was assigned for each candidate’s security. Once again, the objective was clearly defined – the disorders and selective killings that resulted in the cancellation of the elections of June 1991 were not to be repeated. Despite the commitment of such a large force to these security duties, patrolling also had to be intensified and counter-terrorist operations were still sustained across the State.
The impact on the ground was immediate. In November itself, the number of civilians killed by terrorists fell to 154. Of these, 110 were killed in the first fortnight; the second fortnight, when the Central Government’s initiatives were implemented in Punjab, saw just 44 civilian casualties. A number of major terrorist groupings immediately decided to protect their top echelons by advising them to shift outside the State, or even out of India, or to go into a temporary hibernation during which they were instructed to tone up their internal structure and improve operational capabilities.
The elections of February 1992 also forced the militant camp into innumerable strategic failures. The most monumental of these was the decision to impose a boycott on the elections. Goaded by their foreign mentors, as well as by their funding and support groups among non-resident Sikhs in USA, Canada and UK, the terrorists began to believe that if they could force another postponement on the elections, or, failing this, keep voting percentages down below 10 per cent, they would discredit India’s democratic credentials. Of all the prominent militant leaders and ‘ideologues’, the only one to oppose this move for a boycott was – surprisingly, since he was the strongest advocate of a boycott in June 1991 – Sohan Singh; but his position drew such violent opposition even from his own supporters that he was forced to temporarily flee his safe haven in Pakistan.
Unlike the boycott of June 1991, moreover, there was also eventual unanimity in the militant camp that no Akali faction would be permitted to participate in the elections of February 1992. (Only a single, utterly unknown, faction of the Akali Dal, led by Kabul Singh, eventually participated in the elections). These objectives were secured by a campaign of intimidation. The entire State was saturated with posters, handbills, leaflets, press notes, statements and paid advertisements in selected newspapers, as well as by direct threats to candidates, voters and election officials, warning of reprisals against any act of cooperation with, or participation in, the election process. A ‘total curfew’ on pain of death was announced by the militants for February 18 and 19 to discourage voting. On February 8, three teachers assigned to election duties were gunned down, and another six were put to death on February 10. In order to terrorise urban voters, 18 explosions were engineered between February 5 and February 19, and attacks against political campaigners claimed 16 lives before the elections. In a final ‘warning’, 13 spinning mill workers were massacred at Barnala on the night of 17/18 February.
Nevertheless, not a single candidate standing for this election was killed. The election itself passed peacefully, except for one incident in which a grenade was thrown on a Congress-I election office in Ludhiana, killing one person, and injuring twelve.
The voter turn-out was low, no doubt. But it installed an elected government with a comfortable majority in the State. Most importantly, it was a functional government – not a puppet regime. From this point onwards, law and order – and, naturally, counter-terrorist policy – was firmly within the sphere of the State government’s responsibilities (unlike the Rajiv Gandhi-Barnala arrangement of 1985-86). For the first time, an extended period of political stability, and planning with at least a five-year perspective, became manifestly possible.
The essence of the State government’s policy on terrorism under Chief Minister Beant Singh was an extension of the principles implemented by the Centre in the preceding months. The institutions of Constitutional democracy and governance were to be progressively revived, and to this end, the reign of terror was to be brought to an end. Counter-terrorist operations would not be undermined through any negotiations, pacts or bargains with terrorist groups; nor would the political executive interfere with legitimate police operations, investigations and actions.
The greatest impact of the 1992 elections was that they, once again, banished the terrorists – indeed, the entire movement for ‘Khalistan’ – into the netherworld of an unambiguously criminal identity as the mask of politics was ripped away. Their over-ground political organisations stood comprehensively discredited in the eyes of the people by this time – essentially as a result of the militants’ own stand against them. Had the terrorists themselves – or through their nominees – participated in the elections, they may still have enjoyed the substantial immunities that come with a legitimate political position, and would have been able to participate in a range of over-ground activities which could tie down the security forces – as they had done in the past – and help blur the lines between their criminal and political identities. Now, however, they had entirely forfeited their political voice, and could speak only through the bullet and the bomb – a language that the security forces were well equipped to contend with.
They realised their blunder soon enough. In a desperate damage control exercise, they sought to re-activate the traditional Akali factions to initiate programmes of mass agitation. A militant-inflicted ‘unification’ under the banner of the Shiromani Panthic Action Committee (SPAC) sought to bring all over-ground pro-militant and Akali factions on a single platform. The people were exhorted to boycott the Members of the newly elected Legislative Assembly, to prevent the entry of ministers and MLAs in their villages, and not to approach any minister in connection with personal grievances or any other work. The people, frustrated with the many years that they had suffered without redress, ignored their calls; the elected representatives, voting percentages notwithstanding, began to serve precisely the functions that they are intended to in a democratic framework. Within weeks of the election, the supposed mass base of the movement for ‘Khalistan’ had vanished without a trace.
But the violence persisted. In the days following the elections, 24 voters were killed in separate acts of reprisal in Sangrur, Bhatinda, Ropar, Jalandhar and Ludhiana. In March, the terrorists adopted a new strategy of massive strikes in urban industrial complexes. On March 10, terrorists gunned down 15 executives of a private company in Sangrur. In two strikes at Ludhiana, on March 14 and 18, the terrorists killed 34 industrial workers. On March 21, a similar operation in Ahmedgarh killed 14.
Each shift in terrorist strategy was immediately countered. In the post election period, the army no longer maintained the saturation levels that it had sustained through the elections. The troops, while still deployed in the State, were returned to barracks, and called out only for specific operations – especially to provide rapid-response teams to back up police action, and to provide the outer cordon in search operations. The responsibility for dealing with the new pattern of terrorist actions, consequently, fell squarely on the police. There were some 140 to 150 urban centres in Punjab. Senior officers who were pushing files at Police Headquarters in Chandigarh were mobilised to confront the new challenge, and each of them was assigned four to five such centres. Each centre was divided into sectors along a grid, and vehicles and manpower were allocated for patrolling and pursuit duties along strategic points. With this single device, the threat to urban industrial concentrations was contained.
In April, the terrorists shifted attention to targeted killings of security personnel. The first quarter of the year had seen 54 security men killed. In April alone, the terrorists killed 51 and injured another 73. By August this strategy was to be extended to the most intensive campaign against the police and their families. When Sukhdev Singh Babbar, chief of the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) – by this time the most powerful terrorist grouping in the State – was killed in an encounter with the police on August 9, 63 family members of policemen were killed in retaliation – forty eight of them between August 9 and 11 itself. In addition, 37 policemen also lost their lives, bringing up the total of these targeted killings to 100 out of the 167 persons killed in the State in that month.
In addition to the police, the terrorists were also targeting political leaders and government officials. There was a car bomb attack on one State minister at Amritsar in May. The son of another minister, and the brother of a third were killed. The most gruesome among this series of targeted actions was the kidnap and subsequent murder of M.L. Manchanda, the station director of All India Radio at Patiala, on May 27. Manchanda’s torso was found in Patiala and his head in Ambala.
The response came in the form of three strategies. The first of these was based on the immediate identification of the perpetrators of the latest outrage, and the application of the fullest force to secure their arrest or elimination. The Manchanda killing is a case in point. The Babbar Khalsa had immediately claimed the killing, in order to impose the militant ‘code of conduct’ on the government’s broadcast agencies. Gurdial Singh Babbar, one of the perpetrators of this outrage, was pursued and killed in an encounter on the same day (May 27), and Amrik Singh Kauli Babbar, who master-minded the kidnapping and killing, met the same fate on June 2.
The second strategy focused on the most important terrorists. An analysis of terrorist strikes had shown, curiously in view of the increasing scope and range of terrorist activities in the State over the past two years, that inspite of their improved striking capacity and mobility, militancy in a majority of cases was highly localised. Even the most important terrorist leaders were found to operate within a radius of no more than 15 to 20 kilometres from their respective villages. With this knowledge, and with continuous intelligence from a variety of forces, it became possible to immobilise, and eventually arrest or eliminate these elements. The available manpower and infrastructure was, consequently, focused disproportionately on the leaders, the planners and the ideologues of the movement. Among the 139 hardcore terrorists who fell to this strategy in 1992 were a dozen self-styled ‘Chiefs’ and some 20 ‘Deputy Chiefs’ of various terrorist groups, including Rashpal Singh Chhandran, the Chief of the BTFK (June 12), Gurjant Singh Budhsinghwala (July 29), Chief of the KLF, and Sukhdev Singh Babbar, Mukh Sewadar of the BKI (August 10). (One of the last major successes for the security forces was to come in January 1993, with the death of Gurcbachan Singh Manochahal, Chief of the Panthic Committee (M) and the BTFK (M) in an encounter with security forces at Village Rataul in Tarn Taran.)
The third element of the strategic response came, in the wake of the August killings of policemen and their families, in the shape of Operation Night Dominance. Once again, an analysis of the pattern of terrorists activities indicated that an overwhelming majority of the killings in the villages took place in the late evening or very early morning. All senior officers were directed to take personal charge of operations at night. From this point on, these officers would be leading night-ops three or four days in every week – and performing their normal duties during the day.
The collective impact of these initiatives was clearly evident by the time the year 1992 came to a close. The situation was so vastly different as compared to the chaos that prevailed at the end of the previous year, that it was possible to speak of a total reversal against the terrorists. The total number of civilians killed in the State in 1992 stood at 1518, as compared to 2591 in 1991, reflecting a fall from a monthly average of 216 to 127. This, however, was not all. The lowest figures in 1991, in the months of November and December, stood at 154 and 126. In 1992, if the year was split into two halves, the monthly average fell to 87 in the second half. In the last quarter, this average stood at 60. In December itself, the total civilian casualties stood at 44. They were never to rise to these levels again. Indeed, in the whole of 1993, civilian casualties totaled just 48.
A complete transformation had also taken place at the psychological level among the people. After the elections of February 1992, the terrorists had failed entirely to elicit any demonstration of support or cooperation from the people of the State. The coercion and intimidation that had resulted in the low voter turnout in the elections of February 1992 were also exposed when elections to 95 Municipal Committees in the State concluded peacefully on September 6, with a voter turnout of over 75 per cent. These trends were endorsed when Panchayat Elections were held in the State’s 12,342 villages in January 1993, with a voter turnout of 82 per cent. The termination of the Village Panchayats, and their replacement by Khalsa Panchayats had been one of the critical objectives of the terrorist movement.
The transformation went far beyond the return of grassroot democracy and a refusal to cooperate with the militants, to comprehend an enveloping sense of relief. A State that had, for at least the preceding seven years, simply shut down before the sun set, was rediscovering the experiences of peace and normalcy. The markets throbbed with life in the evenings, and cultural events were organised and attended by thousands of people. Distress migrations under threat from terrorists had slowed down to a trickle even at the beginning of the year – a total of 73 families migrated during the first three quarters of 1992. In the last quarter there were no such cases of migration. More significantly, the trend was reversed as people returned to their homes even in areas such as Makhu, Zira, Jhabal, Bhikiwind and Moga, located deep in what had been, only a year ago, the terrorist heartland.
Fresh recruitment to the terrorist ranks had come virtually to an end by January 1992 itself. The police strategy, at this juncture created a ‘fourth option’ for the terrorists: the first three were conventional measures of respons – the possibilities of arrest, flight or armed engagement. A fourth option was offered at this stage of the confrontation: the terrorists were told that, if they chose surrender, they would be welcomed and embraced with warmth. By the end of 1992, 537 terrorists had surrendered to the police, six of them hardcore. Another 379, including 11 hardcore terrorists, were to lay down arms in 1993.
All the major terrorist organisations – the KCF (Wassan Singh), the KCF (Panjwar), the Babbar Khalsa, the BTFK – had, by this time, suffered irreversible losses. The smaller organisations – Dashmesh Regiment, Khalistan Armed Force, Khalistan Guerilla Force, Khalistan National Army, Khalistan Liberation Army – had been virtually wiped out. The entire surviving terrorist leadership including Wadhawa Singh and Mehal Singh of the Babbar Khalsa, Paramjir Singh Panjwar of the KCF, Pritam Singh Sekhon of the KLF, and Narain Singh of the KLA, now fled to Pakistan to join their resident ideologues – Wassan Singh Zaffarwal of the Panthic Committee (Zaffarwal) and Dr. Sohan Singh of the Panthic Committee (SS).
The war was over. What remained were mopping up operations.