"IT is very doubtful whether Mrs Gandhi would have ordered the Army to enter the Golden Temple if she had known that there would be such high casualties and that tanks would have to be used against the Akal Takht. So, what went wrong? The most obvious factor was poor intelligence" - Sir Mark Tully and Satish Jacob, Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle
India will never forget the summer of 1984. Punjab was in flames. On May 30, the Army surrounded the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest Sikh shrine, to flush out the fighters led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Mark Tully, who was the Delhi bureau chief of the British Broadcasting Corporation, drove up to Amritsar and booked himself into the Ritz. As tension rose, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sternly asked the rebels to surrender. Tully, who had covered the entire reign of Indira, including her moment of glory in 1971 and the Emergency in 1975, knew that the worse was yet to come.
By June 4, the tension was unbearable, and so was the heat. A police contingent arrived at the Ritz and ordered Tully and other journalists to leave. Tully pleaded with the police that most of them were travelling with their wives and partners and, therefore, it would be difficult and unsafe to do so. “The police grudgingly accepted our excuse, and, as a result, we could be present just as Operation Blue Star was beginning,” recollects Tully.
Commando operations started the next day. Over the next few days, the ninth infantry division of the Army under the command of Maj. Gen. Kuldeep Singh Brar launched the operation to flush out the extremists from the Golden Temple. The Akal Takht was devastated and its antique belongings were gutted and an unspecified number of armed militants and innocent pilgrims, who were caught in the cross fire, perished.
Indira paid the price of the operation with her life. On October 31, Tully was travelling to Mussourie with Princess Anne of Britain, who was on her way to meet with Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Indira’s aunt, over tea. He overheard two cops saying Indira was shot by her Sikh bodyguards. Without wasting a moment, Tully returned to Delhi.
On his way back, his car was mobbed in Muzaffarnagar by young protesters who were shouting slogans against foreigners. In Delhi, confusion prevailed as rumours flew thick and fast. It was clear that Indira was dead, but there was no formal announcement. The BBC was the first broadcaster to announce that Indira was no more. The credit for breaking the news, says Tully, goes to his colleague Satish Jacob. “He walked into the hospital and interviewed the doctors who operated on Indira and confirmed the biggest news of that age,” Tully says. The All India Radio waited till evening to announce the news. By then, Tully had reached Delhi and for the next few days he zipped around the dangerous bylanes of the city, where the pogrom against the Sikhs unfolded. The massacre, like the Emergency, had left him shaken, says Tully.
Covering Indira had been the most important assignment for Tully and he loves to relive those moments. He remembers a rally addressed by Indira at the Ramlila ground in Delhi, which took place two months after the declaration of Emergency. Such was the fury over family planning measures undertaken by the government, in the garb of Emergency, that the women who came to listen to her, suddenly started walking out as Indira began her speech. When nothing worked, Indira left the podium and before her security guards could react, the 65-year-old Prime Minister scaled the barrier between her and the people and tried to stop them by blocking the exit herself. “It was a stunning moment and showed how she felt during that period,” says Tully.
His experience in reporting on Indira gave him deep insight into the political behaviour of Indian leaders. He says they are culturally trained to be sensitive to the needs of the people. “This comes from the age of the epics, which showed that even Lord Rama had to follow the tenets of raj dharma. Whenever they fail to follow it, they pay a price,” he says. “The failure of Narendra Modi to be the chief minister of all Gujaratis in 2002 is a memorable failure in following raj dharma. By raj dharma, the ruler is expected to serve all his subjects, without any distinction.”
Tully plans to return to Amritsar to relive the Indira years and his coverage of the events of the 80s. He says the eternal hymns of the Golden Temple will overwhelm him in the way they used to.
The temple still bears the marks of the tank shells of June 6, 1984. “The Akal Takht was badly damaged by the shells, but we have rebuilt it bit by bit,” says Harchard Singh, a sevadar, who was a child in 1984. The Akal Takht was rebuilt with gold contributed by the devotees. Tully is glad that the Hindu-Sikh animosity in Punjab is a thing of the past. But, he wants justice for the Sikhs who were killed in Delhi following Indira’s assassination.
Yet, with all its faults, Tully, 75, is deeply in love with India and is reportedly busy with his books and documentaries on India. This passion to write about India, he says, comes to him because he finds India eternally unique and Indians always willing to discuss anything. “A strange contrast, indeed, because the Indian society is stratified. Yet, the people are frank in communicating their opinions without any regard for the formal differences among them,” says Tully. “The uniqueness and strangeness of India are overwhelming.”