JARNAIL SINGH BHINDRANWALE, who had risen from a Sikh preacher to become the head of the Damdami Taksal and who had earlier been propped up by the Congress to counter the Akali Dal’s influence in the state, used that platform to emerge as the leader of a militant group and symbolised the extremist and terrorist movement in the state. He treated the Congress as his adversary and so made common cause with the Akalis to advocate the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. He moved around Punjab with his militant followers with impunity and several incidents of violence and acts of terrorism in the state were allegedly committed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s followers.
In 1982, Bhindranwale and the Akali Dal launched the Dharam Yudh Morcha demanding fulfilment of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which in effect was aimed to grant regional autonomy to Punjab state within India. It was buttressed with populist demands attracting widespread support of people in Punjab, particularly the youth, who were dissatisfied with the prevailing economic, social, and political conditions. Through this movement Bhindranwale emerged as a leader of Sikh militancy. His followers targeted the Nirankaris and their well-known supporters, prominent among them being Lala Jagat Narain, the founder editor of the Jullundur-based Hind Samachar group of papers, which had a very wide circulation in the state. Narain’s vernacular newspapers were openly critical of the militancy and terrorism in the state, which was attributed to Bhindranwale. At the same time, Narain strongly supported the Nirankaris, making him a prime target for the militant group.
Narain was travelling home one evening from Chandigarh to Jullundur when his car was attacked by a group of militants and he was killed. The incident took place while he was still in Ludhiana district, very close to the Jullundur district boundary near Phillaur. As soon as I was informed of the incident, D.R. Bhatti, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), and I rushed to the site to find Narain’s bullet-riddled body lying on the back seat of the car. We took the body to the hospital in Ludhiana and soon the news of his assassination spread throughout the city. By nightfall a large crowd, mainly supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) incensed over the murder of the widely respected journalist, had gathered at the hospital premises shouting slogans and threatening retaliation. A little later, we were informed that a bandh had been declared next day in Ludhiana city and plans were being made to carry Narain’s body in a procession through the city. In the highly charged atmosphere, this would have definitely led to intensifying tension and inevitable violence in the city.
The SSP expressed his apprehension that a very large response to the call for observing a bandh was imminent and already announcements were being made throughout the city to shut down shops and exhorting people to join the procession. Taking stock of this volatile situation, we discussed various measures for defusing the situation including a late night meeting with leaders but the feedback we got was that they were adamant about taking out Narain’s body in a procession. His outspoken writings in the Hind Samachar against the extremist elements in the state had made him immensely popular as a symbol of a fightback to end their reign of terror, and they perceived this to be the cause for which he was martyred.
The murder of Lala Jagat Narain was alleged to have been carried out as per Bhindranwale’s orders and the police was looking to arrest him on various allegations of violence. Bhindranwale offered to court arrest in Chowk Mehta, near Amritsar, if he was allowed to address a public gathering. It became a massive media event for the top leadership of the Akali Dal and thousands of Bhindranwale’s followers gathered to hear his speech claiming innocence and to witness his surrender. Following his surrender, as apprehended, there was large-scale violence in different parts of Punjab. Hence, the government’s decision to send him to Ludhiana for detention was a serious challenge to the district administration. He was transported from Chowk Mehta under strict security in a convoy of cars. It was considered imprudent to bring Bhindranwale into the city or to detain him in the district jail which was located in the heart of the city. We, therefore, planned with the government’s approval, to surreptitiously separate his car from the convoy of police escort vehicles well before the convoy entered the city limits and divert it to an undisclosed government rest house in a secluded place. The welcome arches put up in the city and the large number of people gathered along the road to cheer him vindicated our plans.
However, just about 30 minutes before the expected arrival of the convoy at the spot from where we were to divert his car, SSP Bhatti came to me to convey a message from the Director General of Police that Bhindranwale’s car should be allowed to go through the city. He could not explain why this obviously senseless change was made. I immediately telephoned Chief Minister Darbara Singh, who was in Chandigarh, and asked him why this carefully thought-out plan had suddenly been aborted. The Chief Minister sounded very agitated and all he said was that this was not his decision but the orders had come directly from Home Minister Zail Singh. Following these orders, Bhindranwale’s convoy was taken through the city including Bhindranwale’s car. As apprehended, there was a public procession following the convoy which became progressively larger as it went through the city with people in different modes of transport joining it and shouting pro-Bhindranwale slogans. When we reached the designated place of his detention, there was no secrecy left.
Escorting Bhindranwale from Chowk Mehta to Ludhiana was a senior IPS officer, Chahal, Senior Superintendent of Police, Gurdaspur district. He had come with a set of instructions regarding the treatment to be meted out to Bhindranwale while in detention. Bhindranwale was still sitting in the Ambassador car with two companions when Chahal came across to where the Deputy Inspector General, Police, Patiala Range, SSP Bhatti and I were discussing security arrangements to convey the instructions which, he said, were agreed conditions attached to his surrender.
1. Two companions―his cook and his sewak―would stay with him
2. When he is interrogated, it must be only by a gursikh (a Sikh who observes all five tenets of Sikhism)
3. When he is interrogated, he should be sitting at the same level or higher but not lower than the interrogator and
4. If he chooses not to answer any question, no third degree method should be used.
I listened aghast and quipped to Chahal, ‘Who is under arrest, Bhindranwale or the Punjab government?’ I then turned to Bhatti and said that as far as I was concerned, Bhindranwale was someone under arrest and should accordingly be treated as one under detention.
Excerpted with permission from Living A Life, Ravi Sawhney, Konark Publishers, New Delhi.
LIVING A LIFE
By Ravi Sawhney
Published by Konark Publishers
Pages: 264; price Rs680