Jaspal Singh Sidhu
Tragic happenings of the 1980s continue to perturb the Sikhs. Most of them want to know what actually took place behind the smokescreen erected by the power of the day. In this context, the new arrival ‘The Khalistan Conspiracy’-A Former R&AW Officer Unravels the Path to 1984” (2020) authored by GBS Sidhu, who retired as Special Secretary of India’s Intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) fits the bill. The book reveals concretely, hitherto vaguely talked about that ‘Indira Gandhi had created a “Third Agency” to devise dubious plans to target Sikhs and to twist the Punjab politics to suit her political requirements. It exposes the ‘dirty vote-bank politics’, the Congress and other political parties openly practice in modern Indian nation-state in their bid to reach the corridors of power. In their pursuit for power politicians rarely bother whether their acts are causing communal disturbances, upstaging peaceful societies, and triggering loss of innocent lives.
In the beginning, Mr. Sidhu himself was a member of a high-power group set up by Indira Gandhi at Prime Ministerial residence mentioned as ‘1 Akbar Road Group’. Originally created by Sanjay Gandhi, a driving force behind his mother Indira Gandhi, the Group was aimed at ‘weakening’ of the moderate Akali Dal leadership by propping up a hardliner ‘Sant’ against them. Also to raise a bogey of Khalistan to instil fear among Punjabi Hindus on the premise that when the latter felt ‘insecure’ they would rally around the Congress as a consolidated ‘vote-bank’ seeking political protection from the party.
But the author does not touch pre-Partition developments continuing to affect the politics in post-Independence years till Indira Gandhi came on the scene in the 1970s. Earlier, the Hindu-dominated Congress (Muslim membership never exceeded three percent) being adamant on representing all Indians, agreed to Partition in 1947 instead of accommodating explicitly insecure Muslim minority forming 25 percent of the Indian population in the 1940s. After Independence, Congress pursued the same policies and instead of accommodating a tiny Sikh minority (less than two percent of the Indian population) sought to suppress them and their separate identity. This resulted in a disturbing political ground in Punjab which Congress/ Indira Gandhi used and played up. Since 1947 the Hindu-Sikh polarisation was pursued by the ruling Congress as revealed by Indira Gandhi in her autobiography, My Story, when her party had instigated Punjabi Hindus to oppose Akali Dal’s demand for the creation of a language-based Punjabi Suba. Congress also used to cultivate and impose a hardliner “Sant” against the Akalis. Earlier Punjab Chief Minister Partap Singh Kairon surreptitiously helping the installation of Sant Fateh Singh to ease out Master Tara Singh as a head of Shiromani Akali Dal.
The author says Indira Gandhi returned to power in early 1980 with vengeance after suffering humiliation over her unsuccessful use of the Emergency to remain in power. She was nursing a grudge against the Akalis who had challenged her authoritarian step and ran a morcha (long protest) against her. “Indira Gandhi had taken a decision to win the next general elections (in 1985) by using the services of Bhindranwale to create a serious Hindu-Sikh divide and to plant fear in the mind of the majority community”, the author says. That Punjab-centric secret project named Op-1 and Op -2 operations were time-framed to linger on up to the final blow, Operation of Blue Star in June 1984 when Indira Gandhi was to emerge as a “stronger leader’ to save the country from “a monster she herself created”.
Some senior R&AW officers were also involved in the Group. After the death of Sanjay Gandhi his elder brother Rajiv Gandhi was introduced into the Group which also included Makhan Lal Fotedar, Arun Nehru, Arun Singh, and Kamal Nath.
Before associating with the Group, Mr. Sidhu had officially headed a secret and sophisticated operation in 1975 intended to further intensify the ongoing anti-Chogyal disturbances in Sikkim for removing the former ruling dynast thereby paving a way for the merger of the hill state into the Indian union. He has written in detail about that operation in his book, Sikkim: Dawn of Democracy–The Truth Behind the Merger with India’ (Penguin Random House India, 2018).
With such a deep knowledge of the running of a secret operation, he had immediately realized that ‘1 Akbar Road Group’ would target and demonize the Sikhs as a community by manufacturing disturbances and violence in Punjab. It was an alarm for him. “I was being used to further the interest of one political party, one family one person in a manner totally at variance with larger interests of the nation”. He took a conscientious decision to come out of that Group even his quitting was risky to the extent of his dismissal from the service and suspecting him as an ISI agent.
Anyway, being a senior R&AW officer and holder of a position of Indian High Commission in Canada, Mr. Sidhu was aware that under that project seven new R&AW offices were opened in Canada to inculcate an alien ‘concept of Khalistan’ amongst the Sikh diaspora. And an overseas network was also established to propagate that the Sikh extremism was being sponsored and financed by ISI of Pakistan. Some other hardliner Sikhs in the USA and European countries were also taken into the loop.
During the early 1980s, a high-level official survey conducted in Punjab revealed that there was no taker of Khalistan and Sikhs used to mock at the theatrical moves of Jagjit Singh, an early proponent of Khalistan. Mr. Sidhu himself handed over a confidential note on that survey to Indira Gandhi’s principal information officer H Y Sharda Prasad. As a sharp commentary on the newspapers, invariably, toeing the official line, Mr. Sidhu writes that thereafter, Khalistan became a currency in the media. Instead of officially asking the media to exercise restraint, it rather “gradually became even more virulent in coverage of communal divide in Punjab (giving) prominent and front-page coverage to activities of Bhindranwale and extremists and in blaming the Sikhs in lead articles and editorials for nursing ambitions of re-establishing the ‘Khalsa Raj’. During that period unverified stories (fake news) of Bhindranwale’s ‘hit-list’ began circulating”.
The author tells the story from the official side which, of course, is quite important to understand the intricacies of the State apparatus. But he was not aware that former journalist of The Tribune, Dalbir Singh Patarkar described in the book as “political advisor” of Bhindranwale attempted to keep the state embedded media (now called Godi (lapdog) media) at bay. And Bhindranwale played his own card, publically criticized Indira Gandhi and mechanizations of Congress and took up genuine Sikh grievances which Akalis engaged in power-politics were hesitant to take up firmly. That is why Buinderanwale’s following swelled exponentially leaving the Akalis high and dry. Notwithstanding the media-propped perception, Bhindranwale never supported Khalistan (as sought by 1 Akbar Road Group) despite constant prodding by journalists and some highly placed Sikhs. He remained stuck on the demand of Anandpur Sahib Resolution seeking more powers for provinces. Unlike other pliable Sikh Sants, Bhindranwale rarely acted as New Delhi’s crony in practice and his emergence exposed fault lines like opportunistic variety Congress’s secularism which facilitated the rise of Hindutva forces and the dawn of majoritarian rule.
In a chapter, “A State of Controlled Chaos”, the author counts that besides the anti-Hindu speeches of the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) leaders, violence started erupting in Punjab. There were firings on morning Hindu walkers, RSS shakhas besides killings of Hindu bus passengers, and symbolic sacrilege of Hindu temples. The President’s rule was imposed in Punjab… all that was the controlled violence was allowed or directed by the 1 Akbar Road Group.
Similarly, in the chapter “Negotiated Solution: A Prolonged Charade?” he gives details how former union minister Swaran Singh, who was the author’s father-in-law, had brokered a negotiated settlement between Indira Gandhi and the Akalis at the latter instance in November 1982. And Akalis were ready to withdraw ‘Dharam Yudh Morcha’. But it was sabotaged at the eleventh hour obviously at the instance of the Group. Indira Gandhi continued to stage a charade of 26 high-level meetings with top Akali leadership till May 1984, a month before Operation Blue Star to propagate that the Akali ‘intransigence’ obstructing the peaceful settlement. “Operation Bhindranwale-Khalistan (Op-2) had been a predetermined goal, a fixed time-frame and an operation plan” which needed the prolonging of the Punjab trouble.
The book also underlies that Indira Gandhi did not agree to a “Heliborne Commando Operation” on the plea that it could involve casualties which could have been three-four dozen. The plan was to airlift Bhindranwale from the roof of Guru Ram Dass Langar building where he was holding his “durbar’ towards the 1983-end. She also ignored the advice of an officer from the United Kingdom’s elite commando, SAS who after visiting the Golden Temple had prepared a plan on the “expulsion” of Sikh militants. Mysteriously, Indira Gandhi agreed to General Vaidya’s plan of a quick “siege-and-flushing out operations” in the Golden Temple and other identified gurdwaras. The operation was a disaster as tanks rolled in the Golden Temple. He quotes intelligence sources to say that at least 2000 people were killed including 300 army personnel and 800-900 army personnel were injured and many of them crippled for life. He doubted the accuracy of the timing of cremation and post-mortem report of Sant Bhindranwale as his death was described to be caused by gun wounds. But his body was found badly battered.
Referring to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the author says he had suspected that she might be killed as Sikh policemen were redeployed at the prime minister’s residence after they were withdrawn from her security ring following Operation Blue Star. But he chose to keep quiet. Despite his being a highly placed officer, Mr. Sidhu had to take the protection from official guards during the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. Mr. Sidhu has irrefutable information on 1-Akbar Road Group monitoring the Sikh massacre and functioning of the Delhi police since as an intelligence officer he had intercepted and recorded the police’s secret wireless messages. Interestingly, the author says, the then home minister PV Narasimha Rao had no power over the Delhi police. He could not protect his own friend- a Hyderabad-based rich businessman Manmohan Singh in Delhi. Rao requested President Giani Zail Singh to send the Rashtrapati Bhawan security personnel who saved his Sikh friend. Questioning the official figure of around 3000 Sikhs killed in the pogrom the author says “independent sources estimate the number of deaths not less than 8000 (eight thousand) with some placing it closer to 15000.”
The book exposes how Indira Gandhi had created of a web of falsehood around the Sikhs, demonized them as anti-national and terrorist, and heaped untold miseries on them. But he does not seem to be aware of the Western nation-state dispensation that builds a majority-based nation targeting a minority as Jews were targeted by Hitler in Germany. That was why it was more than ‘vote-bank’ politics for Indira Gandhi when she went on to revive Hindutva and reverted her father Nehru’s policies of keeping RSS suppressed. She whipped up communally passion against the Sikh minority by invoking the name of Pakistan too. Therefore, Indira Gandhi’s political positioning earned for her the RSS and Hindutva forces’ unstinted support and she emerged ‘Durga’ of the ‘Hindu Nation’ after sending the army to the Golden Temple. And after her assassination, it was not only the sympathy but the Hindutva support brought an unparalleled majority to Congress in general elections to parliament in 1984-end. Such a landslide victory of Congress just after two months of the Sikh massacre in a way amounted to the justification of the Sikh pogrom.
Mr. Sidhu suggests that for creating a healthy Indian democracy ‘a truth and reconciliation commission’ be constituted by an act of parliament to unearth what happened in Punjab and who organized anti-Sikh pogrom. And to lay the past at rest, he suggested that “an all-party apology needs to be tendered at a joint session of Indian parliament on the lines of apology tendered in Canadian Houses of Commons by prime minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition parties on 18 May 2026 for a comparatively minor incident like Komagata Maru.” His suggestions are too good to be acted upon when the majoritarian rule has come to stay in India with “Hindu Rashtra” prowling around.
Jaspal Singh Sidhu is an author and senior journalist from Punjab who writes on media, history and political affairs. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org