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Operation Blue Star, when the army controlled Indian media

The Golden Temple in Amritsar under siege after Operation Blue Star. Much of the operation was covered by the print media through selective information and photographs released by the government, intelligence and army sources. Photo: India TodayPremium
The Golden Temple in Amritsar under siege after Operation Blue Star. Much of the operation was covered by the print media through selective information and photographs released by the government, intelligence and army sources. Photo: India Today

Covering the aftermath of the army's attempt to flush out militants from the Golden Temple was particularly difficult due to draconian media restrictions

A warrant is out for the arrest of an Indian journalist who provoked displeasure by doing his job too well—The New York Times, 23 October, 1984.

A colleague of mine at Mint reminded me of how the two of us called ourselves—self-deprecatingly—the ‘aftermath specialists.’ As young wire service reporters in the early 1980s we were in utter awe of the heroic Washington Post pair Bernstein and Woodward.

He wrote from Bhopal, after deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked out of a Union Carbide factory in the dead of night, killing thousands. I hoofed it to Nellie, reporting the aftermath from that forlorn village where some 2,000 Muslim civilians had been butchered in the middle of an Assam-for-Assamese movement.

Covering the immediate aftermath of Operation Blue Star in 1984, when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, to flush out armed Sikh militants, was particularly difficult because of draconian media restrictions. This week is its 30th anniversary, yet the entire operation—and, yes, its aftermath—remains buried in half-truths.

Amritsar, a bustling city where religion and commerce, Sikhs and Hindus co-exist with self-assurance, mutual respect and vigour, was a sullen place in June 1984, buffeted by suspicion, power games and conspiracy theories. Reporters were squealing on reporters, government officials were planting stories. But the city survived attempts at religious polarization.

Thirty years on, we still don’t know exactly how many people died in the messy and mishandled Operation Blue Star. Facts are scarce today, as they were in June 1984, when independent information for reporting had to be gathered furtively.

Punjab was under President’s rule as a result of its wrecked law and order; and the central government clamped a media blackout around Blue Star. Executed decades before 24x7 television news, much of the operation was covered by the print media through selective information and photographs let out by government, intelligence and Army sources.

Unlike Nellie, there were no reporters who saw the operation, the gunfight and the killings. And on 7 June, the day after the end of Blue Star, Punjab’s most widely read English-language newspaper, The Tribune, declared it “a neat operation".

The few exceptions came mostly from Indian journalists working for the Western media.

A report by Bramha Chellaney, a reporter for the Associated Press (AP) news agency, broke the silence. His story quoted post-mortem medical reports as saying “several" people inside the temple had been shot at close range with their hands bound—killed in cold blood—and that around 1,200 people had died in the blitz, around double the official figure. It was picked up by London Times.

Incensed, New Delhi charged Chellaney with violating Punjab press censorship, two counts of fanning sectarian hatred and trouble, and later with sedition—targeting him alone, although Indian publications later carried similar reports. There was a furore.

The New York Times published an editorial titled Truth on Trial—in India which is quoted at the start of this column. It added, “What is at issue here is not just censorship, but vindictiveness… Not since India’s ‘emergency’ in 1975-1977 has anyone working for a foreign news organization there been threatened with jail for doing his job."

In September 1985, eight months after impounding his passport, the government returned it and dropped all charges. But, bizarrely, the only official version of the operation still is contained in a White Paper, published in July 1984, which puts the number of civilian/terrorist casualties as 516, soldiers and officers killed as 83, and 249 injured; and 592 civilians/terrorists “apprehended."

The BBC’s Satish Jacob, one of the foreign media journalists allowed by authorities to stay back during the operation, told me, “In my estimate, gleaned from intelligence and Sikh religious sources, no less than 2,000 people were killed, including 300 army personnel. Another 800-900 army personnel were injured, many of them crippled for life. If the government had come out with the real figures then, it would have shown that the operation was a disaster."

Army officers scoured our daily news files in Amritsar, as I discover halfway through my assignment, when a former colleague and I were taken in for questioning by Army intelligence. They wanted to know who our sources were for two particular stories. We refused to divulge them but when I mentioned that an Army general was among my sources—and named him—the officer suddenly dropped his rudeness and offered us tea.

It came in fine china.

India is haunted and scarred by the aftermaths of its many episodes of sectarian killing as well as police, military and paramilitary actions. The absence of information inhibits informed debate and analysis, which in turn leaves us in the company of ghosts. One day perhaps Operation Blue Star will be part of school curriculum, just like the Troubles in Northern Ireland are taught to British school children. There will be tears, recrimination and hot emotion, but calm and dispassionate reasoning will follow.

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