BBC and AIR news broadcasts announced Bhindranwale’s death in the morning on 7 June 1984. When I reached office that morning, there was unusual excitement and the young officers were huddled in small groups in some of the rooms. Obviously, they were discussing Operation Blue Star and the developments of the past two days. I realized that the Sikh employees of the Department would have been appalled by the ferocity of army action and the damage to the Akal Takht and the Golden Temple complex. I took it upon myself to call all four Sikh section officers (SOs) at the headquarters to my room…
I told them that what had happened was unfortunate and should have been avoided at all costs. It was neither indicative of any Hindu-Sikh divide nor was it motivated out of any genuine threat perception about the demand for Khalistan. In fact, these issues were deliberately created by some senior Congress leaders for electoral gains. I then told them that the main purpose of my calling them to my room was to tell them, and through them the rest of the Sikh staff members, that what had happened should have no impact on the performance of their duties in the Department.
Our primary responsibility was towards the nation and the protection of its security interests. Religious affiliation was secondary. Reminding them briefly of the sacrifices made by a large number of Sikhs during India’s Independence struggle, I finally told them that within the next half hour they should contact all Sikh staff members working in the Department and inform them of my message, which they did…
‘Duty to kill’
In the evening, accompanied by my wife Iqbal, young son Gagan and daughter Harmeeta, I visited Gurudwara Bangla Sahib to see if there was any impact of Operation Blue Star on the Sikhs there. While the Shabad Kirtan (recitation of sacred hymns) was going on inside the main hall, small groups of Sikhs were standing outside here and there, animatedly discussing the outcome of Operation Blue Star. A number of placards in Punjabi with inscriptions in red ink were also displayed prominently.
Both the contents of the placards and the animated discussions were highly critical of the government and especially the Congress, which was being held directly responsible for what had happened at the Golden Temple complex. I still remember the contents of one of the placards displayed near the langar entrance of the gurudwara. It read, ‘Singh sahib, Bhai Amrik Singh ate Thara Singh nu tasehe de ke marya gaya hai. Hun is k … Brahmani nu maran da har Sikh da farz banada hai.’ (Sikh brethren, be informed that brothers Amrik Singh and Thara Singh were tortured to death. Now it becomes the duty of every Sikh to kill this Brahmani).
The word ‘Brahmani’ was used for Indira Gandhi with a derogatory prefix. Incidentally, there was no placard that mentioned the death of Bhindranwale, as some Sikhs still believed that Bhindranwale had escaped just before or during Operation Blue Star…
The next morning, I called on Director (R) Gary Saxena in his office and informed him of what I had seen and observed in Gurudwara Bangla Sahib complex, especially the contents of the placard. I told him that going even by elementary knowledge of Sikh history, there would be a large number of Sikhs, specially from the rural areas, willing to risk their lives to avenge the damage caused to the Harmandir Sahib complex. Their target would be Indira Gandhi.
Coming straight to the point, I said that in my assessment there was a high probability of her being assassinated in the next six months, and it was the duty of the concerned security agencies to save her life at all costs…
Having heard my assessment, Gary remarked that if such a thing happened there would be large-scale killing of Sikhs in Delhi. It appeared the subject had been discussed the previous day at a high-level meeting… ‘That is what they want,’ I said. When Gary asked who ‘they’ were, I said, ‘Obviously, Pakistan, and some Western countries, where there is a comparatively larger presence of Sikhs.’
As the implications of my remarks were rather obvious, no further discussion took place on the subject. It is, however, not known whether Gary’s information about the large-scale killing of Sikhs in Delhi following Indira Gandhi’s likely assassination was based on an intelligence input by the IB or was an observation by a perceptive officer who had attended the previous day’s meeting of senior officers.
‘Tomorrow may be too late’
October 21 was a Sunday. I had accompanied my wife and two children to the Lady Hardinge Medical College campus, adjacent to Connaught Place, to meet my wife’s eldest sister Dr Paramjeet Panag. On our return journey, as we approached the crossing of Akbar Road and Safdarjung Road, while turning towards Gymkhana Club, I saw two young policemen posted at the corner of 1 Akbar Road, part of the prime minister’s official residential complex. Both were armed with Sten guns.
One of them was a 5-foot-8-inch stocky Sikh who appeared to be in his mid-twenties with a closely trimmed beard. Seeing him posted there, I expressed my surprise to my wife as to why armed Sikh police security guards, who were removed from duty at the PM’s residence after Operation Blue Star, had been redeployed. ‘This is the surest and the easiest way of getting Mrs Gandhi assassinated!’ I exclaimed in dismay. From the photographs that appeared in the newspapers later, I identified the young Sikh police constable I had seen as one of the two assassins, Satwant Singh.
On reaching office the next morning, I wrote a small note by hand and addressed it to Gary Saxena. In it I described precisely what I had observed the previous afternoon. In addition to writing that it was the surest and the easiest way of getting the PM killed, I specifically mentioned that all members of the Sikh VVIP security detail posted at the PM’s residence must be removed at the earliest, for tomorrow may be too late. Also, a detailed enquiry should be conducted to find out who had recommended or decided their recall, and under what circumstances. Separately, I had asked my personal assistant Sita Lakshmi to prepare an envelope addressed to the director, marked, ‘to be opened by addressee only’.
I then paused to consider the pros and cons of sending that note to Gary Saxena. Keeping in view the rural background of the police constabulary, still nursing a tribal mentality, and for whom avenging the attack on the Golden Temple complex was a priority over any other consideration, I had no doubt that an armed person like Satwant Singh, singly or in collaboration with one or more Sikh policemen, would make an attempt to assassinate Indira Gandhi sooner rather than later. But, I thought, if such an attempt was made the same afternoon or within a day or two, there was every chance that whoever was instrumental in bringing back the Sikh policemen on duty would try to deflect attention towards me by falsely accusing me of being part of the conspiracy.
In the prevailing environment of the time, a Sikh could become an easy target of any such insinuation. I reminded myself of the well-known proverb, ‘Discretion is the better part of valour’, and finally decided not to send the note to Gary. Therefore, when Sita Lakshmi returned with the envelope, I told her to leave it with me, and as soon as she left the room I shredded both the note and the envelope.
Afterwards, of course, I felt remorse for not sending that note to the director. I did come to know through the departmental grapevine that Kao had also expressed his reservations about the recall of Sikh guards at the PM’s residence. He had suggested that in case it was not possible to remove them, no two Sikh armed guards should be posted together on duty at the same time and at the same place. That was precisely what happened on the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated. On the plea that he had an upset stomach, which may require him to visit the toilet often, Satwant Singh got his duty changed to the inner circle where Beant Singh was already deployed.