Monday, April 30

Without Prejudice

Long after Bhindranwale raised the bogey of discrimination against Sikhs in the army, and it was demolished by our most distinguished Sikh soldiers, we did hear it raised again but a PIL tried to revive fears long buried by giving communal twist to naming of next Army chief until the apex court threw it out, writes Shekhar Gupta in his regular column National Interest in The Indian Express
By 1983-84, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had perfected his sharp narrative of discrimination against the Sikhs. A key element was the “Indian” (read Hindu) lack of gratitude for the sacrifices the Sikhs had made for them in the battlefield. The “evidence” was a “well laid out” conspiracy to ensure no Sikh ever rose to be the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) even though the Indian Army “couldn’t last a day in a war without its Sikhs”. He had his homework done. Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora liberated Bangladesh for us, but was not made the chief. Major General Shabeg Singh raised and trained the Mukti Bahini but, rather than being sent even a little thank-you note, was victimised “only because he was a Sikh”. So Shabeg Singh now sat at his feet in the Akal Takht, the supreme religious and temporal seat of Sikhism that Bhindranwale had made his home in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, raising and training his army of the faithful.
Bhindranwale shared the common weakness of great polemicists: of beginning to unquestioningly believe their own mythologies. So when the first army units arrived on that June afternoon in 1984, marking the launch of Operation Bluestar, he was calm in what was to be his last supper of sorts with his fighters, and some reporters, including this one.
“Keep your cool (Thanda damaag rakho),” he said, “we will win, but we have to be mentally prepared to fight Russian commandos.”
“Why Russian commandos?” many surprised voices asked the same question.
“Because Sikhs of the Indian Army will never agree to fight us, the topi-walas (his favourite pejorative for Hindus) are incapable of fighting. So what will bibi (Indira Gandhi) do except ask her Russian friends for help?” he said.
The scenario that unfolded later that evening was a little bit different. Of course, there were no Russian commandos. Operation Bluestar was led by two of the army’s finest Sikh generals: Major General Kuldip Singh “Bulbul” Brar, GOC of
9 Infantry Div that did the bulk of the fighting, and the legendary Lieutenant General Ranjit Singh Dayal, chief of staff at Western Command (under Sundarji) who planned the operation with great care so as to minimise the damage. Does the name ring a bell? He was the lion of Hajipir Pass who, as a Major with 1 Para, took from Pakistan what is often described as Kashmir’s Golan Heights, in an impossible operation on a freezing, squally night, and won a Maha Vir Chakra. A little note of regret and apology, which is institutional as well as personal, is in order here: Dayal, after spending nearly a quarter century in relative anonymity imposed on all the key figures involved in Bluestar, passed away unsung on January 29 this year. Nobody seemed to have remembered to even write a footnote to the fading away of one of the greatest Indian soldiers ever. Apology and regret, because this newspaper and this writer too missed his departure until strategic expert and former navy officer Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar mentioned it to me. The newspaper finally wrote him a small tribute on February 21 (‘India-Pak war: The man who captured the Hajipir Pass’). But it was late, and not enough.
In the early 1980s, someone as formidable as Bhindranwale raised the bogey of discrimination against Sikhs in the army, and it was demolished by our most distinguished Sikh soldiers. You haven’t heard it raised again since then, not at least in our public debate and, in January 2005, when General J.J. Singh rose to be India’s first “Sikh” army chief, it was a proud moment for all of us. That is why a PIL filed by a group of prominent citizens against the elevation of the next chief, Lieutenant General Bikram Singh, needs close reading. And even though it has been dismissed by a wonderfully liberal and wise Supreme Court within hours, we need to discuss and debate it. And worry about it.
Because the central premise of the PIL is not the alleged fake encounter etc, that Bikram Singh was said to be involved in. It is, most shockingly, that his elevation was somehow plotted and preordained through a Sikh conspiracy at the very top, starting with General J.J. Singh. As government lawyers underlined in the SC, while dismissing it as a “communal sideshow”, it mentions such utterly communalist slurs as “langar talk”, “orders from above”, insinuates involvement of the “Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)” etc. Please do read the full text of the PIL ( d96ueo6), specially paras 2.10, 2.11-2.25, 2.36, 2.37, and it may embarrass you as a modern, patriotic Indian.
Because when was the last time such communal or caste colour was given to a top appointment anywhere, least of all in the army, in a legal challenge at the highest level? And this one was signed by a group of highly respected and accomplished retired leaders from the forces, civil service and the media. This needs to be underlined and debated because the issue is not whether Bikram Singh is or isn’t the most competent general to lead the army. Maybe there are smarter generals who did not make it. But can his being a “Sikh” general be a problem? Or, even an issue of debate?
Think. India’s Sikhs did not let it become an issue in the traumatic 1983-84 when they were being incited by someone as persuasive as Bhindranwale. Just how smart do we sound now, making a reverse communal slur on what is, after all, one of our tiniest minorities, a minority of a mere 1.5 per cent? Surely, there is always gossip and talk, whether at a langar or in a mess, or a club — although the nasty reference to “langar talk” is particularly uncivil, given how central the “langar”, a common, spartan kitchen, is to the basic Sikh spiritual tenet of social equality and egalitarianism. There is gossip and talk and whispers in the corridor whenever a so-called Kayasth or Kashmiri Brahmin, or Allahabad University, or Stephanian, or Tambrahm, or Nair “mafia” comes to dominate the top bureaucracy. It is just gossip and talk. Has anybody been so mindless as to challenge a cabinet secretary’s appointment, calling it a communal, caste, or alumni conspiracy?
Let us avoid cliches like Sikhs are our “most patriotic” minority. That suggests somehow as if others are any less. In the India of 2012, the patriotism of any law-abiding Indian is never to be questioned. You can say they are as patriotic as any, but if you have Sikh friends, as all of us do, you’d know one thing about them: they wear their “minority” status most lightly. It may be their confidence, self-assurance, or maybe just the belief in Guru Gobind Singh’s invocation of the principle of one Sikh being as good as “sawa lakh” (1.25 lakh) others that you rarely find a Sikh talking like a victim. That, probably, is also the reason why the community has forgotten 15 years of terror and violence, and forgiven us, the rest of the 98.5 per cent, particularly the residents of Delhi, for the massacres of 1984 that put Gujarat of 2002 in shade, and moved on. And we are now being asked to run howling and squealing to SC because “another” Sikh is becoming our army chief? For decades now, the stereotypical Indian hockey player or soldier is a Sikh. Should anybody have a problem if the Indian Army is about to get only its second Sikh chief of the 26 in 65 years? We have proudly celebrated having Christians and Parsis on this illustrious list. In fact, the one regret should be that we haven’t had a Muslim there as yet. But it will happen, if you look at the number of brilliant Muslim officers rising to the top echelons now. And when that box is checked, let’s hope nobody would go rushing to SC, insinuating communal conspiracies.
Back to that PIL. Broadly, it says that on becoming the chief, General J.J. Singh set in motion a deep plot to ensure that only Bikram Singh, a Sikh, would succeed General V.K. Singh. He did so by “eliminating” many others “unfairly”, and also opening the issue of V.K. Singh’s date of birth so he will retire early enough for Bikram Singh to succeed him. This, accordingly to the petitioners, was called “Operation Moses”, though you might legitimately ask why such a devout Sikh “conspiracy” had to find its inspiration from the Bible. More important is how, the PIL says, the “plan” was taken to its logical conclusion even after J.J. Singh had retired and was in no position to influence things. This was done because of “orders from above”, says the PIL. It states that while Defence Minister A.K. Antony was “sympathetic” to V.K. Singh, he maintained that “his hands were tied” (exactly who did Antony say this to?) and that “the predetermined line of succession had to be maintained at all costs”. Then it goes on to say that “orders from above virtually gave the bureaucrats in MoD licence to flex muscle....”
Now, what is this “orders from above” business? Let us stop pussyfooting around this. Also, because there’s been plenty of vicious whispering on this in the preceding months during which, as Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati rightly told the SC, the army “has been through a lot.” You can call Dr Manmohan Singh anything you want. You can even choose your favourite abuse because he is, after all, in public life, and at the very top. Or you can call him weak, silent, apolitical, whatever. But there are things you can never call him: corrupt, lacking in intellect, unpatriotic and most, most certainly you can never call him communal. That is why India owes the Supreme Court a debt of gratitude, for not dignifying this with any further discussion or argument. And that is why we need to read, discuss and debate what brought us to such an unfortunate pass.

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