35 Years Ago: Congress' Monumental Follies in 1984 were Fortified by Leaders Lacking Moral Courage

The Orwellian imagined future may not have happened in 1984 but in Indian politics, the year marked loss of political morality, innocence and secularism. Reflecting upon the events that took place 35 years ago, it becomes clear that prime ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s monumental follies had the approval of senior ministers, advisers and coterie who failed to demonstrate any semblance of moral courage.

Punjab was the most affected state throughout 1984 but as the year headed towards end-October, Delhi and Bhopal too saw some of the worst crimes being committed against humanity in the months of November and December, and the most glaring similarity in all these instances was that the state brazenly turned a blind eye to everything that was decent, civil or ethical.

A stage for wrongdoings in Punjab was actually set in motion in October 1983 when Darbara Singh, the secular and balanced chief minister of Punjab, was sacked by his own political master, prime minister Indira Gandhi. On February 8, 1984, the Akalis had called a general strike to press for their demand of transfering Chandigarh to Punjab, sharing of water between Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan and decentralisation of power. However, it was followed by anti-Sikh riots in Haryana.

Congress chief minister in Haryana, Bhajan Lal made provocative statements saying “Hindu sentiments” were running out. Since 1982, Bhajan Lal had ensured that every Sikh coming from Punjab to Delhi by train or road, was physically frisked. There were instances of Sikhs being forced to remove their turban. In “Amritsar” (Rupa Books 1985), authors Mark Tully and Satish Jacob recorded how Hindu mobs burnt down a Gurudwara in Panipat and Sikhs were pulled out of buses, shaved and killed. Indira remained a mute spectator just as she had watched separatists in Punjab kill Hindus almost at will.

Worse, when Indira Gandhi finally made up her mind to let the army storm the Golden Temple to flush out Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his sinister cahoots, she did not consult civil authorities. The choice of June 5, 1984 could not have been worse. It was martyrdom day of Guru Arjun Dev. Apparently, Lt General K Sunderji, GOC-in-C Western Command, had assured Indira Gandhi that a ‘knock-out blow’ on Bhindranwale, General Shahbeg Singh and other separatists would not last for more than two hours without realising that sophisticated military weaponry was in place. Every time troops tried to advance, they met with strong barrage of fire. An armoured car was knocked off by a rocket launcher. It is believed that sensing army build-up in Amritsar, the then chief secretary SS Dhanoa had called up Sundarji to check if his men needed help and the army general told him not to bother. By the time the Army’s six main battle tank, Vijayanta moved inside, the best and most sacred parts of the temple were reduced to a rubble.

November 1-3, 1984 saw Sikh carnage in Delhi and another 80 cities of the country. The accession of the young prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was marred by tragedies – his mother’s assassination and the pogram against Sikhs. Rajiv, barely 40, was totally inexperienced but the people around him, especially senior ministers and chief ministers such as P V Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee, Shankarrao Chavan, Arjun Singh, ND Tiwari, Vasant Sathe, HKL Bhagat, had the duty and responsibility to maintain law and order with a firm hand. They neither visited the affected areas nor issued any clear instructions.

Following Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Rajiv Gandhi announced the dates of general election, ahead of its schedule, between December 24 and 27 in the same year. Rajiv’s election campaign was aggressive and focused on making the Sikhs’ demand of a separate homeland a key issue. The hidden agenda was to somehow exploit the insecurity among Hindus and project Rajiv-led Congress as the sole saviour.

In official records, it is said that over 3000 persons were killed on the intervening night of December 2 and 3, 1984 when over 40 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the storage tanks of the Bhopal-based Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL). But independent agencies and campaigners insist that the killer gas claimed more than 25,000 lives leaving 5,50,000 others injured and disabled in the Madhya Pradesh capital.

Union Carbide’s US-based CEO Warren Anderson had come to Bhopal on December 7, 1984. He was arrested but a bail was arranged hurriedly for him. Within hours, state government-owned Cessna, piloted by a Captain SH Ali, flew Anderson to Delhi’s Palam from where he took a commercial flight to his home in Bridgehampton, New York, never to return. Ali and others claim that a “call” from a powerful person in New Delhi had forced local administration to let Anderson off. Congress’ Arjun Singh, who was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, says it was PV Narasimha Rao, then home minister of the country, who allowed Anderson to escape. “I would like to make it clear that at no point of time did Rajiv talk to me about this matter (Anderson’s release) or intercede on Anderson’s behalf. I came to know later that the union home secretary RD Pradhan upon the instructions of the union home minister PV Narasimha Rao, had telephoned Brahma Swaroop (MP’s chief secretary then) to ensure Anderson’s release,” Arjun wrote in his memoirs published posthumously by Hay House “A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time: An Autobiography.”

During his six-hour stay in Bhopal, Anderson, who wore a mask, appeared casual and showed “signs of arrogance.” Captain Ali remembers Anderson was carrying a garment box (containing a business suit) and a briefcase. “I remember police officers repeatedly requesting him to let them carry these pieces of luggage. Anderson said, ‘No, no, I will carry them myself.’ When the plane was about to take off, the officers saluted him and wished him good luck,” recalled Captain Ali.

Throughout this period, the Congress witnessed a titanic clash between the young and the old. While Indira relied heavily on likes of Pranab Mukherjee, Giani Zail Singh, P V Narasimha Rao, N D Tiwari, and other old guards, Rajiv’s cousin Arun Nehru, Arun Singh, Satish Sharma, Vijay Dhar, Buta Singh and P Shiv Shankar formed part of ‘Team Rajiv Gandhi’, which not only worked at the cross purpose. Both groups showed utter disdain towards issues of propriety and political morality making 1984 a nightmare.

(The author is a visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.)