Memories of Another Day GJ Exclusive By Om Gupta
Hi Om! It was Aroon’s voice, courteous but authoritative. Listen, I want you to go to Amritsar and cover the Khalistani movement at the grassroot level. Collect dough from the office and take the first flight.
It happened in the biting cold of December 1979. I was a young reporter at India. Its owner-editor Aroon Purie used to call at 6 in the morning to assign stories. Every reporter dreaded that morning telephone call. One day my phone also rang. Hi Om! It was Aroon’s voice, courteous but authoritative. Listen, I want you to go to Amritsar and cover the Khalistani movement at the grassroot level. Collect dough from the office and take the first flight. I was sitting in the Delhi-Amritsar flight at 1 p.m.
As luck would have it, my fellow -traveller turned out to be Raghunandan Lal Bhatia, the then Congress MP from Amritsar. I broached the purpose of my visit. He was visibly amused. He gave me his perception which was obviously covered with his personal and political prejudices. But I heard him attentively. At times one gets vital leads amidst juicy details. I had to sift chaff from the grain. The most piece of information was the reference of Bhai Amrinder Singh. He was the president of All India Sikh Students Federation and a close aid of Bhindrawale. I was told by him that go to Ram Das Sarai in Golden Temple and look for him.
By the evening I had found Amrinder. He was amused at my direct approach but didn’t take me at the face value. Who knows, if I was a police informer or a disguised operator. But poker faced forced him to try me out. He helped me to stay in Ram Das Sarai which was a kind of overnight shelter home for the pilgrims. He invited me to sleep on the Sarai terrace on an adjoining cot.
For next three days, we kept on talking shop about Punjab politics, game plan of Indira Gandhi in Delhi, future of Khalistani movement and of course the enigmatic Bhindrawale. It didn’t take me long to win his confidence. He seemed to be convinced that I was a straight reporter who had come to do a story. I sold him a simple logic. I am not biased against Bhindrawale or Khalistani report. I will write about spade as a spade. After that there was no problem.
There was a communication network in place around Bhindrawale. Though his headquarters was at Mehta Chowk in the interiors of Punjab but at point of time he was a fugitive. Running away from Punjab Police. He never stayed at one place. It took Amrinder three days to fix a meeting with him. I spent these three days meeting various people in Amritsar, Police officers, Akali and Congress leaders, common men and fellow journalists. I also stole some time to visit the Jalianwala Bagh which was next door to Sarai. I gad lot of questions and Amrinder had lkot of answers. Our sessions were quite informative and entertaining. He was a friendly person and knew that any media story was a good story. Because it meant creating a buzz among the common people. Needless to say, Indian Today had its own mileage for publicity seekers.
Background information from different sources provides nuts and bolts to any story. A reporter gets quotes from the horses’ mouth which lends credibility. Having collected all the binding material I was waiting for the real meat. Quote and unquote Bhindrawale. Description of his persona. The aura around him and the feel of the place and mood. At last the zero hour struck on the D-day. I was woken up past midnight by Amrinder. Hello buddy, let’s get going. The message has come. I had a lot of posers. When, where, There was a lurking fear in my mind. What, if it was a trap. But my sixth sense told me, now the whole world knows about my trip. Life can’t be that unfair. Soon we were driving down in a jeep on the highway to grab a lifetime story. It was a chilly night. There was not a soul on the highway, except some occasional car or a truck. There were no signs of any terrorist movement. It was a hush-hush affair. The terrorists had fixed targets and they would operate with a perfect precision. I was told that the journalists from Delhi were holy cows. Because they had no stake in Punjab situation. They were taken as professional soldiers of the fourth estate. Some relief.
I don’t remember how long was the drive. But Amrinder kept me engaged. He was a patient listener and an animated talker. We didn’t realise how soon the time few. And there were we. The jeep stopped. It was highway. No trace of any human being. I threw a silent question towards Amrinder. He said, wait. I didn’t have a hang of the things to come. Perhaps another pick up or what? After an hour or so a bus seemed approaching from the right side. Amrinder, said, here are they. The bus stopped. I was nudged to get into it. The first sight was terrifying. Young Sikhs with bare swords all over. I was told to move to the front portion. Amrinder by my side. I spotted a young Sikh in his late 20s sitting on the front seat Guarded by sword wielding guards
I folded my hands and meekly uttered Sat Sri Akal Santa ji. He didn’t reply. His gaze fixed me measuring me top to bottom and the other way round. I was a wee bit nervous but soon gathered my composure. The following conversation took place in Punjabi.
Yes, shoot your questions, he lost no time in formalities.
I tried to be polite and said, I had heard a lot about him in Delhi. Wanted to meet and talk.
Has that Pandtani( Indira Gandhi) sent you?
No. I don’t know her personally. I want to write who you are and what you want.
He smiled. Ok. Ask, whatever you want.
What do you want by this violent movement.?
Why? Punjab has an elected government. People elect their leaders.
But Sikhs are not getting a fair deal. We fight for you on borders. What do we get in return.
Fighting for the nation. What’s wrong with it.
See the sacrifice and see the return.
How the movement will help.
We want a separate nation like Pakistan.
Is Pakistan helping you.?
No. But some boys cross border nad get rained to return and fight.
Is that fair? Moughal rulers didn’t give you a fair deal.
But we can manage our struggle.
Do you think, you can fight with Indian army and police together.
It is our freedom struggle. People are with us. Congress goverment is Hindu dominated. They discriminate against us.
Why don’t you mobilise your support.
We want to settle it our own way.
What if you fail? What if army crushes your movement.
Did Bhagat Singh think that. Now he is our hero. Even your hero.
Will Indira Gandhi let you succede?
No I know that she will get me killed one day. But my martyrdom will not go waste.
( He was right. Mrs gandhi launched Operation Blue Star and both he and Amrinder were among those who were killed.)
Om Gupta has been a media professional, educator and an academic on Cultural and Society since 1970. He worked in senior positions on the staff of India Today, Times of India Group, Indian Express, Pioneer & PTI. He is widely
traveled across Europe, Africa, South America and Asia including Pakistan. Currently he is reviewing best-sellers every week for a national daily and teaches media students.