For 29 years, Sikhs have been fighting a case in court seeking an apology and Rs. 1,000 crore in damages from the Central government for desecrating their holiest shrine during Operation Blue Star. As the community observed the anniversary of the Army’s operation at the Golden Temple with marches and prayer meetings in Amritsar on Thursday, there was some satisfaction that the three decades-old case, so far been mired in technicalities, might finally move ahead.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which manages all Sikh shrines, has deposited Rs. 10 crore as court fee in the Delhi High Court where the matter has been held up since the 1980s. In March this year, the SGPC quietly submitted an affidavit withdrawing the suit, provoking widespread dismay and charges of betrayal from the community.
The decision was taken unilaterally by SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar after the executive committee authorised him to take a final decision at a meeting. Since 1986, the case had revolved round the argument whether the SGPC had Rs.10 crore to pay the court fee. The former SGPC secretary, Manjit Singh Calcutta, who had attended many court hearings, told The Hindu : “In the initial years after Operation Blue Star, very few devotees used to come to the Golden Temple complex due to the presence of the Army and the police. The organisation did not have money [even] to pay salaries to its employees. The then president Gurcharan Singh Tohra also felt that as a religious and charitable organisation, it was not proper for the SGPC to be paying devotees’ money to the court.”
On January 17 this year, the court rejected the SGPC’s contention that it was an indigent organisation, and asked it to pay the fee by March 15. A day before the expiry of this deadline, the SGPC submitted the affidavit seeking withdrawal of the case. It stated the court was yet to decide maintainability of the case. Moreover, if the SGPC did pay the amount and the case was decided against it, “it will be sheer wastage of the hard-earned money donated by devotees on court fees.”
But the outrage that followed this move made the SGPC deposit the money, enabling the case to move ahead. The Sikh intelligentsia feel that it is really not a question of getting monetary damages because the shrine has since been rebuilt. “For us, it has always been about getting the Central government to apologise for the operation and accept that it has hurt the sentiments of the community,” said SPGC member Kiranjot Kaur.
Tarlochan Singh, former Chairman of the National Commission of Minorities, said he had all along suggested that instead of seeking monetary compensation, the community should have made a symbolic fight asking for just Re 1. “That would have been acceptable to the courts and would have eliminated this avoidable delay, which gives no advantage to the community.”
Mr. Calcutta Manjit Singh feels that the situation has changed perceptibly now and the matter can be resolved. “I personally think that there is a change in the mindset of the Congress because both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have apologised in the last few years. It will be a statesmanlike gesture if they accept this in court too and apologise. For the Sikh community, Rs. 1000 crore in damages is not important. All we want is an acceptance from the government that a wrong was done to us.”
He said that during the NDA rule, he had suggested that the BJP-led government, of which the Akali Dal is an ally, should apologise and accept that the then Congress government had erred in launching the Army operation. “But the BJP was also opposed to the idea.”