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“Life of an Industani”: This book provides an incredible ring-side view to critical events in the 1980s and 90s that shaped the destiny of India

"Life of an Industani": This book provides an incredible ring-side view to critical events in the 1980s and 90s that shaped the destiny of India
Author Shiv Kunal Verma
"Life of an Industani": This book provides an incredible ring-side view to critical events in the 1980s and 90s that shaped the destiny of India
  • The book “Life of an Industani: Six Degrees of Separation” by Shiv Kunal Verma is a Force 12 hurricane, dropping only to a 10 gale now and then, for it sweeps one along breathlessly from incident to incident, place to place, name to name.

  • From the arresting prologue itself, the book is brutally honest, exhilarating and even self-deprecating. It is a story that most of Young India must read. The author’s subsequent credentials as a military history writer, his earlier works and his vast exposure to virtually every part of the subcontinent, place him in a unique position to paint scenario after scenario where the reader is completely mesmerised by the cinematic unfolding of events.

  • Which genre does this book fit into? This autobiography, however, doesn’t depend on his earlier works for its literary place: it is sui generis, defiant of classification. The nearest one can come to is to call it a thriller in the garb of a life story in the first person – for it is Shiv Kunal’s life story.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Lieutenant General (later General) K. Sundarji was a man in a hurry. ‘Where the hell have you been?’ he asked as I was ushered into the army commander’s presence at his house. He looked at his watch and said he had fifteen minutes and that something ‘big was about to happen’ in the next 36 hours. He asked me when had I last been inside the Golden Temple complex and he seemed disappointed that I was not cued up on the latest situation. I told him there were plenty of weapons inside, including LMGs that some of the people were carrying. ‘Oh, you journalists, you always exaggerate. Once they see the army coming at them, they’ll be shitting in their pants.’ He then left, and I sat for another fifteen minutes with Mrs Vani Sundarji, after which I was taken to a guest room for the night. The conversation with the army commander had been so brief and so off-the-cuff, I wondered why had he bothered to get me there. On the army exchange I spoke to my parents. Obviously, there was no reference to any of the above, but my father said to me, ‘Be careful. He is my boss. Don’t open your mouth unnecessarily.’

The next day, a jeep dropped me off at the Ambala Railway Station, where I boarded a diesel locomotive that took me to Phagwara, which was just short of Jalandhar. The curfew across Punjab was absolute and there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere. Another Jonga from 11 Corps that had been detailed to pick me up, after a brief stopover at home, then drove me to Amritsar. At Beas, Hodson Horse tanks were beginning to deploy on either side of the bridge. I knew most of the officers, so I stopped and took a few photographs. Then as darkness settled over the city of Amritsar, the fireworks started.

Op Blue Star was a botched-up exercise in planning right from the word go, and one man was responsible for the entire fiasco. Two days previously, Major (later General) Vijay Kumar Singh had accompanied his immediate boss, the director general military operations (DGMO), Lieutenant General C. M. Sommana and the chief of the army staff (COAS), General Arun Shridhar Vaidya to Indira Gandhi’s residence. The situation in Punjab was critical but both the senior officers were clear, a frontal attack on the Golden Temple complex by the Indian Army was out of the question. Just then, driving in from Chandigarh, obviously at the prime minister’s direct invitation, the Western Army commander, Lieutenant General Sundarji had arrived, and other than throwing the mandatory salute to acknowledge the army chief, had blatantly taken a stance contrary to that of his own boss and the DGMO, and told Indira Gandhi he would clear up the complex in a few hours if she ordered. The moment General Sundarji decided to pull the carpet from under the COAS’s feet, military logic had been compromised and each subsequent decision was then guided by political rather than military compulsions.

Sundarji was like that, brilliantly overwhelming, and always full of bluster. Arun Vaidya, MahaVir Chakra (MVC) and Bar, as his boss, failed to stand up to him when it mattered the most, and the end result was absolute chaos. My father had once commented, ‘Sundarji is like a man who opens the bonnet of a car, looks at all the wires, and pulls them all out saying they are all wrong, but then he himself has no clue how to put them back!’

Even from a couple of kilometres away, from the sheer volume of gunfire that refused to subside, it seemed things had gone terribly wrong.

The city shook with the blasts of grenades and, as the night progressed, the rumble of armour followed by the thunder of their 155 mm main guns suggested that the tanks had opened up, the sounds magnifying even further in the confines of the built-up area. By the time dawn started to light up the sky, there was a deadly silence, punctuated by the odd burst of small arms fire, and the smoke and the smell of cordite that hung over the temple city. Bhindranwale himself had been among the last few to be killed, gunned down as he made a dash from the completely destroyed Akal Takht towards the sanctuary of the relatively undamaged Harmandir Sahib.

I hung around for a couple of days, trying to gather as much information as possible as to what had happened. It was all extremely chaotic, but a clear picture of what had transpired was beginning to emerge within the army circles. The facts were horrific enough, but as I left Amritsar and moved further away, almost everyone I met believed the damage and casualties were at least ten times worse. The situation in the India Today office was much the same, and after briefing Suman Dubey and S. Venkat Narayan, I asked if I could also file a story to go with Shekhar’s somewhat dramatic cover story where he had artillery guns opening up from Jallianwala Bagh for added affect.

Ever since I had flown out of Calcutta, I had yet to make it to my flat in Delhi and was literally surviving on cigarettes and cups of coffee and tea. Nevertheless, I rolled up my sleeves and hammered out a fairly detailed report in which I put the army dead at 89. This promptly brought Dilip Bobb into play, who seemed determined to make me look like an idiot. He even lay down on the floor, rocking like a seesaw on his belly, and threw cryptic words around, saying in his cultivated manner things like ‘fixed-line of fire’ and ‘Shahbeg and Amrik Singh knowing their job’, etc. I also had, as yet undeveloped, exposures of a photograph that showed Bhindranwale lying dead next to the DakshiniDeori. Requesting Bhawan Singh, the affable senior photographer to have my rolls developed, I started to head for home.

I was promptly called back by Suman who said news was just coming in that there had been a mutiny at Ramgarh, the Sikh Regimental Centre and that the commandant had been shot. He asked me to fly to Ranchi and see if I could get the details of what had happened. Brigadier R. S. Puri had been my father’s coursemate, and by the time I got there the next day, most of the troops left in the Regimental Centre had surrendered. It was quite pathetic to see them, all bewildered recruits and men, who were in a dazed and shocked state, torn between their loyalty to their religion and also to their country. Those who had set off towards New Delhi in a convoy of thirty-five vehicles were also then intercepted and disarmed by other army units. I finally went home and slept for the next 48 hours.

When I woke up, the next few days were like a blur. The flat in Pragati Vihar was temporary, and I had to move out the next day. Kavita came over in the evening with some food, and after a quiet dinner, she told me it was over between us, saying her parents just refused to reconcile to our being together. There was nothing to be said, so I dropped her off at her Defence Colony residence and after I came back to my room, started to pack up the flat. I had hired David Devadas’s mother’s flat in Munirka, but it needed work, and so I moved in temporarily with Leslie George and Manju who were living in one of the government blocks in Lodhi Colony.

If a horoscope accurately depicted a person’s life, I wonder what my ‘month that was’ would have looked like. Not surprisingly, India Today had not carried my report, preferring to stay with Shekhar Gupta’s version where he claimed the army casualties were much higher. I was back at work, but after the SBI story, was never comfortable with the environment. Beginning of July, India Today carried another story on the Blue Star action, and though it may have been a coincidence, much of what I had said in my report was now a part of Shekhar’s second version. Upset and angry, I headed for the roof to smoke a cigarette, but had instead stumbled upon Pramod Pushkarna duplicating my negatives, particularly the shot of Bhindranwale’s body. When I asked him what he was doing, he had simply shrugged and said, ‘Don’t blame me, I’m just following orders.’

I came downstairs, took a sheet of paper, typed out Suman Dubey’s address, and wrote a cryptic two-word resignation letter. After signing it, I gave it to my now former boss and started to walk out of the office.

"Life of an Industani": This book provides an incredible ring-side view to critical events in the 1980s and 90s that shaped the destiny of India

Excerpted with permission from Life of an Industani: Six Degrees of Separation, Shiv Kunal Verma, BlueOne Ink Publishers. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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"Life of an Industani": This book provides an incredible ring-side view to critical events in the 1980s and 90s that shaped the destiny of India