General Sundarji in a Bear-Hug with Khalistanis
“Ballay-Ballay-Ballay! Faujaan ney taan baadi security khichh chhaddi hay.” (Bravo! You guys have surely thrown a security cordon around yourselves”), said the three tall, well built and smiling Sikhs, dressed in the crisp attire of the Bhangra Dancers, as they came striding towards us, in St Petersburg in 1986. Whether they were Khalistanis or their sympathizers or mere itinerant-visitors, we shall never know.
General K Sundarji, accompanied by Mrs. Sundarji, was on a week-long visit to the USSR on a reciprocal-invitation by his Soviet counterpart. Lieut General Chatterji, one Major General (Self) and the Chief’s ADC made up the entourage. This was my first exposure to VIP travel, that is, my baggage collected by the staff a day earlier and myself driven to the airport a mere ten minutes before the scheduled departure. When the Chief and Mrs. Sundarji arrived, we were ushered through an elevated, tunneled passage-way connected direct to the Business-Class entrance of the Aeroflot air-liner. A pretty hostess led the rest of us to our seats in the Economy Class. As we settled for the night-long flight to Moscow, we heard animated Punjabi voices from the rear seats. We were certainly surprised and a bit amused too but thought no more of it; certainly not in the vein of any Khalistani mischief.
In a flash, the Sardar up-front stepped forward and embraced the Chief in a Bear-hug and in the true Punjabi bonhomie, lifted him off his feet!
Our Soviet hosts were fully conscious of General Sundarji’s Z Plus, security imperatives and the KGB were taking no chances. Discrete as they were, but no discerning eye (that is, Khalistani or Sympathiser) could have been fooled of the potent armed cordon around us, despite its near invisible profile. On the third day of the visit, we were shown their premier Cadet-Officers Academy at St Petersburg. After lunch, we changed into tweed jackets or casuals for a grand tour of that “City of The Tsars”, ending with Peterhof, the magnificent Palace of Peter the Great with the awesome “Cascade of Gold Fountains” at its entrance. Two hours later, as we stepped out into sunshine towards our limousines, we were jolted out of our reveries by the “Ballay-Ballay-Ballay”. What instantly flashed across my mind, were the Punjabi voices heard before take-off at Delhi and I instinctively stepped forward, and engaged the three Sardars in tete-a-tete.
Under the circumstances, it was natural to open the conversation by enquiring as to what had brought these stalwarts to St Petersburg? And their forthright reply was; “Saada pahraa IAS wich see, tay Blue Star they baad phagaura ban gaya see. Kisay ne daasya ke oh Roos wich hay. Usaan ohnoo labhan aaya haan” (Our kinsman, an IAS officer has been absconding since Op Blue Star and on a tip-off, we came looking for him in Russia). General Sundarji, in his trade-mark casuals (Chappals, faded Blue jeans and a Guru Kurta), stood by my side, smiling at the three pairs of scrutinizing eyes. By then the security cordon had very discreetly, closed around the assemblage and in order to break out of the impasse, I introduced the trio to the “Fauj they Sardar, General Sundarji!”
In a flash, the Sardar up-front stepped forward and embraced the Chief in a Bear-hug and in the true Punjabi bonhomie, lifted him off his feet! Before General Sundarji could regain his wits, the second Sardar followed suit. But when the third closed forward, it was General Sundarji who lifting him off his feet, carried him around the other two much to the merriment of us all! On a queue from our Liaison Officer (a two Star General) we made to Part Company. And as though playing out a rehearsed role, the Khalsas closed the episode with a loud and cheery, “Sat Siri Akal!”
…let us not shift the focus of our report from the urgent acquisitions of military hardware which we saw…
Now on the return journey, we boarded the Moscow-Tashkent-New Delhi Flight, around 10 PM. On landing at Palm and before exiting the air port, I had walked to the Custom Duty Free Shop to purchase Kodak Colour Transparency Film Rolls. And Lo and Behold, who do I meet; the very three Sardars who had obviously come on board the Flight, at the Tashkent stop-over!! So two days later, while writing the mandatory report for the PMO (through the MOD & MEF), the thought upper most in my mind was that a serving IAS Sikh Officer did desert the Service and vanish from India in the wake of Op Blue Star; so the inference of possible “Khalistanis/Sympathisers” cells in Russia, could not be discounted. Perhaps the presence of the KGB in strength alone, had botched their attempt on The Chief’s life, at St Petersburg.
However, General Sundarji scored it out from the draft-report because (a) the KGB and our Embassy would have instantly informed all concerned, (b) let us not shift the focus of our report from the urgent acquisitions of military hardware which we saw, (c) give a chance to the “Sleeper Cells” to slip into a comma and (d) last but not the least, “I have no intention to spoil my evenings on the cocktails circuit, with replays of this episode, please!” Had the Chief an email ID up in Valhalla, he would surely have chuckled on reading this piece!