Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Gateway to Sikhism

The Making of Operation Bluestar (1978-1984)

Dr. Sukhbir Singh Kapoor, Vice Chancellor, World Sikh University of London

This period witnessed the Asian Games, the Operation Bluestar and the Third Holocaust in the Sikh History.

19.1 The Akali Janta coalition government of Punjab under Prakash Singh Badal which took office on 28 June 1977 resigned on 17 February 1980 when President's rule was promulgated in Punjab.

19.2 At the Centre, the Janta Government led by Morarji Desai broke up and in July 1979 Charan Singh, the Jat leader, took over as the Prime Minister with the active support of Congress (1). The Congress withdrew its support a month later and the parliament was dissolved. New elections were fixed for January 1980.

19.3 Congress won the January elections and Mrs. Indira Gandhi returned to power as the Prime Minister. She took the oath of office on 14 January 1980. Soon after gaining power at the centre, Mrs. Gandhi ordered fresh elections in several states including Punjab. Congress (1) won 64 seats out of 117 assembly seats and formed the next government in Punjab. Sardar Darbara Singh became the next Chief Minister of the state. Giani Zail Singh was the new Home Minister in the Central Cabinet.

19.4 Baba Gurbachan Singh, the Nirankari leader, was assassinated on 24 April 1980, by a 35 year old Sikh named Ranjit Singh. Suspicion of the killing was roused against Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderwale, who was the head of Damdami Taksaal and had come into prominence with his untiring missionary work in the Punjab Villages. He had also publicly declared that whosoever had performed the task of killing Baba Gurbachan Singh deserved to be honoured at the Akal Takhat.

19.5 Sant Jarnail Singh was a Sikh preacher before he came to the political stage. He was born in January 1947 in the village of Rode in the district of Moga in Punjab. He was educated at the Taksaal at Mehta Chowk, a small township some 20 miles from Amritsar. He had first come to the attention of the public in the clash with neo-Nirankari sect at Amritsar in April 1978. He was implicated with Baba Gurbachan Singh's murder due to his fiery speeches.

19.6 On 9 September 1980, Lala Jagat Narain proprietor-editor of Hind Samachar, a widely circulated Urdu daily published from Jullundur, was murdered. The Lala was not only supporting the Nirankari movement but was also opposing the Punjabi language issue. He also frequently wrote against the loyalty of the Sikhs for their motherland. Bhinderwale had spoken against the Lala in his speeches. Bhinderwale was arrested in 1981 but was soon set free, as no charge was brought against him. His arrest was also very dramatic. When the Punjab Chief Minister, Darbara Singh, sent the police at Chowk Mehta to arrest him, he sent back word that he would offer himself for arrest voluntarily on 20 September. The government, fearing violence, had no choice but to agree. On 20 September the Sant came out from the Taksaal, addressed a huge gathering and offered himself for arrest.

19.7 Sant Harcharn Singh Longowal of village Longowal in Sangrur district was a Sikh preacher. He also became an Akali MLA. He was soft spoken and of a loving nature. He influenced the Sikh masses as no one else could do at that time. He was elected president of Akali Dal in 1981 and was assassinated in August 1985. Under his leadership a number of morchas where launched, Nehar Roko (stop the canal), Rasta roko (stop the traffic) and Rail Roko (stop the train) in 1981. On 4 August 1982, he announced a peaceful 'Dharam Yudh' morcha (holy war) against the government. The demands of the Sikhs, submitted to the government were both socio-economic and religious. The important ones were:

  • The passing by the Parliament of an All India Gurdwara Act, to give control of all the Sikh shrines to a democratically elected body;
  • The installation of harimandir radio at the Golden Temple, to relay Kirtan (holy hymns) all over world;
  • Renaming 'Flying Mail', a fast train, as 'harimandir Express', on the lines of 15 other trains named after other religious places;
  • The merging of Punjabi speaking area of haryana and Chandigarh into Punjab;
  • Handing over of water dams and electric headquarters in the state to the Punjab government and re-distribution of river waters as per national and international rules;
  • To grant second language status to the Punjabi language in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan states, and
  • As per the Anandpur Sahib resolution, amendments to be made in the Constitution of India to give more powers and autonomy to the states.

19.8 On 14 March 1981, the fifty-fourth All India Sikh Education Conference was held at Chandigarh. An American resident Sikh, Ganga Singh Dhillon, president of the Nankana Sahib Foundation at Washington, chaired the meeting. In this address he declared that the Sikhs were a nation and not a community. A month later, on 15 April 1981 the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee also passed a resolution declaring that the Sikhs were a nation, and that the Government of India should settle their long standing grievances, so that the Sikhs could also breathe the air of freedom.

19.9 On 26 July 1981, a Sikh convention was called by the Akali Dal at Gurdwara Manji Sahib, Amritsar, where a charter of 45 demands was adopted. A series of meetings was arranged between the Akali Dal leadership and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during this period but without any results.

19.10 In December 1982 the Asian Games were held in New Delhi. Bhajan Lal was the Chief Minister of Haryana. The Government feared disruption of the games and asked Bhajan Lal to block the way of the Akal protesters from Punjab, who had to cross through Haryana territory to reach Delhi. Bhajan Lal and his administration took this opportunity to insult every Sikh including the high military personnel and IAS officers, who passed Haryana by car, bus or train.

19.11 The Asian games passed without disruption but the indiscriminate humiliation and insult of the Sikhs at large by the Haryana government stuck in the psyche of the Sikh community and gave a new turning to the Akal agitation. In the post Asaid period of law and order situation in Punjab worsened. During 1982 - 84 more than 300 people were killed in cold blood. The killed people included both Hindus and the Sikhs. On 25 April 1983, a Sikh Deputy Inspector General of Police, A.S. Atwal, was shot dead on a visit to the Golden Temple.

19.12 Punjab's Congress government was dismissed on 6 October 1983 and President's rule was imposed. Punjab was declared a 'Disturbed Area' giving the police unlimited powers of arrest and detention. The kil11ings however increased.

19.13 Most of the young Sikhs' organisation, like Dal Khalsa, Dashmesh regiment, All India Sikh Students' Federation and Bhinderwale Tigers owed their allegiance to Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderwale who was radical and violent in his approach. He wanted a limb for a limb lost rather than turning the other cheek to the enemy. But Babbar Khalsa and Young Akalis organisations stood by Sant Harchard Singh Longowal who advocated peaceful means of achieving the goals. Both leaders became sceptical of each other. To diffuse the confusion which had sat in the minds of Sikhs, Sant Bhinderwale swore before a huge Sikh congregation on 13 April 1983 that he was standing firmly behind Sant Longowal and would do all his best to make the morcha a success.

19.14 The Government now turned its guns towards Sant Bhinderwale whose influence was growing amongst the young and the radical Sikhs and whose personality had sent a wave of fear amongst the Punjab police and the Punjab judiciary. Earlier he had toured India with armed bodyguards around him, he himself carried a AK47 with him. Gradually he had become the hero of the Sikh youth and terror for tile police. The government now issued specific instructions to arrest Bhinderwale. On 15 December 1983, the Sant moved his headquarters to Akal Takhat to avoid unnecessary harassment and humiliation at the hands of the Government. Gurcharan Singh Tohra, the president of SGPC gave the Sant permission to take refuge at the sacred shrine despite the protests of Sardar Kirpal Singh, Jathedar of Akal Takhat.

19.15 In February 1983, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had gone to Gurdwara Bangla Sahib and amongst the cries that' Sat Siri Akal' had declared the acceptance of the Sikh religious demands but no mention was made of the other demands. The Sikh leadership was fed up with these concessions. They wanted all their demands to be met in full and without conditions.

19.16 The last meeting between the Akalis and Indira Gandhi, before the Operation Blue Star, was held on 26 May 1984 but failed to breed any positive results. the government blamed the Punjab violence for the failure of talks, violence which they insisted must end before any fruitful meetings could take place. The Akalis repudiated any responsibility for the Punjab violence. They blamed the Government and anti-social elements for the Punjab violence.

19.17 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was accused by the opposition of wooing Hindu votes by not resolving the Punjab problem. They even accused her of having lost the nerve to rule the country .

19.18 Another agitation, nicknames' Panth Azad' (Free Sikh nation) was launched by Sant Longowal on 24 April 1984 in Delhi. Sardar Prakash Singh Badal tore a page of Indian Constitution on which section 25 (Explanation II) was inscribed compromising the identity of the Sikhs as a separate faith, and burnt it. This act of burning was to be repeated by the Akalis all over the country. Badal and Tohra were arrested with thousands of other supporters.

19.19 The Akali leader and the dictator of the morcha, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal also gave a call to the Punjab farmers for a non-cooperation movement with the Government. They were asked to withhold their crops from reaching the market and to refuse to pay taxes from 1 June 1984.

19.20 The Government realised the seriousness of the situation and announced that the government was ready to appoint Commissions to look into various Sikh demands including the amendment of Section 25 of the Constitution. Gurcharan Singh Tohra was flown to Amritsar in a government plane to persuade Sant Bhinderwale and Sant Longowal to give up the morchas. The Akalis and Sant Bhinderwale refused to accept the hollow promises of the Government, for such promises had been made and broken by the government many times in the past twenty years.

19.21 On 29 May 1984, the Indian Administration ordered the Indian Army to blockade Punjab. On the same day the government imposed a two month ban on the reporting, transmission or publication of anything relating to the crisis in Punjab or the operation of the security forces. On 2 June 1984, Indira Gandhi went on the Indian Television and appealed to the Akalis to withdraw the agitation. She spoke about the contribution of the Sikhs towards the defence and the economy of the country. She spoke about the mission of Guru Nanak Dev and the teachings of the Sikh gurus. She did not, however, give any definite promises of accepting the Sikh demands. Her speech was mere words and no firm commitments. The Sikhs had had a taste of broken pledges and forgotten assurances in the past, so they wanted something more solid and precise. By 2 June the Punjab was completely sealed and all the telephone lines and other communication systems had been cut by the security forces.

19.22 On the same day when the Prime Minister was trying to befool the nation by making a passionate appeal to Sikhs to withdraw their agitation, the heavily armed troops surrounded the Golden Temple in Amritsar and a 36-hour curfew was imposed on the entire Punjab.

19.23 3 June was Guru Arjan Dev's martyrdom day, so a large number of pilgrims had come to the Golden Temple to pay their homage. The pilgrims who had come from distant places were staying in the guest houses built all around the pari karma and in guru Ramdas serai in the Golden Temple complex. The Akali leaders including the morcha dictator, Sant Longowal and SGPC president G. S. Tohra were housed at Guru Nanak Niwas in the same complex. The Government wanted all of them to surrender and come out from the Golden Temple complex and court arrest.

19.24 The army officers who were in direct control of the operations included the army Chief General A. S. Vaidya, Lt. General Sunderji and Major Generals K. S. Brar and R. S. Dayal (General A. S. Vaidya was later killed by an assassin's bullet in 1988 as a revenge for the army action). Such secrecy was maintained about the assault of the Golden Temple by the Prime Minister, that the President of India Giani Zail Singh, a Sikh, who is according to the Indian Constitution the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces, was not taken into confidence.

19.25 On 3 June, a force of 15,000 troops moved to surround the Golden Temple's 70 acre site. The army expected to take over and control that holy shrine, and kill or arrest the morcha leaders in about 48 hours. Instead it took more than 4 days.

19.26 On 4 June, the pre-dawn calm around the Golden Temple complex was shattered when the army opened fire at 4.40 a.m.; as expected their fire was returned. the firing stopped at about 9 a.m. When the firing stopped, G. S. Tohra went to Sant Bhinderwale at the Akal Takhat and pleaded with him to surrender. The Sant declined and said that if he would die like a lion and not like a coward.

19.27 On 5 June at 7 p.m., the army launched its main attack. On the night of 5 June and the early morning of 6 June the generals brought into the holy precincts the heavy artillery guns and the army tanks. Havoc prevailed all over. the tanks and the artillery shelled fire for more than 48 hours killing indiscriminately and destroying the holiest of the holy shrine of the Sikhs. The guns fell silent on the morning of 7 June. How long could 300 followers of Sant Bhinderwale and 3000 pilgrims including women and children last against the mighty Indian army? The body of Sant Bhinderwale riddled with 72 bullets was found in front of the Akal Takhat. In this massacre about 3000 people died, mostly innocent pilgrims. The massacre in the Golden Temple was reminiscent of Brigadier General Regional Dyer's Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 (but even General Dyer could not dare to put a tiny scratch on the holy shrine). The only difference was that in 1919 it was a slave India and the horror of death was unleashed by a British General to kill the innocent people; in 1984 it was a free India and the dread of killing was ordered by the Indian Generals to kill their own brethren, sisters and children. The people killed were no enemy, but were the descendants of those great martyrs whose blood still flows freely even toady. all over the Indian borders and who had died defending their motherland - the land of Guru Nanak Dev, Lord Krishan, Gautam Buddha and Lord Mahavir.

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