Taptesh Kaur Matharu
After the departure of the British, the situation in the north Indian state of Punjab turned sour for Sikhs. Two thirds of Punjab was cut off and used to create the new state of Pakistan, and the remainder was partitioned into three states. Assimilationist pressures on Sikhs were strong, and the campaign to erase Sikhs from the Indian national identity was succeeding. Against this backdrop, a Sikh revival movement began, aimed at re-asserting Sikh identity and agitating for the principles of federalism. The leader of this movement was a man named Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, who often receives the title of Sant, or Saint. He spoke inspirationally about the yoke of slavery and colonized minds that Sikhs carried with them, and convinced hundreds to turn back to orthodox principles of their faith as a solution. Having been frustrated by judicial and legislative attempts to correct injustice, Bhindrawale’s movement chose militancy. As Bhindrawale’s political influence grew, the Congress Party government, headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, became wary of his power, as well as the actions of his followers. Bhindrawale was branded as a terrorist and a secessionist, a threat to Indian national unity. He was made the object of hatred by a Hindu nationalist majority, a problem to be solved.
The Congress Party implemented its solution in the summer of 1984. On May 25th, 100,000 soldiers were deployed around population centers in Punjab. The largest concentration of troops arrived at the city of Amritsar, which is home to the Sikh’s holiest shrine, Harimandir Sahib, known in English as the Golden Temple because it is almost entirely covered in gold leaf. Across from the temple is a building called the Akal Takht, which translates into “Eternal Throne” The Akal Takht is the center of Sikh political life. At the time, Bhindrawale and a group of his followers had taken up residence in the Golden Temple complex.
On the 3rd of June, all foreign journalists were expelled from Punjab and all lines of communication with the outside were cut. Transportation in and out of the state was prohibited. The third of June is also a major religious holiday for Sikhs, and thousands of them had gathered at Harimandir Sahib and other temples to worship. The army imposed a hard curfew and thousands of pilgrims were trapped inside the Golden Temple complex.
On the 5th, the attack on the Golden Temple began. At first, soldiers attempted to storm the complex on foot, but militants had fortified a position in the Akal Takht and repulsed the attack. Gunfire was exchanged for hours. Although no militants had sought refuge in the Golden Temple itself, its structure was still pockmarked with bullet-holes, though thankfully it took no significant structural damage. It should be noted that while the Akal Takht was laid to siege, 37 other Sikh temples around Punjab were also raided.
On the 6th, frustrated by the militant resistance, the army requested the use of tanks to complete the operation. The entire front of the Akal Takht was torn off by high-explosive squash-head shells, and many of the rooms inside caught fire, destroying centuries of precious relics and manuscripts. The arrival of tanks tilted the battle in the army’s favor, and at approximately 1am, troops entered the hostel complex where many of the pilgrims had been staying. Many of the pilgrims were killed, while others were rounded up and detained inside the complex. Because the complex’s water tower had been destroyed, thirst became an issue. One survivor tells this story:
Sujjan Singh Margindpuri:
“The young men and some other pilgrims were staying in Room Number 61. The army searched all the rooms of the Serai. Nothing objectionable was found from their room. Nor did the army find anything objectionable on their persons. The army locked up 60 pilgrims in that room and shut not only the door but the window also. Electric supply was disconnected. The night between June 5th and June 6th was extremely hot. The locked-in young men felt very thirsty after some time, and loudly knocked on the door from inside to ask the army men on duty for water. They got abuses in return, but no water. The door was not opened. Feeling suffocated and extremely thirsty, the men inside began to faint and otherwise suffer untold misery. The door of the room was opened at 8 am on June 6th. By this time 55 out of the 60 had died. The remaining 5 were also semi-dead.”
By the time the door in this room was opened, the fighting had generally subsided. The army announced over loudspeakers that any civilian still in hiding could come out without fear of being killed. Many of the civilians who emerged were killed. Some eyewitnesses testify that soldiers raped the women before killing them.
The day of the 7th was spent mopping up at the Golden Temple. The bodies of Bhindrawale and his co-conspirators were found and the operation was declared a massive success. Their bodies as well as those of other militants and civilians were cremated en masse, and the remains were never returned to their families.
In the aftermath, the government published a white paper detailing the events of Operation Bluestar. The paper is reviewed by Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, an anthropologist who studied the events surrounding the attack in her 1997 book:
In the White Paper published by the government of India after Operation BlueStar, militant and nonmilitant casualties are (apallingly) lumped under the category “civilian/terrorist,” and are listed at 493. Tully and Jacob note that this figure leaves 1,600 people unaccounted for, based on a relatively conservative estimation of the numbers of people at the Golden Temple Complex at the time. Citizens for Democracy, a respected Indian civil liberties group headed by the distinguished jurist V. M. Tarkunde, sent an investigative team to Punjab and came out with its own response to the White Paper, Report to the Nation: Oppression in Punjab. Though Citizens for Democracy rejects the high claims of six or seven thousand casualties put forward by various Sikh eyewitnesses, it notes that the mounds of dead bodies on the parikrama in the wake of Operation Blue Star and the truckload after truckload of bodies brought out of the Golden Temple Complex, observed by many people, point to a much higher casualty figure than the one claimed by the government. Estimating that about ten thousand pilgrims were at the complex during Operation Blue Star, Citizens for Democracy notes that the actual number of alleged terrorists at the site was quite small relative to the number of innocent worshipers. “It was indeed a mass massacre mostly of innocents,” their report states.
Most disturbing about the reports that started coming out of Punjab in response to the government’s White Paper were those that portrayed the army as committing direct atrocities against unarmed people. Brahma Chellany, an Associated Press correspondent who managed to remain in Amritsar after all the other journalists were escorted out, records the shooting in cold blood of Sikhs who had been taken prisoner, their hands tied behind their backs with their turbans. (He was later charged with sedition.)
The “success” of Operation Bluestar was short-lived. After hearing about the attack on the Golden Temple, millions of Sikhs worldwide embraced a secessionist agenda. The attack struck at the very heart of Sikh identity. Not since the 18th century had any soldier dared set foot in the Golden Temple. In October of 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, who promptly surrendered, claiming that they had done what they had to do. One of them was executed on the spot, while the other was shot many times and hanged once he recovered
The assassination touched off waves of violence known as the Delhi riots. These riots were not riots in the traditional sense, but rather organized campaigns of violence against Sikhs, their homes, and their businesses. Over 6,000 people are said to have died in the span of a few days, and the most common means by which they were killed was to be soaked in kerosene and then lit on fire. To this day, Sikhs continue to disappear throughout Punjab. Some estimates state that as many as 200,000 have vanished since Operation Bluestar.
Operation Bluestar was a cold, calculated assault. The army practiced on a scale model of the Golden Temple complex. The number of troops and the sophistication of armaments, as well as the timing, all indicate meticulous planning. Furthermore, India had a rational expectation that the international community would look the other way, because when the state had operated under emergency rule in the 1970s, those atrocities received no attention