The Ghalughara: Operation Blue Star – A Retrospect
Ram Narayan Kumar*
The assault against the Golden Temple, codenamed Operation Bluestar, was launched on June 3, 1984, the martyrdom day of Guru Arjun who, as we earlier observed, had got the foundation of the Temple laid by a Muslim divine four hundred years ago and was the first of the Sikh Gurus to die in defiance of the Mughal Empire. The assault, which the Sikhs themselves call the Ghallughara, had been diabolically conceived not only to scathe the Sikh psyche, but also to make the sufficient moral effect from a military point of view on those who were present, but more especially throughout the Punjab. That is how Brigadier Dyer had explained his intention when the came to Jallianwala Bagh, near the Golden Temple, to disperse an illegal assembly sixty-five years ago on April 13, 19194. Dyer had acted impulsively on his own. The Operation Bluestar was not only envisioned and rehearsed in advance, meticulously and in total secrecy, it also aimed at obtaining maximum number of Sikh victims, largely devout pilgrims unconnected with the political agitation. The facts should speak for themselves.
On May 24 1984, the Akali Dal announced a new program to intensify the agitation from June 3, by blocking transport of Punjab’s food grains to other States, non-payment of all taxes due to the government and regular courting of arrest by Sikh volunteers.
On May 25, the government used the announcement to deploy 100,000 army troops throughout Punjab, also encircling 42 important Gurdwaras in the State, including the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Punjab should have been placed under a curfew if the government wanted to prevent innocent pilgrims from gathering at the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar and 42 other Gurdwaras throughout Punjab, which the army planned to attack, to celebrate Guru Arjun’s martyrdom day. A team of Union Ministers deputed by Indira Gandhi met the top Akali leaders secretly on May 26, two days after the announcement of their new program of agitation. The Akali leaders could at least have been asked to take steps to ward off the pilgrims in view of the impending military operation. This was not done. On May 30, President Zail Singh, the Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, and himself a Sikh, assured a delegation from Punjab that the army had no intention to assault the temple. The President himself was ignorant about the impending operation.
Until June 1 1984, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale held his regular public meetings on the roof of the community kitchen inside the Golden Temple complex. The meetings were open to all, and it should have been possible for a group of commandos to nab him there by using minimal force. This was not done. It should also have been easy for specially trained sharp-shooters, who had positioned themselves on the buildings around the temple, to target Bhindranwale and his armed followers, and to neutralize them. On June 1 afternoon, mixed groups of various security agencies that had occupied the multi-storied buildings in the circumference did open fire against the temple complex when Bhindranwale was holding his audience on the roof of the kitchen building. Instead of targeting Bhindranwale, the sharp shooters aimed at various buildings, including the main shrine of Harmandir Sahib which received 34 bullet marks. The objective of the barrage of firing, which lasted seven hours, was to assess the strength, the training and the preparedness of Bhindranwale’s resistance. According to Devinder Singh Duggal, in-charge of the Sikh Reference Library located inside the Golden Temple complex and an eye-witness, Bhindranwale’s followers were under strict instructions not to fire a single shot unless and until the security forces or the army entered the holy Golden Temple. The action claimed the lives of eight pilgrims, including a woman and a child, inside the temple complex, and injured twenty-five others.
The government of India’s document, called the White Paper on Punjab, released on July 10 1984 does not acknowledge this incident. When the firing stopped, a group of Akali volunteers courted arrest. There was no curfew in Amritsar that night and the next day. Thousands of pilgrims came into the temple without restrictions. According to eye-witnesses, approximately 10,000 people had gathered inside. There were also 1300 Akali workers, including 200 women, who had come to join the program of agitation announced by the Akali Dal. Although they had come in without any hindrance, it was not possible for them to leave without risking arrest.
On June 2nd afternoon, two Sikh student from Delhi wanted to take a train back to their city to appear for an examination on 1st June morning. At the Amritsar railway station, they found out that all outgoing trains had been cancelled. But there was not declaration of a curfew to steam the stream of pilgrims in the Golden Temple. Journalists were allowed to move in and out of the temple complex, and to interview Bhindranwale, until 3rd June evening when suddenly the curfew was imposed. Three journalists who came out of the temple complex, after speaking to Bhindranwale, on June 3rd evening told me that there were more than ten thousand Sikh devotees inside with no inkling of what was about to follow.
One journalist counseled some village women, who nervously questioned him about the army deployment, to stary put until the curfew got lifted. The journalist himself had no clue on the scale and the nature of the army operation underway. A group of human rights workers from Delhi who later investigated the Ghallughara concluded that the failure to warn the people was not forgetfulness but deliberate.The top brass of the army was working on a Grand Plan, involving the use of heavy weapons, including battle tanks and helicopters obtained from the airforce. The civil administration had no chance to prepare for contingencies as it was kept completely in dark about the operational details. The Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar learnt about the army action officially on June 3rd evening when he attended a meeting with Major General K. S. Brar, Divisional Commander of the 9th Division, at a control room that had been set up in the city’s cantonment area. Asked by General Brar to give his opinion on Bhindranwale’s morale, the Deputy Commissioner tried to tell him that the militant Sikh preacher would not easily surrender.
General Brar did not allow the Deputy Commissioner to finish his point, but began to exult on his redoubtable action plans: When tanks rattle, planes roar, and the ground fires, even Generals tremble in their trousers. Earlier, the government had ignored the Deputy Commissioner’s recommendations to nab Bhindranwale through a swift police operation.The army began the assault on June 4th morning with firing from heavy artillery and mortars against the temple complex, destroying the tops of two 18th century towers, the water tank behind a large public assembly room called Teja Singh Samundri Hall, and other buildings in the circumference. Hundreds of people were killed in the criss-cross of intense firing that was kept up throughout June 4. According to Bhan Singh, then General Secretary of the temple’s management committee (SGPC), no warning was given before the army started shelling the temple. The volunteers of the Red Cross who wanted to help the injured were detained at the Jallianwala Bagh.Housed in the main shrine of the temple were fifty to sixty priests, singers and other attendants responsible for various liturgical tasks. Amrik Singh, the blind singer of religious hymns, and few other temple employees were killed when early June 5th morning they stepped out of the shrine to fetch water for the group inside.
Later that evening, tanks belonging to the 16th Cavalry Regiment were moved into the plaza in front of the northern entrance to the Golden Temple after Bhindranwale’s fighters repulsed several attempts made by the commandos of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment to capture the Akal Takht. Eventually, a group of the 7th Garhwal Rifles succeeded in establishing a position on the roof of the library building. Two companies of the 15th Kumaon Regiment later joined the 7th Garhwal Rifles to provide reinforcement. But the Akal Takht remained impenetrable. In the night of 6 June, an armored personal carrier that advanced towards the Akal Takht was destroyed by a suicide bomber in the south side of the circumference. Soon thereafter, eight Vijayanta tanks moved in to batter the Akal Takht with their large 105mm cannons equipped with high explosive squash-head shells. Eighty shells blasted against the most sacred of the Sikh shrines, erected by the sixth Sikh Guru as a counterpoint to the seat of political power in Delhi, reducing it to rubble. The golden dome of the shrine caved in by the firing from a heavy Howell gun, mounted on an adjacent building. Photographic and forensic evidence, later published in the Surya magazine, suggested that Bindranwale and his chief military advisors, who had taken shelter within the Akal Takht, were captured and killed under torture. The same night, a battalion of the Kumaon Regiment invaded the hostel complex at the eastern side in which hundreds of pilgrims, the Akali leaders, including Harcharan Singh Longowal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, and employees of the Temple’s management committee were sheltered. Longowal, Tohra and other senior Akali leaders were taken into custody, but were kept in a room that served as a temporary centre of detention until 6th June evening when they were moved to the Army Camp. Soldiers ordered all others out of the rooms into the courtyard. Shelling of the Akal Takht was still going on. When a bomb exploded near the hostel, soldiers began to shoot at the group of people huddled in the courtyard. The SGPC’s secretary Bhan Singh ran to Longowal and Tohra, who came out to beseech the Major in-charge of the battalion to stop shooting the innocent pilgrims.
Early next morning, Bhan Singh was counting at least seventy dead bodies of old men, women and children. Soldiers, commanded by a Major, were still lining up young Sikhs along the hostel’s corridor to be shot. When Bhan Singh protested, the Major flew into a rage, tore away his turban and ordered him to either flee the scene or join the array of martyrs.
Bhan Singh turned back and fled, jumping over the bodies of the dead and injured. Hundreds of young Sikhs, innocent pilgrims from the villages, were killed in this manner. A woman school teacher, Ranbir Kaur, witnessed the shooting of another group of 150 persons whose hands had been tied behind their backs with their own turbans.Narinderjit Singh Nanda, the Public Relations Officer of the Golden Temple, and his wife spent the night of June 5 in a basement under his office. At the midday of June 6th, one army officer took them to the square in front of the main entrance gate on the northern side of the Temple. They had to step over dead bodies strewn everywhere. Nanda was to be shot by a soldier when a Brigadier, recognizing him, intervened to rescue him. But life’s chance in the temple complex that day seemed meagre. A young Lieutenant conducted Nanda over to the other side of the circumference, close to the Library building, and asked him to stand up against the wall and to say his last prayers. Nanda was destined, against the omnipresence of death, to live. The Brigadier showed up again and ordered the Lieutenant to give up on him.A singer at the Golden Temple, Harcharan Singh Ragi, his wife and their young daughter came out of their quarters near the Information Office in the afternoon of June 6th. They witnessed the killings of hundreds of people, including women, and would themselves have been shot if a Commander had not taken pity at their young daughter who fell at his feet to beseech her parents’ lives.
The soldiers were in a foul mood. According to the official White Paper, 83 army personnel had been killed and 249 wounded during the Operation. Private estimates give much higher figures of army casualties.238 After the destruction of the Akal Takht, they drank and smoked openly inside the Temple complex and indiscriminately killed those who were found inside. For them, every Sikh inside was a terrorist. According to the official White Paper, 493 terrorists were killed, 86 wounded and 1,592 apprehended during the Operation. These numbers add up to 2171, and fail to explain what happened to at least five thousand pilgrims who were trapped inside when the Operation began. The eye-witnesses claim that 7 to 8 thousand people were killed. Mark Tully estimates that approximately 4000 people may have died. Chand Joshi suggests 5000 civilian deaths.
Brahma Challaney, a correspondent of the Associated Press, had managed to dodge the authorities to remain in the city during the Operation Blue Star, Later, he reported that dead bodies were taken in municipal garbage trucks round the clock and cremated in heaps of twenty or more. One attendant at the city’s crematorium told him that there was not enough wood to burn the dead individually. He also saw an estimated 50 corpses in a large rubbish lorry. At least two masculine legs were sticking out from the back of the gray truck. A forehead with long flowing hair of an apparently male Sikh was hanging from the left side. Challaney also saw dead bodies of at least two women and a child. He talked to a doctor who had been forced to sign postmortem reports of some people killed inside the temple. The doctor corroborated the reports that their hands and been tied before the soldiers shot them.
The army had isolated and stormed 42 other main Gurdwaras throughout Punjab. In the absence of a thorough investigation, it is difficult to estimate the casualties, but it is known that the operation against many Gurdwaras became bloody. The White Paper says that terrorists at Moga and Muktsar offered a fair amount of resistance.241 Tiwana Commission of Inquiry, appointed by the Akali State government elected two years later to investigate some complaints of torture in army custody, said that 257 persons were shot down during the storming of the Dukhniwaran Gurdwara at Patiala.242 In the absence of an independent and comprehensive inquiry, the total figures of casualties and arrests during the army operation in Punjab shall never be known. The storming of the Temple was followed up with a mopping up operation in Punjab’s countryside, code named Operation Woodrose, which resulted in thousands of young Sikhs getting picked up. The government’s White Paper claims that a total of 4,712 were apprehended.
According to the official White Paper, the storming of the Golden Temple resulted in the apprehension of 1,592 terrorists. Out of these, 379 were detained under the National Security Act and the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Punishment and Prevention Act. Independent investigations suggest that the large majority of 379 persons detained under these laws were innocent, ordinary persons who had gone to the Golden Temple to take part in an important religious event.
In September 1984, Mrs. Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, a social worker based in Delhi, moved a petition before the Supreme Court to raise some issues about the people who had been detained as most dangerous terrorists. The petition demanded the Court’s intervention for the release of twenty-two children aged between two and sixteen years, who had been rounded up from the Golden Temple and were being held at Ludhiana Jail. Two judges of the Supreme Court, Chinnappa Reddy and V. Khalid ruled that there was no justification for detaining them as they were pilgrims visiting the Golden Temple during Operation Bluestar. At this order, the twenty-two children lodged at Ludhiana jail were released. But most of them were re-arrested and tortured at various interrogation centres for information on their relatives who had probably been killed during the army operation.
There were more children, rounded up from the Golden Temple, in Punjab jails then Kamala Devi had been aware of. After her petition before the Supreme Court, many children lodged in the Ludhiana jail got transferred to the high security prison in Nabha. But a correspondent of the Indian Express found out that Jaswant Singh and Kewal Singh, lodged in the Nabha prison under the National Security Act, were eleven and fifteen years old, and published a story about them on October 24 1984. On 27 October 1984, a Sikh religious organization moved a Criminal Writ Petition No. 551 of 1984 before the High Court of Punjab and Haryana to demand their release. The petition said that the children were not involved in any criminal case and that the government had used the National Security Act to cover their detention many months after illegally arresting them on 3 June 1984. The petition prayed that the court should quash their detention as being mala fide and also order a thorough inquiry about the circumstances in which minor children unconnected with crime were being held in high security prisons.
Justice M. M. Punchi heard the petition and disposed it of with the following order: The petition is extremely vague and tends to ask for a fishing inquiry. Dismissed. M. M. Punchi was later elevated to the Supreme Court as India’s Chief Justice.
As I already observed, the attack on the Golden Temple, the destruction of the Akal Takht, and the atrocities that followed the army operations produced in all sections of the Sikhs a sense of outrage that was hard to alleviate. In any case, appeasement was not even attempted. The large majority of Hindu India, even if politically hostile to Indira Gandhi, openly identified with – and exulted in – her Will to overwhelmingly humble a recalcitrant minority. The sentiment was echoed by Morarji Desai, the former Prime Minister who had led the democratic coalition which replaced Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime in March 1977: Nation would have been destroyed if the army had not been moved in. All the terrorists have not been finished yet. They should be liquidated as they are maligning the image of the Sikhs and pose a fundamental threat to the very existence of the country.
The statement conveys a position of Hindu militancy, which has acquired sophisticated advocacy of many successful people with a wistful involvement in the glory that was Hinduism, a glory that has remained unfulfilled in the calamitous millennium. Trinidad-born Sir Vidyadhar Naipaul, who has made Britain his home, recently said : Dangerous or not, Hindu militancy is a corrective to the history I have been taking about. It is a creative force and will be so. In the same interview, Sir Vidyadhar also talked about the great Indian aesthetic- architecture: The Mughal buildings are foreign buildings. They are a carry-over from the architecture of Isfahan. In India they speak of the desert. They cover enormous spaces and they make me think of everything that was flattened to enable them to come up. The Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long.
Sophisticated Hindus with such views on India’s history could not regret the destruction of Amritsar’s Golden Temple which is Islamic in essential architecture and had become the symbol of the Sikh defiance to India’s seat of authority in Delhi. Stanley Wolpert, the author of Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny, said when the tanks rolled into the Golden Temple, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had really signed her death warrant because the Sikhs have very long memories, and they felt that, that kind of invasion into the Vatican, the mecca of the Sikh faith was intolerable. 249 This view of the Sikh reaction to the Golden Temple’s destruction requires the capacity of an outsider to empathize with the sentiments of a demonized minority, unavailable to those who belonged to the Hindu political framework.