Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh

Sat Nam Readers!

This post, dealing with the Indian Army’s invasion of the Golden Temple at Amritsar will not be either easy or non-controversial.  I’ve heard a lot of educated and uneducated opinions about what happened in 1984.  I’m hoping that you’ll keep an open mind and decide for yourself.  I’ll try to provide enough information to give you a good start at learning why this event remains so painful for Sikhs, some of the circumstances that caused it and the legacy it left behind.  This is part of a series on 1984, a year full of tragedy for the Sikhs.

I was a young teenager when these events occurred half a world away.  I have clear memories of what was shown on the news in the West but, as always, the truth just isn’t that simple.

The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib)

The Golden Temple or Harmandir Sahib or Harimandir Sahib is the holiest site of the Sikhs.  It was built at the City of Amritsar in Punjab in India in the 16th century by Guru Arjun Ji and designed by Guru Ram Das Ji.  It is a complex of buildings which includes the Guru Nanak Niwas (a guest house), the temple and langar, the Akhal Takht, the Central Sikh Museum, the Sikh Reference Library, the Sikh Religious Studies Centre and other buildings.

The temple itself is built on a platform in the sacred pool.  Leading to it is a 13 foot wide bridge connecting the gurdwara with the rest of the complex.  It has doors to the east, west, north and south, symbolizing that everyone, of every caste, of every religion, of every race is welcome inside.  On the first floor, the Guru Granth Sahib Ji is continuously read.

It is said that there was a misplacement of a cornerstone at the temple site.  As a result of the misplacement, Guru Arjun predicted that the temple would not stand forever but would need to be rebuilt.  I’ve heard some say that this was an insight into what would happen in the dark days of early June, 1984.

Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale

I recently posted about Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was a central figure in the events of June, 1984 and the attack on the Golden Temple.  You can find that post here:  Sant Jarnail SIngh Bhindranwale.  In June, 1984 Bhindranwale had taken up residence in the Akal Takht building within the Harmandir Sahib complex, with armed followers.  He had fortified the Akal Takht with weapons and, some say, was hiding from the law.

Bhindranwale’s purpose in being inside the Temple and fortifying the Akhal Takht is controversial.  The Indian government of the day claimed that he intended to lead an armed rebellion to create the state of Khalistan.  Some say he was hiding from the law, others that he was above the law.  Still others state that his aim in the fortification and occupation of the complex was to push for the passing of the Anandpur Resolution.

In the months leading up to Operation Bluestar, Time Magazine described the holy city of Amritsar as follows “These days it more closely resembles a city of death.  Inside the temple compound, violent Sikh fanatics wield submachine guns, resisting arrest by government security forces.  Outside, the security men keep a nervous vigil, all too aware that the bodies of murdered comrades often turn up in the warren of tiny streets outside the shrine.”

You can get a feel for how divided and controversial the stories (mainly propaganda) around Bhindranwale are by reading the entries on Bhindranwale and Operation Blue Star on Wikipedia.  That source, recognizing that it is user edited and often not as reliable as one would like, gives widely divergent versions surrounding the death of Gurbachan Singh and what, if any, role Bhindranwale played in it.  Unfortunately, this divergence in all the sources combines with the propaganda and the bias to make his story unclear and as much myth and legend as many other historic figures.

Indira Gandhi & the Congress Party

The Prime Minister of India at the time was Indira Gandhi who was a member of the Congress Party.  Bhindranwale often spoke out against Gandhi and the policies of her party.

Indira Gandhi

Ms. Ghandi first asked Lieutenant General S.K. Sinha, Vice-Chief of the Indian Army, to prepare a position paper for an assault on the Golden Temple.  She also, we learned in February of this year, sought the assistance and advise of the British government in the plan to extract Bhindranwale.  Lt. Gen. Sinha advised against an attack or siege of the temple, given that it would be seen as a sacrilege.  He recommended an alternative solution but was then replaced by General Arun Vaidya as Chief of the Indian Army and Lt. Gen K. Sundarji as Vice-Chief.

Her motives behind the attack have been criticized as having to do more with presenting herself as a hero to the majority Hindus in an effort to win votes in an upcoming election than to rid herself of Bhindranwale.  But again, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

Operation Blue Star (June 3rd through 8th, 1984)

Indian soldiers standing in front of the destroyed
Akhal Takht building, 1984

Operation Blue Star was an Indian Army operation that lasted from June 3rd through the 8th, 1984.  It had two components.  The first – Operation Metal – was the attack on the Golden Temple Complex ordered by Indira Gandhi.  The second – Operation Shop – was a contemporaneous operation throughout the Punjab which apparently sought out other subjects of concern to the Indian government.  Following Operation Blue Star, Operation Woodrose was launched to thoroughly scour the Punjab countryside.

The General who led Operation Metal, Kuldip Singh Brar, puts army casualties at 83 and injuries at 220.  The Indian government claims that 492 civilians were killed during the operation but reliable, independent sources estimate the real number to be 5000.

Along with the casualties, the Central Bureau of Investigation is considered responsible for seizing historical artifacts and manuscripts from the Sikh Reference Library before burning it down.

On June 1st the Central Reserve Police Force and the Border Security Force began shooting at the Guru Ram Das Langar (this is the free kitchen inside the temple complex).  Estimates of those killed during that gunfire are 8 civilians.

By June 2nd, the Indian Army had sealed the border, foreigners and NRI’s were not permitted entry, electricity was cut off to the region as was water,

Bodies of Sikh victims of Operation Blue Star

On June 3rd, a 36 hour curfew was imposed throughout the Punjab.  All methods of communication with the world outside of Punjab and all public transportation was suspended.  Electricity was interrupted so that a total blackout cut the state off from the rest of India and from the outside world.  The news media was subject to complete censorship by the government.  All foreign journalists were expelled from the region.  The Army sealed off all ways in or out of the temple complex, leaving thousands of visitors inside with Bhindranwale and his group.

Part of the temple complex in rubble and on fire

On June 4th, the Army began bombarding the complex.

On June 5th, the Indian Army stormed the Harmandir Sahib at night.  By the morning of June 7th, they had full control of the complex.  Bhindranwale and most of his entourage along with what was likely thousands of civilian men, women and children were dead.  The complex lay in ruins, with many of its buildings damaged or destroyed.

On June 6th, tanks shelled and destroyed the Akal Takht.

Operation Shop increased the number of casualties and resulted in attacks, including burning of Sri Guru Grant Sahib Ji and buildings at an estimated 150 gurdwaras throughout the Pubjab.

Though their operation had accomplished its stated goal, the Indian Army did not quit the Harmandir Sahib until September, 1984.

Operation Blue Star has been widely criticized.  Other methods for the extraction of Bhindranwale and his group could have been used and in fact were suggested by the British government and by Lt. Gen. Sinha.  It was timed at the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev Ji, when the temple complex is traditionally crowded with more visitors than usual, contributing to higher casualty rates than had the Operation occurred at other times.  The media blackout and expulsion of foreign journalists from the region created a situation where it is very easy to doubt the government version of what happened, particularly where that version clashes with the versions of mutinied military and survivors.

In addition, gross human rights abuses have been alleged by the one foreign journalist who managed to stay in Amritsar at the time, and by survivors, anthropologists, human rights lawyers and other witnesses.

Aftermath


The attack on Harmandir Sahib prompted outrage among Sikhs the world over.  Increased tensions following the attack in June, 1984 led to assaults on Sikhs within India.  Sikh soldiers in the Indian army mutinied, at least 4000 of them.  Sikh civil servants resigned and many Sikhs returned awards and honours that were given to them by the Indian Government.

On October 31st, 1984, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, both bodyguards, assassinated Indira Gandhi.  Subsequently, in the early days of November, 1984, thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered in what the Sikhs refer to as a genocide that not only struck Delhi but throughout Punjab.

K.S. Brar who led the attack has been living under security in England since shortly after Operation Blue Star.  He provides his own version, excessively different from the other versions of the attack, in a biography.  Recently, in 2012, he was attacked by Sikhs near his residence in London and stabbed in what is thought to be an act of vengeance for Operation Blue Star.  He survived.

In 1990, after subsequent rounds between the Indian government and revolutionaries, the Indian government ordered all of the buildings around the complex to be vacated, in an effort to prevent their use for revolutionary activity.

Operation Blue Star has left deep scars with the Sikhs.  Though demands for Khalistan have lessened, there has been no justice for what occurred when the government of India decided to turn its armed forces on its own people, no resolution of the injustices that happened in June and October and November, 1984.  It is a part of the memory of all Sikhs, everywhere, and I expect it will remain so until the issues are brought to the light, recognized, discussed and dealt with, by all parties.

All these years later, it matters because those that were attacked were people first.  They were attacked because of what they were, Sikhs, and not solely because of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.  It matters because of what followed as well, throughout June and October and November, 1984 and in the years since.  Their suffering though now widely recognized, has never been properly redressed.  It matters because my friends were affected, the Panth was affected and because nothing like Operation Blue Star should ever be allowed to happen again.  Most importantly, it matters because we still have an opportunity to address the wounds created and every day that we don’t, we are losing that opportunity.

Does it matter that the exact facts are still in dispute?  Of course it does but it shouldn’t stop us from pushing for a resolution of the pain – truth and reconciliation is possible.  Most Sikhs I talk to do not want a separate state of Khalistan and certainly not by any violent means.  Many are happy to live in India among their Hindu, Muslim and other neighbours. Like most people everywhere, they simply ask for their dignity, respect and the security to raise their families in safety.  They also want answers and justice – and frankly, that’s really not a lot to ask for.

Sat Nam Readers!

Sources of information:
YouTube Channel containing Bluestar related videos from a variety of contributors:  http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0flgngWLCNP9e8ObQyesrQ
SGPC site describing the Harimandir Sahib http://sgpc.net/golden-temple/index.asp
The very disputed Wikipedia article:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Blue_Star
IBN Live article on the 30th anniversary  http://ibnlive.in.com/news/30th-anniversary-of-operation-blue-star/477107-3-241.html
IBN Live article on the legacy of the operation:  http://ibnlive.in.com/news/the-legacy-of-operation-blue-star/476363-37-64.html
Panthic.org article, including interviews with survivors:  http://www.panthic.org/articles/3332
NDTV archive on Operation Blue Star related videos:  http://www.ndtv.com/topic/operation-bluestar
The Hindu (which clearly has a pro-India agenda):  http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/operation-blue-star-the-untold-story/article4798102.ece
BBC article on the enduring legacy for Sikhs:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23514583
About.com article on Operation Blue Star:  http://sikhism.about.com/od/Sikhism_History/p/Indira-Gandhi-1984-Operation-Bluestar-Invasion-Of-Golden-Temple.htm
Encyclopedia Brittanica topic archive on Operation Blue Star:  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/70530/Operation-Bluestar
Sikhroots.com article:  http://www.sikhroots.com/sikh-literature/operation-bluestar/3026-the-truth-behind-operation-bluestar
Huffington Post archive of related articles:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tag/operation-bluestar/
The Telegraph Article on Operation Blue Star:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/10881115/Operation-Blue-Star-How-an-Indian-army-raid-on-the-Golden-Temple-ended-in-disaster.html
Times of India article:  http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Wounds-of-Operation-Bluestar-yet-to-heal-but-demand-for-Khalistan-fading-away/articleshow/36121428.cms
The Sikh Museum photographs:  http://www.sikhmuseum.com/bluestar/photographs/#tn3=0/slide1
The Sikh Museum collection of newspaper articles:  http://www.sikhmuseum.com/bluestar/newsreports/index.html
India.Com article: http://www.india.com/top-n/operation-blue-star-15-facts-about-the-golden-temples-infamous-genocide-71125/
A History of the Sikhs, 2nd Edition, by Khushwant Singh

Tomorrow:  Operation Woodrose

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