As we approach the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, the writer recreates the tumultuous events that marked a defining moment in Indian history.

Thirty years ago, Indian troops launched an assault — code-named “Operation Blue Star” — on the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple or Harminder Sahib, in Amritsar. Their objective was to evict a fundamentalist Sikh preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and his armed followers who had ensconced themselves there and launched a reign of terror in Punjab. The operation led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, four months later, which in turn unleashed horrific anti-Sikh riots that killed at least 3,000 Sikhs in the Capital alone. A decade of Sikh terrorism followed, taking the lives of tens of thousands, terrorists, security forces and innocent civilians. The Sikh psyche, not just of fundamentalist Sikhs, was badly damaged. A proud community that had made sacrifices quite out of proportion to their numbers — Sikhs constitute just 1.5 per cent of the Indian population – in the freedom struggle and also served in disproportionate numbers in the armed services, was suddenly being viewed with the Indian public with intense suspicion. Some even accused Sikhs of being “anti-national”. Fortunately, later, they returned to the mainstream, the psyche largely healed.

Much the same thing happened in Gujarat, 18 years later, the communal target this time being Muslims. Since then, the 1984 and 2002 riots have become sticks with which to beat either the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress put 1984 effectively behind it with the election of Dr. Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister in 2004, and the BJP seems to have done the same with the elevation of Narendra Modi, 10 years later. However, the canker of sectarianism — whether of Hinduism, Islam or Sikhism — still remains in Indian society, ready to come to the surface and explode into communal violence when the spark is lit. That is perhaps one of the major challenges faced by the new Modi administration and an examination of the tumultuous days of mid-1984 is hence instructive and revealing.

***

Indira Gandhi’s 17 years as Prime Minister had its ups and downs. When the old guard of the Congress, the Syndicate, first made her Prime Minister in January 1965, they thought they could manipulate her easily in a way they could not Morarji Desai, her main rival. But they were wrong. She showed them she was no goongi gudiya (dumb doll), as she was once characterised. She outsmarted them and emerged as her own person, unrivalled and supreme.

Her moment of glory came in 1971, during the war for the liberation of Bangladesh, when she displayed great leadership qualities. An adoring Indian public lay at her feet. However, nemesis came soon after, as opposition built up around Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). Desperate to hold on to power, despite an adverse court judgment challenging her election as a Member of Parliament, she imposed her notorious Emergency rule, jailing Opposition leaders and imposing Press censorship. When the Emergency was lifted and a general election announced, the Congress suffered a humiliating defeat (both she and her younger son, Sanjay, lost their Lok Sabha seats). But, again, she rose phoenix-like, as the Janata Party government imploded. She showed great fighting qualities and swept back to power. Soon after came perhaps the biggest tragedy in her personal life when Sanjay, whom she was grooming to succeed her, was killed while flying a stunt plane. Something seemed to snap within her. She lost her once-sure political touch.

“With the death of Sanjay Gandhi, the uncanny sense of timing political action, an instinct that enabled Indira to act with precision and power, diminished,” wrote Pupul Jayakar, her close friend and confidant. “She was a woman who, in the past, would listen intently to her advisers and political comrades but acted on her own instincts; an intuitional skill had enabled her to feel into a political situation and plan her electoral strategy with formidable strength.”

***

In 1980, I was covering the Punjab State election. Indira Gandhi was riding on the crest of a popular wave; the fact that Sanjay Gandhi had married a Sikh, Maneka, added to her appeal. The Congress triumphed over the formidable Sikh-dominated Akali Party, clearly indicating that a large number of Sikhs had voted for her. Then, after Sanjay’s death, things began to unravel. Indira Gandhi’s “intuitional skill” began to desert her.

Punjab, where the Congress had done so well, posed a major challenge. So Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, an obscure fundamentalist Sikh preacher and a school dropout, was thrust on to centre stage by the Congress Party. His main promoter? Giani Zail Singh, former Punjab Chief Minister and then Home Minister (he later became the nation’s President), whose intention was to sow confusion in the Akali Party’s ranks. He succeeded in doing so but at a huge cost. Bhindranwale became an uncontrollable Frankenstein’s monster

Here, an explanation of why many Sikhs responded to him, is called for. Sikhs were facing an “identity crisis”. Many, especially in the younger generation, were discarding the outward distinctive symbols of the faith, i.e. the long hair, the beard and the turban. However some orthodox Sikhs felt that their faith was in danger and that some kind of Hindu conspiracy was behind making them “second class citizens” and discriminating against them. Only an independent Sikh state, where Sikhs would be in a majority and where the true faith would be preached and followed, could save Sikhism. Thus was born the notion of “Khalistan”.

Unrealistic and mad though it may sound now, the notion had its fanatical adherents, with Bhindranwale fanning the flames of communalism and separatism. Ominously, his followers began to grow. Those who openly opposed him “disappeared”. Dead bodies began to be found in the sewers of the Golden Temple complex. Hindus were pulled out of a bus by Sikh terrorists and shot. Editors of newspapers critical of Bhindranwale were assassinated. My father, the late Khuswant Singh, had to be given round-the-clock security after he condemned Bhindranwale in his columns.

Bhindranwale’s malevolent intent was clear: To instil so much fear into Hindus in Punjab that they would be forced to leave the state, while the backlash against Sikhs elsewhere would make them flee to Punjab for safety. In other words, a forced transfer of communities would take place, just as had happened during the Partition in 1947. Shamefully, the Akali leaders, also ensconced in the Golden Temple complex and scared out of their wits by Bhindranwale’s violent tactics, did not have the guts to oppose him. The neighbouring Haryana government made matters worse by singling out Sikhs at the state border and humiliatibng them by detaining and searching them. Even army generals and senior government officials were not spared.

Among them was Major General Shabeg Singh, the war hero who had trained the Mukti Bahini, the Bangladesh guerilla force. He was later stripped of his rank and dishonourably discharged from the army, a day before his retirement, for alleged corruption (the charges were never proved). An embittered General Singh became an ardent follower of Bhindranwale and, as will be related later, the main thorn in the side of the Indian armed forces when they entered the Golden Temple complex.

Meanwhile, Bhindranwale was converting the complex into a veritable armed fortress. A variety of deadly weapons were being smuggled into the holy shrine, while inflammatory and seditious speeches were being given with impunity. Communal killings continued unchecked. An estimated 100 civilians and security personnel were killed from 1981 to June 1984. On January 26, 1983, Republic Day, a Khalistan flag was raised atop of a building in the temple complex. Fear and foreboding pervaded the state. The stage was set for perhaps the darkest chapter in independent India’s history.

A flashpoint came on April 25, 1984, with the murder of Avtar Singh Atwal, deputy inspector general of police and a Sikh, who was leaving the Golden Temple after having offered prayers. Several policemen said they had seen the murder suspect run into the shrine after shooting Atwal at point-blank range. It was the perfect opportunity for the police to enter the shrine and go after the killer, and at the same time apprehend Bhindranwale. Inexplicably, nothing was done.

By the end of May it was abundantly clear that the government had lost all control over the complex and that Bhindranwale was calling the shots. Only the army could now overcome Bhindranwale and his armed followers. The decision to call in the army was probably taken when Akali leader Harchand Singh Longowal announced the launching of a state-wide “morcha” (agitation) on June 3, 1984, to prevent the movement of foodgrains. The government also realized that the piling up of weapons in the Golden Temple complex included sophisticated ones, like rocket-launchers, against which police action would be inadequate.

Major General Kuldip Singh (“Bulbul”) Brar was put in charge of all the forces, including the police and the para-military. Brar, a Sikh though clean-shaven, later related how he was summoned from Meerut just as he was about leave for a holiday to the Phillipines. At Chandimandir, a military base on the outskirts of Chandigarh,

Brar was ushered into the Operations Room and received his first instructions from Lieutenant General Kumaraswamy Sundarji, General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command (later the army chief). Also in the room were Lieutenant General Ranjit Singh Dyal, Chief of Staff, Western Command and army chief, General Arun Kumar Vaidya (later killed by two terrorists in Pune). The objective was to oust Bhindranwale and his followers from the shrine and to prevent any uprising in the surrounding countryside. The action in the Golden Temple complex was code-named “Operation Blue Star” and the sealing of the border with Pakistan and the securing of the countryside, “Operation Woodrose”. Minimum force was to be used and damage to the complex, particularly the Harminder Sahib (sanctum sanctorum), avoided.

“We did not go in anger, but with sadness; with a prayer on our lips and humility in our hearts,” said Sundarji eloquently. According to R.K. Dhawan, personal secretary to Indira Gandhi, Vaidya assured her that there would be few casualties and no damage to the Golden Temple complex. With a General Election looming ahead, she would be seen as upholding national unity against secessionist forces. The reality turned out to be entirely different – and unbelievably tragic.

Shabeg Singh, a master tactician of urban warfare, had fortified the five-storey Akal Takht, the second holiest building in the complex, bricking up the windows and balconies and placing machine-gun nests there and in other places in the complex. The open ground between the entrance of the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht was turned into a killing field, with machine-guns targeting it from all sides. The “intelligence” outputs that the army received grossly underestimated the extent of Shabeg’s fortifications and the fighting prowess of his militants.

The operation’s timing was also strange (according to some Sikhs, deliberate): June 3, the day of the army’s assault, was also martyrdom day of one of the Sikh gurus, Arjun Dev, when thousands of pilgrims would be in the temple. Though many managed to leave after announcements were made, quite a few, probably several thousand, stayed behind in the confusion to be caught in the crossfire between the army and the militants.

Brar’s first targets were two 18th century watch-towers and an elevated water tank that overlooked the Golden Temple and had been converted into sniper nests. They were blown up with a 106 mm recoilless gun and a 3.7 inch howitzer. “Shells hit sandbags and sent them flying, with flailing limbs,” reported an eye-witness. Brar evidently hoped that such shock-and-awe tactics would persuade the militants to surrender without any more loss of life. Unfortunately, no such luck. Hence, specially-trained heavily-armed commandos, equipped with gas canisters, were sent in at 10.00 p.m. on June 5. Immediately they came under withering fire and most were mowed down. The survivors found shelter behind some pillars. More waves of commandos were similarly cut down and the infantry forces sent behind them were unable to make much progress, while suffering heavy casualties.

With daylight approaching, and an Armed Personnel Carrier (AMC) was immobilised by an anti-tank missile, the tanks were brought in. “We never imagined the militants had anti-tank weapons in their inventory,” Brar admitted later. At 5.21 a.m. on June 6, three Vijayanta tanks brought their heavy arsenal to bear down on the Akal Takht, shattering its defences and reducing it to a fiery ruin. That is probably when Bhindranwale and Shabeg, along with most of their followers, perished. At 11.00 a.m., a large group of militants rushed out of the Akal Takht in an attempt to escape. They were all cut down. Mopping up operations continued for the next two days.

When President Zail Singh visited the complex on the morning of June 8, a sniper fired at him. Though Zail Singh was not hurt, an officer accompanying him was seriously wounded. Zail Singh was visibly shaken when he saw the damage to the complex, especially to the Akal Takht which was a smouldering wreck. The Sikh Reference Library had also been completely gutted and the Golden Temple was pock-marked where bullets had struck. According to the military, 136 army men died and 220 were injured. Civilian casualties were put at 492. These figures have been hotly disputed, with the number of civilians (mainly pilgrims) being killed put as high as 5,000 to 20,000. As for the army, even Rajiv Gandhi claimed on the CNN/IBN channel that “700 soldiers” were killed. The same channel also said that the army lost 365 commandos.

Whatever the true figures, Operation Blue Star was the bloodiest confrontation of the military with a section of its own people in India since Independence. Though an overwhelming majority of Sikhs managed to put aside the bloodshed and bitterness, and return to the mainstream, Operation Bluestar will always remain an ugly, defining moment in independent India’s history.

Rahul Singh was Resident Editor of the Indian Express in Chandigarh from 1984 to 1987.

More In: Magazine | Features