New documentary carries testimony that executions of Sikh youth did take place and SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra refused to declare Khalistan
Almost three decades after Operation Blue Star — the army operation that cleared the Golden temple complex in Amritsar of Sikh militants in 1984 — a journalist has spoken to some of the surviving dramatis personae of the event to recreate almost hour by hour what happened during those fateful six days. The documentary Operation Blue Star — the untold story currently being aired by Chandigarh-based television station Day and Night News run by veteran Punjab journalist Kanwar Sandhu has uncovered startling new evidence about the operation and the conduct of the militants and the security agencies since then.
Perhaps the most significant disclosures are by Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, a former Union Minister for Social Welfare, then with the Shiromani Akali Dal, who was present in the Guru Ram Das Sarai along with then Akali Dal president Harchand Singh Longowal and SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra.
He relates how at around 6 p.m. on 5th June, Mr. Longowal and Mr. Tohra were coerced almost at gunpoint to declare the formation of Khalistan and how they wriggled out of it.
“Five Sikh youth with self-loading rifles (SLRs) and a metallic box that was possibly a transmitter came to us and placed their SLRs with their barrels pointing towards all of us. They told us that the ‘box’ is connected with Gen Zia-Ul-Haq in Pakistan. They told Jathedar Tohra and Sant Longowal to declare the formation of Khalistan, so that the Pakistani Army can launch an attack. Both Tohra and Longowal are not alive today, so I am saying this under a solemn oath of allegiance to the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, because I want to speak the truth. Sant Longowal kept completely quiet. Then Jathedar Tohra said, ‘Dekho naujawano, eh jedi jang hai eh Hind-Punjab di jang hai. This is a battle between Sant Bhinderanwale and Mrs. Indira Gandhi and that since the former is leading the battle, it will be fair to ask him to issue the statement about the creation of Khalistan.’ He did not say that he will make the announcement for Khalistan. I don’t know how history will judge the Akali leadership but this is the truth. The youth then left the place and never came back.”
‘Outrage by Army’
Mr. Ramoowalia also sheds light on an alleged execution of some 30 Sikh youth by the army — the certainty of which has always been speculated. Talking about events in the wee hours of 6th June, when the army was combing through the complex, the narrative states that a Major of the 9 Kumaon regiment lined up some 20 Sikh youth and mowed them down with a machine gun. Recalling the incident, Mr. Ramoowalia says, “The captured Sikhs appeared to be from Kashmir and didn't look like Punjabi Sikhs. An officer waved a handkerchief and they were shot dead by the Army men with bullets which were sprayed on them from left to right and then right to left. I have never seen people being killed like that, with bullets. I have been a farmer and I have cut the crop and made its bundles. The crests of these Sikh youth collapsed similarly. No one moaned or uttered anything. I know my statement will be called into questioning, but 28 years after it happened, I am going on record on this.”
“The Army men were very angry, very abusive, mad with rage. Maybe they had lost their fellow Army men in the battle elsewhere in the Complex. This happened between 3 a.m. and 3.30 a.m., after the grenade blast nearby and after that it was my turn next as a part of the next group of Sikhs which was being queued up for killing. I was also told to sit down cross-legged and said my prayers. By chance, I remembered that I had in my pocket my identity card as an ex-Member of Parliament, of Lok Sabha. I flashed it and raised my hand and said, I am Ramoowalia, a former Member, Lok Sabha. I and all these persons, who are under your custody, belong to Sant Harchand Singh Longowal. We are non-violent people, [have] nothing to do with the armed struggle, we are here, just as a part of Akali Dal’s peaceful morcha.’ He asked me, ‘what is your name?’ I said, ‘my name is Ramoowalia.’ He asked me once again. I told him, ‘I am not misguiding. Not misleading. This is my identity card. Please check it up.’ God knows, the Army man was so angry, he could have just shot and killed me. But he said, ‘stop’. The other Army men lowered their guns. And two to three of them came up to me… and pushed me to a side. Then the officer again asked me, ‘Are you really Ramoowalia?’ I said, ‘I am really Ramoowalia.’ He said, ‘how are you here? You are not supposed to be here.’ I said, ‘why’? He said, ‘you are supposed to be with Sant Longowal.’ I said, ‘Sant Longowal is sitting in the adjoining room. I have come out’.”
Brigadier (retd.) Onkar Singh Goraya, who was then Col Admn in HQ 15 Corps corroborates the incident saying that Bhan Singh the then SGPC secretary also told him something similar. “He said the Army men in Darbar Sahib have done something awful. He said that some Sikh youth were lined up against a wall in the Golden Temple Complex and killed with a machine gun. He also showed me the wall in the Complex which had the bullet marks, when I went back for the second time in the afternoon,” he is quoted as saying in the documentary.
Mr. Sandhu has pieced together the account with the help of interviews with some 100 eyewitnesses and officials, records from army archives, interrogation reports of captured militants and also the actual Op Instructions issued by Maj Gen Brar on the eve of the operation. Says he, “This is an honest attempt to put the events in perspective and tell the story as it happened. If in the process it upsets any one, it cannot be helped.” Already the television station is getting hate mail from the Sikh diaspora in particular which is angry with its portrayal of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a militant who fortified the golden temple complex with arms and ammunition.
Militants stockpiled weapons
In 2010 the BBC had done a one-hour documentary “1984- A Sikh story”, which was never shown in India. Speaking to The Hindu, Mandeep Bajwa a consultant for the BBC documentary said, “This is the most authentic and credible account yet and I can see that the passage of time has emboldened many eyewitnesses to speak the truth. It exposes many fallacies like the one about arms and ammunition being planted in the temple complex by the Army. Mr. Sandhu has not only provided a rough inventory of the military hardware stockpiled inside but also detailed some instances of how they were smuggled in.”
Another revelation is that Maj Gen Shahbeg Singh (retd.), the disgraced army man who joined Bhindranwale’s group and organized the defences died on the evening of 5th June, before the actual battle began. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet and quoting Balwinder Singh Khojkipur a close associate of Bhindranwale who survived the operation, the documentary states that he was taken to the basement of Akal Takht where he died with his head on Bhindranwale’s lap. His covered body lay in a room there for a whole day until the armymen entered and cleared it the next day.
As for Bhindranwale himself —the Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal that he headed refused to accept his death for many years — he died at 8.45 am on 6th June after being shot at from an armoured vehicle as he was moving towards the ‘Darshni Deodi’ to offer his prayers to Guru Ram Das. His body, contrary to reports of that time, was not identified by his brother Harcharan Singh Rode then serving as the subedar major in 61 Engineers Regiment in Jalandhar, but by the police and army doctors. Says Rode, “This is totally wrong. I did not issue any contradiction because I had got to see him and paid my last respects.”
Much has been written and said about the pilgrims trapped inside the complex many of who died in the crossfire. This series documents that they were actually discouraged from responding to the announcements being made by the district administration outside asking the pilgrims to come out. Apparently when five or six of them tried to come out with their hands in the air, they were shot down by militants from inside the temple complex. Their bodies lay near the ghanta ghar —where pilgrims wash their feet — on the morning of 5th June.