Operation Blue Star in 1984
Continued from “Sino-Indian War of 1962”
Operation Blue Star is the code name of the Indian Army operation carried out in June 1984 to flush out militant religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers from Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple complex) in Amritsar, India. Initially, given shelter by the Akali leaders of the Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) to evade arrest, Bhindranwale had occupied the sacred Akal Takht for months as his headquarters while carrying out numerous violent strikes against innocent civilians including Hindus and Sikhs (Nirankaris) across Punjab and adjacent areas. The building and structures in the Harmandir Sahib complex were badly damaged necessitating restoration through reconstruction.
The military action had grave consequences in the following months. The operation led to a widespread criticism by the Sikh community all over the world as many of them interpreted it as an assault on the religion. Even within country, several Sikhs in the Army and Civil administrative posts resigned and returned their awards and honours bestowed in the past. A Sikh regiment stationed at Ramgarh, Bihar revolted and a large number of Sikh soldiers deserted their units and ranks. As it was taken to have been carried out under the personal orders of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, she was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards deployed in her personal security within the next few months. This followed an anti-Sikh backlash nationwide in which a large number of innocent Sikhs were killed and their property destroyed during the same year.
Rise of Bhindranwale and Sikh Militancy
After the defeat in 1972 Punjab elections, the Akali Dal had moved the famous Anandpur Sahib Resolution in 1973 demanding more autonomy for Punjab. The resolution had both the religious and political connotations seeking Sikhism with a separate and sovereign identity of the Pantha (religion distinct from the Hinduism) and major devolution of political power from the Central to State government. The demand of more autonomy was phrased and put forth in a manner that the Central Government interpreted it as a secessionist document. This resolution largely stayed as a dormant document in 1970s but received a considerable attention after the emergence of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in limelight in early 1980s.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale aka Jarnail Singh Brar was the leader of Damdami Taksal, an orthodox Sikh religious organization and supporter of the Anandpur Sahib resolution. He came in prominence after Sikh-Nirankari conflict in 1978 wherein Bhindranwale played a pivotal role. A Sant Nirankari convention was organized in Amritsar on 13 April 1978 to celebrate the birth of Khalsa, the practices of which was considered as nonconformist and schismatic by the orthodox Sikhism propounded by Bhindranwale and his followers. Accordingly, he delivered a fiery speech from the precincts of the Golden Temple that he would not allow this convention and, if necessary, stop this by force and violent means. Following this, in a violent clash, one of the Bhidrawale’s trusted follower (Fauja Singh) was shot dead by the Nirankari Chief’s bodyguard and several people were killed in the ensuing violence.
Later in a criminal case filed against the Nirankaris, they received a widespread media support and all the accused were acquitted on grounds of self-defence. Consequently, many orthodox Sikhs claimed this as a conspiracy against the Sikh religion and Bhindranwale increasingly became an angry and hostile mouth-piece against the alleged enemies of the Sikh Panth. A letter of authority was got issued from the Akal Takht to condemn and ostracize the Sant Nirankaris. A militant organization Babbar Khalsa was founded by Bibi Amarjit Kaur whose husband Fauja Singh was killed during the conflict with the Nirankaris to fight for the cause of the Sikhs. Then the Damdami Taksal, Babbar Khalsa and All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) joined hands to launch the Dharam Yudh Morcha in 1982 in pursuance of the common cause of demanding a sovereign Sikh State, seeds of which were earlier sown by the Anandpur Sahib Resolution.
Bhindranwale became the face of the revivalist, extremist and terrorist movement in Punjab by early 1980s. The Akali Dal remained soft on him and in an apparent move to endorse his activities, he was even allowed to occupy and fortify the Sikh Shrine Akal Takht in the later part of 1983 to escape arrest along with his militant cadre. He gave rise to a new arms culture in Punjab wherein his followers were seen carrying and flashing fire arms in public. He was credited with the Sikh militancy in Punjab with the growing rhetoric of the perceived threat from the Hinduism on Sikh cultural and religious values. Besides, there were already some grievances among the sections of the Sikh populace about the obtaining economic, social, and political conditions which were articulated and exploited by his cadre.
In fact, the experts on Punjab politics hold that Bhindranwale initially acted as an agent of the Congress party, particularly on the behest of former Congress Chief Minister Zail Singh (who later became President). He allegedly received both political and financial assistance from the national party with an objective to destabilize the erstwhile Siromani Akali Dal in Punjab. According to a news published then in the New York Times, Bhindranwale was taken on board by Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of Indira Gandhi after she lost elections in 1977 after emergency. He received greater coverage and public attention after his clash with Nirankaris in 1978 and his participation in the SGPC elections in 1979. Later the Congress lost their control over him and he increasingly became closer to the Akali leaders.
Bhindranwale along his militant supporters moved to the Golden Temple complex in 1982 and later even occupied a portion of the Akal Takht and used it as his headquarters till he was liquidated in June 1984 in an Army operation. Even after his death, he continues to remain as a controversial figure. While the Akal Takht, the highest temporal authority of Sikh Faith, calls him a martyr but the Indian political establishment and media treats him as a radical terrorist. Undoubtedly, he and his armed men would not have made the most sacred place as their safe haven without full or partial consent of the then religious leaders and institutions like SGPC, AISSF and Jathedar of the Akal Takht. Of course, the support might have been either voluntary or under coercion using violent threat or action.
Spate of Terror and Murders in Punjab
Though there have been conflicts with Nirankaris and few other isolated incidents in the past, the real state of terror started with the murder of Lala Jagat Narain in September 1981. He was a freedom fighter and the founder editor of the famous newspaper ‘Punjab Kesari’ in Punjab. He was considered as the sympathizer of the Nirankari Sect as he wrote editorials criticizing violent acts of Bhindrawale on many occasions. He also opposed the Anandpur Sahib resolution, criticized Khalistani militants and was opposed to Punjabi being imposed on the Hindi speaking populace. Besides, he was a crucial witness in the court case of the clash of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha and Nirankaris. One of the arrested assassins had confessed that Lala’s killing was ordered by Bhindranwale.
The arrest of Bhindranwale in Lala’s murder case could be made only after a high tension drama and he was detained in the Circuit House for a little over three weeks instead of jail before release. While he was being taken into custody, his supporters in the mob opened fire on the police and at least eleven people were killed in the ensuing violence. In the same month, an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked by the Khalistan supporters of Dal Kahlsa seeking release of Bhidranwale. By this time several prominent Akali dal leaders were seen on his side sympathizing with him and his religious and political agenda. Jail Singh is known to have made a statement in the Parliament about non-existence of any evidence against his involvement in the crime.
During his detention, violence erupted all over Punjab in which several persons were killed. For illustration, on the day of his arrest, three armed men on motorcycle opened fire using machine guns in Jallandhar killing four people and injuring about a dozen. In another incident at Tarn Taran on the following day, one person was killed and another thirteen people injured. A few days later, a goods train was sabotaged in Amritsar. In a spate of few days, several explosions followed in Faridkot, Gurdaspur and Amritsar districts claiming damage to property and loss of life. The most of victims in these violent incidents were Hindus. Punjab generally remained disturbed and, in August 1982, the Akali Dal joined hands with Bhindranwale to launch the Dharam Yudh Morcha (Group for the Religious fight) seeking autonomy for Punjab. The movement was gradually hijacked by Bhindranwale who announced that the Dharam Yudh will continue until all the demands in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution were met and by that time Pakistan’s ISI too started backing Bhindranwale with moral and material support on his radical separatist agenda of Khalistan.
After Bhindrawale and his armed supporters occupied the Akal Takht, his move was criticized by many Sikh religious leaders. Those who spoke against him were murdered by his followers. Many multi storied buildings located in the Parikrama around the reservoir of the temple were captured by the militants for their use. He declared that he is fighting a holy from the temple, premises of which were also used for finding new militant recruits from among the visitors. Apart from the easy procurement of food, water and shelter, the sanctity of the Golden temple also afforded them protection from arrests as the religious premises were beyond the ordinary reach of the security agencies. Bhindranwale openly talked about Khalistan in public speeches and interaction with the national and foreign media making a string plea: “Sikh ik vakhri qaum hai" (Sikhs are a distinct nation).
In an unfortunate event, the Punjab Police DIG AS Atwal was shot dead by a gunman of Bhindranwale in April 1983 while he was coming out of the temple complex. This was taken as the clear evidence by the government that the extremist elements were given shelter and active support in the religious place(s). However, the then Congress-led government remained hesitant in taking action fearing backlash due to hurt sentiments. In yet another gruesome event, six Hindu bus passengers were selectively killed by the militants in October 1983. After this incident, the President's rule was imposed in Punjab citing the failure of the law and order machinery. The criminal and antinational activities of Bhidranwale were even debated in the Parliament with growing demands of his arrest and prosecution. While the Government of India was mulling over the pros and cons such action, Bhindranwale by persuasion or coercion moved to Akal Takht from the Guru Nanak Niwas house on the assumption that the shrine would provide him immunity from arrest.
Thus by December 1983, Bhindranwale and his militant followers had made the Golden Temple complex their headquarters and an armory for the extremist activities. Few religious leaders who raised their voices against using holy places for the militant activities were brutally suppressed. Among such prominent voices was Giani Partap Singh, a former Jathedar (head) of the Akal Takht and spiritual leader, who openly criticized Bhindranwale for the occupation and accumulation of arms in the highest temporal seat calling it a sacrilege; he was shot dead at his home and many other dissenters too were killed. Leaders of the SGPC, fearing for their own lives now, had meekly surrendered to the will of Bhindranwale. Thus Punjab was reeling under the fear and violence inflicted through his dictat and unlawful activities.
Bhindranwale had started using vituperative language in his speeches vitiating the traditional bonhomie and brotherhood among the Hindus and Sikhs. Reportedly, he had gone even to the extent of asking every Sikh to kill at least thirty-two Hindus in Punjab. In early 1984, his gunmen murdered Ramesh Chander, the eldest son of Lala Jagat Narain and editor of the media house Hind Samachar group. In addition, many editors and news hawkers/newsagents were systematically assassinated in a planned attack on the freedom of the press. Bhindranwale had inducted militant Sikhs on motorcycles with weapons to carry out attacks on the proclaimed enemies of Sikhs and spread terror including in the countryside.
The numbers of violent attacks on innocent people were on the constant increase. For instance, in May 1984 alone, the number of such instances were over fifty that included attack on the security forces, arson at railway stations, bombings, bank robberies, indiscriminate shootings and killing of the members of the particular community, and so on. Reportedly, ever since the declaration of the Dharm Yudh Morcha in 1982 and till May 1984, Bhindranwale's militants had killed over 165 Hindus and Nirankaris (official figures) and 39 Sikhs including religious leaders for their criticism to Bhindranwale. As per an independent estimate, the actual number of deaths totaled to about 410 and injuries to 1,180 in violent incidents and riots.
Operation Code Named “Blue Star”
While the number of the violent incidents across Punjab was on rise, the concern about the defiling of the Golden Temple Complex with weapons and unlawful activities was also raised by many sane voices. An arsenal had been allegedly created within the Akal Takht and the trucks engaged for the kar seva (religious service) and supplies for the daily langar were used for smuggling in guns and ammunition. The police didn’t dare to check these vehicles out of the fear of hurting the religious sentiments. The Harmandir Sahib compound and the surrounding buildings were fortified under the guidance of an ex-Major General Shabeg Singh who had joined the ranks of Bhindranwale after dismissal from the Army. During the operation, it was discovered that the militants had even set up a ‘grenade manufacturing’ facility inside the Temple Complex and accumulated a large stock of sophisticated arms such as the light machine guns and automatic rifles with the Pakistan and Chinese markings.
These fateful incidents were compelling the day of reckoning to arrive soon firming the resolve of the Central Government to act decisively and with precision. The intelligence gathered also indicated that the usual police and para military forces were not capable of carrying out such an operation. Accordingly, the Indian Army was roped in who launched their operation code named “Blue Star” at the beginning of June 1984 with the twin objectives to flush out Bhindranwale and his militant followers from the Temple Complex and clear Harmandir Sahib for uninterrupted worship by the devotees without fear. The operation was planned and coordinated by the Army Chief General AS Vaidya, assisted by Lt Gen K Sundarji and the actual assault on the militants was commanded by Maj Gen KS Brar who was an Infantry divisional commander at Meerut at the time.
The Army operation was actually subdivided into two parts: The first part was codenamed “Operation Metal” under Brar’s operational command with an objective to flush out Bhindranwale and other militants from the Golden Temple Complex. The other part was “Operation Shop” simultaneously launched with an objective to raid and mop up the extremist hide-outs throughout the Punjab including religious places in the cities and countryside. On the other side, the militants inside the Temple Complex were led by Bhindranwale, former Maj Gen Shabeg Singh and Amrik Singh of the AISSF from the Damdami Taksal.
Operation was started on the first June which officially lasted till about 10th June 1984. Initially, Army wanted to achieve the objective with the minimum application of force and damage to the structures of the Temple Complex but soon they learnt that they were pitted against the hardcore adversaries who were committed and well equipped for a prolonged siege. After first few days of tactful maneuvering, the Army engaged in a fierce battle with the militants on the 5th and 6th June; after learning that the militants were even using mortars and Rocket-propelled grenade launchers (Chinese made) with armour piercing capabilities, the army had to induct Vijayanta tanks for the selective shelling on the targets. In the ensuing battle, the Akal Takht and other buildings in the surroundings were badly damaged.
Earlier on the 3rd June, a prolonged statewide curfew was imposed in Punjab with all communication means and public transport operations suspended. A complete media censorship was imposed thereby cutting off the communication of the state with the rest of the country. Even the electric supply was suspended in many parts. As a precautionary measure, the Operation Woodrose was put in vogue by deploying and alerting the Army units across the Punjab border with Pakistan to meet any adventure or eventuality that may be undertaken by the adversaries across the border with an intent to play in troubled waters.
The Army had stormed the Harmandir Sahib on the night of 5th June and taken complete control of it by the early hours of the 7th June. When the Army took control of the Akal Takht after a pitched battle and heavy shelling from the either side, they recovered the bodies of Bhindranwale, Shabeg Singh and Amrik Singh who perhaps died on the 6th June during the heavy shelling. According to the official sources, there were 493 militant and civilian casualties and 1592 people were apprehended from the Temple Complex. Army too had suffered heavy causalities with 83 dead and 236 injured, considered a high figure for such operations. The civilian casualties were mainly on account of the fact that many pilgrims were trapped inside and were used as human shields by the militants. The unofficial death toll cited by the other sources were considerably high.
Aftermath of the Army Operation
The aftermath was no less troubled and traumatic. The Blue Star Operation created an outrage among the Sikh community and was condemned by them worldwide. The Sikh Panth rejected the government move to reconstruct and restore the Temple complex to its original status; instead, they decided to do it through their own contribution and Kar Sewa. When President Zail Singh visited the temple premises after the operation, he was shot at by a sniper from one of the buildings but fortunately he escaped unhurt and the bullet hit the arm of an army officer accompanying him. The Army soon withdrew from the Harmandir Sahib under the growing demand and dissatisfaction among the Sikh cadre.
The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by his two Sikh bodyguards on 31st October 1984 that triggered an anti-Sikh riot leading to irreparable loss of life and property of thousands of the Sikh families. The Operation Blue Star and widespread killing of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi left a permanent scar in the psyche of the Sikh community. After retirement, General AS Vaidya who planned and coordinated the Operation was assassinated in Pune in 1986 by two armed Sikhs, both of which were apprehended, prosecuted and sentenced to death later. In March 1986, certain Sikh militants had again occupied the temple compound that compelled the government to take another police action “The Operation Black Thunder” in May 1986 by the paramilitary forces to remove about two hundred odd militants. The Khalistan movement received support and backing from the Sikhs settled abroad, more particularly in UK and Canada but it gradually diminished and fizzled out in the following years.
Anti-Sikh Riots of 1984
Various Sikh bodies and individuals had largely held Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi responsible for the Operation Blue Star and consequent desecration of the Harmindar Sahib. The military action in the Temple Complex was also condemned by the Sikhs worldwide and many of them interpreted it as an assault on the Sikh religion. The sentiments of the Sikh community were deeply hurt It hurt and the support for Khalistan Movement increased worldwide. Consequently, after a couple of months following the operation, Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31st October 1984 by her two Sikh bodyguards in vengeance. Reportedly, she was advised by the security agencies to remove Sikh guards from her personal security but, known for secular credentials, she refused to do so and ultimately fell to the bullets of the same guards.
The tension started mounting within the crowd gathered near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) where she was brought in badly wounded condition. After the news of her death leaked, some of the people started shouting vengeance slogans such as "Blood for Blood!" and began stopping cars and buses to pull Sikhs out and assaulting them. Soon the violence spread across the Delhi and massive anti-Sikh riots erupted on the following day. There was a wide public outcry over Indira Gandhi's death and fuel to the fire was added by the unsavory acts of some Congress leaders particularly in Delhi. This led to the agitated mobs resorting to attacks on the life and property of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere in the country. In Delhi, Sultanpuri, Mangolpuri, Trilokpuri, Shahdara, Geeta Colony and Palam Colony and some other Trans-Yamuna were the worst affected areas where the mobs gathered carrying knives, clubs, iron rods and combustible material and started killing Sikhs indiscriminately and destroying their shops and houses. This violence continued for the next few days in various parts of the country.
Needless to mention, names of several prominent Congress leaders came out who were seen actively conniving and fanning anger and hatred against Sikhs as also inciting the mob for their mass killing. Allegedly even money, weapons and liquor was distributed by some people to the assailants. As it later also emerged from certain eye witness accounts during the various Commissions of Inquiries in Delhi that the attacks on Sikhs were carried out in a very organized manner where several young men on motorcycles were seen instructing the mobs and supplying them items like kerosene, other inflammable materials and weapons. As per official figures, about 2,800 Sikhs were killed across India, including 2,100 in Delhi alone. However, the independent sources put this toll at much higher figure with at least 3,000 deaths in Delhi alone and an all India figure around 8,000 across some 40 cities.
Without any prejudice, the author would like to quote a much debated statement of Rajiv Gandhi, the elder son of Indira Gandhi, who was sworn in as Prime Minister in the charged atmosphere following her assassination without any previous experience in the politics or governance. After his younger brother Sanjay's death in an air crash in 1980, Rajiv Gandhi had reluctantly entered politics at the insistence of her mother. In the following year, he became MP from Amethi (seat fallen vacant after Sanjay’s death) in a by-election and was made a general secretary of the Congress party. He initially called for the stoppage of carnage to restore peace in the country but a few weeks later he made the following remarks in a public rally which many analysts and people treat as a very insensitive remark in the given context:
"We must remember Indiraji. We must remember why her assassination happened. We must remember who could be the people behind this. When Indira's assassination happened, there were riots in the country. We know that the hearts of the Indian people were full of anger and that for a few days people felt India was shaking. When a big tree falls, the earth shakes."
Bringing Justice to Aggrieved Families
A lot has been done and written about the victims of the 1984 carnage, including some exaggerated and biased reporting in the Western media and Human Rights Watch groups but it is also true that despite several commissions, committees and judicial probes, there is a general perception that many influential culprits have not been punished and enough has not been done to compensate and assuage the feeling of the aggrieved families. Reportedly, even the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in India had opined that the violence in Delhi was organized with the tacit support from a section of police and government officials. Post anti-Sikh riots, at least ten commissions and committees have been constituted to investigate and fix responsibility for the riots.
The Marwah Commission was appointed in November 1984 tasked with enquiring the role of Delhi police during the riots but proceedings were stopped mid-way in 1985 and its records were handed over to the Misra Commission appointed in May 1985. Justice Rangnath Misra, a judge in the Supreme Court, submitted his report in August 1986, which was criticized as biased by the People's Union for Civil Liberties and Human Rights Watch. While the Commission agreed about the widespread lapses on the part of the police but it did not recommend any criminal prosecution of any police or civil official for the carnage.
Following the Misra Commission, the Kapur Mittal Committee and Jain Banerjee Committee were constituted in February 1987. The former Committee recommended action against a large number (72) of police officials including the dismissal of some while the latter Committee recommended registration of cases against Sajjan Kumar, a prominent Congress leader. These Commission/Committees were appointed by the Congress government; however, no substantive action was taken by them against identified officials/politicians. One Ahuja Committee was constituted to ascertain the number of deaths and according to its report a total of 2,733 Sikhs were killed in Delhi during the riots.
Another Potti Rosha Committee was appointed by VP Singh government in March 1990 which again remained inconclusive. Then Jain Aggarwal Committee was appointed in December 1990 to continue the work of the Potti Rosha Committee which recommended the registration of criminal cases against the Congress leaders HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Dharamdas Shastri and Jagdish Tytler, besides some specific follow up action. The committee was, however, wound up in August 1993 without follow up action. The Dhillon Committee was appointed in 1995 to look into the rehabilitation needs of the victims. The committee had recommended business compensation to the victims through the nationalized insurance companies but the report was not accepted by the government. Another Narula Committee appointed by the BJP government in Delhi too had similar fate, except that the CBI filed a charge sheet against two Congress leaders.
Consequent to a unanimous resolution passed in the upper house of the Parliament in 2000, the Nanavati Commission (under a retired judge of the Supreme Court) was appointed which submitted its report in February 2004. The report concluded that many local Congress politicians and workers had role in either inciting or helping mobs in attacking the Sikhs. It even indicted at least two prominent Congress leaders with a role in the riots but cleared Gandhi scion and most other high ranking party members of any direct involvement in organizing violence against the Sikhs. The report also elaborated the action of the Delhi police through arrests and firing bullets to deter the rioters but also held that the police largely remained passive without providing tangible protection to the people. Recently, the Supreme Court of India in January 2018 have decided to form a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe designated cases of the anti-Sikh riots in 1984.
Ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress party is on record to have apologized in the Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) in 2005 for the anti-Sikh riots. These horrific riots took place following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh guards deployed in her personal security. The murder of the Prime Minister herself was a very unfortunate sequal of the Operation Blue Star which led to bruised sentiments of the Sikh community world over. Ironically, all available information and reports suggest that Bhindranwale himself was largely a creation of the ruling Congress at the Centre which the latter did to politically counter and contain the rival Akali Dal in Punjab politics.
The entire sequence of events reads like the ancient Indian epic story of Bhasmasur or the Frankenstein’s Monster of the English author Mary Shelley of the nineteenth century. In both the cases, the monster was created by the unscrupulous act of the master and later the creation became a life-threatening liability of the creator and society at large. The assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 was indeed a very tragic event but what followed next in the form of horrendous sequence of events leading to the targeted ethnic killing of Sikhs leading to a grave loss of life and property cannot be justified by any means. One cannot be sure about the real intent of Rajiv Gandhi but the tragedy was so immense that his aforesaid words are so often remembered as his justification for the carnage that took place after his mother's death.
Following the Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s murder and anti-Sikh riots, though initially there was a spurt of terrorist activities and strong opinion among many Sikhs in favour of the separatist movement, but over a period of time the ISI-backed secessionist Khalistan movement was defeated and subsided. Except for those who directly suffered and still awaiting justice to their cause, the feelings of the community were largely assuaged and traditional bonhomie and brotherhood between the Hindus and Sikhs was restored. There is no doubt that the Sikh community has always made a significant contribution and exemplary sacrifices for the nation's cause in all walks of life including the national security, socio-political and economic development.
Continued to “Catastrophic Ayodhya Events in 1992”