30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star of faith and force

New Delhi, 1 June-2014, Rahul Singh: 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.As we approach the 30th anniversaryof Operation Blue Star, RAHUL SINGH recreates the tumultuous events that marked a defining moment in Indian history.

30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star of faith and force

The fortified langar building in the temple complex.Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES
The fortified langar building in the temple complex.Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

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 intense suspicion by the Indian public. 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, 12 years later. However, the canker of sectarianism — whether of Hinduism, Islam or Sikhism — still runs deep 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.

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. But soon after Sanjay Gandhi’s death, things began to unravel.

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 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”. 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 Khushwant 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 and humiliating Sikhs at the state border 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 a day before his retirement, for alleged corruption (the charges were never proved). An embittered General Singh became an ardent follower of Bhindranwale and 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 was being smuggled into the 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, a deputy inspector general of police and a Sikh, who was leaving the Golden Temple after having offered prayers in. Several policemen said they had seen the 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 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.

Major General Kuldip Singh (“Bulbul”) Brar, a Sikh, was put in charge of all the forces, including the police and the para-military. The others involved were Lieutenant General Kumaraswamy Sundarji, General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command (later the army chief); Lieutenant General Ranjit Singh Dyal, Chief of Staff, Western Command; and army chief General Arun Kumar Vaidya (later killed by terrorists in Pune). The objective was to oust Bhindranwale and his followers from the shrine and to prevent an 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, 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 the 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.

The fighting lasted till the morning of June 6, when 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, and most of their followers, perished. 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 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 in the operation. 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 the overwhelming majority of Sikhs managed to put aside the bloodshed and bitterness and returned to the mainstream, Operation Blue Star will remain an ugly, defining moment in independent India’s history.[ Input source: TH ]

Editor’s Note: Rahul Singh was Resident Editor of the Indian Express in Chandigarh from 1984 to 1987.Views and opinions are his own, those don’t reflect views of publication.