Operation Blue Star is often considered one of the worst events in Indian political history. It is one of the most frowned upon operations carried out by the Indian Army. The 9-day military operation resulted in decade-long unrest in the country with more than 5,000 casualties and also the assassination of India Gandhi who was serving as the Prime Minister of the nation.
The Khalistani Movement had already wreaked havoc in the country in the last decade. Not only were they causing an unnecessary internal disturbance but were also a threat to the country’s security because according to the sources it was reported that Pakistan was also playing a crucial role in this insurgency. Jarnail Sigh Bhindranwale was a prominent figure in this movement. In 1982, Harchand Singh Longowal, who was the President of Shiromani Akali Dal (a Sikh political party), had invited Jarnail Sigh Bhindranwale to take up residence in the Golden Temple to escape the Indian government authorities. Following this, the Indian Intelligence Agencies also reported that Shabeg Singh, Amrik Singh, and Balbir Singh made frequent trips to Pakistan between 1981 and 1983. These three were referred to as the "prominent heads of the Khalistan movement" and it was later identified that Shabeg Singh, who was a deserter of the Indian Army, was the provider of weapons training at Akal Takht.
In retaliation, Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, authorized military preparations 18 months before the operation. The operation itself was recommended by Arun Shridhar Vaidya, who was an Army Chief at that time. It is often said that Gandhi was led to believe or rather she assumed that the military operation would not involve a disastrous number of civilian casualties. Everyone thought that Jarnail Sigh would surrender eventually. Hence, on 1st June 1984, the operation began with the Indian forces firing inside the Harmandir Sahib. According to reports, Operation Blue Star was planned and coordinated by the then Chief of the Indian Army, General Arun Shridhar Vaidya who was assisted in this arduous task by Lt. General Sundarji. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Kuldip Singh Brar had command of the action and was operating under General Krishnaswamy Sundarji.
On the other hand, armed Sikhs were taking shelter within the Harmandir Sahib, which included Bhindranwale, former Maj. Gen. Shabeg Singh, and Amrik Singh, the President of the All-India Sikh Students Federation from Damdami Taksal.
It was also noted that among the six generals leading this highly controversial mission, four were Sikhs. Lt. Gen. Kuldip Singh Brar was a Jat Sikh himself just like Bhindranwale. He was also acquainted with Shabeg Singh since his student days at the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun. On 2nd June, water and electricity supply was cut off in the entire region. Punjab was isolated from the rest of the world with Indian Armed forces stationed in every nook and corner of the city of Amritsar as well as the entire Punjab.
The following days witnessed a gross massacre that not only took place at the sacred Golden Temple but at over 40 other Gurudwaras throughout Punjab. The operation killed thousands of civilians who were trapped inside the gurudwaras.
The reason behind such a large number of casualties is because the operation was launched on a Sikh religious holiday. Pilgrims were gathered to celebrate the annual martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev, who was the fifth Guru of the Sikhs. When the government imposed a shoot-on-sight curfew on 3rd June, more than 10,000 pilgrims were trapped inside the holy complex. The curfew restricted people from escaping but the ones who managed to leave were detained. On 4th June, a full-scale attack was launched in the early morning. Official reports of the Indian Army stated a total casualties at 554 Sikh militants and civilians dead, and 83 killed (including 4 officers, 79 soldiers) and 236 wounded among government forces.
Gurmej Singh, who was falsely detained on sedition charges, told BBC that after the curfew was imposed, “Over the course of the next three days and nights, the Golden Temple was converted into a bloody battlefield with bullets raining from every conceivable direction. We took refuge in an office room in the complex but the bullets followed us everywhere. I was hit in my hip. Many of my village mates and others were fatally wounded. It was pitch dark, hot, humid and so deafeningly noisy that one could not tell if the person lying next to him was dead or still alive. Many people had been killed. Then sometime on 6 June, after the fighting had ceased, army soldiers broke open the door of our room and ordered all of us out. I was wearing a khaki-coloured turban and this led the soldiers to conclude that I was a police deserter who had joined up with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's armed militants.”
One such Ranbir Kaur, a school teacher, witnessed the execution of over 150 people who were locked inside the basement. Post mortem revealed that the hands of Sikhs were tied behind their backs using their turbans and were then executed at point-blank range. The troops also burned the Sikh Reference Library which housed rare Sikh manuscripts and historical artifacts, after they had taken control of the building. On 6th June, Vijayanta Tanks were used to shell the Akhal Takht and on the next day bodies of Bhindranwale, Shabeg Singh and Amrik Singh were discovered in the building. The operation continued till the afternoon of 10th June.
Subsequently dead bodies were hastily cremated. Sources estimated that anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 were killed in this attack which also included a large number of women and children however, the Indian government’s official report claimed that only 493 “terrorists” were killed.
Following the attacks, the then President of India, President Zail Singh was pressured by the Sikh community to resign and was even called before the Akhal Takhat to apologize. It was later revealed by him himself that Indira Gandhi didn’t inform him before ordering troops inside the Golden Temple in 1984. When he later visited the temple, an assassination attempt was made.
The bullet hit the arm of an army colonel instead who was accompanying him. Months later, the conspirator behind the Operation, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31st October 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh as an act of vengeance. This further triggered the nation and resulted in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Government estimates reported that approximately 2,800 Sikhs were killed in Delhi alone while 3,350 nationwide meanwhile independent sources estimated the number of deaths to be between 8,000-17,000. This led to a major rift between the Indian government and the Sikh community. Subsequently the Army was also forced to withdraw from Harminder Sahib. In 1985, Air India Flight 182 was bombed killing all 329 people aboard, including 268 Canadian citizens, 27 British citizens and 24 Indian citizen.
The Babbar Khalsa separatist group was implicated in the bombings which is considered as one of the worst aviation incidents in the history of Air India. In the same year, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) filed damages suit for Rs 1,000 crore against the government. Later on, 10th August 1986, Arun Shridhar Vaidya was assassinated in Pune by two Sikhs, Harjinder Singh Jinda and Sukhdev Singh Sukhs who were later sentenced to death, and hanged in 1992. While recently on 30th September 2012, Kuldip Singh Brar was knifed in the throat by four men outside a Hotel in Oxford Street in London.
Gandhi’s one bad decision led to the opening of a Pandora box which marked the beginning of gross human rights violation against the Sikha across the globe. There were many claims given by the Army that they entered the Holy complex with “sadness and reverence” but the aftermath seeps a different story diffused in the blood of the victims who were not just unjustly killed but the ones who survived that fateful week were unjustly tried too. Many disappeared while thousands perished.
This article is written by Anoushka Singh Songara of Parul Institute of Law.