In June 1984, the Indira Gandhi government in India ordered a military assault on the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, codenamed ‘Operation Blue Star’. Led by the Indian army, it was ostensibly aimed at ‘flushing out’ Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his associates from the holy shrine.
This is the first of a two-part series exploring the events of June 1984 in an attempt to unpack its psychological, social and political after-shocks. Read the second part here.
Three decades later, the calamitous event of June 1984 continues to be perceived in diametrically opposite terms by the Indian state and mainstream media, and the Sikh community and diaspora. This difference in perceptions persists despite senior Indian politicians confessing in recent times that the operation was a blunder.
A report published by the Citizens for Democracy titled, ‘Report to the Nation: Oppression in Punjab‘ (which was banned in 1985), sums this up well:
“The contrast between ‘Operation Blue Star’ and ‘Ghallughara’ [holocaust] as two different perceptions of the same reality is symptomatic of the wide gap between the official version and the people’s recollections of what really happened at the Golden Temple when the army attacked it in June 1984. Listening to the gripping eye-witness accounts of those who were inside Golden Temple at that time, we felt the need to tell the truth, the as-yet untold story and in the process to correct the Government’s version as put out by the Army, the Press, the Radio, the TV and the White Paper.”
Sikhs worldwide commemorate the week from 1-8 June as Ghallughara (meaning ‘holocaust’) week. The earlier Ghallugharas included looting, plundering and atrocities committed against the Sikhs in the 18th century. Thousands of innocent women and children were slaughtered in those pogroms.
Notably, the global Sikh community, which includes not just ‘hardliners’ or ‘radicals’ but the overwhelming majority of Sikhs around the world, including those who have “moved on”, acknowledge the fact that Operation Blue Star had an indelible impact on the Sikh psyche and had only resulted in deterioration of the situation in Punjab between 1984-1994. Apart from hurting Sikh sentiments, the military assault proved to be a catalyst for more militant violence in Punjab.
What more, following the bloody military campaign, Captain Amarinder Singh, the present Chief Minister of Punjab, had resigned from Parliament and the Congress Party to register his protest.
As the operation unfolded, thousands of pilgrims who had come to pay obeisance on the Martyrdom Day of Guru Arjan Dev (the fifth Sikh Guru) on 3 June, found themselves stranded in the Darbar Sahib. Many were even killed in the attack.
Yet, it isn’t just about the loss of lives of innocent pilgrims, but also the damage caused to the temporal seat of the Akal Takht, which enraged the Sikh community.
The differences in the government’s version and that of the Sikhs are evident from the figures of casualties and the damage caused to the Darbar Sahib. The official casualty figure of 492 seems grossly underestimated as thousands of pilgrims were stranded in the complex at the time of the military action.
There is not an iota of doubt that Sikhs, as a community, have faced numerous upheavals even before Operation Blue Star, and have refrained from victimhood. But, it is highly insensitive to not acknowledge the pain and trauma caused to the Sikhs by this cataclysmic event.
Transparency, storytelling and myth-busting
In recent years, there have been numerous demands for declassification of important documents pertaining to 1984. In Britain, the first turbaned Sikh Member of Parliament, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, has sought an inquiry into the role of the then Margaret Thatcher government in the operation. Declassified documents revealed that London had provided assistance to the Indian government in undertaking the campaign.
Indian lawmakers too have demanded a declassification of documents related to the Operation and the Sikh massacres that followed the assassination of Prime Minister of Indira Gandhi the same year.
It is also essential to have a narrative, which counters the myths peddled with regards not just the operation, but also the events preceding and succeeding it. This narrative should be fact based and not born out of of hate against any particular community.
One of the important developments in recent years has been attempts by the Sikh civil society to document the history of the tragic events relating to 1984. On the one hand, diaspora-based Sikh research organisations, like the Sikh Research Institute (Sikh RI), have done a remarkable job in documenting the events of the ill-fated year in an academic manner.
Apart from this, the Sikh media is trying to fill the gaps left by the mainstream media in India. Very few mainstream media organisations, like The Wire and The Quint, have given space to the Sikh perspective. Several Sikh media publications and channels are countering this silence over the events of 1984 in mainstream circles.
Significantly, some of these channels were banned on 6 June. Even in 2015, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) government in Punjab, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ally, had requested New Delhi to ban “provocative” Sikh channels, websites and social media pages.
The importance of memorialisation and documentation
The initiatives Sikh diasporic organisations and the Punjabi media to memorialise the events of 1984 and present the Sikh perspective are important because for long, many could not get over the trauma, while many who occupied government and military positions during the operation now have better visibility to put forward their views after retirement.
It would be fair to say that the discussions of 1984 have not taken place within echo chambers. Individuals from different political persuasions have been given the opportunity to present their views. There has been an attempt by the Punjabi media to interview senior politicians, bureaucrats, army officers, and journalists who had interviewed Bhindranwale.
Many Punjabi TV channels have been interviewing eyewitnesses, and apart from the tragic events in the first week of June, they have also got an opportunity to highlight some of the important events, which have not gotten enough attention.
While it is tough to express the overall damage caused by the attack, there are a few critical facts that have hardly gotten any mention in the national media and have received attention only as a result of Punjabi civil society and media narratives.
First, few people know that apart from the Golden Temple, thirty-seven other Gurudwaras in Punjab were attacked simultaneously.
Second, in the mainstream media, the excesses committed on pilgrims who were found alive during and after the operation have never been given much attention. They were treated like prisoners of war. According to the eyewitness account of one Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) member, as mentioned in ‘Report to the Nation: Oppression in Punjab‘:
“They (the Army) treated the inmates of the Complex as enemies and whenever there was any person wounded on account of the firing, no Red Cross people were allowed to enter, rather the Red Cross personnel had been detained beyond the Jallianwallah Bagh (more than a kilometer away from the main entrance to the Golden Temple from the Chowk Ghanta Ghar side).”
Over 375 men and women who were found in the Golden Temple when the army entered on 6 June were arrested and kept in Jodhpur jail. They were released between 1989 and 1991.
But even more incriminating were the claims made by Brahma Chellaney in his daring reports for the Associated Press after the operation. According to him, ‘several’ young Sikhs had been shot by security forces with their hands tied behind their backs. The report quoted medical sources who had conducted the postmortems.
Third, another tragic event that followed Operation Blue Star was Operation Woodrose, in which the army launched a brutal campaign in Punjab’s countryside under the pretext of detaining suspected militants. Many innocent Sikh youth, especially Amritdhari Sikhs, were tortured and murdered. This has received scant attention in mainstream narratives.
Fourth, during the operation, the Sikh Reference Library inside the Golden Temple was burnt down and its contents confiscated by the central agencies. Sikh reference materials, pictures and even handwritten manuscripts of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib perished.
Fifth, several army officers involved in the operation were given gallantry awards in 1985. This has drawn widespread criticism from the Sikh community. There have been demands from Sikh politicians, such as Tarlochan Singh and Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, to withdraw the awards.
Between closure and moving on
Memorialisation and documentation of the events of 1984 from a Sikh perspective become all the more important because even large sections of the “liberal” sections of the media either justify the military action or speak about moving on without any efforts towards reconciliation. A good example of this is a documentary by BBC Hindi, where there was no effort to give space to a Sikh perspective.
While there will never be any closure as far as Operation Blue Star is concerned, the Sikh community has tried to move forward. Further, sections of the Indian civil society have not just expressed solidarity with Sikhs, but also played a role in keeping memories alive.
Perhaps the best way forward today would be to set up a truth and reconciliation commission, which covers the painful period beginning 1984 and under which, the oral history of the events is meticulously recorded using survivor accounts.
Without dialogue between individuals with different views, acknowledging the trauma of the Sikh community, and moving away from the Indian state’s prism of looking at the events, genuine reconciliation appears implausible in the near future.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Editor’s note: In a previous version of the story, an Associated Press video footage and screengrab of Operation Black Thunder (1988) were wrongly inserted as footage of Operation Blue Star. These have been removed now.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Delhi-based political and policy commentator, and is affiliated with the OP Jindal Global University.
Featured image (representational): The Golden Temple in Amritsar | Photo: Sandeep Achetan, Flickr