By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The annual commemoration of the June 1984 attack on the Holy Sikh site of Harmandir Shahib (The abode of God) complex in Amritsar, also known as the Golden Temple, took place in London last Sunday. Sikhs from all over UK attended the protest march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square.
‘Operation Blue Star’ was the code name of the military operation conducted by the Indian army, to neutralize Sikh separatists who had turned the complex into a virtual fortress.
Akali Dal was formed on Dec 14, 1920 as a task force of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, the Sikh religious body. Akali Dal considers itself the principal representative of Sikhs. In 1973, it adopted the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The document was kept in abeyance till early 1980s.
The Akali Dal was initially opposed to religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and even accused him of being a Congress agent. However, as Bhindranwale became increasingly influential, the party decided to join hands with him. In August 1982, Akali Dal under the leadership of Harcharan Singh Longowal formed an alliance with Bhindranwale and his followers to launch the Dharam Yudh Morcha in order to implement the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The major motivation behind the resolution was to safeguard the Sikh identity by securing a state structure that was decentralized, with non-interference from the central government. A majority of Akali Dal leaders pursued the idea of a more empowered Sikh-majority state within India. However, some Sikh leaders such as Longowal and Bhindranwale pursued the idea of a sovereign Sikh state of Khalistan.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi considered the Anandpur Resolution as a secessionist document. She classified Akali Dal as a separatist party with the objective of seceding from India. In 1982, Government of India (GoI) decided to deal with Sikh militancy with a heavy hand. Over a hundred people were killed in police firings. The security forces arrested over thirty thousand Sikhs in two and half months. To appease the Sikh community in July 1982, the government appointed Giani Zail Singh, then Home Minister as the President of India. It was known, militants responsible for bombings and murders were taking shelter in Sikh Gurdwaras (houses of worship). Prime Minister Gandhi was kept informed of arms shipments received in Gurdwaras. However, GoI not wishing to hurt Sikh sentiments did not intervene. In October 1983, six Hindu bus passengers were murdered resulting in emergency being imposed in Punjab.
The Akali Dal began another agitation in February 1984 protesting against clause (2)(b) of Article 25 of the Indian constitution. It ambiguously states “the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion”, though it also implicitly recognizes Sikhism as a separate religion with the words “the wearing and carrying of kirpans shall be deemed to be included in the profession of the Sikh religion.” This clause is deemed offensive by many minority religions in India, even today because of the failure to recognize these religions under the constitution separately.
Akali Dal members demanded amendments to the Constitution in order to remove the ambiguity of using the word Hindu when referring to a Sikh. One such amendment demanded was to permit those marrying under Sikh religion to register under Sikhism specific laws rather than under Special Marriage Act 1954 or Hindu Marriage Act.
Operation Blue Star
It was eventually decided to disarm and evict Bhindranwala and his followers from their stronghold, the Golden Temple. Bhindranwala was assisted by former Maj. Gen. Shabeg Singh.
Vice-Chief of Indian Army Lt. Gen. S. K. Sinha, when requested to prepare a plan to storm the Golden Temple advised against the move, suggested an alternate solution and was dismissed. The new Vice-Chief Lt. Gen. Krishnaswamy Sunderji planned and coordinated Operation Blue Star.
It involved 700 Jawans from Border Security Force (BFS) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), 150 Jawans from the Punjab armed Police and 10,000 armed troops from the Indian Army. Tanks, artillery, helicopters, armored vehicles and tear gas were used in the operation to flush out 250 – 300 Sikh militants from the Golden Temple.
The operation commenced at 12.40 pm on June 01 1984 with BSF and CRPF opening fire. The army attacked utilizing artillery and tanks. On 3 June, a 36-hour curfew was imposed on the state of Punjab with all methods of communication and public travel suspended. The electricity supply was also interrupted, creating a total blackout and cutting off the state from the rest of the world. Complete media censorship was enforced. The militants put up stiff resistance for five days. The operation ended at 10.00 pm on June 06 and the forces had full control of Harmandir Sahib complex by the morning of June 7. Sikh leader Bhindranwale and Maj. Gen. Shabeg Singh were killed in the operation.
According to GoI, Indian army losses amounted to 83 dead and 249 wounded besides 493 dead militants and civilians. However, unofficial sources placed army causalities at 700 dead and 5,000 wounded, besides 20,000 civilian casualties.
The military action led to an uproar amongst Sikhs worldwide and increased tension following the action. Many Sikh soldiers in the Indian army mutinied. Many Sikhs resigned from armed and civil administrative office. Several returned awards and honors received from GoI.
The British Special Air Service (SAS) played an advisory role in the operation.
Indira Gandhi was criticized for the timing of the operation as being politically motivated, in view of impending parliamentary elections.
On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182, a Boeing 747-237 operating from Vancouver to Delhi via London was destroyed by a bomb. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing a total of 329 passengers which included 268 Canadians, 27 British and 24 Indians. The attack is thought to have been a retaliation against India for Operation Blue Star.
There are certain similarities in the events which unfolded in Sri Lanka in July 1983 Tamil pogroms, after 13 soldiers were ambushed and killed by LTTE in Tinneveli, Jaffna and in India in November 1984 in the Sikh pogroms after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, by two of her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984.
It was alleged, Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) seized historical artefacts and manuscripts in the Sikh Reference Library, before burning it down similar to the alleged burning down of the Jaffna Public Library by a group of Policemen.
In what is believed to be a revenge attack, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot at 9.20 am at her residence in Delhi on October 31, 1984. passed away at 10.50 am. She was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. After committing the crime, Beant Singh supposedly stated “I have done what I had to do. You do what you want to do.” He was killed by other guards within minutes. Satwant Singh was hanged in 1989.
By late afternoon, a crowd that gathered around the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where Indira Gandhi’s body had been brought, began screaming for vengeance shouting “Blood for blood!” They turned unruly and stoned President Singh’s vehicle which arrived at 5.20 pm. The mob began assaulting Sikhs by stopping cars and buses to pull Sikhs out of them and burn them, similar to what took place in Borella immediately after the funeral of the 13 dead soldiers.
Congress Party leaders, similar to some UNP leaders in Sri Lanka in July 1983, were supportive of rioters, looters and murderers. Congress party MP Sajjan Kumar and Trade Union leader Lalit Maken handed out 100 rupee notes and bottles of liquor to assailants. Mobs were allegedly told “attack Sikhs, kill them, and loot and burn their properties” besides “Kill the Sardars” and “Indira Gandhi is our mother and these people have killed her”. Sikh households and businesses to be attacked by mobs were identified and marked using voter lists provided by Congress party officials, similar to what took place in Colombo.
Delhi erupted in riots with a vengeance on November 01 morning with armed mobs occupying the streets, as in Colombo on July 24. No intervention by authorities was forthcoming till the next day, November 02 when curfew was declared but ignored. Even though the army was deployed, they were not allowed to open fire without concurrence from a senior police officer and magistrate. The Police did not cooperate. It was only on November 03, late evening that some order was restored.
The Indian government estimated the death toll, mostly Sikhs, at 2,800. However, independent sources placed the death toll around 20,000.
To India’s credit, it appointed three different commissions of inquiry were appointed to investigate different aspects of the tragedy, including lapses of the Police. Unlike India, Sri Lanka is yet to investigate events which took place in Sri Lanka from July 23, 1983 for several days.
442 rioters were convicted. 49 were sentenced to life imprisonment and another three imprisoned for 10 years. 6 Delhi Police officers were punished for lapses during the riots. In April 2013, the Delhi District court acquitted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar, who was seen handing 100 rupee notes and bottles of liquor to assailants.
Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister on October 31, 1984, the same day of the assassination. He subsequently dismissed the Sikh pogroms stating “When a big tree falls, the ground shakes.”