Bluestar: A Sanguinary Campaign
By: Shawaiz Ali Khan
India has a long history of communal violence across the nation. Different communities have been found shedding the blood of their own countrymen from time to time. But, there was one incident which stood out of all- Operation BlueStar; one which the country can never forget. For the first and the only time, our nation saw the complete extent of the force and power the state can use to curb incidents in which religion supersedes national interests.
It was in the early 1980s; the state of Punjab was facing the worst crisis it had ever seen. Insurgency was at its peak, and mass killing in the name of faith became common across the state. All this started with the 1972 Punjab Elections in which the Akali Dal lost to the Congress. In the aftermath of those results, the Akali Dal proposed a resolution called the Anandpur Sahib Resolution which was a set of demands. Apart from the economic, linguistic and religious demands, the resolution read ‘the authority of the Centre should be confined only to the defence of the country, foreign relations, communications, railways and currency.’ It also asked for the recognition of Sikhism as a religion different from Hinduism. The proposal was sent to the ever-powerful Indira Gandhi government, which ultimately got junked because of several demands made in the resolution that got considered by the government to be a ‘promotion of secessionist sentiments.’
Years passed and in 1981, ‘Sant’ Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a powerful religious leader in the Sikh political circle, joined the Akali Dal to launch the Dharam Yudh Morcha in 1982 to implement the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. Thousands of people joined the movement, feeling that it represented a real solution to their demands of a unified Punjab. Bhindranwale became an important figure in the Sikh-political domain because of his public support of the demands mentioned in the resolution.
Bhindranwale’s rise as a religious messiah and a political leader for Sikh youths in the early 1980s resulted in a series of violent murders and riots which devastated Punjab. He called for the unity of the Sikh community to fight those whom he referred to as the ‘Enemies of Sikhism’. The insurgency kept on growing at a large scale and violence against Hindus, Nirankaris (a sect of Sikhism which believes in living gurus) and within the Sikhs became prevalent. Bhindranwale was arrested several times, but everybody knew that he was too powerful a religious leader to be held captive. In most such cases, he got freed. In July 1982, then President of the Shiromani Akali Dal, Harchand Singh Longowal, who hailed Bhindranwale as the “stave to beat the government '' invited him to take up residence at the Harmandir Sahib Complex to escape arrest. On the 19th of July, 1982, Bhindranwale, anticipating his imminent arrest, took shelter with approximately 200 armed followers in the Guru Nanak Niwas (Guest house), in the precincts of the Golden Temple.
Amid all these events, political pressure was mounting on the Indira-led Congress government. Several religious leaders within the Sikh community who supported the Nirankari ideology, newspaper editors, and political leaders too were killed during this time. In October 1983, Bhindranwale’s followers torched six buses carrying Hindu Nirankaris which led to massive outrage in the country. All eyes were on Indira Gandhi in New Delhi who had had enough now. President’s rule was imposed in the state of Punjab immediately. Communal tensions between Sikhs and Hindus kept on increasing as Hindu mobs in Karnal, Haryana murdered 8 Sikhs and set fire to a Gurdwara on February 19, 1984. Indira Gandhi had made up her mind by then- Bhindranwale and his supporters had to surrender and leave the Akal Takht immediately. Several rounds of talks and discussions were conducted between the Indian government and Bhindranwale’s militia group inside the Harmandir Sahib Complex, Amritsar. From senior leaders like Narsimha Rao to security agencies like Research and Analysis Wing(R&AW), all government bodies got involved in these talks from time to time. Indira Gandhi’s patience was running short day by day. In an interview in the first week of March 1984 when asked about the actual situation on the ground in Punjab, Indira replied, “Indeed, the situation is grim. Extremism has risen and especially in the minds of the youths. Violence is prevailing and most of those who are being killed are Sikhs, being killed in the name of Sikhism.”
Months of negotiations gave no fruitful results. The government had started receiving internal intelligence reports stating the mass presence of ammunition and guns inside the Golden Temple. These reports made Mrs. Gandhi realise that Bhindranwale had already prepared himself for any incursion by the state and dialogues now had become irrelevant. Therefore, in June 1984, army vehicles could be seen patrolling the city of Amritsar. On 2 June, Operation Blue Star had been initiated to flush out the militants from the Golden Temple. Operation Blue Star was launched to remove Bhindranwale and his followers who had sought cover in the Amritsar Harmandir Sahib Complex.
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 whole area around the Golden Temple was sealed shut by the security forces. The army entered the Golden Temple complex on 5 June under the command of Kuldip Singh Brar. Bhindranwale’s forces responded with continuous gunshots. The armed forces responded brutally. Bhindranwale’s men were completely surrounded by armed forces inside the Akal Takht and were continuously firing from inside the building. Commander Brar, the operation commander himself was a Sikh and knew what it would mean to enter the Akal Takht with all the force. By that time, the armed forces had already lost more than 50 men of their own and all eyes were now on Indira Gandhi who had to decide the fate of the operation. She knew that the operation needed to be completed in the shortest amount of time in order to avoid the engagement of the supporters of Bhindranwale from outside and she was aware of what it meant to go inside the Harmandir Sahib. Finally, Indira gave the signal to storm the temple. On the night of 5 June, two tanks entered the premises of Harmandir Sahib and the building was bombarded twice. The Akal Takht building suffered heavy damage.
The forces had full control of Harmandir Sahib by the morning of 7 June. Later that day, the forces entered the building only to find every single man dead along with Bhindranwale and Major General Shabeg dead. Court martialled Shabeg is known to be the mastermind behind the preparedness and training of militants of Bhindranwale’s group. Heavy guns and shockingly two rocket launchers were found to be present inside which described the extent of preparation by Bhindranwale and his group. Almost 90 soldiers of the Indian Army, Border Security Force, Special Security Force and the Central Reserve Police Force got martyred and 300 of Bhindranwale’s men are said to be killed during the operation which also included innocent Sikhs who were used by him as a cover shield during the operation. However, unofficial figures remain much higher.
The Indira Gandhi government was criticised hugely for the violent handling of the situation. The intelligence failure, use of brutal force and the storming of the Akal Takht are said to be the reasons why the operation turned out to be so violent.
Operation Woodrose was a series of operations carried out by the Indira Gandhi-led Indian government in the months after Operation Blue Star to "prevent the outbreak of widespread public protest" in the state of Punjab. These operations included mass arrests, elimination of Bhindranwale’s supporters and those who had been vocal for ‘Khalistan’ in the past. These operations were hugely criticised by human rights activists accusing the government of using brutal measures to curb the fundamental rights of the citizens. General Arun Shridhar Vaidya, the Chief of Army Staff during this operation was assassinated after his retirement in Pune in 1986.
As if the nation had not suffered enough because of this tragedy, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated at her home in Safdarjung, New Delhi by her two Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984. The nation was in complete shock over the sudden passing of its leader. What's worth mentioning here is her speech the previous day on 30 October in Odisha in which she said, “I am here today, I may not be here tomorrow. But the responsibility to look after national interest is on the shoulder of every citizen of India. Nobody knows how many attempts have been made to shoot me; lathis have been used to beat me. They have attacked me in every possible manner. I do not care whether I live or die. I have lived a long life and I am proud that I spent the whole of my life in the service of my people. I am only proud of this and nothing else. I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.” Who would have thought that these words would become true the following day!
The assassination triggered a series of anti-Sikh riots in and around the national capital which resulted in the killings of more than 3000 Sikhs all over the country. The streets of Delhi were echoing with slogans such as ‘Sardar Gaddar Hai’ (Sikhs are traitors). Once again, one brother became thirsty for the blood of another.
One may argue on the handling of the situation by Mrs. Gandhi but the truth remains that the nation had to pay a huge price because of it. The operation was inevitable, seeing the amount of preparedness of the militants inside the Harmandir Sahib, but could it have been handled in a better way remains the question. Could this bloody miscalculation of events been avoided, that is the larger picture.
Though, the main agenda of ‘Khalistan’ from where the insurgent elements gained public support became insignificant post-1984, during Mrs. Gandhi’s last months as the Prime Minister, many of such insurgents escaped the country only to settle in various Western nations. Indeed, if a list was to be made of the bloodiest operations sponsored by the state in the history of independent-India, surely BlueStar would stand at the second after Polo.