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A History of the SikhsVolume 2: 1839-2004$

Khushwant Singh

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195673098

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195673098.001.0001

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Fatal Miscalculation 1

Fatal Miscalculation 1

(p.351) 21. Fatal Miscalculation1
A History of the Sikhs

Khushwant Singh

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter studies the efforts of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her proposed course of action against the Akalis and Bhindranwale. Her first plan was an assault on the citadel where the Akalis were based. It then tries to identify the people who served as the Prime Minister’s counsel for this particular decision, since this first round of armed confrontation led to the deaths of eleven men and dozens of wounded civilians. The second attempt involved the removal of Babbar Khalsa snipers by powerful mountain guns, and was followed by a full assault into the Golden Temple. This armed confrontation was dubbed Operation Blue Star and, along with Operation Woodrose, helped create feelings of alienation and encourage many young Sikh men and women to become terrorists.

Keywords:   Indira Gandhi, Akalis, Bhindranwale, armed confrontation, Golden Temple, Operation Blue Star, Operation Woodrose, alienation, terrorists

In a televised broadcast on the evening of 2 June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi prepared the nation for the action she was about to undertake against the Akalis and Bhindranwale. After accusing the Akalis of endlessly making new demands and mounting one agitation after another, she presented them with an alibi by suggesting that ‘the leadership of the organization appears to have been seized by a group of fanatics and terrorists whose instruments for achieving whatever they may have in view are murder, arson and loot … Holy shrines have been turned into shelters for criminals and murderers, their sanctity as places of worship has been undermined.’2 She narrated the tortuous course of negotiations since 1981, claiming that ‘our [that is, the government’s], attitude was one of accommodation of all reasonable demands’,3 and attempted to show how her government had conceded whatever the Akalis had asked for in the name of religion, apart from being prepared to negotiate on their territorial claims and share of river waters. She did not, of course, refer to the occasions when a settlement had been virtually arrived at and she, not the Akalis, had found excuses not to append her signature to it. She had to build the case (p.352) that the government was left with no choice except what it was about to do. ‘What do we do in this new situation?’ she asked her audience. Nothing particularly new had occurred in the preceding months: incidents of violence had continued as before, Bhindranwale had continued to make hateful utterances against the ‘Hindu government’ and the ‘Delhi Darbar’ from the now fortified Akal Takht. Perhaps the only new move which she could pre-empt was the Akali’s threat to prevent movement of food grains out of the Punjab by blocking road and rail traffic. They had also exhorted the peasants to refuse paying land revenue and water rates to the government, and instead, deposit them at the Akal Takht.4 It was they who had chosen 3 June, the anniversary of the martyrdom of the founder of the Temple, Guru Arjun, to launch another agitation. Instead of ordering the police to prevent Akali volunteers from impeding the traffic of food grains, Mrs Gandhi had decided to assault the citadel from where emanated edicts to defy her government. ‘Even at this late hour I appeal to the Akali leaders to call off their threatened agitation and accept the framework of peaceful settlement which we have offered’ she said. She ended with the appeal: ‘Don’t shed blood, shed hatred.’5 At the time she had already authorized the army to do precisely the opposite: to shed blood which, she ought to have known, would generate hatred of the kind the country had not experienced since Independence.

Many months earlier the army had been instructed to keep itself in readiness to move into the Golden Temple whenever ordered to do so. A replica of the Temple complex had been prepared at Chakrata (near Mussoorie) to familiarize besiegers with its layout, entrances and fortified positions. Information of (p.353) the strength of Bhindranwale’s fighters, their dispositions, and the kind of weapons they possessed had been gathered by the intelligence agencies of the police and the army. This was not too arduous a task as the Temple was visited by thousands of people at all hours of the day and night, and even Bhindranwale, his aide Amrik Singh, and the commanders of his motley army of 300–400 men; Generals Shahbeg Singh and Jaswant Singh Bhullar, had been granting interviews to journalists. Some army officers, including Major General K. S. Brar, a clean-shaven Sikh who was to lead the operation, had gone round the Temple incognito to see the defenders’ fortifications.

It is difficult to be certain about the people who counselled Mrs Gandhi that negotiations with the Akalis should cease and the army be ordered to take over the job of bringing Bhindranwale to heel. But there is reason to believe that they included her relative Arun Nehru, Arun Singh, a clean shaven Sikh who regarded himself as an expert on the Punjab, Deputy Minister of Defence, K. P. Singh Deo and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, then General Secretary of the Congress party.6 The army was reluctant to take on the job. It was meant to protect the country’s frontiers, not fight its own people. Its reluctance was overcome by placing Punjab under military rule. According to the White Paper, ‘the government was convinced that this challenge to the security, unity and integrity of the country could not be met by the normal law and order agencies at the disposal of the State.’7

Giani Zail Singh as President and Supreme Commander of the armed forces was asked by Mrs Gandhi to sanction putting Punjab under military rule. Once the army was in control, there was no need for any further sanction from the civil authorities for it to take the action it deemed necessary. President Zail (p.354) Singh was kept in the dark about the designs on the Temple. On 30 May Mrs Gandhi spent over an hour with him, briefing him on the fresh proposals for a settlement with the Akalis. If she had given him an inkling of what she had in mind he could at least have warned her of the hazards of undertaking a military operation when large numbers of pilgrim would be spending several days and nights in the Temple complex to participate in services in memory of their martyred guru.8

It appears that Mrs Gandhi made a last-minute effort to avoid armed confrontation. According to an unauthenticated report,9 she wrote a personal note to Bhindranwale and was undoubtedly behind Rajiv Gandhi’s statement that Bhindranwale was a spiritual not a political leader.10 She was misinformed of Bhindranwale’s strength and beguiled into believing that most Sikhs would approve of the government liberating their Temple from the clutches of terrorists. As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of worshippers were not concerned with the Akalis or their agitation, nor over-exercised with the SGPC’s letting Bhindranwale convert parts of the Temple into a fortress. They were not exposed to any of these: they carried out their religious ritual without even catching a glimpse of Bhindranwale. To the Sikh masses neither Mrs Gandhi nor Bhindranwale, neither the Akali Dal nor the Congress party, nor any individual politician, mattered very much; the sanctity of the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht did.

Not only were Mrs Gandhi and her advisers unable to foresee the consequences of sending the army into the Temple, the army commanders’ assessment of the resistance that Bhindranwale’s men might put up was woefully underestimated and bordered (p.355) on the wishful.11 They felt that a show of strength followed by a bold frontal assault would frighten them into submission.12

Although it was Mrs Gandhi who gave the army the green signal, it was her young gang of counsellors who directed the operation in close collaboration with the army’s top brass. The Chief of Army Staff, General A. S. Vaidya, deputed Lt. General Sunderji, GOC Western Command, to take charge of the operation with two Sikh generals, Ranjit Singh Dayal, Chief of Staff, Western Command who was security adviser to the Punjab Governor, with Major General K. S. Brar to assist him.

Some days before Mrs Gandhi’s broadcast, the army had begun to take up positions in the Punjab. Large contingents were brought in from different parts of the country by road, rail, and air. These included tanks, mountain guns, divers and even police dogs. Seventy thousand men in uniform were posted at strategic points—most of them in and around Amritsar. The border with Pakistan was sealed off.

The task entrusted to the army on 2 June was: ‘to check and control extremists and communal violence in the State of Punjab and the Union Territory of Chandigarh, provide security to the people and restore normalcy…’ The army commanders thought that flag marches and strict enforcement of curfew regulations, followed by periodical announcements asking people to come out of the Golden Temple and about forty other temples where it suspected extremists were hiding, would be enough.

(p.356) Akali leaders, including Sant Longowal, G. S. Tohra, B. S. Ramoowalia, the widow Amarjeet Kaur and about 350 others were lodged on the eastern side of the Temple where the kitchen, serais and offices of the Akali Dal and the SGPC were situated. They might well have responded to the army’s offer and come out to prevent unnecessary bloodshed in the Temple—but they were under the watchful eyes of Bhindranwale’s men entrenched in the Akal Takht at the opposite end of the complex and right beneath the three towers, the two Ramgarma Buquers and the water tower, on which members of the Babbar Khalsa had their nests of snipers.13 The best they could do was to shut themselves in their rooms and pray that the action would soon be over. Bhindranwale continued to belch fire and contempt. Even after the army had completely surrounded the Temple he told a press correspondent who asked him what he planned to do now that he was outnumbered and outgunned: ‘Numbers don’t count. There are always more sheep than lions… when the tiger sleeps, the birds chirp. But when the tiger awakens, the birds fly away.’14 He told another party of journalists. ‘If the authorities enter Indira will crumble, we will slice them into small pieces… Let them come.’15 He was more outspoken than before about Khalistan. ‘I have definitely not opposed it. But at the moment I can’t say I support it,’ he replied. When prompted by his aides to be more specific, he added, ‘Frankly, I don’t think that Sikhs can either live in or with India.16

By 1 June all was ready for the final assault. The government’s paramilitary forces, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Border Security Force (BSF), opened fire on different positions occupied by those inside the Temple in order to ascertain where they were and what kind of weapons they had. Despite eight hours of probing, the besieged did not oblige them (p.357) by returning fire. Eleven men, all inside the Temple, lost their lives and dozens were wounded. At 9 p.m. a thirty-hour curfew was clamped on the city. Sant Longowal made several attempts to get President Zail Singh on the phone; the President’s secretary replied that he was not available. Longowal called an emergency meeting of the Akali Dal High Command, but none except Tohra were able to turn up. The meeting was postponed to 4 June. Longowal addressed a letter to Mrs Gandhi accusing her government of ‘waging a new war against the Sikhs’ and warned her that ‘every bullet fired at the Golden Temple will hit every Sikh wherever he be in the world.’17 The head granthi of the temple and the high priest of the Akal Takht appealed to the Sikhs to fight and destroy the evil doers.18 Decks were cleared for action: a series of ordinances banning the entry of foreigners in the Punjab were promulgated; censorship was imposed on all Punjabi papers; road, rail, and air services suspended. The Temple’s power connections were cut off, plunging the complex in darkness, and the cordon round it was tightened. Bhindranwale’s men lit bonfires in different places to watch movements of troops and repel their attempts to advance. The plan to cow down the defenders by show of force had flopped. The attendance in the Temple on 3 June (Guru Arjun’s martyrdom anniversary) was not as large as usual; nevertheless, it ran into thousands as curfew had been relaxed for a couple of hours. Sant Longowal issued a statement rejecting Mrs Gandhi’s televized broadcast offer of 2 June. That evening (3 June) the Temple’s telephone and drinking water connections were also cut off. The next morning (4 June) the strategy was changed. Top priority was given to dislodging snipers of the Babbar Khalsa in positions of vantage on top of the three towers and some high buildings overlooking the Temple. Mountain guns were brought into action and the snipers’ nests blown up. Though on the same side, the Babbars had acted independently and often in defiance of the orders of General Shahbeg Singh. But their elimination cleared (p.358) the way for the army to move in from the eastern side-entrance where the kitchen, serais and offices of the SGPC were located. This began on 5 June. The men inside were ordered to surrender. A couple of hundred menials of the SGPC and their families came out; others, fearing both the army and the wrath of the defenders, stayed where they were. By then reports started coming in that the Sikh peasantry around Amritsar was up in arms carrying whatever rustic weapons they possessed, and were converging on the city from all directions to force the army to raise the siege. Huge mobs numbering upwards of 20,000 each were spotted by helicopters. Tanks and armoured cars were sent out against them. Army commanders realized that time was running out and, unless they liquidated resistance in the Temple, they might have to face a general uprising of the Sikhs. They decided to finish the task during the night of 5–6 June, no matter what it cost them in lives or damage to the Temple. They threw in all they had: their commandos, frogmen, helicopters, armoured vehicles and tanks. They first occupied the langar (kitchen), and the serais and premises of the SGPC where the Akali leaders had cloistered themselves. An hour after midnight Longowal, Tohra, Ramoowalia, Amarjeet Kaur, and scores of others surrendered to the army.19 As they were doing, so, snipers picked out and shot dead two of Bhindranwale’s enemies and a grenade was lobbed in the crowd (nobody knows by whom), killing scores of others. The army entered the Temple from three sides, the main assault being through the broad openway from where they had taken the Akali leaders. Armoured carriers and tanks with men behind them entered the Temple parikarma to face deadly fire from the Akal Takht and the buildings around. An armoured carrier that led the advance was knocked out by a rocket. Tanks were brought in. One sank under its own weight and got stuck. Tank lights with their blinding glare (p.359) were switched on and shells fired into the Akal Takht. One went through the Darshani Deodhi at one end of the viaduct leading to the Harimandir. Another hit the Akal Takht and brought down most of the edifice. The battle raged along the parikarma from room to room. Batches of Bhindranwale’s men emerged from its basement to take on the army jawans. By the morning of 6 June, the army had established control over the Temple and its immediate surroundings. By 4.30 a.m. army commandos managed to get to the Akal Takht. The battle raged for another two hours. ‘The extremists fought to the last man,’ said General Brar. The bullet-ridden bodies of Bhindranwale, Amrik Singh (who had been married a few days earlier) and General Shahbeg Singh, still clutching his walkie-talkie set, were found in the basement.20

Similar battles were waged by the army in another forty odd gurdwaras where they suspected terrorists to be hiding. These included Dukh Nivaran at Patiala and gurdwaras at Taran Taran and Moga.21

(p.360) Two days later (8 June), President Zail Singh visited the Temple. The Prime Minister took care to send Arjun Singh and her personal secretary, R. K. Dhawan, to keep an eye on Zail Singh and to make sure that he did not say anything which might embarrass the government. Zail Singh was visibly shaken by what he saw. The bodies of women and children still floated in the sacred pool. Though frantic efforts had been made to clear the precincts of blood, the stench of death and cordite pervaded the atmosphere. He broke down and prayed for forgiveness. A sniper hidden in a neighbouring building tried to kill him but hit the security guard behind him. Mrs Gandhi also visited the (p.361) Temple a few days later and was upset when she saw the extent of damage. She was not a big enough woman to admit that Blue Star had been a grievous error of judgement, a blunder for which she personally and the country generally would have to pay a heavy price for decades to come.

The government media and an almost entirely communally biased Hindu press did its utmost to justify the action, extol the heroism of the army for doing an unpleasant job with professional skill and vilify Bhindranwale and his associates in language unworthy of an allegedly free press. It was put out that the army had suffered heavy casualties because it refrained from returning fire from the Harimandir which had therefore remained undamaged and no one inside it had been hurt. People present there told a different tale: the shrine was splattered with bullets and at least one ragi (singer) was killed.22 Stories were circulated that a large number of women, including prostitutes and foreign hippies, were found on the premises, of whom some women were pregnant; others presumably were able to avoid pregnancy because quantities of used condoms were found in the debris; so also stocks of opium, heroin and hashish. These stories made the front pages of most newspapers: corrections issued later that hippies and narcotics were not found in the Temple complex but outside it received scant publicity. Attempts to further tarnish the image of Bhindranwale were equally clumsy. It was put out that he had been slain by his own men.23 Since no self-respecting Sikh could be found to give the government a clean chit, frightened rustics were hauled up before TV (p.362) cameras and made to repeat statements prepared for them. The head priest of the Akal Takht, Jathedar Kirpal Singh, was made to read a statement placed in his hands that the damage caused was minimal.24

The entire Sikh community was outraged by the action and expressed its anger in whatever manner it could. At eight cantonments in different parts of India, over 4000 Sikh soldiers deserted their regiments, slew their officers and tried to get to Amritsar. They were intercepted by the local police and the army; in the clashes scores of men were slain on either side and the remaining deserters captured. Two Sikh members of the Lok Sabha, including Amarinder Singh of Patiala, and both belonging to Mrs Gandhi’s party, put in their resignations from Parliament and the Congress party. So did several members of the Punjab legislature. A Sikh diplomat in Norway asked for political asylum; a senior police officer, Simranjit Singh Mann, posted in Maharashtra, enclosed with his letter of resignation offensive memos to the President and Prime Minister, and went underground. He was later captured trying to cross over to Nepal and kept under detention without trial.25 Several distinguished men of letters, including the historian Ganda Singh, Sadhu Singh Hamdard, the editor of Ajit, and Bhagat Puran Singh, popularly known as Punjab’s bearded Mother Teresa because of his lifelong service to lepers and destitudes, returned honours that the government had bestowed on them.

A month after Operation Blue Star, and after several postponements, the government published on 10 July its version of events that led to it in the form of a White Paper on the Punjab (p.363) Agitation.26 Apart from the one sided narration, it had many factual inaccuracies. Its main theme was that the Akali agitation generated Bhindranwale’s terrorism and, since the Akalis could not control it, the government had no option but to stamp it out. As a matter of fact, Bhindranwale’s terrorism began much earlier, with his clash with the Nirankaris on 13 April 1978. The murders of the Nirankari, Baba Gurbachan Singh, and Lala Jagat Narain; the sabotage of rail tracks, the hijacking of two Indian Airlines planes, attempts on the life of Chief Minister Darbara Singh and the killing of several Sant Nirankaris, all took place before the Akalis Dharam Yudh Morcā began on 4 August 1982.

The White Paper put the entire responsibility for Bhindranwale’s misdeeds on the Akalis without mentioning the government’s role in building him up, releasing him after charging him with murder and letting him go about cities like Bombay and Delhi with his band of armed desperadoes without questioning them, besides conniving at arms being smuggled into the Temple in trucks carrying groceries for the kitchen.27

(p.364) The government spokesman had often mentioned the ‘foreign hand’ (clearly meaning Pakistan or the United States—or both) in the supply of arms and training facilities to terrorists, as well as camps set up by them in Jammu and Kashmir. The White Paper, too, stated that ‘the government has reasons to believe that the terrorists were receiving different kinds of active support from certain foreign sources.’28 It referred to a Sikh extremist group in Canada which had hired one Johan Vanderhorst to train Sikhs in the use of firearms. The sole source of information quoted for this was a report in The Vancouver Sun. The most glaring inaccuracy was the White Paper’s estimate of human casualties and the damage to sacred property. According to it, the ‘civilian-terrorists’ killed numbered 554 and 121 injured. Army casualties were put down as 92 killed (including 4 officers and 4 JCOs) and 287 injured. Some days after the event Rajiv Gandhi, speaking at Nagpur, gave the figure of army casualties as over 700 dead. (He subsequently retracted his statement.) By that reckoning, the number of ‘civilian-terrorist’ casualties was probably also seven times the figure given by the White Paper. Most eyewitness accounts put their number between 1500 and 5000, mostly innocent pilgrims, including women and children.29 The government never bothered to publish the names of those killed, nor anything to refute the damning evidence that quite a large number of those captured were executed in cold blood.30

(p.365) The government maintained that no damage was done to the Harimandir. Journalists who were allowed to visit the Temple a few days after Operation Blue Star counted hundreds of fresh bullet marks in the gold-leaf and marble.31 The government maintained that the Temple archives, which housed hundreds of rare handwritten copies of the Granth and hukumnamahs bearing the signatures of the Gurus, had caught fire during the fighting. D. S. Duggal, keeper of the archives, was categorical that it was after the fighting had stopped that troops set fire to the archives under the impression that the manuscripts were probably account books of the Temple. By then they had broken open the offices of the SGPC, the Akali Dal and the Istri Akali and taken whatever valuables they could find and set the rest on fire. There are over a dozen shrines in the complex, each with its golak (metal pitcher for putting in coins and currency notes). Not one was found after the army action. The Temple kitchen which catered to thousands of pilgrims every day was robbed of every utensil. Amongst the invaluable, irreplaceable treasures lost was a gem-studded canopy sent by the Nizam of Hyderabad (p.366) to Maharajah Ranjit Singh and presented by the Maharajah to the Golden Temple. The White Paper was roundly criticized by all opposition parties. Atal Behari Vajpayee, President of the BJP, who had lauded the army action, observed that ‘it evaded more issues than it tackled.’ India Today referred to it as ‘Operation White-Wash’.32

Accounts of the army’s behaviour after the fighting was over made sorry reading. At the time when temperatures were in the soaring 120 degrees, prisoners (described officially as ‘the enemy’) were denied drinking water; many were made to crawl on their bellies on hot tarmac; soldiers went about the sacred premises with their shoes on, and drank rum and smoked cigarettes to soothe their overwrought nerves. A month after the operation there was still a notice board outside the debris of the Akal Takht asking soldiers to desist from drinking and smoking on the premises.

The real question that the White Paper did not answer was whether there was no way of getting at Bhindranwale and his men other than an assault on the Temple with tanks and artillery. A look at the map of the Temple complex would make it clear that there were many alternatives. There are three main entrances: two from the northern side—one overlooking the clock tower and the other leading to the kitchen serai and offices of the SGPC—the third less frequented one is on the southern side. Besides these, there are narrow inlets largely used by people living in neighbouring streets. Every one of them had been guarded by armed police and paramilitary forces for several months before the operation. The Akal Takht stands clearly away from other temple buildings on the western end, with its rear end abutting a narrow bazar. By all accounts Bhindranwale had no more than 300–400 men in arms at his disposal. Most of the time he had fewer than a dozen bodyguards with him when he received visitors and press-men. A determined body of commandos in plain clothes could have overpowered them with minimum loss of life. The Akal Takht could have been cordoned off, deprived (p.367) of drinking water and rations and its inmates gassed into submission.33 But the government, for reasons best known to it, first let leaders of the ruling party help Bhindranwale to build himself into a leader, allowed its police and paramilitary forces to turn a blind eye to the smuggling of arms into the temple and then ordered its army to storm it with tanks and heavy guns. Sikhs could be forgiven if they came to the conclusion that Mrs Gandhi’s government meant to give their community a bloody punch on the nose. They were not likely to forget or forgive anyone who had anything to do with Operation Blue Star.

Sikhs all over the world held prayers in their gurdwaras to mark the desecration of their Temple by the army. Massive demonstrations were organized in front of Indian embassies and consulates outside India. In many parts of India protesters clashed with the police, resulting in loss of lives.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi talked of the need for applying a healing touch to the Punjab and asked the people not to look upon the Sikhs as suspects. She also appealed to the Sikhs not to entertain any ideas of separatism.34 How the healing touch was applied was a different story: Sikhs came to be treated as suspects, harassed and discriminated against. The government was armed with laws which enabled the police and minor civil servants to arrest people without warrants and hold them in detention without trial; those detained were deprived of their right to be represented by counsel, move writs of habeas corpus and were presumed to be guilty unless they proved their innocence. Special courts were set up in different towns in the Punjab (p.368) with powers to conduct trials in camera and deal out summary justice with no right to appeal.35 Since the army was ordered to stamp out terrorism it went about doing so in another operation it named Woodrose. Village after village was surrounded, the houses of Sikhs (never Hindus) were searched for arms, Sikh young men taken for questioning, beaten up and tortured. Criticism of the behaviour of the army was construed as an act of sedition. Amongst people charged and declared absconders and arrested were retired army officers.36

Human rights organizations like the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties headed by retired Justice V. M. Tarkunde carried out a survey of how ordinances and repressive laws were enforced in the Punjab. The most glaring instance of miscarriage of justice was the fate of 379 men, women and children arrested in the Golden Temple complex during Operation Blue Star.37

(p.369) Far from stamping out terrorism and the feeling of separatism, operations Blue Star and Woodrose engendered feelings of alienation and induced hundreds of young Sikh men and women to turn into terrorists. Many of those who were able to elude the army dragnet crossed the border into Pakistan and made it a base for their operations. They returned with sophisticated arms easily purchasable in Pakistan with money sent by sympathizers in England, Canada and the United States. They were able to perpetrate acts of terrorism because after the army’s brutalities the peoples, sympathies were with them.

The illusion that Operation Blue Star had brought the Sikhs to heel and that they would be amenable to compromise with the government was soon dispelled. Sullen resentment produced a sense of unity in the community. By incarcerating Sant Longowal and Tohra, then Badal and Barnala, the government created a (p.370) vaccum in the Akali leadership; their places were filled by men who felt compelled to adopt even more aggressive postures towards the government. A month after the operation, they called on the Sikhs to organize Shahidi Jathas (martyr squads) and march to Amritsar to liberate the Golden Temple complex from the clutches of the army. They also announced that the Akal Takht would be retained in its damaged state as a memorial to what the Indian army had done to it.

The resurgent mood of belligerancy alarmed the government. Mrs Gandhi instructed Buta Singh to have the Akal Takht rebuilt in the quickest possible time. In the absence of the Akali leaders, the only people he could deal with were the High Priests of the Takhts. Even Gyani Kirpal Singh of the Akal Takht and Sahib Singh of the Harimandir, who had earlier given the army clean chits, sensed the resentment in the community and refused to oblige. Buta Singh approached Baba Kharak Singh, a venerated sant who had spent most of his life organizing voluntary service in gurdwaras. Kharak Singh rudely rebuffed Buta Singh and told him that he would undertake the Kar Sewa only if asked by the high priests to do so. Buta Singh tried to bypass the high priests by calling a Sarbat Khalsa and got Santa Singh Nihang,38 head of the Buddha Dal, to take the lead. The government-sponsored Sarbat Khalsa was convened on 11 August 1984 with Santa Singh as President. Apart from Sikh members of the Congress party led by Darbara Singh, most of the others were peasants brought in on government transport for a free outing in Amritsar. Buta Singh utilized the occasion to condemn the Akalis. ‘They have always misled the innocent Sikh masses and misused their facilities and funds,’ he said.39 Santa Singh pronounced an order of excommunication against Tohra.40 The government also toyed with the idea of ammending the Sikh Gurdwaras Act to provide for a more amenable SGPC to manage (p.371) the affairs of the Temple. The plan was abandoned and Buta Singh and Darbara Singh empowered to go ahead with the rebuilding of the Akal Takht. Apart from about 150 followers of Santa Singh Nihang, few Sikhs volunteered for service. Most of the work was entrusted to a contractor working under the supervision of the CPWD. The government contributed the gold required to cover the dome.’41

While the construction was going on the high priests summoned another Sarbat Khalsa. The Punjab government did its best to abort the move by putting up road blocks on approaches to Amritsar and issuing warnings to village headmen. Nevertheless, the attendance at this Sarbat Khalsa on 1 and 2 September 1984 was more than double that of the one convened by the government. At this assemblage President Zail Singh, Buta Singh and Santa Singh Nihang were declared tankhayias. It was also resolved that if the army did not clear out of the Temple complex by 1 October, shahidi jathas would move in to occupy it.

Mrs Gandhi relented. On 25 September 1984 she announced that the army would be withdrawn from the Temple. ‘Now that the repairs are completed, even the token presence of the army in the Golden Temple can be withdrawn,’ she said.42 President Zail Singh was anxious to be present at the handing over ceremony and have the order of excommunication against him withdrawn. His emissary succeeded in getting round the head priest. His speech on the occasion was construed as an apology. ‘I ask for sincere forgiveness from the Gurus for the unfortunate incidents,’ he said.43 Jathedar Kirpal of the Akal Takht could afford to be more militant in tone: ‘If the government continues its anti-Sikh attitude and treats us like second class citizens, it will not only endanger the unity of the country, but also cause communal disharmony,’ He demanded that the ban on the (p.372) AISSF be withdrawn, Akali pleaders be released, mass arrests of young Sikhs be stopped and compensation paid to families which had suffered in the army action.44 The order of excommunication against President Zail Singh was withdrawn. Buta Singh was not as lucky. He had more at stake, as his constituency was predominantly Sikh and the elections were due in a few months. He did his best to bargain over the restoration of buildings belonging to the SGPC and the return of some suspicious items including Pakistani currency, but the high priests did not relent.

On 1 October 1984 the army withdrew from the Golden Temple. It did not hand over charge to the SGPC but to the high priests. The army action widened the gulf between the Hindus who had welcomed it and the Sikhs who had not, and gave the movement for Khalistan its first martyr in Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. India had to pay a very heavy price for the miscalculation, the heaviest being the assassination of the miscalculator, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.


(1) Punjab: Fatal Miscalculation. Title of a compilation of articles by Patwant Singh and Harji Malik (1985).

(2) The White Paper on the Punjab Agitation, Govt. of India, 1984, pp. 105, 107.

(3) Ibid., p. 105.

(4) The Bharat Kisan Union (BKU), a non-political union of farmers, had been agitating for almost two years for the reduction of water and electricity rates and prices of fertilizers. In the first week of May 1984 it called for a boycott of wheat markets (mandis) and no wheat reached the markets. The White Paper has nothing to say about the BKU agitation and pins the blame solely on the Akalis.

(5) Ibid., p. 109.

(6) The Punjab Crisis, p. 227.

(7) The White Paper on the Punjab Agitation, p. 3.

(8) The government’s White Paper

(9) Devinder Singh Duggal, librarian of the archives of the Golden Temple, claims to have read this out to Bhindranwale on 3 June 1984 and maintains that the note was destroyed in the fire during Operation Blue Star.

(10) Indian Express, 16 May 1984.

(11) In an interview given after the operation, General Sunderji commented that to say ‘intelligence was inadequate’ was the ‘understatement of the year;’ it was virtually non-existent. (Chopra, Agony of the Punjab, p. 27.) Four intelligence agencies involved in gathering information were the CID, RAW, the Intelligence Bureau and Military Intelligence. On 13 June 1984 it was admitted before leaders of the opposition that government intelligence had failed and that the army was taken by surprise by the nature and quality of weapons discovered in the temple. (The Punjab Crisis, p. 230.)

(12) The White Paper ruefully admits that ‘tactical intelligence in regard to the strength and disposition of terrorist gangs was inadequate’ (p. 44). It is also silent on the number of Bhindranwale followers and other groups like the Babbar Khalsa which engaged the Indian army in the action.

(13) As late as on 4 June Tohra had gone across to the other side to plead with Bhiridranwale to yield; he was contemptuously turned back as a coward.

(14) The Sunday Observer, 10 June 1982.

(15) Kuldip Nayar, Tragedy of Punjab, p. 92.

(16) Ibid.

(17) H. S. Bhanwar, Diary Dey Pannay, p. 21.

(18) Ibid., p. 24.

(19) Chopra, Agony of the Punjab, p. 31.

(20) General Jaswant Singh Bhullar had made a timely disappearance from the scene of action. Later, he was allowed to escape to the United States to continue propaganda for Khalistan.

(21) The sequence of events narrated in the government’s White Paper are not borne out by eyewitnesses present in the Temple complex during Operation Blue Star. Their versions were collected by a team of five researchers led by Mrs Amiya Rao and sent to the Punjab by the Citizens for Democracy in May 1985. Their findings with a foreword by Justice V. M. Tarkunde was published a few months later. The book entitled Report to the Nation: Oppression in Punjab was promptly seized and banned by the government. On 10 September 1985 all the five researchers were arrested and charged with crimes under the National Security Act, Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1983 and Terrorists and Disruptive Activities Act 1985. The book was subsequently reprinted clandestinely in India and abroad and widely circulated. Its findings on incidents at the Golden Temple between 1 and 7 June 1984 were based on recorded statements made by Devinder Singh Duggal, Director of the Sikh Reference Library, whose appartment was alongside the library and overlooked the Temple, Bhan Singh, Secretary of the SGPC, Gyani Puran Singh, one of the priests of the Temple and many others. They are categorical in stating that: (a) Fire was opened by the CRPF soon after the noon of 1 June and continued for over seven hours without a single shot being fired from inside the complex. Amongst the eight killed were a woman and child; (b) Nothing untoward happened on 2 June. Curfew was lifted and pilgrims allowed to enter to participate in martyrdom day observances. The CRPF outside the Temple was replaced by the army on the night of 2 June; (c) The number of worshippers in the temple on the martyrdom anniversary (3 June) was about 10,000. This included a jatha of 1300 which had come to court arrest in the Dharam Yudh Morcā (including 200 women and 18 children). All these people stayed in the Temple complex in the Guru Ram Das serai, Teja Singh Samudri Hall or in the parikarma; (d) The army attacked the Temple complex without any prior warning; electricity was cut off slightly before 4 a.m. on 4 June; the first shells fell close to the Akal Takht. The army attacked from all sides. According to Duggal ‘a helicopter hovered above and continued to fire from above. Some of these helicopters also guided the firing squads of the army by making a circle of light around the targets. Immediately after these circles, a cannon ball would sand on the target, causing havoc. We saw a large number of boys blown to pieces;’ (e) There were about 50 men and women in the central shrine, Harimandir, of whom two were killed; (f) The real resistance began only after the army entered the Temple; Bhindranwale had ‘only 100 people to fight and there were less than 100 arms consisting mostly of 303 rifles used in World War I, 315 guns and a few sten guns. When the army entered the ammunition was nearly exhausted. After midnight (morning of 6 June), at about 1 a.m. an armoured carrier and eight tanks came inside the complex;’ (g) No damage had been done to the Research Library till the evening of 6 June, when Duggal left it. On his return on 14 June he saw it destroyed. He was asked to sign a receipt to the effect that he had taken charge of it. On his refusal to do so, he was arrested. (Report to the Nation: Oppression in Punjab, a reprint published in the USA).

(22) Chopra, Agony of the Punjab, pp. 28–33.

(23) The Hindustan Times (8 June 1984) boldly front-paged M. K. Dhar’s

(24) Virtually the only two ‘respectable Sikhs’ the government media could find to support the army action were both aspirants for Governors’ posts. One was the ever-accommodating Dr Gopal Singh Dardi, the other, Professor Harbans Singh. Dardi was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Goa, Daman and Diu. The professor’s family was more than adequately compensated by being given the contract to rebuild the Akal Takht on its own terms.

(25) The government tried to implicate Mann in Mrs Gandhi’s murder. When in detention in Bhagalpur jail, Mann was elected President of the Akali Dal.

(26) On 14 July 1983 H. S. Surjeet and other opposition MPs had asked the government to publish a White Paper on the Punjab in the Consultative Committee of Parliament. The government turned down the demand. In its annexure, apart from mentioning 52 Chinese-made and Russian Kaiashnikov assault rifles, the While Paper avoids naming the countries of manufacture of self-loading rifles and light machine guns alleged to have been seized after the operation. This for the simple reason that they were of Indian manufacture. A glaring omission was of the medium machine guns said to have been captured. They were apparently stolen some months earlier from an army depot. There is no reference to how arms were smuggled into the country and then into the Temple complex, apart from the bland statement that they were ‘taken in Kar Seva trucks’. Thus, both the BSF and the CRPF cordoning the Temple complex were let off the hook.

The White Paper has several pictures of doors and windows bricked up leaving apertures for guns. Amongst them is one of a private house, outside the Temple complex, which was fortified by the Border Security Force.

(27) ooper seyThe Punjab Crisis, p. 230.

(28) Mrs Gandhi had been talking of the foreign hand in the Punjab (and Assam) trouble since 1972. The White Paper mentioned ‘foreign forces’ and ‘external support’. Having made the charge it stated that it was not in the public interest to divulge the details. Governor B. D. Pandey said on 15 December 1983 that there was no evidence of foreign interference in the Punjab’s affairs.

(29) Kuldip Nayar records that ‘nearly 100 devotees, including 35 women and 10 children lost their lives,’ Tragedy of Punjab, p. 102. The New York Times puts the number of killed at 1200 (17 October 1984), the Chicago Tribune at 2000 (12 June 1984).

(30) The Times of London on 14 June 1984.

The Peoples Council for Civil Liberties, Black Laws (p. 57) has an equally damning indictment: ‘During the army action at the Golden Temple, there were many cases of indiscriminate killing of ordinary people including unnamed women and children. The post mortem reports state that some of those killed had their hands tied behind their backs. These killings include 16 sewadars of Baba Kharak Singh from Gurdwara Dera Baba Sham Singh. In 50 wards from the Golden Temple, Baba Kharak Singh is a revered sant and a pacifist. On 7 June, sixteen of his men, including the 70 year old Joginder Singh and 18 year old Hardev Singh were pulled out from the Dera, their hands tied behind their backs, made to walk through the streets of Atta Mandi Bazar, and were shot dead opposite the DCM shop by BSF personnel. Soldiers belonging to the Bihar regiment and the BSF also looted the store of the Dera and decamped with things worth Rs 70,000 and ½kg. of gold. This was reported to us by the granthi of the gurdwara. The report of the looting and killing was confirmed by an eyewitness.’

(31) Kuldip Nayar counted ‘at least 300 bullet marks. One “bir” (Graṅth) was hit by a bullet.’

(32) India Today, 31 July 1984.

(33) The Indian army could have learnt some lessons in how to overcome groups of terrorists from the Israelis and the Germans who were able to rescue hostages several thousand miles away from their country. In May 1988 when there was a similar build up of arms by terrorists in the Golden Temple, police sharpshooters forced 200 of them to surrender without entering the Temple. Only two terrorists were killed and one committed suicide in this operation named Black Thunder.

(34) Speech at Srinagar (Garhwhal) on 25 June 1984 reported by the UNI

(35) Amongst the list of draconian ordinances that were passed into acts were the Maintainance of Internal Security Act (MISA) of 1971; for the Punjab a special law was enacted entitled the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of 1985.

(36) Ibid., p.69.

(37) Amongst them was a woman, Inderjeet Kaur (35), the mother of four children who lived in a bazaar close by the Temple and, like many others, started her morning with prayer at the Temple. She, like all others, was picked up from the Golden Temple, detained under the National Security Act and given a cyclostyled copy of her grounds of arrest and a confession which she had to sign. The confession ran as follows; ‘Stated that I am a resident of Atta Mandi, Amritsar and I am a member of All-India Sikh Students Federation and Dal Khalsa. Bhai Amrik Singh was President of these organizations. These organizations were associated with Sant Bhindranwale and we all acted according to the dictates of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In order to maintain the independent entity of Sikhs, our aim was to establish a separate state (Khalistan) with a separate constitution. In order to fulfil this mission we gathered lots of arms, ammunition, bombs and explosives from foreign countries. So that for the achievement of the Sikh state of Khalistan we should be able to strike the government. To fulfil this object 6000 persons were collected to whom arms training was imparted by retired Maj. Gen. Shahbheg Singh: who kept our objectives secret from the visitors to Darbar Sahib Amritsar and also the Government. On 5.6.84 the security forces deployed around Darbar Sahib gave us warning to come out of Darbar Sahib. About 120 persons came out of Darbar Sahib on their warning. We were in groups. Due to this firing the security forces continued upto 10.8.84. Following were the active members of our organization.

Black Laws 1984–85, Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, Delhi, pp. 65–6.

(38) Santa Singh Nihang was an enormous man allegedly addicted to bhang (hashish), who styled himself as Sultan-ul-Qaum—ruler of the community.

(39) India Today, 15 September 1984, p. 70.

(40) India Today, 30 September 1984. p. 38.

(41) The contractors were Messrs Skipper Construction Co., and Tejwant Singh, son of Professor Harbans Singh of the Bhai Vir Singh Sadan of New Delhi. Professor Singh had consistently supported the government.

(42) India Today, 14 October 1984, p. 55.

(43) Ibid., p. 58.

(44) Ibid., p. 56.