Operation Bluestar, 20 years ON
Twenty years ago almost to the day an event occurred in Punjab that shook the Republic of India to its very foundations.
Sikh extremists seeking to carve an independent country had been slowly but surely taking control of the state over the previous couple of years, striking terror in the hearts of politicians, law-enforcers, and the general population.
The killings began in 1983 with a murder here, a shootout there. Through the year, however, the frequency of attacks and the toll kept rising and by May 1984 dozens of innocent people were being murdered daily in cold blood, all in the name of 'freedom.'
A massive religious cleansing movement was underway in Punjab, which had become India's granary after the Green Revolution of the mid-to-late 1960s. Law and order had collapsed, and the corrupt and demoralised Punjab police was simply not up to the task of restoring it.
Heading this bloody movement was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a preacher turned separatist who ran his terrorist campaign from the confines of the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in Amritsar. Bhindranwale openly defied the Indian State from his sanctuary. But the police dared not enter the temple complex, for fear of outraging the sentiments of the Sikhs, arguably India's most dynamic and popular minority community.
With the situation rapidly getting out of hand, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took a momentous decision. She ordered the Indian Army to move into Punjab and decisively tackle the terrorists who were armed and aided by Pakistan.
To flush the terrorists and their masterminds out of the Golden Temple complex, the army launched what is possibly its most controversial action, Operation Bluestar, under the command of Major General Kuldip Singh Brar (who later retired as lieutenant general).
But the operation, which began in the wee hours of June 6, 1984, was like a dagger through the heart for Sikhs everywhere. Thousands railed against the Indian State, the army, and all those who were connected in any way with the operation. A large number of Sikh soldiers, enraged by rumours that the Golden Temple had been damaged (the temple itself remained untouched, though the Akal Takht was damaged), deserted the armed forces. Author Khushwant Singh famously returned his Padma Bhushan award in protest. Captain Amarinder Singh, now the chief minister of Punjab, resigned from the Congress party. Four months and three weeks later, Indira Gandhi paid the ultimate price for ordering Operation Bluestar.
Twenty years on, rediff.com takes a fresh look at the events of June 1984 and the circumstances leading up to them.
Re: Operation Bluestar, 20 years ON
June 1984: One Jujharoo's Account
This is based on an interview with Bhai Sukhvant Singh Jalalabad, a prisoner in Nabha Jail. He fought in the June 1984 attack on Darbar Sahib. Bhai Sukhvant Singh began staying with Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in 1982 along with 11 other young men from his village. Later, six of those Singh's would become Shaheeds during Bluestar and the rest were arrested and sent to Jodhpur Jail. Bhai Sukhvant Singh was released in 1989 and joined the Sikh Resistance Movement. He was arrested and sent back to jail in 1997 where he has remained since, except for a brief four-month release in 2000. This is his account of the attack and how he and other Singhs fought back.
On June 4th, at Amrit vela, as the sweet sound of keertan was coming from Darbar Sahib, unexpectedly at 4.15am, a loud explosion was heard. It felt as though this explosion had taken place right near us. This was a signal for the bombing to begin. This all was part of a very carefully hatched plan by the Indian Government to attack the Sikh's most important centre. All of a sudden a hail of bullets began to fly. All us Singhs became alert right away. We were about 20 Singhs in the Sindhi Hotel, which was near the Langar building.
By daybreak, all the placements that had been made at high places had been completely obliterated. It's important to say here that whatever placements had been made before June 3rd, and the government had noticed, were completely destroyed. Only those positions remained intact that had been made after June 3rd and which the government was unaware about.
General Shabegh Singh spent the entire night of June 3rd making new positions and those were the ones that caused to most damage to the army.
We came to a lower level of the Hotel and made new positions in the rooms and with our weapons we took them up. The bullets were flying at us so quickly that we couldn't fire back.
We got in contact with the Langar Building and this was where Bhai Amrik Singh and Baba Thara Singh were commanding operations. They sent us a message at the Sindhi Hotel to leave there and to come to the Langar where all the Singhs would be gathering to fight together. This was because the Sindhi Hotel could have been surrounded at any time.
At about 11am, we left the Sindhi Hotel and went to the Langar. There all the Singhs gathered and had a meeting where different positions were assigned. I and some other Singhs were given our duty at the Burj, but when we got there, there was a storm of bullets being fired at it. The Burj was swaying and it seemed that it could fall at any moment. Inside it, the dust made it impossible to breathe. Our position here could not be successful so we came back to the Langar Building. So many bullets were being fired that no one could leave their morcha. But we would only shoot when we had a soldier in our sights. All of us were in contact with each other and we would go to each others morchas. If someone needed ammunition we could get it.
All night the fighting continued but the army did not have the courage to advance on foot. At around midnight, four helicopters began to hover around Darbar Sahib. They tried to drop Commandos but the Singhs with their fire did not let them. A helicopter hovered over the Langar Building for quite some time as well and Bhai Amrik Singh grabbed an LMG and fired at it. This one too couldn't drop any Commandos.
The next day at around 5, the Langar building came under organized fire. Our placements on the top level were completely destroyed. Many Singhs were Shaheed and others were injured. There was no one to tend to the wounds but Guru Sahib was doing so much kirpa that the injured were still encouraging the rest of us to fight hard. The dead bodies of the Shaheed Singhs were lying in the placements but our hearts had become like stone and it didn't matter anymore. In our hearts we all wanted to fight ill our final breath.
On the evening of June 5th, Bhai Amrik Singh and the others made a plan to go to Akal Takhat Sahib. We also got ready to go with Bhai Sahib because we had planned to bring ammunition from there.
(Baba Thara Singh, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Bhai Amrik Singh)
Bhai Sahib and the rest of us went through the Parkarma, through a hail of bullets and reached Akal Takhat Sahib. We met Sant Mahapursh (Baba Jarnail Singh) there and he gave us a Fateh. Sant Ji asked Bhai Amrik Singh about the Langar side and what was going on and he asked us if we were in "Chardi Kala". We replied that we were all in Chardi Kala. Sant Ji had a yellow keskee on his head and a Thompson Gun in his hands. He was in total Chardi Kala. We explained that we had come for ammunition and Sant Ji told Bhai Rachhpal Singh to get us what we needed. Bhai Rachhpal Singh took us to the basement and we took as much ammunition as we could carry. We then returned to the Langar Building. After this, we lost all contact with Akal Takhat Sahib.
We distributed the ammo and in total we were 60-70 Singhs at the Langar. There were bullets flying in every direction. We took up positions on the bottom most floor. As night fell, the Army sent 400 trained Commandos from the Ghanta Ghar gate, Baba Deep Singh gate and the Langar side. From the Langar side, we did not let even one Commando get into the Complex. On the other sides as well, not even one Commando survived. The army saw that they couldn't advance by foot so around 11pm, tanks and armoured vehicles began to come from the Seraa(n) side. They fired a hail of bullets at the Langar as they advanced.
Us Singhs in the Langar, Baba Thara Singh, Bhai Surinder Singh, Bhai Major Singh (Nagoke), Bhai Balvinder Singh, Bhai Svaran Singh, Bhai Dalbir Singh, etc., had a meeting at the back side of the Langar Building. We decided to leave here and go to the Akal Takhat Sahib. Bhai Svaran Singh did an ardaas here that "Guru Sahib Jio! Give use the strength to combat this enemy."
At 1am, we went into the parkarma via the Brahm Buta Akhara. Bullets were flying ahead of us. Bhai Svaran Singh and Bhai Dalbir Singh went into an adjoining room where there were many other Singhs from the Kar Seva Jatha. It's important to say here that about 35 Kar Seva-vale Singhs had done an ardaas that "if Darbar Sahib is attacked, we will become Shaheeds." Only four of these Singhs survived and they spent time with us in Jodhpur Jail. The rest all fought bravely and became Shaheed. The Jathedar, Baba Pehlvaan, whose name I have now forgotten, fought most bravely of all.
(Bhai Major Singh Nagoke)
Bhai Major Singh Nagoke separated from us and went into the underground room near the Langar that had a well in it. Fiver other Singhs also descended into this room. Bhai Major Singh had known about this place before and we too had gone there a couple times. They had stored food rations here. When we were taken to the prisoner camp, we found out that when on June 9th, Giani Zail Singh came to Darbar Sahib, the Singhs fired on him from this room. One of Giani Zail's bodyguards was killed but he himself survived. Major Singh and the others fought to the end. The army ended up martyring them with poison gas. Major Singh also had a major role in the killing of Nirankari Gurbachana that the Sangat does not know about.
When we began to move towards Akal Takhat Sahib, we only had about 20 Singhs left. The rest were all Shaheed. Instead of going directly towards Akal Takhat Sahib, we moved towards Dukh Bhanjani Beri because the firing was less in this area. Near here there is also an enclosure where women can do ishnaan. We put our shastar there. There was no position made here so we couldn't continue to fight. We drank the water from the sarovar and quenched our thirst. We only had a few bullets left, the rest of the ammunition was exhausted. Just our weapons remained.
At Amrit vela we began to discuss how we could move towards Akal Takhat Sahib. Baba Thara Singh was saying that if we reached there, we would have no problem getting more amo. All night the tanks had been entering the parkarma and in the Deori in front of the Langar, a tank was constantly firing shells. Inside the enclosure, we had taken up positions that if the army tried to enter, we would kill as many of them as possible before dying.
Bhai Surinder Singh and Bhai Balvinder Singh along with 5 Singhs decided that they would swim through the sarovar to Darbar Sahib. After going to Darbar Sahib, they would run on the causeway to Akal Takhat Sahib. When the Singhs began to swim, we watched and in front of us, all were martyred and not even one made it across.
On June 6th, at around 9 or 10am, we suddenly heard the cries of Jaikaray. We thought that maybe the Sangat from outside had arrived but when we listened with more attention, we realised the shouts were coming from Akal Takhat Sahib. There were tanks standing in front of Akal Takhat Sahib and they had destroyed the building completely. Finally, Baba Thara Singh said to us, "we cannot fight tanks with bullets. If any of us can escape, they should try."
At the suggestion of Baba Thara Singh, we threw our weapons (which were without ammo now) into the sarovar. Baba Ji did ardaas that we would go outside and become Shaheed. Baba Ji asked the elderly to accompany him. He said if they were arrested it was fine, but if not, they would certainly be happy to be Shaheed. My uncle also accompanied Baba Ji. The moment they stepped out, they were all shot dead.
We returned into the enclosure but the army realised there were people inside. They announced that if there was anyone inside, they should come out, otherwise they were opening fire. So at around 10am, 15 Singhs and some members of the Sangat came out, but this time the army did not open fire. They immediately began to beat us with sticks. I saw the bodies of Baba Thara Singh an my uncle lying there. We managed to survive.
Our arms were tied behind our backs with our dastaars and the army began to beat us so badly that some Singhs died from their injuries. We were taken to the chhabeel near Manji Sahib Divaan Hall where a number of Singhs and members of the Sangat were already sitting. We were made to sit with them on the parkarma. We heard from the soldiers here, while they were hitting us, "Your Bhindranwala tiger has been killed and we've won the battle." We were silent and staring at Akaal Takhat Sahib. There were still tanks in front of Akaal Takhat Sahib and there was a tank directly behind all of us as well. If firing came from any direction, the tank would fire a hail of bullets in that direction. Night fell here.
This night, a scene occurred in front of me that I will never forget and still passes through my eyes even today. One Bihari soldier was smoking and then threw the butt into the sarovar. A Sardar soldier was also standing there. There were some Sardar soldiers to be seen that day. The Sardar said to the Bihari, "Don't throw the butt into the sarovar" but after smoking another, he threw the butt into the sarovar again and said, "What are you going to do?" The Sardar took his carbine and blew the Bihari away. On top of a nearby tank, another Bihari soldier opened fire on the Sardar and ripped his body apart with bullets. He fell dead into the sarovar and his body began to float on the surface.
At that point, the Bihari captain ordered the tanks to run us over and kill us. The turned the tanks towards us but suddenly a Muslim Major came and he said in a loud voice, "What are you doing??!" The soldier on the tank said, "Our Captain Sahib has ordered us to kill them." The Major replied that all these prisoners have been put on a list and if any are killed, the killer would be held responsible. He had the Biharis changed and the new posts began to make our lists. We asked the Major for water but he said that if we survived, we should consider ourselves lucky. We stayed there all night in this state. The Major came a few more times in the night to ask how we were. In the morning we were ordered to stand but because many of us were badly beaten, they fell over. They were then beaten more. In a line we were marched to the Seraa(n) area near Manji Sahib Divan Hall. On the way we saw that the bodies of the Sangat were everywhere and some were still screaming in pain. No one was listening to them. The Soldiers were only picking up their own dead and wounded.
In front of the Seraa(n) there were 500 people already sitting and we too sat down. The army then began to throw hand grenades at us. Everything was covered in blood and bodies began to pile up. The soldiers were also firing at us now so that no one would survive. Here, my companion Bhai Raj Singh became a Shaheed. I was slightly injured but survived again. We lay there with the other bodies. When the firing stopped, we went into the rooms of the Seraa(n). In one room, there was an injured mother and her baby. She didn't care about herself but she was begging for the life of her child. After a while, her voice and that of her baby was silenced by bullets. They did not even spare innocent children. Chunks of flesh had been blown away and were sticking to the walls of the Seraa(n).
The army then announced that whoever was still alive should come out. We saw rooms filled with bodies and they smelt very bad. We came out and this time we saw that along with the pilgrims were leaders of the Sikh Students Association. We saw Balvant Singh Ramuvalia there who was helping make lists. He tried to speak with an officer but that officer slapped him and knocked his turban off.
We saw the bodies of SGPC secretary Gurcharan Singh and Bugga Singh lying near some sacks of wheat. Where we were sitting we found out that some Sardar soldiers had come and taken the two and shot them dead. They said "you are the cause of all this" and executed them.
The Bihari soldiers were looking at the Sardar soldiers with suspicion and saying "they shot at us as well."
The night of June 7th arrived and we were taken by bus to Amritsar's army camp. We were locked up in small rooms that were meant for ammunition. They were very tight and had no fan. We were so thirsty that some of us were falling unconscious. Bhai Sunaam Singh became a Shaheed here. We were almost unconscious and crying out. The noise made the army open our doors and when we ran out to drink water, the army opened fire and many Singhs died here. We continued to lie inside.
On the night of June 8th, a Sardar soldier took charge. He was from Jhabaal. The Biharis were changed. He said to us that he was also pained by all that had happened and his own father who did seva with Baba Khark Singh had also been killed. He said he had just returned after doing the cremation. He said that we should last one more night like this and then we would be put in open barracks.
On June 9th we were put in open barracks and were given Cholay Puris to eat. We began to throw up right away. Doctors came and said that we had been dehydrated and we should only be given rice and water. He said that if you bodies accepted the water, we might live otherwise there was no hope. We had not had anything to eat for the past four or five days. Our bodies began to accept the water and then we were given rice for the next two or three days. We thought we would survive now.
Then began the job of identifying us. We were marched in front of a room where the fighters were separated from the regular Sangat. A companion of Sant Ji was doing the identifying. We were a total of 60 Singhs left and we were put in two rooms. Different agencies interrogated us for two months but we gave them no information. We were then taken to Nabha jail. Here the interrogation continued. When this stopped, we were remanded to custody under the National Security Act for a period set for two years. Our families found out we were ok. After the remand, we were taken to Ladha Kothi Sangrur were they interrogated us again. They kept asking where Sant Ji got the weapons, who were the fighters and who were involved in various actions that took place. We kept repeating that we didn't know anything. We were about to be sent away to "Kala Pani" when some Guru Kae Laal killed Indra. All the Singhs faces were shining with happiness since history had shown that whoever attacked Sri Darbar Sahib could not escape the Khalsa.
What had been happening to us for the past five months now stopped. New lists were made and 379 individuals were charged with rebellion and sent to Jodhpur Jail. We were sent there via air from Patiala. There were two women as well, Bhai Rachhpal Singh's wife and another from Amritsar [Bibi Amarjit Kaur]. There was a court inside Jodhpur Jail. We all fell ill because of the food given to us here but soon we became used to it.
After five years in jail, in 1989, the charge of rebellion was taken back under pressure from the United Nations. Those of us who didn't have any other cases booked, were then released. I had cases in Punjab so I was sent to Jalandhar Jail and then Amritsar. I later came out on bail. The government offered us assistance but I rejected it and joined the movement again in 1990. Since 1997 I am in jail again and await the day when with the grace of the Guru some true leader comes again to take the Panth into Chardi Kala.
Taken from Sikh Shahadat Magazine, June 2003.
Translated by Bhai Balpreet Singh.