The event was so calamitous that even a distance of 28 years has not dulled the pain of Operation Blue Star; the storming of the Golden Temple at Amritsar on June 6, 1984. Like a lacerated wound, it continues to throb and bleed despite conspiracy of silence by the Indian establishment to blot out all reminders associated with it. The target of the Indian army inside the Golden Temple was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had barricaded himself there in defiance of the Indian state to project the longstanding grievances of the Sikh nation. This year, the Sikh leadership has decided to bestow a unique honour upon him by building a monument to his heroic deed by constructing a cenotaph; prominently positioned inside the temple, several feet away from the spot where he made his last stand.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in line with her megalomaniac ambitions, resorted to dividing this essentially non-violent political movement, led by the Akali Dal. She rebuffed Dal’s demands and in a bid to divide Sikh activism, began promoting a radical Sikh faction led by Sant Bhindranwale. But the orthodox Sant from Damdami Taksal, a Sikh seminary, proved to be a man of his own strong will and fierce grit.
Raising the slogan of Khalistan, he took charge of the Khalistan Movement by pushing moderate elements of the Akali Dal onto the sidelines. As the confrontation grew, he established morcha in the Golden Temple, turning it into the nerve centre of the Khalistan Movement. Shunning political means, Indira opted for the military instrument to flush out Bhindranwale and around 300 of his followers; Operation Blue Star was thus scheduled to commence on June 6, 1984.
The assault on the temple was a heavy-handed affair involving six infantry battalions, supported by heavy infantry weapons, tanks and artillery. The damage to the venerated temple was so extensive that it had to be later pulled down and reconstructed. The initial official line on fatalities, as reported by The New York Times on June 7, was 308 dead, including 48 soldiers. By June 26, the official death toll had nearly doubled to 600. Unofficial military sources and journalists placed the number at between 1,000 and 1,200. The Times published reports from The Associated Press stating that the toll “could be as high as 2,000.”
For 400 years, the temple had remained an icon of Sikh faith, pride and veneration and it was inconceivable that it could be desecrated by the armed forces of secular India. Its destruction engendered a wave of communal hatred and an urge for retribution that has haunted India ever since. Indira paid for the transgression with her life when two of her most trusted Sikh bodyguards - Satwant Singh and Beant Singh - riddled her with bullets on October 31, 1984. The anti-Sikh violence that followed her assassination led to the killing of at least 3,000 Sikhs by frantic Hindu mobs. According to the BBC, Congress Party officials were accused of openly urging Hindu rioters to kill the Sikhs.
This further exacerbated the Sikh, who sought retribution for the grave state sponsored injustices. Bhindranwale got etched in the folklore as a shaheed and a hero and elevated in veneration to the status of a ‘Sant’. To honour him, June 6 is observed every year as the martyrdom day of Bhindranwale at the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikh faith. The anti-Sikh violence gave a boost to the demand for Khalistan and a full-fledged insurgency picked up inside Punjab, extending to attacks on Indian assets in foreign lands. Air India’s plane was blown up on June 23, 1985, which killed all its crew and 329 passengers.
Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, who signed the Rajiv-Longowal Accord on July 29, 1985, was killed just three weeks later while praying inside a gurdwara. General A.S. Vaidya, India’s Army Chief of Staff when Operation Blue Star was launched, was gunned down in Pune in August 1985. Chief Minister Beant Singh was blown up, along with 12 others, by a suicide bomber on July 31, 1995, at Chandigarh for letting down the Sikh cause.
The Indian state resorted to crushing the Sikh insurgency with a heavy hand. The human rights groups estimate that nearly a quarter of a million Sikhs - mostly innocents - were killed by the state apparatus on suspicion of sympathising with the Sikh militants. In 1996, the Supreme Court of India upheld a finding by the Central Bureau of Investigation that 2,097 bodies had been cremated in three crematoriums on police orders without proper notification or documentation in Amritsar district of the Indian Punjab alone. These cremations during the 80s and the 90s have formed a bleeding wound that has traumatised the Sikh community ever since.
An enduring and deep rooted alienation of the Sikh nation has emerged as the lasting legacy of Operation Blue Star. The lingering hurt from the operation and its aftermath have left the Sikh psyche deeply scarred. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India, as a politically accepted phenomenon, has only deepened the chasm separating the Sikh and Hindu communities. Unless the Indian state learns to respect the rights of its minorities, the chasm of this communal hatred is likely to deepen.
n The writer is a freelance columnist.