The Sikh insurgency in Punjab, which lasted about a decade and a half (from circa 1981 to 1995, reaching its peak in the late eighties) is one of the least-known terrorist conflicts in the world. Amazingly few people outside India are even aware that there was such a movement, let alone one which resulted in the killing of – among others – the Prime Minister of the nation, the Chief Minister of the state, and a former chief of the army, and has had a permanent effect on Indian history. Even in India, there are few books on the subject, compared to the extensive bibliography on the insurgency in Kashmir or even the Sri Lankan civil war, which (as I’ve described elsewhere) has had deep and irreversible effects on this country. Even Bollywood doesn’t touch the Sikh insurgency, though it has made several quite good films on Islamic terrorism.
It was a savage conflict, though, one where innocents were the main victims and there was a deliberate and cynical effort to manipulate emotions, one which the Indian government of the time was responsible for stoking and covertly encouraging, and one which was only stamped out in the end by a massive amount of state-sanctioned brutality and summary executions of suspects, approaching if not surpassing the violence inflicted by the terrorists themselves. And for all the hatred and bloodshed, there was just one pitched battle in all the years of the insurgency; one which was arguably eminently avoidable and came early in the course of events. It was the storming of the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, by the Indian Army – a military exercise which became infamous as Operation Blue Star.
|The Golden Temple. This is the Harimandir Sahib in the middle of the Sarowar (see below)|
I remember the afternoon of 31st October 1984. I was in school then, to be more precise in either the chemistry or physics laboratory – at this distance in time those, relatively minor, details are slightly hazy – when a rumour started floating around that the Prime Minister of the country, Indira Gandhi, had been shot and badly wounded. The teacher wasn’t present, so everyone started talking about this.
“I hope she dies,” one of my classmates said, “so tomorrow we’ll have a holiday.”
Probably half of us were thinking the same thing, but this was the only guy to have the bluntness to be able to say it. Of course we all piled on him, because we couldn’t let him get away with what we were all thinking secretly.
Later, the teacher came in and confirmed the news, and that Gandhi had been killed (this news had been declared by the BBC but not by the Indian government; the state-run news services weren’t permitted to acknowledge what everyone already knew till hours later). “There were three killers,” she said, “of whom two have been shot dead.”
When I got home I told my parents about it. It was still afternoon, which meant the single TV channel which was all that existed in India in 1984 hadn’t admitted the killing yet, but they had said she’d been shot and badly wounded. They announced her death only in the evening.
What had actually happened, as later came out, was this:
At a quarter past nine on the morning of 31st October 1984, Indira Gandhi – accompanied by the man most people considered to be her eminence grise, her personal assistant RK Dhawan – walked along the path which joined her residence at 1 Safdarjung Road, Delhi, to her adjoining office, where she had a scheduled TV interview with British playwright Peter Ustinov. The office and residential compounds were separated by a gate at which two Delhi Police bodyguards were stationed. Both were Sikhs, a Sub-Inspector named Beant Singh and a constable named Satwant Singh. As Gandhi approached the gate, Beant Singh took out his service revolver and shot her. As she fell to the ground, Satwant Singh rushed forward and emptied his WWII-era Sten submachine gun at her body. Many of the bullets ricocheted off the path, hitting even the roofs of surrounding buildings.
After emptying their ammunition, the two bodyguards calmly surrendered and – even as Gandhi was being rushed by car, there being no ambulances handy – to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences five kilometres away, they were taken to the guardroom of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, which manned the outer security cordon of the Prime Minister’s residence. There, in a highly mysterious incident, both were shot by the ITBP, who claimed that they had drawn a knife and begun fighting to escape. This is impossible to believe since if they had actually wanted to escape they could have attempted it in the confusion after the shooting; and it’s equally impossible to believe they weren’t searched after capture. The obvious explanation is that they were shot in a fit of fury by the ITBP and the “knife” story was a crude attempt at a cover-up.
[In the event, only Beant Singh was killed. Satwant Singh was patched up, and eventually tried and hanged (along with his uncle Kehar Singh who was named as a co-conspirator in what was almost certainly a miscarriage of justice).]
As Indira Gandhi’s funeral was conducted in the full view of the international media, there was a “spontaneous backlash” against her killing. More exactly, a savage and almost certainly carefully pre-planned anti-Sikh pogrom gripped north India. Mobs of Hindu rioters, often openly led by politicians of Gandhi’s Congress Party, murdered any Sikh they could find, burned and looted their businesses, destroyed their vehicles and drove them into hiding. Far from stopping the murder and mayhem, the police either did nothing or actively joined in the killing. The only comment Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, who was hurriedly sworn in as her successor as Prime Minister and dynastic proprietor of the Congress Party would say about the violence was this: “When a big tree falls, the ground will shake.” Only days later, as the army was called in, was the violence brought under control. However, it had more long-term consequences, which I will discuss later in this article.
But what was the reason behind the two Sikh bodyguards’ turning their guns on their Prime Minister? Why would two men, one of whom (Satwant) was very young, throw away their lives to murder the person they’d sworn to protect? As always, history is a continuing process, and actions have consequences, often out of all proportion to the original factor that set things in motion.
Indira Gandhi was killed because of a military action she had ordered four months earlier, called Operation Blue Star, which involved the storming of the most important Sikh religious site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
In the course of this article, I will discuss the causes, course, and consequences of Operation Blue Star, which are still with us today. In this, apart from the links which I will embed in the body of the article, I will be using the following sources:
1. Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle by Mark Tully and Satish Jacob, Pan Books Ltd, London 1985; hereafter referred to as Tully.
2. Operation...Blue Star The True Story by Lieutenant General KS Brar, UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 1993; hereafter referred to as Brar. Both the book title and publisher’s name are cited here exactly as printed.
3. Punjab The Knights Of Falsehood by KPS Gill, Har-Anand Publications Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 1997; hereafter referred to as Gill.
4. The Death of Air India Flight 182, by Salim Jiwa, the text of which is available online; hereafter referred to as Jiwa. This book will only be cited in order to point out the discrepancies in its poorly-written, made-for-the-market account of events with the verifiable facts where Operation Blue Star is concerned, and in the part of the article discussing the consequences.
5. My memory of articles which appeared in the magazines and newspapers of the time, most especially in the then fortnightly newsmagazine India Today.
As always, I am responsible for what I write in the course of this article but not for any fights, disagreements, fallings-out or other consequences of its discussion by third parties on this site or any other web page on which it may be reposted or cited.
Sikhism is not, in comparison with other major religions, very old. Like Buddhism and Jainism long before it, it started as a reform movement in Hinduism, and only slowly moved away from the parent religion; and, like them, the separation to this day is not complete. As will be described, this incomplete separation played a major part in the events to follow.
This article is not the space for a dissertation on the essentials of the Sikh faith, but here are the main points, which are of importance in understanding the events I’ll be describing:
Sikhism originated in the Punjab (“land of five rivers”) area of the Indian subcontinent. Today, Punjab is divided between India and Pakistan, and Sikhs have virtually vanished from the latter; but by a slight majority, the population of Indian Punjab is Sikh. However, about a quarter of all Sikhs live outside Punjab, and are to be found all over India and indeed over the world.
Sikhs worship a single, formless God, and their religious places are temples called Gurudwaras. The most important of these Gurudwaras, by far, is the Harimandir Sahib in Amritsar, which lies in the centre of a complex called the Golden Temple. In these Gurudwaras, the Sikh Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is read every day by the priests of the faith and ceremonially laid to rest at night.
As Sikhism developed, it became less of a reform movement and more a warrior caste – not unlike the Prussian – which had militarism as a core part of its culture, and was dedicated to resisting the Mughal Empire, which ruled most of India at the time. Led by a series of Gurus, ten in all, the Sikhs soon became fairly powerful.
The tenth of these Gurus, Gobind Singh, decreed that he would be the last of the line; and after him, the Granth Sahib would serve the function of being the Guru of the faith. As a mark of distinction separating his followers from the Hindu mass from which they had come, he ordered the males to take Singh (lion) as their last name and the women Kaur, or princess. This also served to remove caste surnames, since caste was banned in Sikhism; it has subsequently made a full return and entrenched itself in the faith.
[Jiwa claims that Singh was to be taken as a middle name. This is obviously to tailor things for his primarily Canadian readership. At the time, Sikhs had no surname except a caste appellation. Later, they began adopting surnames, often from their town or village of origin (as the central figure of this narrative, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, did, from the village of Bhindran), or from their caste. This is far from the only oversimplification Jiwa is guilty of.]
Gobind Singh also ordered his followers to mark themselves apart from the Hindus by five markers, which became known as the Five K’s:
1. Kesh (hair): Sikhs were not to cut their hair or beards. Today, increasing numbers of Sikhs openly disregard this injunction; Brar, one of the primary sources of this article, is an example. Contrary to popular supposition, there is no requirement that the hair should be covered by a turban, incidentally. A lot of Sikhs wear a patka instead, the hair tied in a bun on top of the head and covered by a cloth.
2. Kangha: A comb, to keep said hair and beard neat.
3. Kachcha: Underwear with drawstrings; Sikhs aren’t supposed to wear Y fronts or Jockeys, for example.
4. Karra: A steel bangle on the wrist.
5. Kirpan: A sword or knife; logical for a warrior religion, though by the time of Gobind Singh the musket had already supplanted the sword as the primary weapon of war. Recently on another website (this one tailored for an American audience) I read of a kirpan as a “small, mystical knife.” There’s nothing necessarily small or mystical about it. It can be as tiny as a razor blade, but fundamentalist Sikhs often carry kirpans the size of cavalry sabres.
In addition, the Sikhs were not to smoke and drink, another proscription, like those on caste and shaving, that has long since fallen by the wayside.
By the time of Gobind Singh’s death, the Mughal Empire had begun its long, agonised decline, which was to last for a century and a half. The new powers in the Indian subcontinent were the Marathas, while the Afghans – after centuries – had resumed their raiding from the northwest. Meanwhile, the British were in the ascendant in the far eastern part of the country, and in the course of time took over Delhi and made the Mughal emperor their de facto prisoner.
By the early 19th Century the Sikhs had grown into a powerful empire, under a king named Ranjeet Singh. Singh was a hard drinker and womaniser, illiterate and utterly without scruple as far as his own interests were concerned, but a shrewd politician and a brave warrior. His army, which had been trained by French officers of Napoleon’s forces to European standards, had Hindu and Muslim soldiers as well as Sikhs, and he was anything but a religious bigot. He managed to keep the British at bay, and even succeeded in using them – as I have described elsewhere – to fight his war in Afghanistan for him.
|Ranjeet Singh with his trademark arrow|
Once Ranjeet Singh died, though, his kingdom fell apart into squabbling factions, and within a decade the British had conquered and annexed it. The Sikhs, who were by now completely militarised as a society, found no problems in switching their loyalties. From soldiers of the Khalsa (those baptised in the Sikh faith) they happily became mercenaries for the English, cheerfully conquering and enslaving other brown people in the service of the new white overlords. The Sikh soldiery strongly supported the British when most of the Indian army in the North finally rose in rebellion in 1857, and were rewarded by selective favour in recruitment into the ranks of the mercenaries. By the time of Independence in 1947, the Sikhs had come to think of recruitment to the mercenary British Indian army as almost a fundamental right. This meant that, especially after the Second World War, where they’d fought everywhere from Italy to Malaya, there were a lot of Sikhs with military training in the country.
(If I’m giving the impression that I have disdain for the Sikhs, that’s not true at all. However, I have an immense amount of disdain for anyone – Sikh, Hindu, Christian or Muslim – who served in the ranks of the quislings who helped the British enslave and loot this country for close on two hundred years.)
Now, when the British left, they cut up the country into two – Pakistan, meant to be a “Muslim homeland”, and nominally secular India, in which Hindus would form a brutal majority. The Sikhs were left without any real option but India; though a few voices were raised in favour of an independent Sikh homeland, that was never going to happen, and everyone knew it.
Independence and After:
At Independence, of course, many hundreds of thousands of Sikhs were stranded in Pakistani Punjab along with Hindus. The vast majority were swiftly ethnically cleansed from the province, streaming back across the new border to settle in Indian Punjab and in Delhi. One important result was that the Sikhs – formerly primarily peasants and soldiers – became urbanised, because of course, lacking land, the new arrivals settled in the towns. They were hardworking people, invested heavily in education and business, and soon there was a vibrant Sikh middle class with the usual middle-class aspirations, far removed from the traditional Sikh peasants of the countryside. Meanwhile, the post-independence Indian army shrank drastically, and the new nation’s government abandoned the British selective recruitment policy in favour of one in which all Indians could join the armed forces. Both these decisions meant that the number of Sikhs in uniform fell steeply, though in the 1980s they still comprised about 10% of the troops – a far higher proportion than the percentage of Sikhs in the Indian population as a whole, which is about 2%.
These challenges – rising urbanisation, the emergence of an educated middle class, and the reduction of a hitherto secure avenue of employment – of course provided rich pickings for politicians. The main Sikh political party was the Akali Dal, which decided to demand that Indian Punjab (in which the Sikhs were still a minority, and which was mostly Hindi-speaking) be cut up further to provide a Punjabi-speaking “homeland”. It was a thinly-disguised demand for a Sikh-dominated state, and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru strongly resisted it despite years of agitation. However, more likely for reasons of short-term political advantage than anything else, it was finally granted by his daughter Indira Gandhi in 1966, and Indian Punjab was split into three more states, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
The new Punjab was primarily Punjabi-, not Hindi-speaking, but it still only had a bare Sikh majority. The Punjabi Hindus – many of whom had escaped Pakistani Punjab and Muslim domination after independence – suddenly felt that they were once again at risk from domination by another religious group. They had opposed the demand for a Punjabi-speaking state as a religious demand, which it obviously was. This wasn’t helped by the Akali demand that Punjabi in the Sikh religion’s Gurmukhi alphabet, not in the Devnagri script used by Hindi and most other North Indian languages, be the official language of the new state. But their opposition was taken to be a sign of Hindu opposition to Sikhs as a “race” (as the Sikh politicians kept referring to them) and a proof of Hindu animosity to Sikhism and its determination to reabsorb it. As always, these divisions were exploited by crooked politicians, so that there grew to be a real amount of ill-feeling between the two religions, which had only recently been so close that Hindu families often brought up one child as a Sikh and people would convert from one to the other and back again.
One of the main problems in the division of the original Punjab was the status of Chandigarh, a city which had been built specifically to serve as the capital of the state. Both Punjab and Haryana demanded it, so a typically messy Indian solution was found in which the city would serve as the capitals of both states and at the same time be governed directly from Delhi. Soon enough, Sikh politicians were threatening hunger strikes demanding the transfer of the city to Punjab. Indira Gandhi finally agreed, on the proviso that as compensation, the (fertile and rich) Hindi-speaking tracts of Abohar and Fazilka would be given to Haryana from Punjab. (This transfer was never implemented, and to this day Chandigarh remains the joint capital and Abohar and Fazilka are part of Punjab.)
It mustn’t be imagined that the Akali Dal was the only political party representing the Sikhs. If that had been so, the whole course of modern Indian history would’ve been rather different. In actuality, the Akalis, though they claimed to speak for all Sikhs, never got their unanimous political backing. Their main competitor was the Congress Party, while the right wing Hindu Jan Sangh (later to morph into today’s Hindunazi Bharatiya Janata Party, which will almost inevitably take power after next year’s elections) and the Communists vied for the remaining vote.
Even by the standards of Indian politics, the Congress Party occupies a special place in the hall of shame. It’s never hesitated for a moment to stoop to any extent, break any law, do any amount of long-term harm, in other words, do anything it takes, to secure even the smallest, most fleeting amount of short-term political profit. Instead of responding to the Akali Dal’s communalism with its own secular credentials, the Congress – in the shape of Chief Minister Giani Zail Singh, later to become President of India – decided to compete with it for the Sikh vote by being even more communal than the Akalis were. This, of course, forced the Akalis to be more communal still, which made a steady and competitive rightward shift of Punjabi politics inevitable.
As Gill says, it was then that the seeds were sown which would give rise to the bitter crop of the terrorism to come.
The Anandpur Sahib Resolution:
In 1973, matters came to a head when the Akali Dal adopted a resolution at Anandpur Sahib, where Gobind Singh had established the Khalsa in 1699. This Resolution, as Tully says,
“...made the cardinal mistake of being too specific when it came to stating their demands for greater autonomy. They proposed restricting...the central government’s ‘interference’ to ‘Defence, Foreign Relations, Currency and General Communications’. No Prime Minister...could ever accept those terms. To concede that demand would have meant threatening the unity of India.”
There were other demands in the resolution, which impacted on Punjab’s relations with other states, especially in the context of river water sharing. Suffice it to say that if demanded in toto, it left no room whatever for the kind of compromise any negotiations require. The Indian government rejected it outright as secessionist.
The Akali Dal was handed, therefore, with a brand new weapon with which to agitate the masses. Meanwhile, after a time of political turmoil during which she declared a national emergency and then lost elections, Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 and made Giani Zail Singh her Home Minister. Zail Singh’s much more level-headed and very secular-minded Congress Party rival, Darbara Singh, was made Chief Minister of Punjab. This was a typical Indira Gandhi move – she encouraged rivalry among her party people, deliberately set them at loggerheads, and therefore prevented the emergence of any genuine opposition to her control of the Congress. This meant two things – Zail Singh had not only to contend with the Akalis, he had reason to try and undermine Darbara Singh as much as possible.
The situation called for a new approach, someone who could pull the carpet from under both the right-wing Akalis and the centrist and secular Darbara Singh. Such a man could only belong to the extreme right. And Zail Singh had just the man he needed for the job.
He decided that it was time to unleash Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
The Advent of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale:
Jarnail (the name is a corruption of “General”, reflecting the Sikh martial tradition) Singh Bhindranwale was born in 1947 into a peasant family which lived near the village of Bhindran. As the last of seven sons, there was no possibility of being able to claim a share of the farm, so his father sent him to Bhindran to study in the Damdami Taksal seminary, to be trained as a priest. This Damdami Taksal was fairly well-known and influential, and was allegedly founded by one of the early warrior martyrs of Sikhism, Baba Deep Singh. So the young Bhindranwale grew up in an atmosphere of religious fundamentalism and veneration for the warrior ethos. He was also physically impressive, being tall and strong and with a commanding presence, and became well known in the Taksal and in the area around, being known as a “Sant”, or holy man.
|Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale; note the iron arrow, in imitation of Ranjeet Singh|
Before the head of the Damdami Taksal died in 1977, he appointed Jarnail Singh his successor, in the place of his son, Amrik Singh, who was at university. Far from being slighted by this, Amrik Singh was later to become one of Bhindranwale’s most loyal followers. Bhindranwale was then all of thirty years old.
In 1977, politics in India had taken a hitherto unprecedented turn. For the first time after Independence, the Congress Party had lost power. Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay (who was also her heir apparent till he died in a plane crash) teamed up with Giani Zail Singh in an effort to split and bring down the new government. One of the targets for splitting was the Akali Dal, then run by three men who will feature repeatedly in this article: Harchand Singh Longowal, Prakash Singh Badal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Rather than take them on directly, Sanjay Gandhi and Zail Singh decided to undermine the Akali Dal by setting up a ultra-right-wing fundamentalist religious leader who would wean Sikh support away from the Dal. Bhindranwale, who was already the head of the influential Taksal, was an obvious and willing choice.
So far, Bhindranwale had had an amazing run of good luck: first, to be born too far down the family line to spend his life farming, so he had to be sent to a seminary; then, for the seminary head to appoint him successor; and now, at the very moment when he was in a position to be useful, political circumstances were such that important politicians came to him asking for his aid and support. The only thing he now required was a casus belli to begin inveighing against the Akalis.
That opportunity came in 1978. There is a breakaway Sikh sect called the Nirankaris, considered heretics and apostates by orthodox Sikhs. Tensions between the two groups had been rising for a while, and came to a head in April 1978 when the Nirankaris were allowed by the Akali government in Punjab to hold a convention in Amritsar. On the day of the convention, 13th April, Bhindranwale and one Fauja Singh led a mob out of the Golden Temple vowing to stop the convention, which was being held three kilometres away. The police made no effort to stop them. When they reached the convention site, Fauja Singh attempted to kill the Nirankari leader, Gurbachan Singh, with his kirpan, whereupon Gurbachan Singh’s bodyguard shot Fauja Singh dead. There was a pitched battle which led to the deaths of three Nirankaris and twelve members of Bhindranwale’s orthodox Sikh mob.
The Congress, delighted, turned the dead Sikhs into “martyrs” for the Sikh cause, and projected Bhindranwale as a hero who took on the heretics. Tully claims Fauja Singh’s widow, who became a prominent Bhindranwale opponent, said that the Sant actually quietly disappeared before the fight began, and that seems likely. He wouldn’t have wanted to wind up dead just when his career was about to take off.
Meanwhile, the Congress quietly encouraged the establishment of a political party – the Dal Khalsa – to undermine the Akali Dal. This Dal Khalsa was openly separatist and advocated the creation of an independent Sikh nation called Khalistan, the Nation of the Khalsa (Pure). [On a side note, Pakistan also means the Nation of the Pure (Pak). I don’t know how many different varieties of “pure” there are, and how much more “purity” the world can stand.] Though Bhindranwale was never openly associated with the Dal Khalsa or for that matter any other political party, it was common knowledge that it owed allegiance to him.
If anyone is wondering how a nationalist party like the Congress would help set up an openly secessionist outfit, please recall what I said about them being willing to plumb any depths for short-term political benefits.
Though the Dal Khalsa made almost no headway politically, events continued to play in Bhindranwale’s favour. As I’ve said, Indira Gandhi had lost power in 1977, but by 1980 the squabbling right-wing coalition which had replaced her was falling apart. Though the Dal Khalsa had proved to be a non-starter, the Akali Dal leaders were also feuding among themselves, and when the elections came along, Zail Singh had Bhindranwale campaign for the Congress in several constituencies in Punjab. Tully says that Indira Gandhi and Bhindranwale even appeared on stage together during the election campaign, and there’s nothing particularly unbelievable about the claim.
As I said earlier, when Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980 she made Zail Singh her Home Minister and his bitter rival Darbara Singh the Chief Minister of Punjab. Of course this didn’t make Zail Singh happy at all, so he decided to use Bhindranwale against both the Akalis and Darbara Singh. Meanwhile, of course, Bhindranwale had his own fish to fry.
The Start of the Terror:
On the 24th April, 1980, the Nirankari leader Gurbachan Singh was murdered at his home in Delhi. The police named Bhindranwale as a suspect, and he promptly took refuge in the hostel complex near the Golden Temple. This hostel complex (which will figure prominently itself later in this very, very, very long article) is separated from the Temple proper by a public road and is not part of the “holy ground” of the Golden Temple itself. There was, therefore, nothing to stop the police from entering it and arresting Bhindranwale if they’d wanted. Not only did they not do this, Zail Singh told the Indian Parliament that Bhindranwale had nothing to do with the killing. Bhindranwale promptly responded by offering the killers their weight in gold and said they deserved to be honoured by the High Priest of the Akal Takht, one of the seniormost of the Sikh priests in the Golden Temple).
Then, in September 1981, a prominent Hindu newspaper proprietor, Lala Jagat Narain, who was a Bhindranwale critic and pro-Nirankari, was killed. Once again the police reported that Bhindranwale was the one responsible. Now at this time Darbara Singh was the Chief Minister of Punjab, and unlike Zail Singh he had no love for fundamentalism, let alone Bhindranwale-style violence. A warrant was arrested for Bhindranwale’s arrest.
However – and this illustrates the continuing Congress game of infighting and one-upmanship – Bhindranwale wasn’t immediately arrested. He was at the time in the state of Haryana, whose Chief Minister was trying to curry favour with Zail Singh. He not only didn’t arrest the Sant, now a wanted man; he even sent an official car to drive Bhindranwale safely back to his own Gurudwara at Mehta Chowk, the headquarters of the Damdami Taksal, over 300 kilometres away. The Punjab police arrived too late to arrest Bhindranwale and contented themselves with burning copies of his speeches. This burning of his speeches apparently infuriated Bhindranwale, and marked the point where he began turning against his mentor and protector, Zail Singh.
Darbara Singh did not, however, give up. Determined that Bhindranwale must be arrested, he had the Gurudwara surrounded by armed police, though large numbers of local Sikhs had gathered to “protect” their hero. After a siege of five days, and “negotiations” involving senior police figures, Bhindranwale agreed to give himself up, but not before making a speech. In the course of this speech he incited his followers into frenzy (rather in the manner of Mark Anthony at Caesar’s funeral) and then asked them not to get violent when the police took him away. Of course, they promptly did, and eleven people were killed in the fighting which followed.
On the same day, Sikh terrorists on motorcycles opened fire on Hindus in Jalandhar and other towns in Punjab, killing several. Attempts were made across Punjab to derail trains; and nine days later an Indian Airlines plane was hijacked to Pakistan. Among the targets was one of the police officers who had arrested Bhindranwale. All this proved that Bhindranwale already had a terror network willing to obey his orders, and any reasoning government ought to have woken up by now to realities. Not the Congress, however.
[Incidentally, Tully claims Bhindranwale was given VIP treatment in the jail, to the extent that he even decreed which guards could be deputed for him. Sikhs who – like most – roll up their beards for purposes of convenience were anathema to Bhindranwale. He demanded only those who left their beards hanging loose could guard him, and the jail authorities meekly acceded. Gill, who was a policeman and in a position to know, says that Bhindranwale wasn’t even imprisoned in a jail, but in a government guest house which was declared a temporary prison. This is something that is still sometimes done by the government for special extremely important prisoners, usually political allies, whom it knows are not going to remain behind bars long.]
Whatever the exact circumstances of his confinement, Bhindranwale was barely in prison for three weeks. On 14th October 1981, Zail Singh told Parliament that there was no evidence against Bhindranwale in the killing of Lala Jagat Narain. Note that this wasn’t the verdict of a court, or even of the police; this was the government, in the person of the Home Minister, which let Bhindranwale go. All this did, of course, is to elevate Bhindranwale’s status. He said as much: “The government has done more for me in one week than I could have achieved in years.”
There are two reasons why Zail Singh could have decided to free Bhindranwale. One was simple: he still needed the Sant to undermine Darbara Singh. At the same time, he may have still been hoping that releasing Bhindranwale would nip the violence in the bud. If so, he was completely and predictably wrong, because, of course, the release simply emboldened the terrorists.
According to Gill, it was at this time that the government could, and should, have cracked down hard, before the situation got out of hand. Gill was a policeman, not a politician – as we shall see, he more than anyone else would be responsible for stamping out the insurgency in the end – and he consistently said that even a single case of terrorism was a case too many. However, Gill at this time was not in Punjab, and the political leadership had more important things in mind than the opinions of a mere police officer anyway.
At about this same time, a pro-Bhindranwale politician, Santokh Singh, was killed by a rival Sikh politician. Zail Singh had no compunction attending the man’s funeral, knowing Bhindranwale would be there, and was even photographed in the latter’s company, though the Sant openly snubbed him. Bhindranwale was by now no longer dependent on the Congress’ patronage; the Akalis had woken up to his potential and decided that they could use him with all the clout he had by now. After all, how better to demonstrate how very pro-Sikh they were than by asserting ownership of the new Sikh Hero himself?
Meanwhile, the Akalis were trying to push themselves back into the centre of Sikh politics, which was largely occupied by the feud between Darbara Singh and Zail Singh on the one hand and Darbara Singh’s attempt to clamp down on the violence caused by Zail Singh’s protégé Bhindranwale on the other.
Now, the Akali President, Harchand Singh Longowal, began agitating for the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, or, rather, for a set of demands based on the resolution. Most of these demands were, as Tully says, “poorly thought out” and often based on false grounds, like the demand to declare Amritsar a “holy city” – a status not given to any Indian city before or since. Some other demands, like that for the central government to limit its powers to defence, foreign affairs, currency and communications, could never have been granted under any circumstances. So it came down, basically, to two issues – the transfer of Chandigarh and sharing of Punjab’s river waters with adjoining states. Being heavily agricultural states, water for irrigation was a major issue, and of course each state wanted to keep as much as possible for itself. Since elections were due to be held in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, Indira Gandhi obviously couldn’t be seen to be sacrificing their interests to appease the Akalis in Punjab. So the talks didn’t get anywhere.
|Harchand Singh Longowal and (left) Gurcharan Singh Tohra|
Violence was continuing in Punjab, but Bhindranwale and his supporters freely drove around Delhi, waving automatic weapons, without the state reacting in any way. Communist politician Harkishan Singh Surjeet even openly accused the Congress, in Parliament, of actually organising the armed show. Certainly, Zail Singh did precisely nothing to stop Bhindranwale, thus directly increasing his prestige. Bhindranwale then went on to Bombay, again with weapons, but once again nothing was done to stop him.
Bhindranwale’s earlier strategy had been to fight “heresy” among Sikhs such as the tendency to shave or even roll up beards, the use of tobacco, and so on. Now he began a deliberate campaign to create enmity between the Sikhs and Hindus of Punjab. His Dal Khalsa began desecrating Hindu temples, looking for a Hindu backlash against Sikhs elsewhere in the country which would force them to flee to Punjab for protection. In effect, Bhindranwale was fomenting a race war, with Sikhs living outside Punjab as pawns. Both the Akalis and the Congress were well aware of this – but neither did anything to stop it.
The only remotely anti-Bhindranwale step the government took at this time was to arrest the Sant’s aide-de-camp, Amrik Singh. Amrik Singh was the son of the head of the Damdami Taksal, who had chosen Bhindranwale as his successor, and president of the terrorist-affiliated (and later banned) All India Sikh Student’s Federation. [This might be as good a place as any to point out that, in India, “student’s unions” are rarely anything but thinly-veiled fascist goon squads, paid and organised by political parties for their own benefit, and filled with criminals and street thugs, not students.] Amrik Singh had several cases against him when he was arrested in June 1982, including attempts to murder; but, obviously, his arrest was on political grounds and had nothing to do with his crimes. Bhindranwale was infuriated by the arrest and resolved to get Amrik Singh freed; but before doing that he moved back into the hostel complex near the Golden Temple, taking up residence in Room No. 47 (according to Tully) or 49 (according to Brar) of the building known as the Guru Nanak Niwas. Harchand Singh Longowal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra were also living in the same complex, in another hostel called the Guru Ram Das Sarai.
Gill says that even before Bhindranwale and his men came to settle down in the hostel complex, another terrorist group had already established itself there. This was the Babbar Khalsa, a group intensely opposed both to the Nirankaris and to Bhindranwale. According to Gill, it owed allegiance to the widow of Fauja Singh, who had claimed Bhindranwale had run away from the confrontation with the Nirankaris in 1978 and allowed her husband to be killed. According to Tully, the Babbar Khalsa was later called in by Harchand Singh Longowal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra to protect them from Bhindranwale’s men. Either way, at least forty Babbar Khalsa terrorists were ensconced in the same hostel complex as the two Akalis, Bhindranwale, and the latter’s men by the time the military action started. Gill further states that the Golden Temple authorities, seeing their control fading away, then imported yet a third armed faction to try and maintain as much authority as they could.]
Once established in the Guru Nanak Niwas, Bhindranwale ordered a series of demonstrations to demand the release of Amrik Singh. The Akalis, not to be outdone, started a series of their own demonstrations demanding the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The two demonstrations were formally merged, with thousands of Sikhs courting arrest and rioting outside the Parliament in Delhi. Indira Gandhi caved in and released all the arrested people.
The Asian Games:
If there’s one event that really kicked off the media revolution in India, it was the 1982 Asian Games. Before that, Indian TV had been a single-channel, black and white affair which ran for only a few hours a day. It was only in 1982, and specifically for the Asian Games, that colour TV finally came to India. But, also, it was a crucial test for Rajiv Gandhi. He was Indira Gandhi’s elder son, who had been brought in as heir apparent of the family firm – the Congress – after the death of Sanjay Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi had been given the charge of overseeing preparations for the Asian Games in order to seal his political authority. To make sure the preparations were completed in time, virtual slave labour was used with almost no facilities of any kind provided to the workers; massive environmental destruction was wreaked on Delhi, with many thousands of trees chopped down to create space for stadiums and accommodation, and so on. It seemed that everything would be on track.
But now the Akalis realised that the Asian Games was a wonderful way to pressurise Indira Gandhi. They announced that they would demonstrate in Delhi during the Games. Obviously, this would turn the Gandhi dynasty’s “victory” to ashes in its mouth. The Congress decided to crush the demonstrations by any means possible.
1982, by the way, was the first time I watched TV on a fairly regular basis – and what happened with the protests certainly didn’t make it on the TV news. That wasn’t odd at all – until the advent of private TV channels in the early 1990s, Indian government TV virtually created its own reality by what it chose (or more precisely was ordered to) report. After all, what was the average citizen’s option? The radio was also controlled by the government, and only a few newspapers and magazines dared to question the official line on anything. [Today, the situation isn’t all that different; only today the radio is virtually extinct except for music programmes, and the TV and most of the print media follow corporate masters. The government also follows those same corporate masters, so in the final analysis things are back where they were.]
Anyway, what happened was this: Delhi was sealed off almost completely, with Sikhs being repeatedly searched and ordered to prove that they weren’t going to demonstrate at the Asian Games. Among the prominent Sikhs who were treated this way were Marshal of the Indian Air Force (equivalent to Field Marshal) Arjan Singh and Lieutenant General JS Aurora, who had captured Dhaka in the India Pakistan War of 1971. Over 1500 Sikhs were arrested. All this, of course, delighted Bhindranwale – from then on he began declaring that the proof that Sikhs were “slaves of the Hindus” lay in the fact that Sikhs were harassed during the Asian Games.
At the same time, more efforts were made to negotiate with the Akalis over the water sharing. But these were sabotaged by the Congress chief ministers of other states – Haryana and Rajasthan – who said their states needed to agree to the deal before anything could be finalised. Obviously, the failure of these negotiations made Bhindranwale very happy – anything that resembled a compromise would have weakened his position.
A month after the end of the Asian Games, Harchand Singh Longowal called a meeting of former members of the armed services at the Golden Temple. It was attended by – according to whom you believe – between 5000 and 30000, including, Tully says, 170 ex-officers of the rank of colonel and above (which means they were of extraordinary ability; promotion in the Indian army is by length of service up to lieutenant colonel and by selection above that). Brar claims that most of these officers had been dismissed from service and had “axes to grind” but gives no evidence to support this statement. This is by no means the only evasion in Brar; I will discuss more later.
Among these officers, though, was one who definitely did have an axe to grind. Major General Shahbeg Singh was a rather extraordinary character. A skilled special ops soldier and guerrilla commander in the Indian Army’s covert involvement in the Bangladesh liberation war of mid-1971, he had at that time been a non-fundamentalist Sikh perfectly willing to shave if the situation required. Later in his career he had been accused of corruption, court-martialed and dismissed from service the day before he was to retire. Seeing as he had been cleared by a civilian court later, he harboured a grudge against the government and in recent years had apparently turned to religion in a big way, with his beard hanging loose in the fashion dear to Bhindranwale. How much of this was genuine (Brar, who had trained under him and knew him well, seems to feel it was at least partly a pose) is debatable. Whatever the truth of that, Shahbeg Singh was to become Bhindranwale’s military advisor and the commander of the Golden Temple’s defences. With his training and his intimate knowledge of the Indian Army, he was to do a formidably efficient job.
|Major General Shahbeg Singh, during his time in the Indian Army|
By this time, even the Congress government in Delhi had become worried by what was happening in Punjab. Indira Gandhi formed a “Think Tank” under Rajiv Gandhi to handle Punjab – a body which contained not a single Sikh and not even any non-Sikh Punjabis. It achieved nothing in real terms, but was virtually acting as the government of Punjab while situated in the safety of Delhi.
In February 1983, with talks going nowhere, Indira Gandhi tried her own brand of competitive communalism. Going to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi, she announced that she would accept the Akalis’ religious demands, and would set up a commission – under a Sikh judge – to “study the constitutional arrangements between the centre and state governments”. These concessions did nothing to defuse the situation since they weren’t the result of negotiations between the Akalis and the central government, and hence the former couldn’t cite them as a “victory”. Instead, Bhindranwale mocked Longowal for negotiating at all. Longowal was also under pressure from the other two Akali leaders, Prakash Singh Badal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who were simultaneously scheming against each other. Therefore, he felt forced to harden his own position, simply to safeguard his political place. He declared himself Dictator of the Morcha (protests) and made Bhindranwale swear allegiance to him.
It did not work, of course, because by now the Akalis weren’t really in charge of anything.
Bhindranwale in the Temple:
By this time, early 1983, Bhindranwale was making no attempt to hide the fact that he controlled a large armed militia. As far as I have been able to determine, this militia didn’t have (unlike the Babbar Khalsa) any particular name. Later on, there was to be a group called the Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan (BTFK) but it didn’t exist in 1983-4. Bhindranwale’s militia at this time was a fairly heterogeneous force. It was based on a core of dedicated followers from the Damdami Taksal days, but some were army or police deserters. Many others were common criminals; this involvement of criminals would continue in the years to come and would prove one of the major factors in the final destruction of the insurgency. According to Tully and Brar, some were Maoist rebels – if factual, then the alliance of Maoists with ultrafundamentalist Sikhs would certainly have been one of the oddest pairings in recent history; but then in India these days anybody the government doesn’t like is liable to be called a Maoist, so it’s not necessarily true.
Bhindranwale by now was openly preaching terrorism, asking each village to raise units of three young men “with a motorcycle and a revolver each”, and had begun (both Tully and Gill confirm) to model himself after the last great Sikh king, Ranjeet Singh. For example, he had started to carry around an iron arrow, Ranjeet Singh’s trademark, and had begun spreading rumours that a “holy falcon” had been seen hovering over the Golden Temple. According to Brar, the lower floor rooms of the Guru Nanak Niwas had been turned into armouries, and Room No. 32 had been turned into Khalistan Headquarters by Bhindranwale associate Balbir Singh Sandhu. From these rooms, Bhindranwale would issue orders to his men, who would spread out of the Temple to spread murder and mayhem far and wide.
Each day, he would go into the Golden Temple itself from the hostel complex and hold court on the rooftop of the Langar (kitchen; Sikh Gurudwaras have kitchens which are ready to feed anyone, of any faith, who comes) building, surrounded by his men, who carried guns of various types with bandoliers of ammunition slung around their chests. Remember that this was in the middle of the Temple’s daily affairs, with the Guru Granth Sahib being solemnly recited by the priests, and with the daily processions of devotees walking around the central pool of the Temple clearly visible to everyone. From this rooftop, he would preach sermons against Hindus and the Indian state, which would be recorded on cassettes and openly sold in the shops near the Temple, with no hindrance from anyone.
By now, Bhindranwale was just about the uncrowned king of Punjab. His influence extended everywhere; bureaucrats, politicians, police officials, all had either come under his thrall or had been silenced by fear. His men extorted money and materials from businessmen freely, in his name, and it was literally death to refuse. Bhindranwale was virtually running a parallel administration, too – Tully, who met him more than once in the Temple, says that people came to him with their problems, however petty, and Bhindranwale – often for a fee – had their problems solved, usually by crudely violent methods. Tully mentions one instance where a woman and her son came to Bhindranwale complaining that her estranged husband did not pay her maintenance; the Sant ordered his men to have the local policeman break the delinquent’s legs.
Is it the right time to mention that Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was at this time all of 36 years old?
His men were spreading violence throughout Punjab, no longer just targeting Hindus and Nirankaris but just about anyone Bhindranwale didn’t like. An attempt was even made on Darbara Singh’s life. Bombs were being thrown, planes hijacked, buses stopped in the middle of the countryside and Hindus separated from the Sikhs and massacred. In one instance, in March 1983, two of Bhindranwale’s terrorists got into a firefight with the police outside Amritsar and one was killed. The other, injured, yet managed to drive back to the Golden Temple with his comrade’s corpse, and nobody stopped him. This killing of his follower enraged Bhindranwale; he decided on revenge.
|Bhindranwale with his troops in the Golden Temple|
On the morning of 23rd April, Amritsar police chief AS Atwal (a Sikh) went to the Golden Temple to pray. As he was leaving the temple, a squad of Bhindranwale’s followers shot him dead. Atwal’s bodyguard, who was waiting just outside, fled. There was a police picket a hundred metres away; according to Gill, the policemen abandoned their positions and hid in nearby buildings. Gill, who conducted the inquiry into the murder, says that there were “over a hundred policemen in the vicinity, more than half of them equipped with firearms”; yet they did nothing at all as Atwal’s killers danced the bhangra (a celebratory Sikh dance) around the corpse and then went back into the temple. It was only two hours later that Atwal’s body was finally recovered.
What was Atwal’s sin? He it was who had sent the police team which had killed Bhindranwale’s terrorist in March. Tully says Atwal had managed to infiltrate Bhindranwale’s outfit with an agent, who was exposed and tortured to death by the terrorists before Atwal’s own murder. By this time, it was becoming abundantly clear that anyone who crossed Bhindranwale, in any way, would pay the price.
However, by killing such a senior, and transparently honest and efficient, police officer in such a public manner, Bhindranwale had bitten off a mite more than he could chew. Throughout the nation, the Opposition political parties and the media demanded the arrest of Bhindranwale. Darbara Singh himself – well aware that the hostel complex wasn’t part of the Temple – was more than ready to send in the police and clean it out of the terrorists, but was prevented by the Congress at the centre, who were (Tully quotes Darbara Singh as saying) “afraid of inflaming Sikh sentiments.” As always, politics came first to the Congress, before the rule of law or anything else.
Longowal, Tohra and Prakash Singh Badal also had their own role in this disgraceful fiasco. Longowal, far from welcoming this opportunity to get rid of what was fast becoming an albatross round the collective Akali neck, sought to protect his own position against the other two by calling on all Sikhs worldwide to come and resist the police if they tried to enter the hostel. Neither he nor the Congress in Delhi made the slightest attempt to point out that the hostel wasn’t part of the Temple and was not holy ground by any definition of the term.
It is absolutely certain that if the government had arrested Bhindranwale in the hostel at this time, they would not only have eradicated his organisation, but would have earned the goodwill of not just the Hindus but of the majority of Sikhs, who were tired of Bhindranwale’s murderous rampage and beginning to feel the pinch of racial profiling. Also, it would likely have been a bloodless, or nearly so, operation, unlike what was to follow.
Around this time, corpses began turning up in the sewers outside the Temple, tortured to death. As Gill says, some were the result of a vicious internal power struggle among the various terrorist gangs now swarming all over the Temple and the hostel complex; others were likely the extermination of suspected police informants or anyone else the Sant found untrustworthy. The police made no effort whatever to investigate the killings. Ultimately, after a busload of Hindus was murdered in November 1983, Darbara Singh’s government was dismissed – for no fault of its own, because Singh was not allowed to function as he could have and wanted to – and direct President’s Rule imposed from Delhi.
It did nothing to stop the violence, which had taken on a momentum of its own. Nor did the Temple authorities make any attempt to intervene; though the terrorists were openly walking around all day with their guns, making provocative speeches and incitements to murder Hindus and “Sikh traitors”, apparently none of this was visible to the Temple administration. The man whom Indira Gandhi had appointed to head the Punjab Police, PS Bhinder, was hardly the person for the job either; Bhindranwale had campaigned for his wife when she had been a Congress candidate during the 1980 elections. So it’s hardly surprising that the violence reached such levels that even Indira Gandhi’s own party members began demanding Bhindranwale’s arrest in Parliament.
Bhindranwale reacted to this in characteristic fashion, by withdrawing into the safety of a Gurudwara. In this case, the Gurudwara was the Golden Temple, and he told Tohra that he had to be allowed to move into the Akal Takht, which is the Sikh seat of temporal religious power, just as the Harimandir Sahib is the seat of spiritual religious power. The Akal Takht High Priest, Kirpal Singh, objected on the grounds that the Guru Granth Sahib was ceremoniously put to bed in the ground floor of the Akal Takht every night and by taking up residence above it, Bhindranwale would be committing sacrilege. This didn’t make any difference to the Sant, who was now being threatened not just by the government but increasingly openly by the Babbar Khalsa, which ordered him to get out of the hostel complex. So, without further ado, Bhindranwale moved into the Akal Takht, taking up residence on either the first floor (Brar) or the third (Tully). Tully, who met Bhindranwale during this period, is far more likely to be correct.
By now Bhindranwale had found an additional stick to beat both the Akalis and the Congress with – he demanded the full implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. As I said earlier, this had been worded inconveniently exactly, leaving no wiggle room for compromise. So by accepting anything less than the full Resolution the Akalis could be painted as traitors, while, of course, there was not the slightest way the Congress could ever grant all the demands. It was a win-win situation for Bhindranwale all the way.
At the same time, as it later became obvious, Bhindranwale began preparing for the possibility of police action against the Temple itself. The trucks which brought materials for kar seva (maintenance work) to the Temple, and food for the Langar, were loaded with weapons, ammunition and construction materials with which the terrorists began (under Shahbeg Singh’s supervision) to turn the shrines into fortresses. This happened with the knowledge of the police and bureaucrats, but they were now either completely subverted or demoralised and did absolutely nothing to stop it.
The fortification wasn’t restricted to the Temple only. The terrorists had also occupied 17 buildings in the vicinity of the Temple, apart from the hostel complex and two old towers and an overhead water tank, which had been turned into observation points. These buildings were turned into strongpoints armed with light machine guns and communication equipment, and were to pose problems for the army later, when the military action started.
What, exactly, did Bhindranwale want? To some extent, he was undoubtedly inspired by fanatical hatred of Hindus. Gill says that Guru Gobind Singh had said that one Sikh was equal to 125000 non-Sikhs; Bhindranwale did some calculations and decided that one Sikh only had to kill 35 Hindus to eliminate all the latter, so it ought to be easy. His followers, Gill quotes, were to be his “storm troopers who would trample his foes under their bare feet like so much vermin.” According to Brar, the Sant was from the outset a proponent of an independent Sikh state of Khalistan. Tully gives a much more nuanced view, saying that Bhindranwale always insisted that he was merely a religious leader and nothing more, that he would never under any circumstances take up any political post. And as for Khalistan, he said that he was “neither for it nor against it; but if offered it, he wouldn’t refuse it.”
Whatever he meant by that, it’s undeniable that there were pro-Khalistan forces active in the Temple at this time, and that the Khalistan flag was flown on India’s Republic Day on 26 January 1984, either from one of the occupied buildings outside the complex (Tully) or from inside the complex itself (Brar). No action was taken about it, and at the same time the Akalis made new demands on the government, which weren’t part of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution – that Sikhs be explicitly granted a separate status from Hindus in the Constitution, like Muslims and Christians are. Once again, the Akalis were competing with Bhindranwale to appeal to “Sikh sentiments” by trying to show themselves as extreme as he was; after all, the Sant had never made any such demand.
In February 1984, what Bhindranwale had been trying to provoke for years finally happened – there were anti-Sikh riots in Haryana which the state government made no effort to suppress. These riots were hardly “spontaneous”; it’s as certain as can be that the Congress state government staged them in an effort to woo the Hindu vote. Indira Gandhi made no attempt to order her own party’s government in Haryana to crush the riots, either because she herself wanted to court the hardline Hindu vote or because she had decided on military action against the Temple and wanted the situation to get worse so that it could seem justified. [Lest anyone think I am being overly cynical about this, no, I am not. Indian politics is full of instances where the government deliberately let a situation deteriorate so that it could act as saviours in the public eye when it finally applied remedial measures.]
According to Tully, Satish Jacob was told in February 1984 that Indian Army commandos were being trained to storm a life-sized model of the Golden Temple at Chakrata in the Himalayas. I will come back to this claim later, and discuss it in detail. For the moment I will just say that the India Today edition after Operation Blue Star also mentioned this model and training.
By this time the situation in Amritsar had grown beyond alarming. In one instance, a police picket of six men near the Golden Temple, armed with World War II era Sten guns (to this day still issued to Indian policemen; I saw one just yesterday as I write this) was physically dragged into the Temple by Bhindranwale’s men. One was killed and the others were later released (without their guns and radios) after the Amritsar police chief (Atwal’s successor) personally went to plead for their liberty.
There was also a complete breakdown of cooperation between the Punjab police and the Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary organisation the central government sends to crisis spots around the country. The CRPF was openly suspicious of the Punjab police, and wanted to search the vehicles leaving and entering the Golden Temple. Not only were they not allowed to do this, they weren’t even allowed to come within 200 metres of the Temple. After one confrontation between Bhindranwale’s men and the CRPF, there was an exchange of fire which was only stopped after Zail Singh (by now the President of the country, and since the President’s office is a powerless figurehead, he had no right to do so) called and ordered the CRPF to withdraw.
Even at this stage, remarkable as it may seem, the Congress had a channel open to Bhindranwale, through Amrik Singh. This was despite the continuing assassinations of prominent Bhindranwale opponents, apart from the general anti-Hindu mayhem, and despite the open fortification of the Temple, which Tully saw for himself (in March) were at an advanced stage. Tully claims that Bhindranwale’s telephones (this was, of course, the era before mobile phones) were not even tapped, let alone cut off, so that he was at all times in secure communication with the outside world. By now, the terrorists were openly fighting among themselves even in the streets outside the Temple; Tully and Gill both give a detailed account of one instance where one of Bhindranwale’s killers was murdered and the Sant’s men brutally killed both the killers (one of them, a woman) within 24 hours. Bhindranwale blamed others, including the Akali Dal party secretary, of involvement in the murder. By now, Longowal had realised that he would be the next logical target for Bhindranwale, but there was little he could do about it – even his own followers were deserting to Bhindranwale in droves.
Lest I give the impression that almost all Sikhs, everywhere, were pro-Bhindranwale or pro-Khalistan, that is very far from true. As Gill (who is, like Brar, or Bhindranwale for that matter, a Sikh himself) says, there was never any kind of widespread support for Khalistan except in two districts bordering Pakistan, Amritsar and Gurdaspur; and even in these two there never was a majority who supported it. But of course, Bhindranwale claimed to speak for all Sikhs, everywhere, and anyone not for him, was, as far as he was concerned, against him; and everyone had already seen for themselves what happened to those against Bhindranwale.
By this time the Temple clergy – the five High Priests of the Sikh faith and their assistants – were also thoroughly alarmed, and apparently considered issuing a hukumnama (a religious edict) ordering Bhindranwale to get out of the Akal Takht. A hukumnama is – like a Shia (though not Sunni) fatwa, considered binding on all the faithful, so if they had issued it Bhindranwale couldn’t have disobeyed it. He himself was aware of the danger, and pre-empted it by declaring that if the High Priests issued a hukumnama, they would have to resign their office. Among the people he killed to make his point was a former Akal Takht High Priest, Pratap Singh, who had always opposed him. The clergy buckled; the Harimandir Sahib’s High Priest even officiated at the marriage of six of Bhindranwale’s terrorists.
Not surprisingly, now – May 1984 – the Congress had begun to suffer the backlash of its Punjab policies, with a mounting list of defeats in local elections. It made a last-ditch attempt to negotiate with the Akalis over Chandigarh, which Indira Gandhi proposed to hand over to Punjab in return for Abohar town only – Fazilka and the Abohar countryside were to stay with Punjab. But she also stipulated (knowing where the real centre of power now lay) that Bhindranwale would have to agree to this. Tohra went to meet the Sant, in an attempt to convince him that this was a victory for the Sikhs. Quite predictably, Bhindranwale said it was a betrayal of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution and that it had to be all or nothing. Tohra had failed.
This is probably the point at which Indira Gandhi and Longowal finally came together in deciding that military action against Bhindranwale was now inevitable, and though the political games continued, it’s pointless discussing them any further because they no longer had any kind of impact on the situation. Within a week, the CRPF finally got permission to set up in positions directly surrounding the Golden Temple itself. (They were, of course, unable to occupy the best positions, which had already been turned into fortified outposts by the terrorists – the seventeen buildings I mentioned earlier.) There were two options at this stage – a storming operation or a siege.
Later in this article, I’ll examine the relative merits of a siege versus an assault. For now I’ll say that a siege had already been tried a few days earlier in another Gurudwara near Bhindranwale’s hometown where some terrorists had been holed up. Sikhs, including the five High Priests, threatened to lead a march on the Gurudwara to break the siege. Tully says the police (in this case the Border Security Force, another paramilitary unit) backed off and let the terrorists be. This must have been a precedent in the authorities’ minds at the time.
On 2nd June 1984 Indira Gandhi ordered the army to launch the assault.
The Gathering Storm:
[Before I go on further, I should mention something. In the next couple of sections, which describe the actual combat operations inside the Golden Temple, I shall be relying on Tully and heavily on Brar; the latter, at that time, a Major General commanding the 9th Division. Brar was the officer who was in charge of the assault on the Temple, and provides detailed maps in his book of the operation. The most reliable of the three main writers, Gill, was not involved in the Golden Temple assault in any way and has nothing to say directly about it except to criticise the unpreparedness of the army. Why is this important?
It is important because of a fundamental fact about Indian Army officers’ memoirs, something one gets to realise after reading several of them; they are, without exception, self-serving and full of evasions and prevarications. Some of them, like B M Kaul’s Chinese War memoir The Untold Story, veer perilously close to fantasy, but even the best gloss over events, twist facts and sometimes openly lie to suit the author’s own purpose. In every case, I would recommend anyone first read a historian’s account of any event before touching an Indian Army officer’s book on the same subject. In this, too, Brar’s account is full of glaring evasions that I’ll point out as I go along, not to speak of outright lies about at least two separate things.]
On the night of the 2nd June, Indira Gandhi appeared on television and made a speech to the nation, saying that she was appealing to the Akalis to call off their agitation, which was to resume the next day in a state-wide attempt to stop the transport of grain. In the same speech she also said they had lost control of their movement to Bhindranwale, so the appeal she was making was in any case useless. It was a thinly-veiled exercise in self-justification; now, when she called in the army, it would be because the Akalis had forced her to, not because she herself had created the situation which had made it inevitable. That same evening it was announced on the radio that Punjab had been handed over to the army – the first time in Indian history that the soldiers had been handed complete control of a state.
By 3rd June, soldiers of the Indian Army’s Bihar Regiment were in position around the Golden Temple. The day before Indira Gandhi’s address to the nation, a seven-hour exchange of fire had taken place between the CRPF and Bhindranwale’s terrorists, which had started while the Sant was as usual holding court on the Langar roof, which had accounted for eleven dead. Tully says that, according to “military experts”, this firing was started by the CRPF itself in order to let Bhindranwale’s men give away their positions. If so, and since Bhindranwale was sitting in easy view, it’s a great pity that nobody seems to have tried to pick him off. One bullet might have saved a lot of trouble.
At this time, though curfew had been imposed on Amritsar, pilgrims and worshippers were still entering the Temple in some numbers during relaxation periods. One of the primary reasons was that 3rd June was the anniversary of the martyrdom of one of the earlier Sikh Gurus, Arjan Dev, and worshippers traditionally visited Gurudwaras at the time. Brar says the number was much less than there would normally have been, and that most of them left quickly after their worship rather than stay overnight in the Temple as they were wont to do. Brar says that there would have been anywhere between one thousand to two thousand pilgrims inside the Temple premises, apart from the clergy, the Temple staff – and the terrorists, of course. When the Operation actually started, Brar says, as they found out later, about 500 of the pilgrims were still inside.
Brar says he only became involved with the preparations for the assault on the Temple on 1st June – just four days before it actually happened. He was about to go on leave with his wife when called back and ordered to attend an important meeting at Chandigarh, where his two immediate superior officers – Lt General (later General) K Sundarji, and Lt General RS Dayal – told him of the upcoming operation. This was, you’ll note, the designated commander of the assault – and until three days before it started he didn’t have a clue.
|Lt General Kuldip Singh Brar|
Brar is unreliable about many things, but in this he sounds completely plausible. The Indian Army has a long and inglorious history of officers and troops stumbling unprepared into combat, being taken by surprise by what they find, and taking casualties at levels which never ought to have been sustained in the first place. This happened during the China war in 1962, against Pakistan in 1947 and 1965, against the LTTE in Sri Lanka in 1987 and against the Pakistanis again in 1999. The only exception to the rule was the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, and even then, the only reason the story was not repeated was that the then army chief, General (later Field Marshal) SHFJ Manekshaw, had resisted Indira Gandhi’s demands to go to war immediately and held off till the preparations had been completed.
One result of this unpreparedness was that the army actually went into combat with next to no information about the situation inside the Temple complex. Both Brar and Gill mention this point, and the former directly denies Tully’s (and India Today’s) claim that the Army trained on a model of the Temple before the operation (though he says it was “somewhere in the plains of Uttar Pradesh” and not Charikar in the Himalayas). If they had actually done so, the sheer incompetence of their initial assault is even more inexplicable than it would otherwise be.
The fact that the army was unprepared for the situation is underlined by what Brar says about the expected resistance. The Army was told, he says, that there were about 1500 militants inside the Temple and hostel complexes, of whom about 500 could be considered “hardcore” – that is, ready to fight to the bitter end. They were alleged to have just 250 weapons between them, the majority of which were shotguns or First World War-era .303 rifles, with a few light machine guns and other automatic weapons (presumably including the Sten guns seized from the policemen abducted some days earlier). “What we finally discovered after the Operation,” Brar says laconically, “was another story altogether”.
The fact that the army arrived completely unprepared on the scene also explains something which seems to have baffled Tully – the utter lack of knowledge about the fortifications the terrorists had by now openly set up all over the buildings inside the Temple complex, clearly visible to all the pilgrims who entered the Temple each day. The Akal Takht was now virtually a fort in itself, with sandbagged barricades and bricked up windows, firing ports made at the ground level by cutting into the marble, and, as would be discovered later, carefully prepared killing grounds for the army. Though Bhindranwale was still telling media people that there was no chance that the army would attack, Shahbeg Singh obviously had no such illusions. Nor did Bhindranwale’s less committed followers – at least two hundred (Tully) or a “fair number” (Brar) slipped out of the Golden Temple on the morning of the 3rd and escaped, while curfew was relaxed on the occasion of the Arjan Dev anniversary. This is evidence that the army and CRPF cordon was far from escape-proof; and even during the Operation itself, some of the terrorists succeeded in getting away.
According to Brar, the only inside information that the Army obtained was from a Sikh officer, Captain JS Raina, who volunteered to go into the Temple complex on 2nd June posing as a devotee and find out what he could. Obviously, his reconnaissance was fairly superficial, consisting of what he could see without drawing attention on himself, but he got (Brar) some “very useful information”. If that’s so, the “very useful information” doesn’t seem to have done the army any good when the assault started, or Raina himself for that matter; he lost a leg in the fighting.
I should mention that both Tully and Brar quote journalist Kuldip Nayar as saying that Brar himself was recognised on the parikrama on the 1st, familiarising himself with the surroundings. Brar dismisses the idea with contempt, with the logical question of why he, as the general in charge, would want to risk being captured by the enemy before action had even begun. But he does mention that by this time the army could clearly see that the defenders were armed with “automatics” and machine guns, apart from sniper rifles, and thus they were far more heavily armed than the army had been given to understand. Of course, seeing that Darbara Singh had been warning for years that arms were flowing into the Temple, and that Bhindranwale’s men made no attempt to hide the fact that they were armed to the teeth, it’s hard to understand why the army should have been so spectacularly misinformed to begin with.
The army wasn’t just misinformed about the weapons the terrorists had; it was misinformed about their level of commitment and even the layout of the Temple. Tully quotes an officer telling Satish Jacob after the battle,
“We had a general picture of the inside of the Temple complex but we didn’t reckon with the myriad of niches, rooms, basements and awnings. We were fired on from literally every nook and corner.”
On the 3rd, according to Brar, Bhindranwale was seen handing out loaded guns to his followers and also observing the situation outside the Temple with binoculars, and was “seen closeted...on the first floor of the Akal Takht...with his military adviser (sic) General (sic) Shabeg (sic) Singh”. The army could see him clearly enough to notice that he looked “tired, restless and fidgety”. Once again, it’s inexplicable why a sniper didn’t take him out right there, thus eliminating the centre of the resistance. I can’t help but wonder if it was the Congress’ decision that a “victorious assault” had to be made to prove to the nation that Indira Gandhi was full of resolve and to show the Hindus that she was their saviour, and that was why Bhindranwale wasn’t sniped. On the other hand, Shahbeg Singh had no such immunity, as we’ll discover.
It’s more than obvious that Bhindranwale knew that the army was about to attack. So, the question arises, why didn’t he withdraw? Even at this stage, he could have probably negotiated his way out of the Temple – some of the Akalis and elements of the Congress would have been more than happy to oblige. Withdrawal was also Bhindranwale’s favoured tactic – from the days of the anti-Nirankari violence, he had always preferred to let someone else do the fighting while he fled to safety. However, in thie instance, he stood firm.
The most likely explanation is that by this time Bhindranwale had painted himself into a corner. He had, after all, openly and repeatedly challenged the Indian state to a fight. At this state, surrender would mean ignominy, and his Babbar Khalsa opponents were all too ready to repeat their taunts that he was a coward. Going out fighting, on the other hand, would be martyrdom in a blaze of glory, and a hallowed place in Sikh memory forevermore. What higher place could he hope for?
The next question is why the government – having decided that the terrorists would have to be eliminated – chose this particular time to begin the operations, in such considerable haste, as we’ve seen, that Brar was only informed of his command three days before the attack. According to the government, Tully says, it was because there was “intelligence” that Bhindranwale’s followers would begin a state-wide massacre of Hindus from the 5th June. While it’s certainly true that the number of Hindus being murdered was increasing steadily – 23 were killed on 2nd June – the government provided no evidence to back up the claim. Brar – remarkably, since this was a government claim – does not mention this at all. Instead, he says that it was because the Akalis had decided to start a state-wide agitation to stop grain transports that the decision was taken. Since the Akalis had no influence at all on Bhindranwale at this stage, it’s not clear why on earth the government would have struck the latter with such haste.
Whatever the cause of the decision, it’s singularly unfortunate that the army should have moved in around the Temple on 3rd June. It’s the anniversary of the martyrdom of Sikh Guru Arjan Dev, and to Sikhs all over it was an insult that the government should have brought in the army on that day. It lent credence to rumours that the entire operation was meant to “teach the Sikhs their place”, and increased anger levels in the populace.
Meanwhile, Longowal and Tohra were still in their rooms in the Guru Ram Das Sarai (Brar says they were in the Guru Nanak Niwas, but both buildings are in the same hostel complex, along with their offices in a third building called the Teja Singh Samundari Hall), with their “bodyguard” of Babbar Khalsa men; the third Akali leader, Badal, was on his farm elsewhere in Punjab. Brar says that Bhindranwale sent about thirty of his own troops under the command of his translator Harminder Singh Sandhu over to keep an eye on Longowal and Tohra and prevent them from surrendering. So once again there were two terrorist gangs in the hostel complex – Bhindranwale’s lot and the Babbar Khalsa – who hated each other as bitterly as they hated the Indian state. Basically, what this meant was that there were two different military operations that had to be conducted simultaneously, one against the Temple and the other against the hostel complex, the second of which was compounded by the fact that the buildings were full of devotees and also terrorists who might at any time begin fighting each other.
At 9 in the evening of 3rd June, curfew was again clamped down across all of Punjab, and all road, rail and air links to the state were cut off. The state was completely sealed off from the world, something easier to do then, before mobile phones and the internet, and on the 4th, foreign correspondents (and Indian journalists working for foreign publications) were ordered out; Tully and a few others managed to hang on till the morning of the 5th before being expelled. [Jiwa says the “world watched in awe” as India assaulted the Temple. This is a piece of fantasy; not even Punjab knew what was going on in Amritsar, let alone “the world”.]
During the night of the 3rd the army also besieged 37 Sikh Gurudwaras across Punjab where Bhindranwale’s terrorists were supposed to be holed up. In one instance, in Patiala, they had to storm one of the Gurudwaras, and between 20 and 56 people (according to who you believe) were killed in the fighting.
The Assault Begins:
Before going on further, it’s probably time to discuss the layout of the Golden Temple, since that would have an important effect on the fighting. The Temple lies in a congested part of Amritsar, surrounded by crowded, narrow lanes. It’s built in the shape of a rectangle round a central pool, or Sarowar. The Harimandir Sahib is in the centre of this Sarowar, connected to the rest of the Temple by a causeway to the west. This causeway is connected to a building called the Darshani Deori, which is separated from the Akal Takht by a quadrangle. The Sarowar is lined by a pathway called the parikrama, on either side of which are further buildings – residential quarters, administrative offices, and, on the south, the Temple library, which at this time contained, apart from other things, originals of hukumnamas issued by the High Priests over the years.
|Click to enlarge|
On the east of the Temple complex was the hostel complex, separated from the Temple by a public road, and overlooked by two old towers the terrorists had turned into fortified observation points. Apart from that there were the occupied buildings, which I’ve mentioned, serving as observation posts and strongpoints. These buildings, according to Brar,
“...had been interconnected with planks of wood and steel girders and some of them were in such close proximity that it was possible for the militants to either jump over, or walk across, the improvised bridgeways without having to expose themselves on the streets and bylanes.”
If you’re wondering what the authorities were doing while these houses, none of which was remotely part of the Temple Complex, were being thus fortified, don’t fret; so am I.
With the sole exception of the Harimandir Sahib, every single one of the Temple buildings was heavily fortified. However, the Harimandir Sahib was one of the army’s prime objectives, since it was the actual Golden Temple itself. Divers were supposed to swim across the Sarowar and capture it early on, so as to prevent the terrorists from destroying it and blaming the army. It was repeatedly driven home to the soldiers that they were not to fire on the Harimandir Sahib under any circumstances, no matter what the provocation. What this order meant in practice was that the soldiers couldn’t fire across the Sarowar for fear of hitting the Harimandir Sahib, and suffered many casualties they might otherwise have avoided.
But all that came later. At this time, the terrorists were still not expected to put up very strong resistance, but in order to neutralise their fortifications a squadron of Vickers Vijayanta tanks (at the time one of the Indian Army’s two main battle tanks – the other was the T-55) was allotted, along with OT 64 armoured personnel carriers. The tanks, according to Brar, were only to be used as shields for assaulting infantry and were only to use their coaxial machine guns, not their 105 mm main guns, to knock out rooftop defences. We shall see what happened to that plan.
There is an interesting thing that occurred on the evening of the 5th, which was only disclosed many years later by an Akali politician, BS Ramoowalia, who happened to be present in the hostel complex with Longowal and Tohra. As he says,
“Five Sikh youth with self-loading rifles (SLRs) and a metallic box that was possibly a transmitter came to us and placed their SLRs with their barrels pointing towards all of us. They told us that the ‘box’ is connected with Gen Zia-Ul-Haq (sic) in Pakistan. They told Jathedar Tohra and Sant Longowal to declare the formation of Khalistan, so that the Pakistani Army can launch an attack. Both Tohra and Longowal are not alive today, so I am saying this under a solemn oath of allegiance to the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, because I want to speak the truth. Sant Longowal kept completely quiet. Then Jathedar Tohra said, ‘... This is a battle between Sant Bhinderanwale (sic) and Mrs. Indira Gandhi and that since the former is leading the battle, it will be fair to ask him to issue the statement about the creation of Khalistan.’ He did not say that he will make the announcement for Khalistan. I don’t know how history will judge the Akali leadership but this is the truth. The youth then left the place and never came back.”
Zia-ul-Haq, then the dictator of Pakistan, was Ronald Reagan’s blue-eyed boy since he was aiding and abetting the US and its Mujahideen and Al Qaeda allies and proxies in their war against the USSR and the Afghan people. It’s unlikely in the extreme that Zia would actually have attacked even if we are to take Ramoowalia’s statement at face value, and believe that it was really a hotline to Islamabad. After all, back then (and unlike now) India could have fought and won a conventional war against Pakistan, and the USSR would have been all too happy to aid in destroying the fundamentalist terrorist state which was helping the jihadists in Afghanistan. This is also the reasoning of Tully, who says (contradicting Brar) that Pakistan at that time was not arming and training the Punjab terrorists. Later on, Pakistan did undoubtedly arm and train such terrorists, but that training never approached the level of Pakistani aid to the Kashmir terror movement in the late eighties to early nineties, when the Soviet Union was no longer a factor and there was no realistic chance of an Indian invasion.
Before the troops began moving out to their attack positions, Brar spoke to them and emphasised that it was not a war against the Sikhs, but an operation to flush out terrorists who had been desecrating the Temple with their presence. Since he, himself, was a Sikh (albeit a clean-shaven one) his words carried authority among his men, who included battalions of regiments from both North and South India, and included troops of all religions, including Sikhs. Brar says he gave all the men the option to decline to participate, but nobody did.
At 430 pm, there was a last ditch attempt to get the people inside the Golden Temple to surrender. Loudspeakers outside the walls broadcast appeals to come out. As many as 129 people actually did. Who these 129 were depends on whom you read. Jiwa, who can be safely dismissed, says the administration asked the “militants inside to surrender, but only 129 came out with their hands up.” Brar says they were devotees; India Today said they were SGPC (Temple administration) employees with their families. Either way, not a single one was a “militant.” Those of Bhindranwale’s men, and the Babbar Khalsa, who had remained were determined to fight it out.
According to Brar, the next step was to use artillery to blast away the fortified observation posts on the two towers and the water tank. India Today claimed that artillery sited in the historic Jallianwala Bagh, site of a massacre of unarmed Indian protestors by the British, was used. Brar, on the other hand, says only two artillery pieces – a 106 mm recoilless gun and a 94 mm howitzer – were used, and those for less than five minutes. Brar claims the howitzer was hauled up to the top of a building with ropes, and he does not mention the position of the recoilless gun at all. But considering how, as we shall see, he would go on to lie about the use of the tank main guns, there’s no particular reason to believe what he says here without corroborative evidence. The artillery – wherever it was fired from, and for whatever duration – did knock out the towers and the water tank. Tully says “severe damage was caused to several bazaars” by shells which had missed, but not unnaturally Brar is completely silent about this.
(Lest anyone think I’m making too much of my doubts about Brar’s claims of using minimum force, no, I am not. The Indian Army has a history of hiding its actual use of weapons in combat. During the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1987, India used Mi 24 helicopter gunships against LTTE defences, killing many civilians in the process. India Today had reporters on the ground who witnessed and photographed the carnage. When the story got out, the army first denied having used the gunships at all, and then reluctantly admitted having used them only on one isolated building, and then only with the machine guns. India Today said its reporters had personally witnessed the gunships rocketing the town of Chavakaccheri, including the main market, and published photographs of rows of civilian corpses as proof.)
At 7 pm, the tanks (belonging to 16 Cavalry Regiment) and the troops who were not already in the cordon began moving up to the Golden Temple through the curfew-emptied streets. Tully quotes a lieutenant in one of the tanks as saying there were four tanks and three “armoured cars” (these may have been WWII era scout cars the Army was still using in Kashmir as late as 1990, or he may mean the armoured personnel carriers; probably the latter seeing that these “armoured cars” were never mentioned again). Meanwhile, the armoured personnel carriers took up position on the street between the Temple and the hostel complex in order to prevent the terrorists in the two complexes reinforcing each other.
The next step was to neutralise two of the occupied buildings outside the Temple, Hotel Temple View and another building called the Brahma Buta Akhara. There’s a bit of a contradiction here; according to both Tully and Brar, the seventeen occupied buildings were between 500 to 800 metres from the Temple; yet a glance at the map shows these two to be much closer. Also, Tully says the hotel and the Akhara had “also” been occupied apart from the 17 buildings, clearly implying that 17 other buildings had been occupied. Brar says these two were among the 17 occupied buildings. This is far from the only contradiction between the two.
Whether the hotel and the Akhara were among the 17, or not, they had to be cleared out to remove a flanking threat to the assault. (The other 15, or 17, buildings weren’t attacked. Tully says Brar claimed not to have the resources to clear them out, and that firing from them continued for days after the main Operation was over. Brar doesn’t mention why he didn’t attack them at all in his book, a fairly typical evasion of the sort I mentioned earlier.) The hotel and Akhara were attacked not by the army but by the paramilitary; the Border Security Force struck the hotel while the CRPF stormed the Akhara. By 10 pm both the buildings had been captured without much trouble. Brar surmises that the militants inside had only been ordered to act as lookouts and had therefore offered little resistance. At this time the main operation was supposed to commence, but the tanks had failed to silence the Temple rooftop defences with their machine guns, so the assault was postponed by half an hour.
Before I go on to the assault, let me mention something here which neither Tully nor Brar talks about: the immediate fate of Shahbeg Singh. Unlike Bhindranwale,
Maj Gen Shahbeg Singh (retd.), the disgraced army man who joined Bhindranwale’s group and organized (sic) the defences died on the evening of 5th June, before the actual battle began. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet and quoting Balwinder Singh Khojkipur a close associate of Bhindranwale who survived the operation...he was taken to the basement of Akal Takht where he died with his head on Bhindranwale’s lap. His covered body lay in a room there for a whole day until the armymen (sic) entered and cleared it the next day. 
This loss of Shahbeg Singh so early in the proceedings must have been a blow, but did not, as shall be seen, stop the resistance. Taking out Bhindranwale would have been far more lethal to the defenders, leaving them without their leader and reason to keep fighting. As I said, it’s interesting to speculate why the Sant wasn’t shot when he so easily could have been.
While the two assaults were to take place simultaneously, one on the Temple and the other on the hostel complex, it would probably be best to discuss them separately, to avoid confusion.
The Hostel Complex - Battle, Surrender and Masacres:
As has been stated already, the hostel complex consisted of several buildings, which, while not as heavily fortified as the Temple, were full of antagonistic terrorist factions as well as pilgrims and the Akali leaders, among whom were Longowal and Tohra. The operational plan called for securing the entire hostel complex by the morning of 6th June, including mopping up operations. Troops from the 9 Kumaon Regiment were used to clear out the hostel complex buildings, after a tank was used to break down the iron gates. They started with the Ram Das Serai, fighting terrorists hiding in the rooms and corridors, and had more or less achieved control of the building by half past one in the morning of 6th June, though numbers of terrorists remained in uncleared portions. (All this was while much more intense fighting was going on in the Temple next door, as I’ll describe.)
The next building was the Teja Singh Samundari Hall, where the Akali leaders were hiding in Longowal’s office, without water (since the water tank had been knocked out) or electricity. The Hall was isolated, Brar says, by 230 am and among those who surrendered were Longowal and Tohra, who “were in their vests and underpants”, BS Ramoowalia and Amarjit Kaur (the widow of Fauja Singh, and according to Gill one of the leaders of the Babbar Khalsa). Brar says they were confined to an office for their own safety “lest some harm should befall them”.
At around this time a group of 250-350 (according to whom you believe, Brar or Tully) civilians, including women and children, surrendered to the army. As they were being marshalled together, someone started throwing grenades and firing on them. According to Brar, “a few of the militants...rushed to the upper floor of the Teja Singh Samundari Hall and recklessly lobbed grenades into the open hall, besides firing short bursts.” According to Tully, quoting SGPC official Bhan Singh who had been with Longowal, only a single grenade was thrown by terrorists from what was left of the water tank overlooking the Guru Ram Das Serai. The terrorists did not open fire – it was the army, thinking that one of the surrendered people who had thrown it, who had shot at the people. Bhan Singh says he ran to Tohra’s room, where Longowal was, and told him what was happening. Longowal came out and shouted to the officer in charge, a major, to stop shooting. Even by the official count, seventy people were killed in this episode.
According to both Bhan Singh and Ramoowalia, there was a deliberate massacre of some of the young male prisoners taken at the Hall.
“…(A) Major of the 9 Kumaon regiment lined up some 20 Sikh youth and mowed them down with a machine gun. Recalling the incident, Mr. Ramoowalia says, “The captured Sikhs appeared to be from Kashmir and didn't look like Punjabi Sikhs. An officer waved a handkerchief and they were shot dead by the Army men with bullets which were sprayed on them from left to right and then right to left…The Army men were very angry, very abusive, mad with rage… This happened between 3 a.m. and 3.30 a.m., after the grenade blast nearby and after that it was my turn next as a part of the next group of Sikhs which was being queued up for killing…By chance, I remembered that I had in my pocket my identity card as an ex-Member of Parliament...I flashed it and raised my hand …He asked me, ‘what is your name?’ I said, ‘my name is Ramoowalia.’ He asked me once again. I told him, ‘I am not misguiding. Not misleading. This is my identity card. Please check it up.’ God knows, the Army man was so angry, he could have just shot and killed me. But he said, ‘stop’.”
…Brigadier (retd.) Onkar Singh Goraya, who was then Col Admn in HQ 15 Corps corroborates the incident saying that Bhan Singh the then SGPC secretary also told him something similar. “He said the Army men in Darbar Sahib have done something awful. He said that some Sikh youth were lined up against a wall in the Golden Temple Complex and killed with a machine gun. 
A schoolteacher, Ranbir Kaur, was among those who were in the Guru Ram Das Serai, along with her husband and twelve children who were in her charge. She claims to have witnessed what might have been the same or another massacre, where 150 Bangladeshi men – who were trying to get to Pakistan – were shot by the army. These men had nothing to do with either the Akalis or Bhindranwale; they were in the process of being smuggled by the terrorists across the border for money.
Going by the fact that the Indian Army has repeatedly been known to have massacred civilians, and there actually exists a law allowing them to do so in areas where it’s promulgated without fear of repercussion, there’s absolutely no reason to disbelieve any of this happened. Bhan Singh claims the number of Sikhs killed in this way was 35 to 36 and they were massacred after being made to line up with their hands above their heads, but otherwise his account agrees with that of Ramoowalia. He, too, came within an ace of being shot out of hand and only escaped by running for his life and crawling over corpses till he reached Tohra and Longowal.
Brar makes a rather pathetic, or hilarious (depending on your point of view) attempt to explain away this massacre. According to him, the prisoners were “for a short period of time” secured with their hands tied behind their backs to “prevent them from escaping”, when one of them – whose hands had been freed in order to let him use the loo – tried to “overpower the sentry and snatch away his weapon,” whereupon the other prisoners in the group “made an attempt to escape. In a spontaneous reaction, the second sentry…opened fire, as a result of which a few people of this group were killed.”
[This is the second most blatant standard Indian Army or police excuse for bumping off prisoners – and was to be used again for the killing of Beant Singh and the wounding of Satwant Singh, as I mentioned at the start of this article. The most blatant standard excuse is that the dead prisoners were “caught in the crossfire” while leading troops to their hideouts.
More proof that there had been a massacre comes from the Indian government’s own reaction at the time. Far from admitting even what Brar said, and I quoted above, the government denied that anyone had been killed – and tried to bring criminal charges against the AP correspondent, Brahma Chellaney, who managed to stay back in Amritsar when the rest of the “foreign” media was expelled, and who had broken the story. Brar, too, expends some vitriol on Chellaney, and regretfully says he was eventually released “due to lack of sufficient evidence against him.” Evidence of what, exactly? Brar doesn’t clarify.]
Another and less deliberate massacre may have occurred at this time. According to Tully, a Sikh called Sajjan Singh Margindpuri wrote to Zail Singh saying sixty pilgrims had been locked into Room No 61 of the Guru Ram Das Serai by the army after capture and left there overnight without water. Only five were still alive when the door was opened the next morning, and these five were arrested and taken away by the army. However, I could not find any independent corroboration of this, so it should be taken under advisement.
Ranbir Kaur, her husband, and the twelve children she was caring for were also arrested. Months later, Kaur and her husband were released, as were three of the children; the other nine disappeared without a trace.
Also, according to Brar, on the night of the 5th, thirty to forty Babbar Khalsa terrorists managed to escape from the hostel complex and vanish. If so, this proves that even at this time the army and paramilitary cordon was far from complete. Also, since the total Babbar Khalsa strength in the hostel complex was no more than about forty, just about all of them who were there must have succeeded in getting away, though Brar credits those who were in the Temple and the towers with fighting “with grit”, despite their opposition to Bhindranwale.
Incidentally, among those who surrendered without a fight at the Hall was Bhindranwale’s interpreter, Harminder Singh Sandhu, who the Sant had sent to prevent the Akali leaders from turning themselves in. Far from fulfilling his mission, he capitulated without a fight when the time came; Brar says he was hiding among the pilgrims and trying to pass himself off as one of them. Tully speculates that he might actually have been a double agent working for the government; Brar does not mention this possibility at all.
Brar mentions two more incidents where “militant fire” on surrendering civilians caused casualties, at about 430 am and again around 9 am on the 6th June. By then, the active fighting in the hostel complex was over, though it was still continuing in the Langar and the Temple complex. It was only after the Temple complex fighting ended that the terrorists in the Langar and the towers, Brar says, ceased their resistance.
(I can’t help mentioning an apparent self-contradiction I detect in Brar here. According to him, his “five minute artillery barrage” on the evening of the 5th had knocked out both the towers as well as the water tank; so how is it that the terrorists inside were still fighting on days later? He doesn’t try to explain this, or why his artillery couldn’t be used again to finish the job it had allegedly already performed to perfection.)
Let us now return to the main battle, that for the Temple itself.
The Battle for the Golden Temple
The initial plan was to get into the Golden Temple complex from three sides (according to Tully) and two – as per Brar, who gives a fold out map in his book with the routes and forces allocated clearly marked. I’ll mention in a moment why I do not completely trust Brar’s account on this, though.
The main assaults, Brar says, were to take place from two directions.
The first was through the main Golden Temple entrance from the north, which is closest to the Akal Takht, and was supported by the armour (both Brar and Tully confirm this) and involved para-commandos, Special Frontier Forces troops (who had allegedly trained on the Temple model) and the 10 Guards regiment. These were supposed to break through the main gate, spread out on both sides along the parikrama, and hit the Akal Takht from the north side while linking up with the other assault team.
This second assault team – 26 Madras Regiment – was to break through from the east gate (passing by the Langar and the towers, where, you’ll remember, the terrorists were fighting hard) and on reaching the parikrama, spread out to the north to link up with the 10 Guards and to the south to take care of the buildings on that side of the Sarowar. There was another gate to the south, outside which (as per Brar) 15 Kumaon was held in reserve.
Meanwhile, divers were to enter along with the soldiers from both teams, and swim across the Sarowar and take over the Harimandir Sahib, both from the north side and the east. For the life of me I don’t know how they were supposed to achieve this feat, in case the Harimandir Sahib was at all defended, since as I said the soldiers were prohibited from firing even in its general direction. Were these divers expected to fight it out with knives? In the event, they were never used for reasons which will soon become clear.
|Photograph of fold-out from Brar's book, depicting his initial operational plan|
Before I go further, I’ll explain why I find Brar’s description of his plan suspect. The Akal Takht isn’t exactly isolated from the rest of the universe except via the parikrama. In fact, right behind it, to the west, is a maze of alleyways – an obvious route of approach, which no remotely competent military leader should have overlooked. And, Tully says, Brar did not overlook it. Tully says the first assault on the Akal Takht used this route, but was a “dismal failure. Some commandos did get on the roof of the shrine, but they were caught in the crossfire and had to withdraw. For some reason,” Tully continues with barely restrained irony, “this part of the operation was not mentioned at all by the Generals when...it was all over.”
I can imagine why they wouldn’t want to mention this “dismal failure,” don’t you? As someone says, success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.
(Brar, for his part, says he couldn’t use the alleys behind the Takht as a route of attack due to the occupied strongpoints, but since he doesn’t provide a map of their locations, it’s not a particularly compelling argument.)
Tully says that it was only after this assault failed that Brar decided on the attack by the para commandos through the main gate – the strategy Brar himself in his book claims to have planned all along. That Tully is, once again, to be more trusted than Brar in this is what happened to these para commandos (dressed in black denims and not the olive green which was at that time the ordinary infantry’s combat uniform) as they ran down the steps leading to the gate and the parikrama beyond; terrorists placed on both sides of the stairs, armed with light machine guns, shot them down. Since Captain Raina, who had reconnoitred the Temple earlier, must have passed through this gate, his “valuable information” either missed these terrorist emplacements, or else Brar was well aware of them and only used this approach when the direct assault on the Akal Takht from the back lane failed. If there is a third option, I can’t think of it.
Tully claims Brar (who was with his two superior officers, Lieutenant Generals Sundarji and Dayal, in his tactical HQ nearby; the presence of all this brass can’t have done his morale much good) was heard yelling angrily over the radio, “You bastards, why don’t you go in?” Brar, naturally, is silent about this, as he is silent about so much else.
There is a question why para commandos were used at all in the operation. They were specialised troops who were only to be deployed under certain conditions, generally only when the element of surprise was on their side, rather as special forces are these days. As Lt General JS Aurora (a Sikh officer who took the surrender of Pakistani forces in Dhaka in the 1971 war) said about them, unless there was an element of surprise, they were “no better than ordinary infantry.” And, of course, there was absolutely no way Bhindranwale, who had been preparing for months for a siege and assault, could be taken by surprise.
As the surviving para commandos withdrew and regrouped, Brar sent them right back in, with reinforcements from 10 Guards, a unit with Sikh soldiers commanded by a Muslim officer, Lt Colonel Israr Khan, following. This second attack managed to silence the positions at the gateway and reached the parikrama. This didn’t do the soldiers much good because they then came under heavy fire from the parikrama on the other side, across the Sarowar. The soldiers were, of course, prohibited from shooting back because the Harimandir Sahib was in the way; and, remarkably, despite the intense provocation they must have been under, they undoubtedly obeyed this order. (I mean it. During the entire course of the fighting, if any soldier did fire at the Harimandir Sahib, he did it surreptitiously and against orders; that is why the shrine escaped virtually undamaged, while the rest of the Temple was essentially destroyed.)
The Guards soldiers weren’t just unable to shoot back at their enemies across the Sarowar. They also could not make any headway towards the Akal Takht, not only because of the firing across the Sarowar, but because even the northern parikrama they were on wasn’t safe. Terrorists had made passages underneath covered with manholes, and they’d pop up, fire a few bursts and throw some grenades*, and then disappear underground again. Soon the Guards had taken 20% casualties (Brar says they suffered twenty dead within the course of the first couple of minutes) and not managed to advance at all. Even evacuating the casualties, Brar says, was “fraught with danger” under these circumstances; and I can well believe it. If the divers had been used, as planned, they’d have been massacred before they’d swum halfway to the Harimandir Sahib, so they were never sent in.
[*Most of these grenades were locally made, in an arms factory on the premises of the Temple itself; many of them were not much more than bundles of explosives set off by a lit fuse, but fairly lethal for all that.]
One of the reasons the defence could concentrate all its efforts on 10 Guards was that they and the para commandos were the only army troops inside the Temple at this time. As I said earlier, according to Brar’s operational plan, 26 Madras were to break in from the eastern gate at the same time as the paras were coming in from the north. However, they had not managed to get there in time; remember that they had to run the gauntlet of terrorist positions in the Langar and the towers in order to be able to make the gate. Tully also suggests that they “lost their way” in the alleys en route to the gate, but that requires a level of incompetence that staggers belief. Brar claims they had reached the (steel) gate but were unable to force their way through it, since another claim that makes me blink. Had these troops no explosives? As in so many other things in this episode, Brar’s answers to questions simply create more.
In any case, given these facts, Brar changed his plan. Israr Khan was ordered to assault the upper floors of the buildings on his side of the parikrama, and secure a position on the roof from which he might be able to cover further advances towards the Akal Takht. Despite the difficulties of making a climbing assault over aluminium ladders while under constant fire, Khan and his troops did manage to storm and occupy part of the upper floor of the parikrama and the roof. From here they managed to silence some of the terrorist positions on the south of the Sarowar, but only in directions in which they could shoot without endangering the Harimandir Sahib. According to Brar, the Guards suffered 19 killed (another self-contradiction, since he’d mentioned 20 in the first part of the battle earlier) and 53 wounded, while killing 145 terrorists.
Once this had been achieved, the para commandos and Special Frontier Force troops could finally reach the north-western parikrama corner and advance towards the Akal Takht. This brought them, as they were to discover, right into Shahbeg Singh’s killing ground. The quadrangle outside the Akal Takht was bound on one side by the Takht itself (a towering five-story structure) and on the other by the Darshani Deori, which led on to the causeway to the Harimandir Sahib. Both these buildings, and others around the quadrangle, had been very heavily fortified. From here the terrorists sent down what pulp-fiction writers like to call a “storm of hot lead” on the paras. Brar says they were carrying canisters of CS gas (tear gas) to try and smoke the terrorists out of their defences in the Akal Takht, and they now attempted – while under heavy fire – to lob them into the building. But the tiny firing slits and loopholes the defenders had left made it well-nigh impossible to use the CS canisters, which bounced back on to the quadrangle and began to affect the paras themselves; besides, “very strong cross winds” dispersed the gas so it was rendered useless. Some of the soldiers (12 out of 35, Brar says) managed to fight their way to the Darshani Deori, but were soon in need of reinforcements as well. By this time the SFF, which had the gas, had suffered some 30% casualties of their own and were pinned down.
(This insistence on launching repeated frontal attacks was – as an unnamed “Western military attaché” quoted by Tully said, ‘reinforcing failure’ in the manner of the First World War. However, it is also completely in the tradition of the Indian Army, which was as late as 1999 still trying frontal assaults up vertiginous mountain slopes at Pakistani positions in Kargil.)
It was time to bring in the troops who had been held in reserve outside the southern gate. Tully says they were from 17 Garhwal Rifles, Brar says they were from 15 Kumaon and 9 Garhwal Rifles, but it doesn’t really make that much of a difference. They were under fire as soon as they entered, but, like the 10 Guards to the north, managed to occupy the top floor of the parikrama, where the Golden Temple library was situated. But this still didn’t help capture the Akal Takht.
Meanwhile, after heavy fighting with terrorist defences, and suffering casualties, 26 Madras had finally entered from the eastern end of the Complex at about 2 am on 6th June, and began fighting their way along the parikrama to link up with the troops on the south. The operation was already far behind schedule.
It was then that the decision was made to bring in the tanks. According to Tully, Brar asked Sundarji for permission, and the latter bucked the question up to Delhi, where the Defence Ministry finally gave permission.
Tully, Brar and Jiwa all say the primary purpose of the tanks was to blind the defenders with their searchlights, and, Brar says, to illuminate the target area for the soldiers. However, Brar goes on, the filament of the searchlights invariably burnt out after being switched on for a “minute or so”, which would normally raise questions about the quality of said filaments. The first tank, which had entered through the eastern gate, found it difficult to reverse back up the steps leading to the parikrama, so it moved a little ahead to create space for a second tank, which in turn gave way to a third. Soon there were three tanks on the parikrama.
Then – this was around 4 am on 6th June – a SKOT OT 64 armoured personnel carrier was brought in to serve as cover to storm the Akal Takht. To allow the wheeled OT 64 access to the parikrama, a tank demolished the access staircase. With a section of 15 Kumaon aboard, and followed by more troops from the same battalion, the APC began moving up towards the Akal Takht when it was knocked out by an RPG 7 anti-tank grenade fired from the structure, wounding “one officer and nine men”. (Afterwards, among the weapons the troops recovered were two RPG 7 launchers, which the army had never suspected the terrorists had. I remember seeing these RPGs displayed on the TV news at the time.)
[Tully gives a slightly different version of events, where the OT 64 was sent in first except for one tank to break down the steps for it, and the tanks came in afterwards. He says that Brar ordered the tanks to switch off their searchlights once the OT 64 had been knocked out and the terrorists were proved to have anti-tank weapons. Jiwa says that one tank was used, and it was knocked out by the rockets; but Jiwa is so inaccurate in everything that I’m just posting his comment for contrast.]
Once this latest assault was scuppered, Brar and Sundarji asked Delhi for permission to use the tank machine guns (they say only the machine guns) on the Akal Takht. This machine gun fire started, as per Brar, exactly at 521 am on 6th June, at around the same time the massacres were, or were not, depending on whom you believe, going on in the hostel complex. At the same time the Kumaon troops made another frontal assault on the Akal Takht, which was once again beaten back, despite all the machine gun fire. (A few troops did manage to reach the Takht but were all killed by a single burst of machine gun fire.)
It gets fairly monotonous to keep repeating the litany of failed frontal assaults which followed; they all followed the same pattern of small groups of soldiers being sent into a prepared killing ground and taking murderously high casualties. Another assault was made, this time by 26 Madras, and fared no better; the NCO in charge was among those killed, and only three out of ten managed to get back alive. By this time it was half past seven in the morning, broad daylight – and the Akal Takht was still holding out.
At this stage, of course, Brar was faced with a dilemma. In the daylight, his men were sitting ducks for Bhindranwale’s snipers, and for this reason the original plan had called for the operation to be completed by daybreak. The obvious option – to withdraw till nightfall, maintain the cordon, and attack again once it got dark – was out, because it would have been a clear victory for Bhindranwale to have repulsed the might of the army. Also, as will be discussed later, the option of storming the Temple rather than besieging it had been taken on the grounds that to prolong the operation would be to invite a large scale Sikh uprising; this same logic meant that the fighting had to be concluded as soon as possible. Ergo, Brar and Sundarji, despite all the risks involved, gave the order to the tanks to open up on the Akal Takht with their main guns. At the same time, Tully says, Brar ordered the rooftop howitzer he’d used earlier on the towers to bombard the Akal Takht dome to try and frighten the defenders into surrendering.
The artillery bombardment had little to no effect, but the tank barrage was a different matter entirely. According to Tully, photographs of the Akal Takht after the battle show that the tanks had used High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) shells against the building. (Brar, characteristically, carefully avoids stating just how many shells were fired. Tully quotes Lt General JS Aurora, who inspected the damaged Akal Takht after the battle, as saying that the tanks had used a minimum of eighty shells.) HESH shells, used against armour and fortifications, cause a phenomenon called “spalling”, where the impact causes pieces of the inside of the said armour or fortifications to flake off and act as secondary missiles. In other words, the terrorists inside the Akal Takht found their own fortifications turn into lethal weapons against them. They might have imagined the building was on the verge of collapse.
The barrage basically destroyed the Akal Takht. The entire facade of the building ceased to exist. Parts caught fire – Brar mentions “huge flames” rising from inside the building – and the intensity of firing immediately fell off, but it didn’t cease completely. Shell-shocked they might be, but there was still enough fight left in the defenders to continue to hold off the army through all the daylight hours on the 6th.
|The Akal Takht and (below) after Operation Blue Star|
After the battle, Tully says, Brar told the media that only one tank had been driven on the parikrama and it had only used its machine gun on the Akal Takht. This, of course, was a blatant and transparent lie on Brar’s part, since the reporters (unless they were blind) could see for themselves the state of the building. It’s also interesting that Brar himself, in his book, admits the tank barrage on the Akal Takht, but makes no mention of his lie to the media, even to try and explain it away as he did the hostel complex massacre.
Though the Akal Takht had essentially been neutralised, there were terrorists in numbers still present at various points inside the Temple complex. According to Tully, quoting one of the temple administration (SGPC) employees who were still in the Akal Takht, Amrik Singh told him and the others – about thirty in all – to leave. Shortly afterwards, Bhindranwale himself came into the room with his men and also told them to leave unless they wanted to share “martyrdom”. This is proof that Bhindranwale was still alive at this time. According to this SGPC man, thirty of them, including Bhindranwale and Amrik Singh, emerged on the quadrangle in front of the Akal Takht, whereupon they were fired on. Amrik Singh was killed immediately, and twelve or thirteen of the others shot as they tried to make a rush for the Temple gates or the other fortified buildings. Some of them, Tully says, tried to escape by bamboo ladders from the back of the Akal Takht; Brar says the 12 Bihar Regiment’s cordon intercepted 26 of them as they tried to flee through the narrow lanes. Whether any managed to get away is not known.
Brar also mentions this episode, which according to him happened at about 11 am. He says some of the terrorists tried to swim to the Harimandir Sahib to seek sanctuary there, but were shot in the water; the tables were now completely turned. Shortly afterwards, he says, ten more came out of the Akal Takht waving a white flag. Brar surmised at the time that this meant Bhindranwale had either died or fled, so morale had collapsed.
For the next several hours there was a lull, with only occasional firing, giving the army a chance to process the prisoners and give the soldiers a badly needed rest. During this period, curfew was relaxed for two hours so people could buy food. Once the curfew was imposed again, the army again made loudspeaker announcements calling for surrender. Now the resistance had begun to collapse and according to Brar “200 surrendered including 22 from the Harimandir Sahib”; he doesn’t tell how many of these were civilians.
One of those who surrendered was a priest called Puran Singh. Incredible as it may seem, while the fighting was raging all around them, the Temple priests had tried to continue the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib and their regular rituals as best they could. With amazing courage, dodging bullets from both sides, they had rushed via the Darshani Deori to the Harimandir Sahib, to continue their routine prayers. According to this individual, there were 27 people in the Harimandir Sahib, none of whom was a militant.
These priests and officials had a ringside view of the violence around. The Darshani Deori, hit by “big bombs”, was on fire. So was the Treasury building (another of Shahbeg Singh’s strongpoints). Puran Singh says bullets “kept hitting the walls (of the Harimandir Sahib) both inside and outside, ripping off the golden surface at various places.” Of course, he had no way of knowing who was doing the shooting, or whether the shooting was even at the Harimandir Sahib or the building just happened to be in the way. The firing did mortally wound one of the men present; he died shortly afterwards.
According to Puran Singh, there were no arms or militants inside the Harimandir Sahib; but Brar, Dayal and Sundarji all insist the troops were fired on from inside the shrine. That someone shot at the Harimandir Sahib is confirmed by the fact that one of the Guru Granth Sahib copies in the building was found to have a bullet hole in its pages, apart from some three hundred bullet marks on the walls. Brar also confirms that the High Priest of the Harimandir Sahib complained that the army had fired a bullet at the Guru Granth Sahib; but he makes no attempt to discuss whether it was an army bullet. Of course, as far as Brar was concerned, the army did not fire at the Harimandir Sahib at all. Aurora, who visited the Harimandir Sahib, said he found no evidence that the place had any fortifications; but he didn’t rule out its use by “mobile pickets” of terrorists, either.
Among the others who surrendered was an anti-Bhindranwale SGPC official, NS Nanda. He told Satish Jacob that when he and his family gave themselves up, he was taken away and about to be shot by a junior officer when a “brigadier” intervened. Even so, he was made to sit on the ground with his hands tied behind his back and his head down. Apparently, then, the Temple complex also came within an ace of a massacre of prisoners.
Incidentally, among the buildings burned during the fighting was the library near the south gate. The Sikhs accused the army of deliberately having burnt it. The army gave out two contradictory stories, one claiming that it had caught fire while soldiers were trying to cook a meal during a break in the fighting, and another that terrorists had accidentally set fire to it while lighting the fuses of their grenades. Whatever the truth, hundreds of years of Sikh texts were burned to ashes.
The Death of Bhindranwale:
Meanwhile, what happened to Bhindranwale? Nobody who actually saw him die seems to have survived to tell the tale. Tully quotes the account of one of the priests of the Akal Takht that Bhindranwale was shot in the thigh about the time that Amrik Singh was killed, and taken down to the basement where Shahbeg Singh’s corpse already was. On the other hand, it’s claimed that
As for Bhindranwale himself... he died at 8.45 am on 6th June after being shot at from an armoured vehicle as he was moving towards the ‘Darshni Deodi’ to offer his prayers to Guru Ram Das.
You might as well take your pick which of these two you prefer, but remember that witnesses saw Bhindranwale alive at about eleven in the morning, over two hours after the “armoured vehicle” allegedly killed him.
According to Tully, the corpses of Shahbeg and Bhindranwale – however the latter died – were in the Akal Takht basement; the army recovered both bodies from there the next morning and brought them up. Shahbeg Singh’s corpse had been dragged up with ropes, maybe because he was by now in rigor mortis. They were placed beside Amrik Singh’s body outside the Akal Takht. According to Brar, only Shabeg’s corpse was in the Akal Takht basement “still clutching his carbine and with a walkie talkie by his side”; Bhindranwale was found dead elsewhere – Brar makes no attempt to explain where – with “forty of his followers”.
|After the battle: Shahbeg Singh's corpse|
By dawn of the 7th June, with Bhindranwale dead, the Akal Takht secured, and the army in control over both complexes, the battle was largely over. However, some terrorists still remained holed up in various parts of the Temple, not to speak of the famous fortified outposts outside. These would take days to neutralise.
While they were as yet far from neutralised, the Golden Temple had an important visitor; Zail Singh himself. The President, the man most responsible for Bhindranwale’s rise to notoriety, turned up on the morning of 8th June, and was received by the High Priest of the Harimandir Sahib and Brar himself. According to Brar, he looked “sad” at the devastation of the Akal Takht, but seemed uninterested when the terrorist fortifications were pointed out to him. Brar asks bitterly whether Zail Singh even realised that he was walking over the spot where over fifty soldiers had been killed. Tully says “politically conscious” TV viewers would have noticed that Indira Gandhi had put her “watchdogs” in Zail Singh's entourage, obviously to keep an eye on him and stop him from saying anything awkward.
As Zail Singh was exiting the Temple, a sniper fired on him. The bullet injured the colonel in charge of the commandos escorting the President, bouncing off the officer’s bulletproof jacket and through his arm. I still wonder just what this visit achieved.
Over the next days there was still some fighting going on, including underground where some of the terrorists were still hiding in tunnels. I don’t propose to describe those fights in detail, though – it was just mopping up, though it cost the lives of some soldiers. The battle was over.
|After the battle: from left, Maj Gen Brar, Lt Gen Sundarji and General Vaidya|
The Terrorist’s Arsenal:
Brar gives a list of the weapons the terrorists had in the two complexes, which added up to 927 (a very far cry from the 250 the army had expected). Apart from the two RPG 7 launchers, they included 41 light machine guns, 52 Type 56 rifles (these were the Chinese model of the old AK 47, at that time still considered an extremely advanced weapon by Indian standards) and 84 “SLRs”. These SLRs (Self Loading Rifles) were the single-shot version of the FN FAL rifle, which at that time was the standard Indian Army infantry weapon. The rest were made up of old bolt action .303 Lee Enfield rifles (most likely taken from the police, who still use this century-old model to this day), shotguns, and handguns and carbines of various sorts.
|Some of the weapons captured from the terrorists. Detail of photograph scanned from Brar's book|
The question which needs to be asked is, obviously, where the weapons came from. Brar blames Pakistan for arming the Sikhs, but as Tully persuasively argues, and I mentioned earlier, there are good reasons to think Pakistan was not at this stage deeply involved. Even if they were, they at the most could have provided the Type 56s and the RPGs; and the government’s own report on the subject only mentions the Type 56 rifles as being “foreign made”. Where did the SLRs and the light machine guns come from? For that matter, who trained the terrorists so well that, as one officer told Tully, “Boy, what a fight they gave us. If I had three (divisions) like that I would f**k the hell out of Zia any day.”
I can only think of one source – elements within the Indian Army itself. This is, of course, something that officialdom would never admit because the army was then sacrosanct from criticism. But there doesn’t seem any other source available at the time which could turn peasant youth and a few disaffected students into such potent fighting machines.
There’s another question which needs to be addressed. It’s all very convenient to talk of “fanatical terrorists” and the like, but just why did these young men become fanatical? They weren’t like international jihadists trying to resurrect the Caliphate or anything similar; they were fighting on their own land, in their own Temple, for a cause they knew was doomed. So what was it that made them so “fanatical”?
I suspect that this is a question the government won’t want asked, let alone provide an answer.
The Casualty Toll:
What exactly was the cost in blood? Brahma Chellaney, the AP correspondent who had managed to hang on in Amritsar when the rest of the “foreign” media were expelled, and who broke the news of the hostel complex massacre, claimed that 400 Indian troops and 780 militants had been killed in the fighting. Other estimates of military casualties are even higher, in the region of 700 or more.
On the other hand, the government put out exact casualty figures for the army, which Brar breaks down as 83 dead (four officers, four “junior commissioned officers” – a rank class equivalent to the various grades of sergeant major – and 75 other ranks) and 248 injured (13 officers, 16 JCOs, and 219 other ranks). Tully analyses the figures and concludes they are correct (and even Chellaney’s totals, not to speak of the others, as far too high), a rare instance where he and Brar are in complete agreement.
Strangely, the Wikipedia page on the Operation claims 136 Indian troops killed and 220 injured, and cites the Indian Army’s martyrs page which gives names. This means the army and the government (including the army’s commander on the spot, Brar) are giving completely contradictory figures, which is bizarre indeed. Of course, since the figures of wounded is lower, this might include some of those who may have died of wounds later or others who died fighting terrorists elsewhere in Punjab at this time.
As for the other side, the figures are a bit more problematic. Brar says 492 “terrorists and others” were killed, including 30 women and 5 children; and 86, including 7 women and 4 children, wounded. 1592 people were “apprehended” – including 1283 men and 309 women and children (counted in one category); Wikipedia says that 433 of the arrested were terrorists.
On the other hand, Tully says there were, according to eyewitness reports, 3680 people in the two complexes when the operation started, among whom only 650 could be counted as terrorists: 500 Bhindranwale men, and the remaining 150 Babbar Khalsa and other armed groups. Counting the official figures of killed and captured, therefore, leaves about 1600 people unaccounted for. What happened to these 1600, if that is we are to accept the army’s figures, is a mystery.
Not too surprisingly, the operation caused intense fury among the Sikhs. Even those who were utterly opposed to Bhindranwale and Khalistan, like Sikh columnist Khushwant Singh, were embittered. Zail Singh, allegedly, considered resignation, though knowing his utterly self-serving nature one doubts he really meant it. More seriously, some of the Sikh units in the Indian army mutinied, took control of vehicles and armouries, and tried to reach Amritsar to “liberate” the shrine. These mutinies had to be put down with a certain amount of violence; not an edifying sight, the army fighting itself.
It must be emphasised that far from all the Sikhs in the army revolted. By all accounts, about 3% of the Sikh troops mutinied. Since Sikhs at that time comprised 10% of the army, the mutineers were 0.3% of the strength of the armed forces – hardly a formidable total. Yet, for a time there was talk of disbanding all Sikh units, which must have done no good to the morale of the soldiers who stayed loyal either.
One of the worst mistakes the government had made was to clamp a media gag down on Punjab, cutting it off from the world. Inevitably, all it did was cause lurid rumours to fly around, such as the idea that “thousands” of Sikhs had been massacred and the entire Golden Temple, including the Harimandir Sahib, flattened. These rumours were playing around among the Sikh units, too, and the officers compounded the problem by making absolutely no attempt (like Brar did) to explain the true state of affairs to the men. At that time, much of the Indian soldiery was still just about literate, and nuanced thinking was beyond them. They looked to the officers for leadership; if the officers failed to provide it, they took it from any rabble-rouser who came along.
If the media had been allowed to show exactly what was happening, if the people could see for themselves that it was the militants who had turned the Temple into a fortress – not to speak of a headquarters for terrorism and secessionism – and if they could have seen that the Harimandir Sahib was essentially intact, it’s highly unlikely that they would have reacted as they did. It was the Indian government’s own passion for secrecy that caused these problems.
The Siege Option:
“Mrs Gandhi,” said India Today, “took a decision that few could deny had to be taken”. But, of course, people could deny that it had to be taken – and did. Right from the start, many, including former generals like Aurora, said that a siege would have been a better option.
Did the army actually need to storm the shrine? Could the terrorists inside have been ousted by a siege? Brar goes into a long discussion of why a siege was impossible because it would have taken far too long and the Sikh people would have risen in revolt. According to him, the Temple was full of food stocks, and water was available not only in the Sarowar but through pumps the terrorists had installed. Also, a constant curfew elsewhere could not be sustained, since people had to be allowed to go out to buy food to eat. These are, on the face of it, fairly persuasive arguments.
So is the India Today report at the time, which, as I recall, says that the terms of the curfew in Punjab ordered the army to “shoot at sight anyone seen in the streets and at once fire on the mobs.” If such orders were in place, one can ask how the massive Sikh uprising Brar feared could have taken place. In the event, though there were instances of violence, the massive human waves of Sikh peasantry never arrived to swamp the army cordon. Aurora, too, thought the army deployment in Punjab was quite sufficient to block any mobs, and another retired Lieutenant General, Harbaksh Singh, said that the terrorists could have been starved out simply by isolating the Langar from the temple complex with snipers.
What might have been achieved with a siege isn’t just in the realm of speculation. Operation Blue Star wasn’t the last time Indian troops would be deployed against the Golden Temple. The next time troops went in was just two years later, in an operation called Black Thunder I  in which commandos and BSF troopers stormed the Golden Temple and captured around “300 Sikh separatists”. It hardly made the news.
Far more interesting was Operation Black Thunder II, which occurred on 9th May 1988 and lasted for nine days. Unlike Blue Star, which was commanded by the army, Black Thunder II was under the Punjab Police’s control, and the man in charge was none other than Gill himself. Black Thunder II was a classic siege, with all access to the shrine cut off and snipers on rooftops making it almost impossible for the terrorists to even stick their heads out of the rooms in the Temple, let alone move about freely. Also, it was carried out in the full view of the media, with TV and newspapers all able to show the world that the Golden Temple was virtually unharmed and the troops had exercised maximum restraint. The casualties tell the tale, too: 41 terrorists killed and 200 surrendered against zero civilian and security force losses. (Brar, in another astonishing flight of fancy, claims that Operation Black Thunder II ended without “a shot fired”. When I read that I wondered whether we were talking about the same operation.)
There are some factors which made Gill’s task in 1988 easier than Brar’s in 1984, though. In 1988, the terrorists had neither a charismatic figure to rally around like Bhindranwale, nor a military commander like Shahbeg Singh. Also, Gill had made sure not under any circumstances to allow the terrorists to construct any fortifications outside the Temple. This was helped by the fact that the Punjab Police, by 1988, was no longer the demoralised, infiltrated and completely dysfunctional force it had been in 1984. It was by then a ruthless and brutally efficient organisation, under an equally ruthless commander, who was dedicated to the task of stamping out terror in Punjab, come what may.
In my personal opinion, under the circumstances in which Brar was forced to operate in 1984, a siege probably would not have worked as quickly as in 1988. As I’ve repeatedly mentioned, even during the battle, terrorists managed to escape through the cordon, proving it had been ineffective in sealing off escape routes. However, the army definitely should have held off longer and used snipers to knock off premium targets like Bhindranwale, while gathering intelligence about conditions inside and making the cordon escape-proof. How much the hasty army operation depended on Indira Gandhi’s desire to achieve a demonstrable “victory” is a matter of conjecture.
“Over the entire period of the terrorist movement in Punjab,” says Gill, “the two most significant victories for the cause of ‘Khalistan’ were won not by the militants, but inflicted – through acts both of commission and omission – upon the nation by its own Government. The first of these was Operation Blue Star; the second, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.”
It’s hard to disagree. Before 1984, the support for Khalistan was virtually nonexistent. Even Sikhs who felt slighted by the Indian government’s policies on occasion knew well enough that their future lay in a united India, that Sikhs and Hindus were closely connected and shared deep organic roots, no matter what some ranting demagogues might say. But Blue Star alienated the Sikhs to such an extent – not just the violence, but allegations of the troops desecrating the Temple afterwards by smoking and drinking, allegations that Tully argues persuasively were justified – that only weeks later Indira Gandhi had abandoned the “victory over terrorism” platform and was blaming it all on Pakistan. This is rich considering the fact that in her address to the nation before the operation, she’d blamed it on the Akalis, and the terrorists, with nary a mention of any foreign involvement. But then with Indira Gandhi blaming the “foreign hand” – the CIA or Pakistan – was the default option in any political crisis whatever.
If Blue Star laid the powder train, the pogrom at the end of the year* lit it and led to the explosion of violence that was to follow. Except for pockets in the South and East of the country, Sikhs were targeted nationwide, forced into hiding or to shave their beards and abandon their identity. Many young men were embittered and radicalised, and not a few pushed into terrorism. Soon enough a real secessionist terrorist movement had grown all over Punjab. Terrorist groups with names like the Khalistan Zindabad Force, Khalistan Liberation Force, Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan, and others had joined the Babbar Khalsa in a campaign of mayhem. Hindus were largely but not solely on the receiving end; any Sikh who did not agree with the terrorists was a target as well.
[*I’d say “pogrom”, not “riots”, myself. The killings had a planned nature which is far removed from the chaos of a true riot.]
The terror campaign often had a random nature which was completely different from Bhindranwale and his hit lists. One time, as I remember, radio transistor bombs appeared all over Delhi, left where people (of any religion, of course) could pick them up. These being the days before abandoned items were, as now, immediately objects of suspicion and alarm, a lot of them were retrieved, usually by street kids. When they tried to turn on the radios, they were blown to pieces.
Probably the single worst atrocity was the bombing of Air India Flight 182, the episode on which Jiwa’s highly coloured book is written. This plane – a Boeing 747 called Kanishka – was flying from Montreal to Delhi by way of London when, on 23rd June 1985, a bomb blew it up off the coast of Ireland. 329 people, including 268 Canadians (including many Sikhs), 27 British and 24 Indians, were killed, and for many years this held the Guinness record for the worst terrorist strike ever. It could, actually, have been much worse – the plan was to bomb two Air India planes simultaneously, but the second bomb went off prematurely while in transit in Narita airport in Tokyo, killing two baggage handlers.
Blue Star claimed some unexpected victims too. One was Longowal himself; in July 1985, he signed an agreement with Rajiv Gandhi, called the Punjab Accord, which was meant to be a political settlement. He paid for it with his life when terrorists killed him as a “traitor”; the terms of the Accord, such as the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, are yet to be fully implemented and almost certainly never will be.
Another of the prominent victims of Blue Star was the then chief of the Indian Army, General AS Vaidya. Two years later, the then retired general was murdered in Pune by Khalistan Commando Force terrorists as retaliation for being army chief when Blue Star was conducted.
By the mid- to late eighties, though, the nature of the insurgency had changed. Criminals in large numbers had been attracted to the terrorists, lured by the power of the gun. Gill says terrorists demanded not just food and shelter from people, but
“...forced sex with the young women of the families they stayed with. Abduction and rape became commonplace. Compounding these was widespread extortion and...massive land grabbing.”
Gill gives details of the corruption and moral degeneration of terrorists across groups during this period; even the Babbar Khalsa commander comes across as a hypocrite, preaching austerity and discipline while having accumulated considerable wealth and a mistress with an illegitimate child. Of course, all this turned the Sikhs over time against the terrorists, and when Gill turned the reinvigorated Punjab Police loose on them, there was only one way it could end.
|Kanwar Pal Singh Gill|
The Punjab Police crushed the insurgency with a ruthlessness that approaches or surpasses that of the terrorists themselves. Young men were eliminated on the slightest suspicion, arrested, tortured for information, and then bumped off in stage-managed “encounters”. Terrorists were soon reduced to escaping beyond state boundaries in a desperate attempt to hide, but even that wasn’t good enough. On one occasion, being tipped off that a certain terrorist was hiding in Calcutta, in West Bengal state on the other side of the country from Punjab, a hit team went there without a word to the local cops, summarily killed the terrorist and his partner, and brought their corpses back to Punjab. Gill says the turning point came when the average life span of a terrorist fell below six months, at which point it ceased to be attractive to criminals or any but prospective martyrs.
By 1993, the insurgency was effectively ended.
The last significant terrorist strike in Punjab happened on 31st August 1995, when Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh (no relation to the Beant Singh who had murdered Indira Gandhi) was killed by a Babbar Khalsa suicide bomber. As far as I know it was the only suicide attack of the entire insurgency.
Today, “Khalistan” lives on only in the fevered imaginations of a few Sikh expatriates in Canada and Britain, just as “Eelam” exists only in the fantasies of Sri Lankan Tamil expats in those same nations. The people of India have long moved on, and, remarkably, have largely managed to heal their wounds. India had a Sikh army chief a few years ago; the current prime minister of the country is also a Sikh. That he is a thoroughly despicable individual, a rubber-spined puppet of the Gandhi dynasty, is his own fault, not that of the Sikh community, and nobody has ever thought to blame the Sikhs for his misdeeds.
Those who cannot remember the past, George Santayana said, are condemned to repeat it. The Punjab insurrection was probably the most artificial one in history, created by self-serving politicians, who then allowed it to reach a critical mass that almost tore the country apart. Unlike historically far more intractable problems like the Kashmir insurgency, Punjab never had to happen the way it did. But politicians never learn their lessons, and in the years since then have continued trying to drive wedges between people to derive some temporary electoral benefit. With the eclipse of the Left in this country, we are basically faced with different shades of fascism. If we fall asleep at the wheel again, the nightmare may be repeated.
And, this time, it may be impossible to wake up.
 http://indianarmy.nic.in/Site/martyrs/home.aspx [Note: Please select “Operation Blue Star” from the drop-down box]
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013