The June 1984 army action on the Golden Temple complex – Sri Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib – was a tipping point in the Sikh and Indian history 33 years ago.
Operation Bluestar is the Indian government term for calling the Army to seal Panjab’s borders and invade the Sikh centers of learning and worship. As per the government’s White Paper, it did so for “controlling extremist, terrorist and communal violence in Punjab, providing security to the people and restoring normalcy.”
Ghallughara is the Sikh term for a large-scale massacre, carnage or genocide connoting aggression and persecution. It originated in mid 1700s in Panjab. In 1746, Ghallughara was first invoked when 7,000 Sikhs were killed and 3,000 captured by Lakphat Rai and Yahiya Khan. In 1762, Ghallughara was invoked again when 35,000 Sikhs were killed by Ahmad Shah Durrani (popularly Abdali). Ghallughara is an integral part of the Sikh psyche and folklore, and 1984 genocidal campaign in Sikh parlance, is also termed 1984 Ghallughara.
Citizens for Democracy’s banned publication in India since September 1985, Report to the Nation: Oppression in Punjab asserts:
“The contrast between “Operation Bluestar” and “Ghallughara” as two different perceptions of the same reality is symptomatic of the wide gap between the official version and the people’s recollections of what really happened at the Golden Temple when the army attacked it in June 1984. Listening to the gripping eye-witness accounts of those who were inside Golden Temple at that time, we felt the need to tell the truth, the as yet untold story and in the process to correct the government’s version as put out by the Army, the Press, the Radio, the TV and the White Paper.”
On 10 July 1984, the Government of India released White Paper of Punjab Agitation. Its preamble gives two grounds for the 1984 invasion: (a) ‘the consequences of this determined assault on society cannot be measured simply in terms of the number of people killed and injured’ and (b) ‘the whole thrust of extremist violence was to fragment the people of Punjab and destroy their common culture.’
Lawyer, author, and historian A.G. Noorani in A White Paper on Black Record commented: “The White Paper does little to repair the government’s impaired credibility, everything to destroy it.”
Black lies are about selfishness. They are told when others gain nothing and the purpose is to get out of trouble and to gain something desired. Red lies are about spite and revenge. They are driven by the motive to harm others even at the expense of harming oneself. They may even be carved in blood.
A prominent opposition Member of Parliament during Indira and Rajiv Gandhi tenures, Madhu Danadvate commented in Lok Sabha (lower house of Indian Parliament): “It is my firm opinion that the White Paper is the white cover to conceal all the failures of the government to bring about settlement of the Punjab problem.”
The red waters of Amritsar in the 1984 June Ghallughara vividly address the black and red lies in the Indian government’s white paper!
There are many reasons that led to 1984: Rulers in Delhi were angry at Sikhs; feud since 1947 left Sikhs feeling they had been wronged in India; organized Sikh response against Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial Emergency; Sikh sense of betrayal culminated in solidified Dharam Yudh Morcha in 1982; and perhaps calculated lies for India to gain little but harmed the Sikhs more; to name a few.
In the aforesaid discussion in Lok Sabha, Member of Parliament Inderjit Gupta who later served as Union Minister for Home Affairs, commented:
In respect of all those Sikh masses today, I regret to say that there is no use saying here, ‘No, no. Only a handful of people have been affected.’ It is not the truth, let us be objective. We are living in India, we are not living in some other country, in a vacuum. We are living in a country, in a society where religion and religious sentiments and religious feelings and prejudices are a most powerful and potent factor. Now I am speaking I say all glory to you all good men of religion as an atheist. I am saying and I will understand. I should not be able to understand, you should be able to understand better that today a vast mass of the Sikh community, after what happened in Amritsar, in Golden Temple, has become so bitter, angry and hostile. Is it not a great pity? It will take a long long time to assuage these feelings ... Tomorrow, if the Army goes into a mosque or mandir, the same kind of reaction would go on among the Hindus and Muslims, you cannot avoid it.
Indian Army & Its Generals
There were three components of the military ‘Operation Bluestar’: Clear the Golden Temple complex, clear other Gurduaras in Panjab, and seal the border.
India’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) assigned ‘Operation Bluestar’ to General Officer Commanding (GOC)-in-Chief Western Command headquartered at Chandimandar. It was planned and conducted by Chief of Staff (COS) of Western Command. Western Command consists of three Corps: II with headquarter at Ambala in Haryana, IX at Yol in Himachal Pardesh, and XI with headquarter at Jallandhar in Panjab.
XI Corps consisted of 7 Division based in Ferozpur, 9 Division based in Meerut and 15 Division based in Amritsar.
9 Division led, Jallandhar based 350 Infantry Brigade consisting of 9 Kumaon, 10 Guards, 12 Bihar and 26 Madras engaged, and paratroopers from 1 Parachute Regiment and Special Frontier Force (SFF) supported. 15 Division in Amritsar was also in the support role.
Troops involved also included 15 Kumaon, 9 Garhwal Rifles and 10 Dogra. All infantry battalions belonged to 9 Division with the exception of 9 Garhwal Rifles from 15 Division. Artillery from Armored Personal Carriers (APCs) and Boyevaya Mashina Pekhotys (BMPs) of 8 Mechanized Battalion and tanks of 16 Cavalry were used in the operation. Paramilitary troops of Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and 60 Engineer battalion also supported.
Within the first component, there were three phases: Clear militants from buildings surrounding the complex; eliminate or capture militants from the complex (code named SHOPS); mop up remaining pockets of resistance all over the state (FLATS). A separate operation code named METAL was to secure Harimandar Sahib by commandos to swim through the sarovar (sacred pool that surrounds the shrine).
There was only one Sikh regiment in Amritsar: 2 Sikh Light Infantry and it was called to guard the Toshakhana (treasures). Later it was discovered 26 Madras Battalion engaged in looting the Toshakhana. 19 Mahrata Light Infantry arrested militants at Damdami Taksal without violence. 10 Assam Battalion arrested militants from a Gurdwara in Talwandi without any bloodshed.
1 Mahrata Light Infantry’s 9 Division was chosen as the Indian government wanted the ‘Sikh’ officers to visibly lead Operation Bluestar: Generals Brar and Dayal (detailed below) were at the forefront.
All this planning, and the Army made no list of exact number of causalities? One wonders!
In 1983, Lieutenant General (Lt. Gen) Srinavas Kumar Sinha as GOC-in-Chief of Western Command objected to the planned operation. In an unexpected move, the government announced the appointment of GOC-in-Chief of Eastern Command Lieutenant General Arun Shridhar Vaidya as the new COAS superseding Sinha. Sinha was retired.
In 1984, General Arun Shridar Vaidya was COAS. He retired in January 1986 and moved to Pune. On 10 August 1986, he was killed by Sukhdev Singh “Sukha” and Harjindar Singh “Jinda.” Both were convicted and hanged on 9 October 1992.
In 1984, General Krishnaswamy Sundarji was GOC-in-Chief of Western Command. He served as COAS from 1986 to 1988. Trained in the United States, the “thinking General” died due to a nervous system disease in 1990 at the Delhi Army Hospital. His wife Vani in Of Some Consequence: A Soldier Remembers, admits: "After Operation Bluestar, he was a changed man. Somber, his laughter all but gone.” Vani quoted her husband: “I have been trained to fight an enemy, not to tackle our own kind … I will write about Bluestar and other matters in good time." But Sundarji was never able to.
In 1984, Lt. Gen. Ranjit Singh Dayal was COS of Western Command and planned Operation Bluestar. Immediately afterwards, Dayal was appointed adviser to Governor of Panjab. In 2005, two militants were arrested for planning to assassinate Dayal. On 29 January 2012, he died from prostate cancer. In 2013, his local Gurduara refused the Dayal family’s request to hold prayers on his death anniversary.
In 1984, Lieutenant General Kuldip Singh Brar was GOC of 9 Division and spearheaded Operation Bluestar and retired as Lt. Gen. On 2 October 2012, he was assaulted by three Sikhs in London.
In reviewing Gen. Brar, Maj. Gen. Afsir Karim (Paratrooper and course-mate of Brar and former Editor of Indian Defence Review) concluded: One wishes Brar’s attempts to explode what he calls certain ‘myths’ had been more convincing. Karim termed ‘Operation Bluestar’ a failure: Akal Takht was damaged beyond recognition even before Bhindranwale and his followers were killed or captured; major collateral damage was caused to the Temple complex and there were a large number of civilian casualties as a result of assault. Karim asks: It is intriguing that if the police (and the government) really believed that the militants had only two hundred to two-fifty weapons – the majority of which were 12 Bore guns and 303 rifles – where was the need to call in the Army?
When asked whether right steps had been taken in Panjab, Gen. Shankar Roy Chowdhury, former Chief of Army Staff, stated: "No, certainly not. I don’t think that right steps were taken. Operation Bluestar was totally unwarranted and a mistaken step. The party in power at Delhi at that time had taken the step more on political consideration.”
Ramesh Thapur, author and publisher, in April 1985 issue of Seminar entitled “Using the Army” concluded: “Badly manipulated and short sighted political management by the rulers.” This monthly magazine carried analysis by civilian leaders like Jaswant Singh and Nandita Haksar, policeman and public interest litigator KF Rustamji and military Generals ML Thapan, EA Vas, and SK Sinha.
The White Paper on Punjab Agitation lists the following numbers for Operation Bluestar: 83 (troops killed), 249 (troops wounded), 493 (civilians/terrorists killed), 86 (terrorists/others injured), and 592 (civilians/terrorists apprehended).
Eye-witness accounts were in the thousands, consisting of pilgrims, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) staff, Akali volunteers, and militants. The Battle of Amritsar in 1984 lasted about 60 hours: 4am, 4 June - 4pm, 6 June. Failure to warn the people was not forgetfulness but deliberate. Hence, the high causalities were intentional.
Braham Chellaney of the Associated Press, the only foreign reporter who managed to stay in Amritsar despite the media blackout, reported via telex dispatches. These were the first non-government news reports that mentioned 780 militants and civilians and 400 troops perished. Chellaney also reported several Sikhs had been shot with their hands tied. He interviewed a doctor who said he was picked up by the army and forced to conduct postmortems despite the fact he had never done any postmortem examinations before. Indian government was embarrassed, disputed Chellaney and accused him of inflammatory reporting. The Associated Press stood by Chellaney so did The Times of London, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Chellaney was awarded a Citation for Excellence in 1985 by the Overseas Press Club, New York for 1984 Amritsar dispatches.
Mark Tully of BBC and Chand Joshi of The Hindustan Times put the number of killed at 4,000 and 5,000, respectively.
In Truth About Punjab: SGPC White Paper, Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon quotes two sources for civilian deaths: 3,000 and 8,000.
The Panjabi countryside called the army “Occupation Army” because of the inhumane atrocities in the “camps” especially against Amritdharis (initiated Sikhs). India never signed the United Nations convention against torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.
The Army detained 379 “most dangerous terrorists” from the Golden Temple complex and sent them to Jodhpur Jail under the National Security Act. They were pilgrims visiting the complex to commemorate the martyrdom day of Guru Arjan Sahib; they were made to sign a common confessional statement for “waging war against the State.”
As per Samuh Sikh Dharmi Fauji June 1984 Parivar Welfare Association, around 3,500 Sikh soldiers deserted the army to march towards Amritsar and around 80 were killed. The mutinies or desertions by Sikh soldiers were reported in at least seven Indian states: Panjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
Bhan Singh’s List
Sardar Bhan Singh served as the Secretary of SGPC during 1980s, an era of Akali-Sikh-India hyper politics. He used to be the Editor of the weekly newspaper published by Master Tara Singh (Sikh leader during the 1947 Partition). Bhan Singh was a freedom fighter who was tortured and served a Life Imprisonment sentence in Boston Jail, Lahore until fleeing Pakistan during the Partition. He was very active in Sikh affairs: General Secretary & President of All India Sikh Students Federation, Judge of Sikh Gurdwara Judicial Tribunal, envisioned Sikh Museum at Golden Temple Complex, and so on.
In June 1984, Bhan Singh was inside the Golden Temple complex. Here are his relevant eye-witness account excerpts from Report to the Nation: Oppression in Punjab:
June 3 being Guru Puarb, thousands of pilgrims had come. But suddenly there was a curfew, so the pilgrims and the 1300 Akali workers came to participate in the Dharam Yudh Morcha and to court arrest, could not leave. The Akali Jathas consisted of about 200 ladies, 18 children and about 1100 men and all of them along with the thousands of pilgrims were forced to stay back inside the Temple complex. Most were living in Guru Ram Das Serai, some at Teja Singh Samundri Hall.
They (the Army) treated the inmates of the Complex as enemies and whenever there was any person wounded on account of the firing, no Red Cross people were allowed to enter, rather the Red Cross personnel had been detained beyond the Jallianwallah Bagh (more than a kilometer away from the main entrance to the Golden Temple from the Chowk Ghanta Ghar side).
I was arrested along with Sant Longowal and Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra early morning on the 6th. We were encircled by the Army people, throughout the day from 4 a.m. till 5 p.m. when Sant Longowal and Jathedar Tohra were taken to the Army Camp, but I along with many others was kept inside the compound of Guru Ram Das Serai. We were taken away to the Army Camp at about 9.30 p.m.
On the 6th morning when hundreds of people were killed or wounded, everywhere there were cries of those people who were wounded and injured but there was no provisions for their dressings and there were no Red Cross people within the complex... Many young people aged between 18 and 22 years were killed and so were some ladies. A lady carrying a child of only a few months saw her husband lying before her. The child was also killed on account of the firing. It was a very touching scene when she placed the dead body of the child alongside her husband's body. Many people were crying for drinking water, but they were not provided any. Some had to take water out of the drains where dead bodies were lying and the water was red with blood. The way the injured were quenching their thirst was an awful sight which could not be tolerated. The Army people were there, moving about mercilessly without showing any sign of sympathy with those injured or wounded. Those who were under arrest were not provided any facility of water or food or any other thing of that sort. The clothes of those who were arrested were removed and they were only left with shorts - their turbans, shirts, etc. were all removed and heaped together. Such a brute treatment was given to them, as if they were aliens and not the citizens of the country to which the forces belonged.
As a Secretary of SGPC, Bhan Singh prepared a 120-page list of “martyrs.” In Gurmukhi script, the list gives details on 706 individuals: martyr’s name, father’s name, address, age, heir, children, and attester. Bhan Singh mailed the list to Dr. Joyce Pettigrew in Belfast, Northern Ireland in November 1985. Bhan Singh was assassinated on 25 July 1988.
Dr. Pettigrew’s most oft quoted sentence on 1984 is: “The Army went into Darbar Sahib not to eliminate a political figure or a political movement but to suppress the culture of a people, to attack their heart, to strike a blow at their spirit and self-confidence.”
Dr. Joyce Pettigrew studied Sikhs & Panjab for more than 40 years. She started out as the Research Associate at School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in London and retired as the Social Anthropologist from Queen’s University in Belfast. Her first book was Robber Noblemen: A Study of the Political System of the Sikh Jats (1975) and last one was The Sikh of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State & Guerrilla Violence (1995); she was the Editor of Martyrdom & Political Resistance (1997). A sample of her articles tells us about the level of insights Dr. Pettigrew has on the Sikhs and the Panjab: The Growth of Sikh Community Consciousness 1947-66 (1980), In Search of a New Kingdom of Lahore (1987), Songs of Sikh Resistance Movement (1992), Police Activity in Punjab (2000), and Betrayal and National Building among the Sikhs (2008).
Bhan Singh reverentially called her Joyce Ji.
I first encountered Dr. Pettigrew in The Illustrated History of the Sikhs (published in 1979) during my high school years in Kansas in 1988. Once I completed a phase of my journey of religions and philosophies including Sikhi and Panjab via books and music in 1995, I first met Dr. Pettigrew at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in San Francisco on 23 November 1996. Quoting and admiring her work for about a decade, I located her in 2005 in Scotland with help from friends. At my third in-person meeting at her residence, Dr. Pettigrew entrusted the Bhan Singh’s List to me. She said: “Please keep this list for me, I have found the right person for it.”
About three weeks ago, I called Dr. Pettigrew and asked for her permission to make the list public this year. She gave her nod.
With support from friends and the Sikh Council UK, we digitized the documents and made it available for free public awareness. An English translation of Bhan Singh’s List, the original list in Gurmukhi script, the envelope in which the list was sent, letter addressed to Dr. Pettigrew and her note, are all available on www.1984.org since 3 June 2017.
This list of 706 innocent Sikhs murdered by the State tells us a few things. Inaccuracies in Indian government’s causality citations, SGPC’s preparedness and then discontinuation of the 1984 listings, and a need for open and just data-based dialogue on 1984 genocide.
This list was not in public domain. This is a list by SGPC’s officer, are there more?
This list is a direct evidence. It is an initial list compiled within a year in dire circumstances, and not a complete one. The number of Sikhs murdered during June 1984 Ghallughara remains unknown. While the most conservative estimates place the number of casualties around 675, independent and reputable sources estimate a minimum of 10,000 casualties. Dr. Pettigrew reported a senior police officer in Panjab assessed the number of casualties as closer to 20,000.
The governments from India to UK, may initiate inquiry into June 1984 Ghallughara, but it depends on their vote bank. It has been 33 years in waiting.
The real work may occur if the SGPC and the global Sikh community demands the comprehensive list to aptly commemorate 1984 Ghallughara.
Calculating the numbers of individuals martyred as the result of Indian government policies is a challenging task. There is no single document created by the Indian Army officials that spells out how many people were killed during the Ghallughara.
To accurately estimate the extent of human losses, scholars, Sikh organizations, and governmental agencies need to locate variety of different records: reports, archives, investigations, and so on to compile statistics. As more documents come to light, a more precise understanding of the Ghallughara’s human loss will emerge.
To-date, not one master list of those who perished exists anywhere in the world.
Ian Jack and Mary Anne Weaver in Sunday Times of London (10 June 1984) observed: “The cracks in the integrity of Indian State – what the Indian Press likes to describe as fissiparous tendencies widened dramatically, when the Golden Temple was invaded; and they will take a considerable time, if ever, to close again.”
The opening Salok (verse) in this article is proceeded by Guru Amardas Sahib’s Salok:
In dark era, Glory reveals the Light in the world,Anyone who’s Guru-oriented will swim across.
The one who feels the Grace gets it,
O’ Nanak, the Guru-oriented receives the jewel.
And Guru Arjan Sahib concludes it with the Pauri (ode’s stanza) by unfolding it step by step:
There is no alliance between the devoted and the worldly.One Creator is error-free, doesn’t err, no one can make the One err.The One unites the devoted who earn the Truth, and only the Truth.The One engrosses the worldly who consumes poison by telling lies and lies.They don’t realize all must depart, and continue to spread the lust-wrath poisons.The devoted serve the All-Pervasive; they remember Nam night and day.Becoming servant of servants to lose the self within,Their faces are radiant at Owner’s Dwelling, they’re exalted by Eternal Wisdom.
Harinder Singh is an educator, thinker and activist who tweets @1Force.