Not a blaring horn was heard, not an overladen, toiling truck, nor an ambling bullock cart were seen along the Grand Trunk Road on the morning of June 5, 1984, hours before the army entered the Golden Temple complex. The only bus between Amritsar and Punjab’s border with Haryana was the one I was travelling in. It was carrying all the Indian and foreign journalists rounded up by the police in Amritsar and expelled from Punjab to prevent us reporting on Operation Bluestar. The whole state had been put under curfew. In the villages we passed through, even the domestic animals seemed to be observing this curfew. The only trains moving were carrying troops.
We already knew a major military operation was under way because the day before, we had managed to listen in to a joint police-and-army radio network. We never imagined the operation would involve an armoured assault on one of the most sacred shrines in the temple complex and cost the army at least 332 casualties, the figure given in the government’s white paper on the subject.
The army never intended that the capture or killing of Sant Jarnail Bhindranwale and his men, who had occupied and fortified the Golden Temple complex, would become such a major operation. When he was briefing the press after the operation, General Krishnaswami Sundarji, who was commanding the operation, said, “I was told to flush out the extremists from the Golden Temple with no damage, if possible, to the Harmandir Sahib (site of the sanctum sanctorum) or the Akal Takht (by then Bhindranwale’s fortress). I was told to use the bare minimum of force required for achieving this object and that I was to minimise casualties to both sides.” As it was, squash-head shells fired by tanks reduced the Akal Takht to little more than rubble and the white paper said 493 people were killed. Eyewitnesses believe the figure to have been higher. No one will ever know what the exact figure was because neither the police nor the army made any attempt to identify the dead before they were hurriedly cremated. So what went wrong?
Hard place: Bhindranwale turned Akal Takht into his fortress
In the first place, the army should never have been ordered to mount an assault on one of India’s most sacred places. That was bound to cause deep offence to all Sikhs, including the large number of them serving in the army. The Sikh mutinies that followed the operation were the direct result of that offence. Action should have been taken before Bhindranwale occupied the Akal Takht and began preparing to defend the Golden Temple complex.
Part of the reason Bhindranwale was allowed to continue his defiance of the government, his communal propaganda and terrorism for so long lay in the origins of the crisis. Bhindranwale had originally been promoted by the Congress party as a religious leader to challenge the Akalis’ hold over Sikhs. There was a faction within the party that was reluctant to give him up even though he quickly turned on the government. The factional quarrel between Zail Singh, the then home minister in Delhi, and his arch-rival Darbara Singh, the then chief minister of Punjab, didn’t help. When President’s rule was imposed, confusion within the government worsened. The then governor of Punjab, B.D. Pande, a retired civil servant renowned for his efficiency and honesty, told me he was forever receiving contradictory orders from Delhi.
Even when A.S. Atwal, a senior police officer, was shot as he was emerging from the Golden Temple complex, Bhindranwale was not touched. But eventually Indira Gandhi realised that she had to act, because her reputation for decisiveness, one of her most valuable political assets, was being undermined. In her broadcast to the nation on June 2, three days before the assault on the temple, she said, “An impression has been assiduously created that this matter (Punjab) is not being dealt with.” With a general election ahead of her, she decided she could not allow that impression to spread any further.
In the end, the action Indira Gandhi took turned out to be too much too late. To what extent is the army to blame? Briefing the press after the operation, Gen Sundarji maintained that he needed to act rapidly to avert an uprising. He said, “We knew that they (Bhindranwale and his colleagues) had plans to utilise innocent people, the religious-minded innocent people in the countryside. That plan was to incite these people to come to the Golden Temple in thousands and to literally swamp the surroundings as well as the inside.”
This fear of an uprising was the main reason Sundarji gave for not laying siege to the Golden Temple and starving Bhindranwale out. That would have avoided the damage Bluestar inflicted on the complex, and the heavy casualties. But even if the arguments against a siege are accepted, they don’t justify the army’s decision to mount the operation while Sikhs were celebrating the anniversary of the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, who had built the Golden Temple and compiled the Guru Granth Sahib. This inevitably compounded Sikh anger about the operation. It also meant that the temple complex was particularly crowded and this was why so many civilians were killed. The army suspected everyone they found in the hostels opposite the Golden Temple complex and forced them to sit outside in the sun with no water and no food. Some of them were shot. Narinderjit Singh, known to all the press as the polite public relations officer of the Golden Temple, and despised by Bhindranwale as a “literate moron”, was put up before an army firing squad. He was only saved by the timely intervention of a senior officer.
Tough call: Gen Sundarji opted against a siege fearing an uprising across Punjab
The army operation went wrong from the start. Sundarji hoped commandos would be able to get into the Akal Takht, Bhindranwale’s fortress, from the lane behind it. Some did manage to get onto the roof of the shrine, but they were driven back by cross-firing. Then there was the failure of the prolonged attempt by the infantry to mount a frontal assault on the Akal Takht. Sundarji had underestimated the skill of Bhindranwale’s tactical advisor, Gen Shahbeg Singh. Soldiers found themselves fired on not only from the buildings of the complex but also from manholes in the parikrama, the pavement surrounding the sacred pool in which the Golden Temple stands. Many soldiers lost their lives when they came under fire from gunmen armed with light machine guns positioned under the steps at the main entrance to the parikrama.
It was only when Maj Gen Kuldip Singh, commanding the division doing the fighting, realised the infantry was, as he put it later, “in danger of being massacred” that he asked for tanks to be brought in. What is not clear is how Sundarji conceived of a plan that involved sending the infantry into a place where they had no cover.
Sundarji did admit “there had been some failure of intelligence”. It was clearly worse than that. He had been misled about the arms and ammunition in the hands of Bhindranwale and his followers, the skill of their deployment, and above all their will to fight. A junior officer told my colleague Satish Jacob that the biggest problem had been not even knowing the layout of the complex. Apparently, officers only had “a general picture”. One foreign military advisor told me he thought the generals believed resistance would collapse when Bhindranwale’s men realised they were up against the army. He said “the army had been arrogant because of its size and firepower”. The advisor believed that if more use had been made of modern equipment, a successful commando attack could have been launched. Whatever mistakes were made, no one can doubt the courage of the soldiers and officers who continued those infantry attacks in spite of repeated and bloody setbacks. The army also showed remarkable discipline by refusing to fire in the direction of the Golden Temple itself even though that prevented them returning fire.
It was one thing for Indira Gandhi to give orders to Sundarji to “flush out” Bhindranwale and his followers, it was quite another thing to carry out those orders. So ultimately, the blame for Operation Bluestar must be borne by the politicians who allowed the situation to deteriorate so far that they had to call out the army. They include the Akali Dal leaders. But Operation Bluestar did show the remarkable resilience of India. Neither the outrage among Sikhs at the desecration of their shrine nor indeed the anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination four months later fulfilled Bhindranwale’s ambition of constructing a Sikh identity based on hatred of Hindus. Once again India showed itself to be like a great ocean liner which sails through storms that would capsize smaller and less stable vessels. But this inherent stability reinforces India’s tendency to let things go, the “chalne do” factor, which was certainly at work in the Punjab crisis. Fear can be the beginning of wisdom, so perhaps India is not sufficiently afraid.
'84: Bluestar costs Indira Gandhi her life; riots leave the Sikh community deeply scarred.
'09: Peace and prosperity in Punjab, but militancies on in other troublespots.
(Mark Tully is the author, with Satish Jacob, of Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle.)