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40 Years Since Operation Blue Star: Remembering The Silent Sacrifices Of Sikhs

The annals of Sikh history from 15th century to invasions in Indian Sub-Continent to India’s freedom struggle serve as a solemn testament, that it is marked more by days of sacrifices than days of celebration.

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The first photos of the damaged Akal Takhat after the army action named Operation Blue Star on the sikh Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, June 09, 1984. Photo: Getty Images
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This year, 6th June 2024 marked the 40th anniversary of the Blue Star Operation, 1984, a tragic chapter etched in the Sikh community's collective memory as the Third Sikh Ghallughara, Panjabi word for Holocaust. Each year, Sikhs worldwide unite in sorrowful remembrance, honoring those who lost their lives. Though we were born long after 1984, as Sikhs, we have inherited the poignant narratives of that painful period from our parents and grandparents. Often, they speak reluctantly, if at all, about those harrowing times. Yet, one resounding phrase lingers: "Never Forget 1984."

This enigma intensifies our reflection. How is it that a community celebrated for its forgiveness, resilience, and acceptance, one that commemorates the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Sahib by serving sweet water, one that offers daily Ardas in Gurdwaras for the welfare of the world and whose history is rich with selfless service and sacrifices, continues to grapple with the enduring trauma and memories of 1984?

Healing, we realise, cannot flourish in the absence of justice and dignity. The wounds of generational trauma fester in the face of denial of the atrocities inflicted. Akal Takht Sahib stands not merely as a physical edifice but as the living emblem of Sikh sovereignty, a legacy established by Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji. Its destruction in 1984 represented not just the ruin of a building, but the shattering of an institution that, since the 17th century, has been the guardian of the rights of the oppressed.

The roads to Panjab's Turmoil; Unveiling its history

Contrary to the belief that the events of 1984 happened overnight, they were the culmination of over a century of struggles and political strife in Punjab. The suppression under British colonialism, the devastating Partition of 1947, the Punjabi Suba Movement, the trifurcation of Punjab, its water crisis, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, and Dharam Yudh Morcha, all highlight a history of relentless marginalisation. Despite Punjab's significant contribution to India's Journey to independence where more than 80 per cent who sacrificed their lives or who were hanged were from Panjab, the leaders of the Indian National Congress, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, failed to deliver on the promise of a semi-autonomous region post-independence where the religious, cultural, political rights of its people will be safeguarded. The 1947 Partition divided Punjab, severing Sikhs from their homeland, heritage, and holy sites, including Nankana Sahib, Guru Nanak Dev Ji's birthplace. The rich syncretism and pluralism were lost forever.

This led to the peaceful Punjabi Suba Movement, reminding the Indian government of its unfulfilled promises. The situation worsened in 1955 when police for the first time entered Darbar Sahib, arresting peaceful protesters. The 1966 Reorganisation Act further divided Punjab, stripping it of its water rights which was earlier a state subject, and going against the riparian laws, the rivers were diverted to Rajasthan, Haryana, and Delhi, leaving Punjab once a land of five rivers with only 1/3rd of its own water. The Green Revolution exacerbated the crisis, depleting groundwater and driving marginalised and small farmers into debt and suicide, prompting migration to the West and South Asia.

Political Turmoil in Panjab in 1970s and 1980s

The political turmoil and violence that beset Punjab in the 1970s and 1980s cannot be simply viewed in black and white. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale became the head of Damdami Taksal in 1977. Upon his appointment, he initiated campaigns against narcotics and social vices by travelling to all the villages of Panjab. However, he gained prominence after the Sikh-Nirankari clash of 1978, which resulted in the deaths of 13 Sikhs. Some claim Bhindranwale was a creation of Congress, but former IAS officer Gurtej Singh refutes this in his book, asserting Bhindranwale’s independent emergence.

The 1980s saw a surge in violence and political assassinations in Panjab. These actions were often attributed by the state to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, yet the government till date has failed to present any conclusive evidence to substantiate these allegations. A new book, titled “In Service of Free India” drawing from the memoirs of the late BD Pande, Governor of Panjab (Oct 10 1983 to June 27, 1984) reveals that a misleading and false narrative about Punjab's situation was crafted in the months leading up to Operation Bluestar in June 1984, resulting in devastating outcomes. The memoirs claimed that despite looking for other alternatives, the centre was adamant on harsh measures.

Sikhs, led by the Shiromani Akali Dal, drafted the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in 1978. The movement in 1980s Punjab was driven by the demand of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution put forth by the Akali Dal, led by Harcharan Singh Longowal, and supported by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In 1982, Bhindranwale backed the Dharam Yudh Morcha, declaring his political goal was to fulfill the Anandpur Sahib Resolution demanding federal autonomy for Panjab, rights over its waters, integration of Chandigarh with Panjab, the broadcasting station at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, for the relay of Gurbani Kirtan for Sikhs living in foreign lands, etc. However, his detractors associated his movement with Khalistan due to his ambiguous use of the term. When questioned about Khalistan, he famously said that the “mistake” of 1947—referring to the rejection of a separate Sikh state—should not be repeated and that if the government offered it on a silver platter, he would not reject it. He also indicated that if there is an attack on the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) that would lay the foundation for Khalistan. Despite these statements, Bhindranwale did not explicitly demand Khalistan, frequently emphasizing that Sikhs wanted to live as equal citizens in India like other communities.

Many political analysts believe that the notion of Khalistan arose primarily as a response to the Blue Star Operation and the 1984 Delhi Sikh Massacre. According to GBS Sidhu, a former RAW officer, in his book 'Khalistan Conspiracy', every time negotiations were initiated between Indira Gandhi, the Akali Dal, and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Gandhi would retreat from the talks. Instead of engaging diplomatically, Indira Gandhi the then PM, imposed President's Rule on Punjab in 1980, dismissing its democratically elected government.

So, what compelled the Indian government to undertake a military operation at the Golden Temple in 1984? If the justification provided was the escalating violence and political assassinations in Punjab, how could this be justified with a military operation that resulted in catastrophic outcomes; severe damage to Sikhs holiest shrine and the loss of countless innocent lives? Even staunch critics of Bhindranwale, like writer Khushwant Singh, vehemently condemned the attack. Singh resigned from his position as Member of Parliament and returned Padma Shri Award in protest against Operation Blue Star in 1984.

Was this operation aimed at flushing out extremists as claimed by the Government?

Mark Tully, who reported extensively on the operation for the BBC, provides a stark account in his book 'Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Final Battle'. He notes that the damage to the Akal Takht contradicts the military’s claims of using minimal force. Tully reveals that the army showed little regard for civilians trapped in the hostel complex. Survivors were arrested and taken to interrogation camps, and eyewitnesses allege that innocent Sikh men were shot in cold blood. Many died due to suffocation. Official government sources claimed that 554 Sikh militants and civilians died, but unofficial estimates place the death toll in the thousands. However, some questions arise. Was the attack on Akal Takht Sahib strategically imperative? Could it have been averted, sparing one of the most progressive and brave communities decades of suffering and atrocities? General Officer Commanding (GOC) S.K. Sinha, who was first given the task by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with planning the assault on the Golden Temple, says that he expressed strong reservations about the proposal, deeming it sheer madness.

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The tragic loss of lives of innocent pilgrims who had gathered by the thousands to honor the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Sahib, the desecration of the Sikhs' Holiest Shrine, and the Sikh Reference Library, a repository of invaluable artifacts, manuscripts, handwritten copies of Guru Granth Sahib, and Persian records of the Lahore Darbar, was ransacked, obliterated and burned down. The assassination of the Prime Minister followed by the horrific Delhi Sikh Massacre added to the decades of bloodshed in Panjab. Was this unfathomable destruction, loss of lives on all sides essential to address Punjab’s underlying issues? Or did it exacerbate the wounds and deepen the divide? Isn't it heart-wrenching that there is a widow colony in the heart of the National Capital where even after 40 years the victims of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi are still fighting for justice and we couldn’t do anything about it?

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Remembering the silent sacrifice of Jaswant Singh Khalra

How can we expect a community to heal and progress when even its most ardent human rights advocates, such as S. Jaswant Singh Khalra, were silenced for revealing the truth? Khalra garnered international recognition for his research into 25,000 disappearances, unlawful killings, and cremations orchestrated by the Punjab Police. In the 1990s, he bravely uncovered and documented state-sanctioned murders and fabricated encounters in Punjab, bringing to light the heinous acts committed by the police. Despite his relentless pursuit of justice, no corrective measures were taken.

Khalra presented his findings to global human rights organizations and governments, revealing that in a single district alone, the forensic remains of 19,000 individuals—victims of extrajudicial executions—had been clandestinely disposed of in makeshift cremation sites. His courageous efforts, however, led to his abduction and murder by the very police he exposed, highlighting the peril faced by those who dared to challenge injustice. In 2007, the Punjab and Haryana High Court convicted five police officials for Khalra’s murder, sentencing them to life imprisonment. His legacy is a poignant reminder of the unceasing struggle for justice and accountability in Punjab. Twenty-nine years after he exposed forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Punjab, leading to his own tragic abduction and murder, Jaswant Singh Khalra is yet to receive the recognition he deserves.

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The annals of Sikh history from 15th century to invasions in Indian Sub-Continent to India’s freedom struggle serve as a solemn testament, that it is marked more by days of sacrifices than days of celebration. While Sikhs aspire to lead lives free of fear and animosity, the year 1984 stands as a profound wound in the Sikh psyche. As we stride into the realms of modernity and practicality, our bond with our community remains unwavering, resonating deeply with the injustices endured. However, those who seek justice or simply recall this painful chapter in history are unjustly painted with the 'Khalistani' brush. Instead, there should have been unified solidarity with the Sikh community in recognition of the injustices they have suffered. No one should be able to convince us that this is how the world should be.

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Despite the desecration of the Sikhs' holiest shrine in 1984, the Sikh ethos endures. In the face of such profound adversity, their sacred spaces continue to offer food and solace to all, embodying the principle of universal service without discrimination. The most beautiful aspect of the Sikh community is their Spirit of “Chardi Kala” — an unwavering spirit and eternal optimism that endures through every trial.

Kanwal Singh is a political analyst and columnist from J&K and Damanjeet Kaur is a writer from Panjab

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