June 1984 Operation Bluestar
In early June 1984 the Indian Army invaded the most sacred of all Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple complex to flush out Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale a Sikh leader and his militant followers who had made the temple their refuge. The destruction and loss of life marked the darkest chapter in Sikh history this century. This event marked a critical turning point for all Sikhs around the world as it made them realise that they could not take the existence of their religion for granted.
What is tragic is that a tense situation which could have been resolved without a shot being fired was allowed to deteriorate to the point where the sacred sanctity of the Golden Temple complex was violated and desecrated in the most brutal and unholy way. Thousands of innocent visiting pilgrims and temple workers lost their lives in a sacred place of worship. The Akal Takht, the seat of supreme Sikh temporal power was reduced to rubble. Harmandir Sahib was riddled with over 300 bullets. The Sikh library with precious manuscripts of the Gurus was burned to the ground. The Temple treasury Toshakhana with priceless historical artefacts of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was destroyed. The continuous reading of Sri Guru Granth Sahib in Harmandir Sahib was interrupted for the first time in hundreds of years. These events have forever left a permanent scar on the Sikh psyche.
Tuesday May 25th
100,000 Indian Army troops are mobilized and deployed throughout Punjab surrounding all important Gurdwaras including the Golden Temple complex.
Friday June 1st
Thousands of pilgrims start to gather at the Golden Temple complex to celebrate the martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev on June 3rd.
As Bindranwale sits on the roof of the Langer hall, police snipers open fire on him. They missed and Sikh militants fired back. A seven hour skirmish during the night lasting until the morning leaves 11 dead and 25 injured. There were bullet holes in the Langer building, in the marble pavement (parkarma) surrounding the Golden Temple and in the Golden Temple itself.
Sunday June 3rd
All communications including phone lines to and from Punjab are cut. Road blocks prevent anyone from entering or leaving Punjab and all journalists are expelled from Punjab. A total curfew is imposed and as many as 10,000 pilgrims are trapped inside the temple complex. Milk vendors from the villages who supply milk to the city of Amritsar are shot dead for violating the curfew orders.
Monday June 4th
The army starts firing on the temple complex and their is a gun battle lasting 5 hours. Using machine guns and mortars the army fires at militant positions atop the two 18th century towers called Ramgarhia Bungas, and the water tank behind Teja Singh Samundri Hall as well as surrounding buildings. At least 100 are killed on both sides.
Tuesday June 5th
At 7:00 p.m. Operation Blue Star, the invasion of The Golden Temple begins with tanks of the 16th Cavalry Regiment of the Indian Army moving to enclose the Golden Temple complex. Troops are briefed not to use their guns against the Golden Temple itself or the Akal Takht. Artillery is used to blast off the tops of the Ramgarhia Bungas and the water tank. Scores of buildings in and around the temple complex are blazing. One artillery shell lands more than 5 km away in the crowded city.
In the narrow alley behind the Akal Takht paramilitary commandos try to get into the temple. Some make it to the roof but are turned back due to the heavy gunfire. Meanwhile tanks move into the square in front of the northern entrance to the Golden Temple known as the clock tower entrance.
At 10:30 pm commandos from the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment try to run down the steps under the clock tower onto the marble parkarma around the sacred pool. They face heavy gunfire, suffering casualties and are forced to retreat. A second wave of commandos manage to neutralize the machine gun posts on either side of the steps and get down to the parkarma.
The Akal Takht is heavily fortified with sandbags and brick gun emplacements in its windows and arches. From here and the surrounding buildings the militants are able to fire at any commandos who make their way in front of the Gurdwara.
Two companies of the 7th Garhwal Rifles enter the temple complex from the opposite side on the southern gate entrance and after a gun battle are able to establish a position on the roof of the Temple library. They are reinforced by two companies of the 15th Kumaons. Repeated unsuccessful attempts are made to storm the Akal Takht.
Wednesday June 6th
After midnight tanks are used to break down the steps leading to the parkarma from the hostel side and an 8-wheeled Polish-built armored personnel carrier makes its way towards the Akal Takht. It is destroyed by a Chinese-made rocket propelled grenade launcher.
Six or more Vijayanta tanks enter the temple complex crushing the delicate marble inlays of the parkarma and plow their way towards the Akal Takht. Orders arrive and the tanks start firing their large 105mm cannons equipped with high explosive squash-head shells into the Akal Takht. These shells are designed for hard targets like armour and fortifications. When the shells his a target, their heads spread or squash on the hard surface. Their fuses are arranged to allow a short delay between the impact and the shells igniting, so that a shock-wave passes through the target and a heavy slab of armour or masonry is forced away from the inside of the target armour or fortification.
The effect on the Akal Takht, the most sacred of the five Takhts, is devastating. Over 80 shells are pumped into the sacred Gurdwara. The entire front of the Takht is destroyed and fires break out in many of the different rooms blackening the marble walls and wrecking the delicate decorations dating back to the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Marble inlays, plaster and mirror work, filigree partitions and priceless old wall paintings are all destroyed.
The gold dome of the Akal Takht is also badly damaged by artillery fire. At one stage a 3.7 inch Howell gun is mounted on the roof of a building behind the shrine and fired a number of times at the beautiful dome.
At the other end of the Temple complex on the easternmost side a battalion of the Kumaon Regiment were invading the hostel complex where many of the innocent pilgrims were in hiding as well as the temple administration staff. There was no water because the water tower had been destroyed and it was very hot. (Bhan Singh, Secretary of S.G.P.C.)
"They cut our electricity and water supplies. It was very hot in the rooms. There was no water. We had only two plastic buckets of water. Longowal had to place two people as guards over the buckets. Many people would squeeze their undershirts to drink their sweat to quench their thirst."
Around 1:00 am the Army entered the hostel and administrative buildings and ordered everyone out and made them sit in the courtyard of the Guru Ram Das Hostel. There were about 250 people who came out. (Bhan Singh)
"Suddenly there was a big explosion. All hell broke loose. It was pitch dark. People started running back into the verandah and the rooms. I and Abhinashi Singh were sitting next to Gurcharan Singh, the former Secretary of the Akali Dal whom Bhindranwale accused of murdering Sodhi. Gurcharan was shot as he tried to run inside. We realized that soldiers were shooting at us. They thought someone from among the crowd had exploded the grenade. But it was probably thrown by extremists on the water tank overlooking the Guru Ram Das Serai (Hostel). We ran to Tohras room and told Longowal what was happening. Longowal came out and shouted at the Major. He said, Dont shoot these people. They are not extremists. They are employees of the S.G.P.C. The Major then ordered his men to stop shooting. Later in the morning we counted at least seventy dead bodies in the compound. There were women and children too."
Among the dead were 35 women and 5 children. The survivors were made to sit in the courtyard of the Guru Ram Das Hostel until curfew was lifted the next evening. They were not given any food, water or medical aid. People drank whatever water was in puddles in the courtyard from the blown up water tank. (Karnail Kaur, mother of 3 young children)
"When people begged for water some soldiers told them to drink the mixture of blood and urine on the ground." Many of the young men in the group of innocent unarmed civilians were then shot by the soldiers. (Bhan Singh)
"I saw about 35 or 36 Sikhs lined up with their hands raised above their heads. And the major was about to order them to be shot. When I asked him for medical help, he got into a rage, tore my turban off my head, and ordered his men to shoot me. I turned back and fled, jumping over the bodies of the dead and injured, and saving my life crawling along the walls. I got to the room where Tohra and Sant Longowal were sitting and told them what I had seen. Sardar Karnail Singh Nag, who had followed me, also narrated what he had seen, as well as the killing of 35 to 36 young Sikhs by cannon fire. All of these young men were villagers." (Ranbir Kaur, School Teacher)
"Early on the sixth morning the army came into the Guru Ram Das Serai and ordered all of those in the rooms to come out. We were taken into the courtyard. The men were separated from the women. We were also divided into old and young women and I was separated from the children, but I managed to get back to the old women. When we were sitting there the army released 150 people from the basement. They were asked why they had not come out earlier. They said the door had been locked from the outside. They were asked to hold up their hands and then they were shot after 15 minutes. Other young men were told to untie their turbans. They were used to tie their hands behind their backs. The army hit them on the head with the butts of their rifles." (Sujjan Singh Margindpuri)
"The young men and some other pilgrims were staying in Room Number 61. The army searched all the rooms of the Serai. Nothing objectionable was found from their room. Nor did the army find anything objectionable on their persons. The army locked up 60 pilgrims in that room and shut not only the door but the window also. Electric supply was disconnected. The night between June 5th and June 6th was extremely hot. The locked-in young men felt very thirsty after some time, and loudly knocked on the door from inside to ask the army men on duty for water. They got abuses in return, but no water. The door was not opened. Feeling suffocated and extremely thirsty, the men inside began to faint and otherwise suffer untold misery. The door of the room was opened at 8 am on June 6th. By this time 55 out of the 60 had died. The remaining 5 were also semi-dead."
By morning light, there is only sporadic sniper fire from the rubble of the Akal Takht. By late afternoon the army was firmly in control of the Temple complex and curfew was lifted for two hours to allow people who were still in hiding to come out. (Giani Puran Singh)
"I went to the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) on 5th June around 7:30 in the evening because I had to ensure that religious ceremonies were performed. The moment I stepped on to the parkarma I stumbled across a body. Bullets were flying and I had to take shelter behind each and every pillar to reach the Darshani Deorhi. Another body was lying there. I ran a few yards and reached the Akal Takht. Night prayers start at Harmandir Sahib five minutes after they start at the Akal Takht. I wanted to find out if the path (recitation) had started there. I had a glimpse of Bhindranwale. We did not speak to each other. Around 7:45 I came out of the Akal Takht and ran into the Darshani Deorhi. I ran towards Harmandir Sahib, unmindful of the bullets flying past my ears. I began night prayers. Soon a colleague of mine, Giani Mohan Singh, joined me. Seeing the intensity of the fire we decided to close all the doors, barring the front door. Soon we completed all religious rites. We then took the Guru Granth Sahib to the top room to prevent any damage to the holy book. The Head Priest, Giani Sahib Singh, had given clear instructions that under no circumstances was the Guru Granth Sahib to be taken to the Akal Takht if the conditions were not right.
Looking through the window-pane from the first floor of the Harmandir Sahib, I saw a tank standing on the parkarma with its lights on. I thought for a moment that it was the fire brigade come to collect water from the srowar (holy pool) to put out the fire which was raging in almost every room. A few minutes later my belief was shattered when I saw the vehicle emitting fire instead of putting it out. By 10:30 or so around 13 tanks had collected on the parkarma. They had come after crushing the staircase from the eastern wing where Guru Ram Das Serai, the Langer and the Teja Singh Samundari Hall are situated. One after another the cannon fire lit the sky. When the first shell hit the bottom of the Darshani Deorhi, creating a hole in it, I saw the room with the historic chandni (canopy) presented by Maharaja Ranjit Singh catching fire. One after another the big bombs hit the Darshani Deorhi in quick succession, and what was once a lovely building was now on fire. The Toshakhana (Treasury) was also on fire. Occasionally a bullet would hit the Harmandir Sahib. We were 27 people inside, mostly ragis (singers) and sevadars (temple servants).
In the early hours of the morning of 6th June we took the holy book down and performed the religious rites that are performed every day, like maharaj da prakash karna (unfolding the holy book) and reciting hymns from the scriptures. The two side-doors were closed and the front and back doors were open. Bullets kept hitting the wall both inside and outside, ripping off the gold surface at various places. Soon after we finished reciting prayers one of our colleagues, Ragi Avtar Singh was hit. We pulled him into a corner. Another bullet came and hit the holy Granth Sahib. We have preserved this book. In the meanwhile the pounding of the Akal Takht was continuing. There was no let-up in the fire in other places either. We were thirsty and desperate for water. We crawled to the holy pool to get water for ourselves and for the wounded colleague.
Around 5pm they announced on loudspeakers that those hiding in the Harmandir Sahib should come out and that they would not be shot dead. While myself and Giani Mohan Singh remained inside, others walked out with the arms above their heads." Over 300 bullet holes were counted in the Golden Temple itself.
With the lifting of the curfew innocent Sikhs thought that by coming out from hiding they would now be safe. Sadly this was not the case. (Narinderjit Singh Nada, Temple Public Relations Officer)
"On the fifth night, the night of the real assault, mortars started throwing up plaster. My wife and I and my two daughters decided to go down from our flat on the first floor to the office, which is on the ground floor. At this point I thought of surrendering but I was told by a Bhindranwale man, One more step outside the complex and you are a dead man. Faced with this threat to my entire family plus the insecurity of the office room, I decided to move down to a small basement where there was a fridge.
An exhaust fan outlet in the basement proved a life saver. I could hear soldiers speaking outside and different instructions from their commanders. Next to the basement was another cubicle facing the Temple where a sewadar used to sleep. I heard the army drag out this man. He was shot. Since extremists had been using all possible openings as pill boxes and grenade launchers the soldiers decided to lob grenades into all such openings, including my fan outlet. The minute I heard the order we all moved under a staircase. Minutes later two grenades came in. The splinters took three inches away from most of the walls. But luckily we escaped. We spent the night under the staircase.
Eventually at about 11 am on the 6th my wife noticed an officer standing outside. She called out to him to attract his attention and requested him to rescue us. She told him that she had two young daughters. The officer behaved decently and said, Dont worry I too have two daughters. Nothing will happen to you. Stay put. He organized chapattis, pickes and drinking water. He eventually let us out when curfew lifted.
We had to step over dead bodies strewn everywhere. We were taken to the square in front of the main clock tower entrance. The minute the soldiers saw me, a male member of the group, they positioned their rifles on their shoulders with the barrels pointing at me. I think they were about to shoot me when a brigadier who recognized me intervened. We were then led by soldiers across the parkarma to the library side. A lieutenant accompanied us. Upon reaching the other side he asked me to stand against the wall and lined up a firing squad. He asked me to say my prayers. I requested to say good-bye to my wife and the two daughters. At this point the brigadier showed up again and shouted at the young officer, What the hell are you doing! The officer said, Sir, I misunderstood your order. I thought this man was to be shot.
Now we were made to sit on the ground. My hands were tied behind my back. We were about 70 in that lot. All of us were told to keep our heads down. A slight movement of the head resulted in a sharp rifle butt. We spent the whole night sitting there." Outside the Temple complex the army troops were on a brutal rampage, killing and looting surrounding houses of Sikhs. (Subhash Kirpekar, Journalist)
"On the way back to the hotel (afternoon of June 6th) I witnessed a scene at the Kotwali which is blood curdling. This is where some soldiers were kicking some of the 11 suspected terrorists as they knelt on their bare knees and crawled on the hot road surface." (Giani Chet Singh)
"The people were taken out of their houses. Men's hands were tied with their turbans. Women's necks were sought to be asphyxiated with their plaits. Then they were shot in the chests. No quarter was shown to women, aged or children; in the eyes of the troops every Sikh was a terrorist. Those who survived died of thirst. Their houses were ransacked, and then put on fire. The area surrounding Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) was full of debris. What happened is beyond description of sight, hearing or words."
As night fell the Army troops were given the order to storm the remains of the Akal Takht and shoot on site anyone they found inside. The troops encounter little resistance and find dead bodies and the smell of death everywhere.
Thursday June 7th
In the early hours of the morning the troops discover the bodies of Bhindranwale and his closest followers in the basement of the Akal Takht.
The day was spent in clean up operations flushing out any remaining snipers and collecting the dead bodies. Soldiers were openly walking about the temple in their shoes, drinking alcohol as well as smoking. Blood and bodies were strewn all over the broken marble of the parkarma. With putrefying corpses floating in the sacred pool of nectar and the smell of death everywhere.
The Darshani Deori the entrance gate of the Golden Temple which houses many priceless treasures was destroyed and looted. Although fighting had now died down, the central library complex was mysteriously burned down. Many priceless manuscripts, some in the Gurus own handwriting were lost forever.
The number of people who lost their lives will never be known. The Army refused to let the Red Cross enter the complex and cremated the dead before the bodies could be identified or claimed by their families. The Amritsar municipal sweepers refused to clear the dead bodies away but were eventually persuaded by offers of rum and being allowed to strip the bodies of all valuables. They piled the dead into garbage trucks and unceremoniously cremated them. Family members were not allowed by the army to claim the remains or perform any traditional funeral rites. It is clear that thousands lost their lives in the Temple complex.
Elsewhere across Punjab hundreds of Sikhs were killed in the army operation at the same time which saw 42 Gurdwaras raided at the same time as the Golden Temple, including high casualties at Moga, Mukatsar, Faridkot, Patiala, Ropar and Chowk Mehta.
Kar Seva is the ceremonial cleaning of the sacred pool is normally undertaken every 50 years. A special Kar Seva was undertaken in 1985 to replace some of the damage. Tens of thousands of Sikhs participated and the sacred pool of nectar was completely drained and cleaned.
Restoration work has taken 15 years to complete.The Akal Takht has been entirely rebuilt. The marble of the parkarma has been replaced in sections with new marble. Repair work on Harmandir Sahib included reguilding the temple dome and walls with new gold. The Ramgharia Bungas have been repaired and Teja Singh Samundri Hall has been left, pockmarked with bullet holes as a reminder of the tragedy.
What was one of the darkest chapters of Sikh history, reminiscent of the persecution the Sikhs faced at the hands of the Mughals has acted like a lightening rod for all Sikhs. It should not be viewed as a cause of incitement of hatred, but rather as a jolting reminder to Sikhs that they cannot take the existence of their religion for granted. As caretakers of the Sikh religion, it is up to Sikhs to actively participate and make sure that the message of the Gurus and the Sikh religion survives and grows, overcoming any and all adversities.