In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army storm the Golden Temple – one of the holiest Sikh shrines, which led to her assassination and the killing of thousands of Sikhs.
‘Operation Blue Star’ which lasted from 1st to 8th June was an attempt to flush out Sikh separatists led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who were demanding an independent homeland for the Sikhs, known as Khalistan.
Located in Amritsar, The Golden Temple, also known as the Darbar Sahib is the Sikh’s holiest shrine, founded by the faith’s fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev in 1604. The attack also fell on the anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev Ji, an important Sikh festival, meaning thousands of pilgrims and civilians were inside the gurdwara during the Army’s siege.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale along with many other guerrillas and civilians were residing in the Golden Temple when Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to storm the gurdwara. The attack saw the death of 492 Sikhs, but Sikh groups state that the figure is more than 1,000, along with heavy damage to the holy site itself.
A college student trapped in the complex recalls the Army’s actions: “They continued the firing till the evening of June 5th and then it was about 8.30 p.m. It was completely dark when they entered (Army into the Temple Complex) accompanied by very heavy firing. The blasting was so severe that I thought that I had reached some other world. We were 40-50 persons huddled together in the room, including women and children. The upper portion of the Akal Takhat had been fired at by the Army… Pieces of the Guru Granth Sahib were flying in the air… The place seemed to have been transformed into a haunted house…There were some among us who were frantic for some water, they came out in the open. In the morning I saw the dead bodies lying in the Parikarma. This was the worst kind of treachery.”
Another eyewitness, Duggal recalls how, “the helicopter hovered above and continued to fire from above. Some of these helicopters also guided the firing squads of the Army by making circle of light around the targets. Immediately after these circles, the cannon ball would land causing havoc. We saw a large number of boys blown to pieces. The firing was such, that its ferocity cannot be described. All through the night we heard the heart rending cries of the dying persons.”
Sikhs saw the operation as an attack on their faith and eyewitness testimonies revealed how Sikh’s were tied by their turbans and shot dead, whilst soldiers smoked and drank within the holy complex.
The Assassination of Indira Gandhi and Anti-Sikh riots
In retaliation for Operation Blue Star, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on 31st October 1984.
Her assassination led to deadly anti-Sikh attacks and saw almost 3,000 of India’s Sikh minority murdered in the space of three days.
Violence encompassed Indian cities. Mobs of young Hindu men unleashed their fury against the Sikhs, beating and burning Sikhs alive, gang-raping Sikh women, setting fire to businesses, property and gurdwaras in the capital Delhi.
Jamna Kaur, a Sikh mother recounts the horrific events which tragically saw the death of her children: “My four sons were set on fire and they made us watch them burn. I watched as my children screamed “Haye Mummy, Haye Papa”, and we were screaming and crying too but the mob didn’t stop. The pain and horror never leaves, won’t leave me till the day I leave.”
Eyewitness accounts also described how law enforcement and influential government officials participated and incited the mobs during the massacre.
Barbara Crossette, an American journalist, who reported on the massacre stated that “Almost as many Sikhs died in a few days in India in 1984 than all the deaths and disappearances in Chile during the 17-year military rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.”
The UK’s Involvement
Following campaigns from Sikh lobbyists, in July 2018 the British court declassified documents which controversially revealed how Thatcher’s Conservative government provided assistance to the Indian Army for Operation Blue Star.
Declassified letters show that the UK had sent an SAS officer to provide military assistance to the Indian Army with Operation Blue Star, who was enlisted to help “draw up a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the temple.”
Thatcher and Indira Gandhi also shared letters with one another, and in one declassified document it was revealed that Thatcher had provided Gandhi with her full support after Operation Blue Star and supported India’s aim for unity in light of the Khalistan movement.
Following uproar from the UK’s Sikh community, then Prime Minister David Cameron issued an investigation in the form of The Heywood Review in 2014. The review concluded that there is “no record of any assistance” to the June 1984 operation called ‘Blue Star’ by the Indian government other than the limited military advice provided in mid-February. The review concluded that the Indian Army did not follow the advice of the SAS officer.
Today, Operation Blue Star remains a contentious issue amongst the Sikh population. Sikh activists today are calling for 1984 to be recognised as a genocide rather than a “riot”.
Since 1984, The Indian government has still not prosecuted those responsible for the anti-Sikh violence.
According to Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “India’s failure to prosecute those most responsible for the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 has not only denied justice to Sikhs, but has made all Indians more vulnerable to communal violence.”
This year, the anniversary of Operation Blue Star falls in the midst of worldwide outrage at the tragic death of George Floyd. Both ‘Blue Star’ and George Floyd highlight the issue of state violence against minority groups. This week’s police violence against Black Live’s Matter protestors further raises attention as to how state force is used to suppress and dominate minority voices, triggering the raw memories of Operation Blue Star thirty-six years ago.