Operation Blue Star was an Indian military operation which occurred between 3–8 June 1984, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in order to establish control over the Harmandir Sahib Complex in Amritsar, Punjab, and remove Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers from the complex buildings. Bhindranwale had earlier taken residence in Harmandir Sahib and made it his headquarters in April 1980.
The operation had two components—Operation Metal, confined to the Harmandir Sahib complex, and Operation Shop, which raided the Punjabi countryside to capture any suspects. Following it, Operation Woodrose was launched in the Punjab countryside where Sikhs, specifically those carrying a kirpan and doing protest, were now targeted. The operation was carried out by Indian Army troops with tanks, artillery, helicopters, and armored vehicles, and chemical weapons. Casualty figures of Operation Blue Star given by Kuldip Singh Brar put the number of deaths among the Indian army at 83 and injuries at 220. According to the official estimate presented by the Indian government, 492 civilians were killed, though some independent claims varies.
In addition, the CBI is considered responsible for seizing historical artifacts and manuscripts in the Sikh Reference Library, before burning it down. The military action led to an uproar amongst Sikhs worldwide and the increased tension following the action led to assaults on members of the Sikh community within India. Many Sikh soldiers in the Indian army mutinied, many Sikhs resigned from armed and civil administrative office and several returned awards and honours they had received from the Indian government.
Four months after the operation, on 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Satwant Singh and Beant Singh who were her two Sikh bodyguards, in what is viewed as an act of vengeance. Subsequently, more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in the ensuing anti-Sikh riots. Within the Sikh community itself, Operation Blue Star has taken on considerable historical significance and is often compared to what Sikhs call "the great massacre" by the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Durrani, the Sikh holocaust of 1762.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Harmandir Sahib
Sri Harmandir Sahib at night
The main political aim for Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale and his followers he was associated with during June 1984 was to pass the Anandpur Resolution and not explicitly or solely for a separate country of Khalistan as Indian media often heavily reported. Throughout his career Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale remained in contact with Indira Gandhi. Bhindranwale had earlier taken residence in Harmandir Sahib and made it his headquarters in April 1980, when he was accused of the assassination of Nirankari Gurbachan Singh. The Nirankari Baba, also known as Baba Gurbachan, had been the target of an attack by followers of Bhindranwale, outside Harmandir Sahib. On 13 April 1978, Nirankari's Baba Gurbachan is alleged to have ridiculed 10th Guru Gobind Singh in a Nirankari Convention held in Amritsar. This prompted Akhand Kirtani Jatha to lead a protest against the Baba Gurbachan. Both sides clashed with each other and in the ensuing violence, several people were killed: two of Bhindranwale's followers, eleven members of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha and three Nirankaris.
In 1982, Bhindranwale and approximately 200 armed followers moved into a guest-house called the Guru Nanak Niwas, in the precinct of Harmandir Sahib. From here he met and was interviewed by international television crews.
By 1983, Harmandir Sahib became a fort for a large number of militants. On 23 April 1983, the Punjab Police Deputy Inspector General A. S. Atwal was shot dead as he left the Harmandir Sahib compound. The following day, after the murder, Harchand Singh Longowal (then president of Shiromani Akali Dal) confirmed the involvement of Bhindranwale in the murder.
Harmandir Sahib compound and some of the surrounding houses were fortified. The Statesman reported on 4 July that light machine guns and semi-automatic rifles were known to have been brought into the compound. Faced with imminent army action and with the foremost Sikh political organisation, Shiromani Akali Dal (headed by Harchand Singh Longowal), abandoning him, Bhindranwale declared "This bird is alone. There are many hunters after it".
Time magazine described Amritsar in November 1983: "These days it more closely resembles a city of death. Inside the temple compound, violent Sikh fanatics wield submachine guns, resisting arrest by government security forces. Outside, the security men keep a nervous vigil, all too aware that the bodies of murdered comrades often turn up in the warren of tiny streets around the shrine."
On 15 December 1983, Bhindranwale was asked to move out of Guru Nanak Niwas house by members of the Babbar Khalsa who acted with Harcharan Singh Longowal's support. Longowal by now feared for his own safety.
The Indian Army used seven Vijayanta Tanks during the operation
According to the Indian government, Operation Blue Star was launched to eliminate Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers who had sought cover in the Amritsar Harmandir Sahib Complex. The armed Sikhs within the Harmandir Sahib were led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and former Maj. Gen. Shabeg Singh. Lt. Gen. Kuldip Singh Brar had command of the action, operating under Gen. Sundarji.
Indira Gandhi first asked Lt. Gen. S. K. Sinha, then Vice-Chief of Indian Army and selected to become the next Army chief, to prepare a position paper for assault on the Golden Temple. Lt. Gen. Sinha advised against any such move, given its sacrilegious nature according to Sikh tradition. He suggested the government adopt an alternative solution. A controversial decision was made to replace him with General Arun Shridhar Vaidya as the Chief of the Indian army. General Vaidya, assisted by Lt. Gen. Sundarji as Vice-Chief, planned and coordinated Operation Blue Star.
On 3 June, a 36-hour curfew was imposed on the state of Punjab with all methods of communication and public travel suspended. The electricity supply was also interrupted, creating a total blackout and cutting off the state from the rest of the world. Complete media censorship was enforced.
The Indian Army stormed Harmandir Sahib on the night of 5 June under the command of Kuldip Singh Brar. The forces had full control of Harmandir Sahib by the morning of 7 June. There were casualties among the army, civilians, and militants. Sikh leaders Bhindranwale and Shabeg Singh were killed in the operation.
At 1240 hrs the CRPF and BSF started firing at "Guru Ram Das Langar" building. The Border Security Force and the Central Reserve Police Force, under orders of the Army, started firing upon the Complex, in which at least eight people died.
The Indian army had already sealed the international border from Kashmir to Ganga Nagar, Rajasthan. At least seven divisions of army were deployed in villages of Punjab. By the nightfall media and the press were gagged; the rail, road and air services in Punjab were suspended. Foreigners' and NRIs' entry was also banned. General Gauri Shankar was appointed as the Security Advisor to the Governor of Punjab. The water and electricity supply was cut off.
A complete curfew was observed with the army and para-military patrolling the whole Punjab. The army sealed off all routes of ingress and exit around the temple complex.
The army started bombarding the historic Ramgarhia Bunga, the water tank, and other fortified positions. The army used Ordnance QF 25 pounder and destroyed the outer defences laid by General Shabeg Singh. The army then placed tanks and APCs on the road separating the Guru Nanak niwas building. About 100 died in pitched battles.
The army helicopters spotted the massive movements, and General K. Sunderji sent tanks and APCs to meet them. Hundreds or thousands of Sikhs were killed at the rendezvous.
The artillery and small arms firing stopped for a while, and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, former head of SGPC was sent to negotiate with Bindrawale, however, he was unsuccessful. The firing resumed again.
In the morning, shelling started on the building inside the Harmandir Sahib complex. The 9th division launched a frontal attack on the Akal Takht, although it was unable to secure the building.
The BSF and CRPF attacked Hotel Temple View and Brahm Boota Akhara respectively on the southwest fringes of the complex. By 2200 hours both the structures were under their control. The Army simultaneously attacked various other gurdwaras. Sources mention either 42 or 74 locations.
Late in the evening, the generals decided to launch a simultaneous attack from three sides. 10 Guards, 1 Para Commandos and Special Frontier Force (SFF) would attack from the main entrance of the complex, and 26 Madras and 9 Kumaon battalions from the hostel complex side entrance from the south. The objective of the 10 Guards was to secure the northern wing of the Temple complex and draw attention away from SFF who were to secure the western wing of the complex and 1 Para Commandos who were to gain a foothold in Akal Takht and in Harmandir Sahab, with the help of divers. 26 Madras was tasked with securing the southern and the eastern complexes, and the 9 Kumaon regiment with SGPC building and Guru Ramdas Serai. 12 Bihar was charged with providing a cordon and fire support to the other regiments by neutralising enemy positions under their observance.
As the troops entered the temple from the Northern entrance, they were gunned down by light machine-gun fire from both sides of the steps. The few commandos who did get down the steps were driven back by a barrage of fire from the building on the south side of the sacred pool, and thus they failed to reach the pavement around the Sacred Pool. The commandos and SFF inched pillar by pillar to reach the western wing where they came under fire from Harmandir Sahib itself. They were under strict instructions not to fire at Harmandir Sahib, the sanctum sanctorum, and instead told to focus on Akal Takth.
An initial attempt by the commandos to gain a foothold at Darshani Deori failed as they came under devastating fire, after which several further attempts were made with varying degrees of success. Eventually, other teams managed to reach Darshani Deori, a building north of the Nishan Sahib, and started to fire at the Akal Takth and a red building towards its left, so that the SFF troops could get closer to the Darshani Deori and fire gas canisters at Akal Takth. The canisters bounced off the building and affected the troops instead.
Meanwhile, 26 Madras and 9 Garhwal Rifles (reserve troops) had come under heavy fire from the Langar rooftop, Guru Ramdas Serai and the buildings in the vicinity. Moreover, they took a lot of time in forcing open the heavy Southern Gate, which had to be shot open with tank fire. This delay caused a lot a of casualties among the Indian troops fighting inside the complex. Three tanks and an APC had entered the complex.
Crawling was impossible as Shabeg Singh had placed light machine guns nine or ten inches above the ground. The attempt caused many casualties among the Indian troops. A third attempt to gain the Pool was made by a squad of 200 troops from both the commandos and the Guards. On the southern side, the Madras and Garhwal battalions were not able to make it to the pavement around the pool because they were engaged by positions on the southern side.
Despite the mounting casualties, General Sunderji ordered a fourth assault by the commandos. This time, the Madras battalion was reinforced with two more companies of the 7th Garhwal Rifles under the command of General Kuldip Singh Brar. However, the Madras and Garhwal troops under Brigadier A. K. Diwan once again failed to move towards the parikarma (the pavement around the pool).
Brigadier Diwan reported heavy casualties and requested more reinforcements. General Brar sent two companies of 15 Kumaon Regiment. This resulted in yet more heavy casualties, forcing Brigadier Diwan to request tank support. As the APC inched closer to the Akal Takth it was hit with an anti-tank RPG, which immediately immobilized it. Brar also requested tank support. The tanks received the clearance to fire their main guns (105 mm high-explosive squash head shells) only at around 7:30 a.m.
Vijayanta tanks shelled the Akal Takhat. It suffered some damage but the structure was still standing upright. A group trying to escape was mowed down by machine gun fire. The resistance continued from the neighbouring structures of the Akal Takhat.
The army gained effective control of the Harmandir Sahib complex.
The Army fought about four militant Sikhs holed up in basement of a tower. A colonel of the commandos was shot dead by an LMG burst while trying to force his way into the basement. By the afternoon of 10 June, the entire operation was over.
The Army placed total casualties at:
Civilians: 493 dead
Military: 136 killed and 220 wounded.
Unofficial casualty figures were much higher; some suggest that civilian casualties numbered 20,000.
Mark Tully and Satish Jacob mention the use of tanks by the army at the Sultanwind area over the civilian Sikhs marching towards Amritsar.
According to the independent sources, the number of military personnel was at least 700. In one of his speeches, Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India, has purportedly said that over 700 soldiers died during the operation. CNN-IBN, on the 25th death anniversary of Indira Gandhi, on 31 October 2009, reported to have lost 365 commandos. Apart from this, an unspecified number of soldiers were reported killed during the fighting at 38 other gurdwaras in Punjab. Strong resistance was reported at Muktsar and Moga. On top of this, there was the prospect that more Indian army personnel may have been victims of mutinies by Sikh soldiers at different military locations across India.
Main articles: Assassination of Indira Gandhi and 1984 anti-Sikh riots
At least 4,000 Sikh soldiers mutinied at different locations in India in protest, with some reports of large-scale pitched battles being fought to bring mutineers under control.
The operation also led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards, triggering the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The widespread killing of Sikhs, principally in the national capital Delhi but also in other major cities in North India, led to major divisions between the Sikh community and the Indian Government. The army withdrew from Harmandir Sahib later in 1984 under pressure from Sikh demands.
General Arun Shridhar Vaidya, the Chief of Army Staff at the time of Operation Blue Star, was assassinated in 1986 in Pune by two Sikhs, Harjinder Singh Jinda and Sukhdev Singh Sukha. Both were sentenced to death, and hanged on 7 October 1992.
Sikh militants continued to use and occupy the temple compound and on 1 May 1986, Indian paramilitary police entered the temple and arrested 200 militants that had occupied Harmandir Sahib for more than three months. On 2 May 1986 the paramilitary police undertook a 12-hour operation to take control of Harmandir Sahib at Amritsar from several hundred militants, but almost all the major radical leaders managed to escape. In June 1990, the Indian government ordered the area surrounding the temple to be vacated by local residents in order to prevent militants activity around the temple.
The use of artillery in the congested inner city of Amritsar proved deadly to many civilian bystanders living near Harmandir Sahib. The media blackout throughout the Punjab resulted in widespread doubt regarding the official stories and aided the promotion of hearsay and rumor. The operation is criticised on four main grounds: the choice of time of attack by Government, the heavy casualties, the loss of property, and allegations of human rights violations by Army personnel.
In addition, Indira Gandhi has been accused of using the attack for political ends. Dr. Harjinder Singh Dilgeer stated that Indira Gandhi attacked the Harmandir Sahib complex to present herself as a great hero in order to win forthcoming elections.
S. K. Sinha, the GOC of the Indian Army who was sacked just before the attack, had advised the government against the operation. He later criticized the Government's claim that the attack represented a "last resort". He also stated that the operation would have been conducted in an entirely different manner if he had planned it.
He also pointed out that a few days before the operation, the Home Minister had announced that the troops would not be sent to Harmandir Sahib., but the operation seems to have been in plans much earlier. The General has alleged that the army had been rehearsing the operation in a replica of Harmandir Sahib at a secret location near Chakrata Cantonment in the Doon Valley.
The timing of Operation Blue Star coincided with a Sikh religious day, the death of Guru Arjan Dev, the founder of the Harmandir Sahib. Sikhs from all over the world visit the temple on this day. Many Sikhs view the timing and attack by the Indian Army as an attempt to inflict maximum casualties on Sikhs and demoralise them, and the government is in turn blamed for the inflated number of civilian dead for choosing to attack on this day. The justification given by the Centre was the announcement made by Longowal that a state-wide civil disobedience movement would be launched on 3 June 1984, by refusing to pay land revenue, water and electricity bills, and blocking the flow of grain out of Punjab.
The Sikh community's anger and suffering was further increased by comments from leading newspaper editors, such as Ramnath Goenka, terming the operation as "A greater victory than the win over Bangladesh, this is the greatest victory of Mrs. Gandhi".
Before the attack by army a media blackout was imposed in Punjab. The Times reporter Michael Hamlyn reported that journalists were picked up from their hotels at 5 a.m. in a military bus, taken to the adjoining border of the state of Haryana and "were abandoned there". The main towns in Punjab were put under curfew, transportation was banned, a news blackout was imposed, and Punjab was "cut off from the outside world". A group of journalists who later tried to drive into Punjab were stopped at the road block at Punjab border and were threatened with shooting if they proceeded. Indian nationals who worked with the foreign media also were banned from the area. The press criticized these actions by government as an "obvious attempt to attack the temple without the eyes of the foreign press on them".
Brahma Chellaney, the Associated Press's South Asia correspondent, was the only foreign reporter who managed to stay on in Amritsar despite the media blackout. His dispatches, filed by telex, provided the first non-governmental news reports on the bloody operation in Amritsar. His first dispatch, front-paged by the New York Times, The Times of London and The Guardian, reported a death toll about twice of what authorities had admitted. According to the dispatch, about 780 militants and civilians and 400 troops had perished in fierce gunbattles. The high casualty rates among security forces were attributed to "the presence of such sophisticated weapons as medium machine guns and rockets" in the militants arsenal.
Chellaney also reported that several suspected Sikh militants had been shot with their hands tied. The dispatch, after its first paragraph reference to “several” such deaths, specified later that about “eight to 10” men had been shot in that fashion. In that dispatch, Mr. Chellaney 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 examination before. The number of casualties reported by Mr. Chellaney were far more than government reports, and the Indian government, which disputed his casualty figures, accused him of inflammatory reporting. The Associated Press stood by the reports and figures, the accuracy of which was also "supported by Indian and other press accounts" and by reports in The Times and the New York Times.
Similar accusations of highhandedness by the Indian Army and allegations of human rights violations by security forces in Operation Blue Star and subsequent military operations in Punjab have been levelled by Justice V. M. Tarkunde, Mary Anne Weaver, human rights lawyer Ram Narayan Kumar, and anthropologists Cynthia Mahmood and Joyce Pettigrew.
The Indian Army responded to this criticism by stating that they "answered the call of duty as disciplined, loyal and dedicated members of the Armed Forces of India...our loyalties are to the nation, the armed forces to which we belong, the uniforms we wear and to the troops we command".
It was later pointed out that as the blockade approach taken by Rajiv Gandhi five years later in Operation Black Thunder, when Sikh militants had again taken over the temple complex, was highly successful as they managed to resolve the stand-off peacefully and in hindsight, Operation Blue Star could have been averted by using similar blockade tactics. The army responded by stating that "no comparison is possible between the two situations", as "there was no cult figure like Bhindranwale to idolise, and no professional military general like Shahbeg Singh to provide military leadership" and "the confidence of militants having been shattered by Operation Blue Star". Furthermore, it is pointed out that the separatists in the temple were armed with machine guns, anti tank missiles and rocket launchers, and that they strongly resisted the army's attempts to dislodge them from the shrine, appearing to have planned for a long standoff, having arranged for water to be supplied from wells within the temple compound and had stocked food provisions that could have lasted months.
Hindustan Times correspondent Chand Joshi alleged that the army units "acted in total anger" and shot down all the suspects rounded up from the temple complex. Mark Tully and Satish Jacob criticized the Army for burning down the Sikh Reference Library in Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi's Last Battle, stating that this was done to destroy the culture of the Sikhs. In The Sikhs of Punjab, Joyce Pettigrew alleges that the army conducted the operation to "suppress the culture, and political will, of a people".
Honours to the soldiers
The soldiers and generals involved in the Operation were presented with gallantry awards, honours, decoration strips and promotions by the Sikh president Zail Singh in a ceremony conducted on 10 July 1985. The act was criticized by authors and activists such as Harjinder Singh Dilgeer, who accused the troops of human rights violations during the operation.