On this night in 1984, the Golden Temple in Amritsar was stormed by Indian army troops. They had been summoned by Indira Gandhi to disarm and dislodge Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale—head of the Damdami Taksaal, a prominent insurgent voice in the orthodox Sikh community and a former ally of the Congress—who was operating from and residing in the Darbar Sahib Complex. While the intent of Operation Bluestar, as this was termed, was to clear Bhindranwale’s armed insurgents from the premises of the Golden Temple, the operation took a devastating turn. In this excerpt from ‘The Shattered Dome,’ from our May 2014 issue, Hartosh Singh Bal reports on the violent events that transpired that night.
According to the memoir of PC Alexander, principal secretary to the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi made up her mind to summon the army on 25 May, relying on the reassurances of General AS Vaidya, chief of the army staff. Vaidya explained that he would move troops into different locations in Punjab simultaneously, surrounding gurdwaras occupied by extremists and cutting off their supplies and movement. A similar siege would be mounted around the Golden Temple, with a large number of troops. Alexander writes that Gandhi “repeatedly told the general that in any operation no damage should be done to the temple buildings and particularly to the Harmandir Sahib.” Vaidya assured her that there would be “a maximum show of force, but a minimum use of it.”
Vaidya met with Gandhi again on 29 May, and suggested some changes in the plan. They would ensure that the temple would not be damaged—but they would need to enter it. This proposal was the result of Vaidya’s meeting with Lieutenant General K Sundarji, who had direct command of operations. Alexander writes that Vaidya convinced Gandhi that he had weighed the pros and cons of the plan with his senior colleagues; they had all agreed that a siege would prolong the operation and destabilise the surrounding countryside. A quick entry and surprise attack was the best way to deal with the men inside.
“Vaidya spoke with such confidence and calmness that the new plan he was proposing appeared to be the only option open to the Army,” Alexander writes. “I can definitely state on the basis of the clear knowledge of Indira Gandhi’s thinking at that time that she agreed to the revision of the earlier plan at the eleventh hour strictly on the assurance given to her that the whole operation would be completed swiftly and without any damage to the buildings within the Golden temple complex.”
A week later, on the night of 5 June, Lieutenant Colonel Israr Rahim Khan commanded the first batch of troops that stormed the Darbar Sahib complex.
Khan reported directly to Major General Kuldip Singh “Bulbul” Brar, who was in overall command of the operation and in touch with Sundarji. (The major general, like Bhindranwale, was a Brar Jatt, and the two men came from villages close to each other’s, but there the similarities between them ended. Brar came from a distinguished military family, and the gulf of class and education between him and Bhindranwale was deep; he had little time for the sort of orthodoxy Bhindranwale espoused.)
When I met him in his home, Khan, who retired as a brigadier, at first said he had little to add to Brar’s account of the operation, published in his 1993 book Operation Bluestar—The True Story. I said I wanted to hear a view from the ground, from a soldier who was actually part of the operation.
In spite of his greying hair, it was easy to see in Khan the dashing soldier Brar had sent into the complex. Once he began to speak, it was evident he remembered the action as though it had taken place yesterday. “From our debussing area, near Jallianwalla Bagh”—the famous park is a short distance away from the Darbar Sahib—“we were to approach the Darshan Deori, the main entrance. We were in the open, and they”—Bhindranwale’s men—“were all secure, with their weapon emplacements in place. There was not an inch of ground in the gully outside the Darshan Deori that was not covered by the firing.”
Shahbeg Singh’s plan of defence for the Darbar Sahib was so effective that, three decades later, Khan recalled it with something like admiration. The complex was guarded by an outer ring of emplacements positioned on the vantage points of its high buildings—the Hotel Temple View on one side, and the gumbads, or domes, on the other—and an inner ring on the parikrama, within the temple itself. At the Darshan Deori, Khan and his men descended the stairs into the complex unaware of loopholes in the walls that had been turned, he said, into “weapon pits.”
“My boys were climbing down the stairs in the darkness, because the electricity was cut. It was totally dark, and we were wondering where this fire was coming from. It takes a little time to think. It was coming from under the stairs.” The bullets hit Khan’s soldiers below the knee. “The boys,” he said, “fell tumbling down.”
The memory made Khan pause. “In which war have we suffered such heavy casualties?” he asked. “From my battalion, in the first hour—from 10.30 to 11.30 at night—we had already lost nineteen. In the ’71 war, in Shakargarh sector, I tell you, Hartosh, in the whole ten to fifteen days, my battalion, the 10 Guards, lost four men. What a gruesome battle it was in the Golden Temple.”
The army was hemmed in at close quarters, in a heavily built-up area—which meant, Khan said, that there was no way collateral damage could be avoided. “I read somewhere that Mrs Gandhi was told there would be no casualties. No person in the right frame of mind would give such an assurance to the PM.”
If there were any expectations that the security forces would meet no resistance, they were rendered utterly false. “They knew,” Khan said. “How can you build brick and mortar key emplacements overnight? It was beautifully planned. You could not close up anywhere near the temple without being hit by a bullet.”
“The commandos were grouped with me. A company each of the SFF”—the R&AW unit, the Special Frontier Force —“and 1 Para Commando was grouped with 10 Guards. We were to give them safe passage through the parikrama, until the periphery of the Akal Takht, and they were meant to capture Bhindranwale from the Akal Takht. So I grouped them, with my leading company going ahead. We entered first and made place for them to enter. We gave them a safe corridor through the parikrama till the end. There were twelve rooms in a row; we kept clearing, room by room by room.” Every room was manned.
By 1 am, Khan says, his company had captured the northern wing of the parikrama and opened it up to the special forces, but they were unable to make headway. “The moment they would close up near the Akal Takht they would come under heavy fire. They were very badly mauled. So they would fall back on the parikrama, and get in touch with Bulbul to tell him that they had lost so many men.”
“I won’t blame them professionally. Their men were dying, and all the fire was coming at them. But why some other methods were not adopted, or what they had rehearsed, is not known to me.”
At two o’clock in the morning, Brar called. “Bulbul told me on the set: ‘Israr, have a Carl Gustav’”—an anti-tank missile—“‘fired at the dome of the Akal Takht and see what effect it has.’ I set up the Carl Gustav myself; I couldn’t take anyone else’s report for granted. From the first floor, which we had captured, I fired a Carl Gustav and—Hartosh, can you believe it, what a beautiful building it was, that dome was so strong—it just ricocheted like a .303 bullet being fired into that wall. Even that leaves a one-inch dent; but nothing was visible on that dome.” Khan radioed back to tell Brar that the missile had had no effect.
“Then I don’t know what transpired between the special forces and Bulbul, that they found no other way. They were scared that after sunrise, all of Punjab would surround the Golden Temple. So whatever had to be achieved, had to be achieved before dawn. They decided on rolling down three tanks inside, and eventually used the main gun of the tank. It pierced through the dome, and there were gaping holes. That was a horrific sight. My own assessment now is that if the main gun of the tank had not been used, perhaps the Sikh psyche wouldn’t have been hurt so much.”
Almost every commitment that Vaidya made to the prime minister went unkept. The operation took at least a full night; it resulted in the decimation of the Akal Takht; and the casualties far outstripped any estimate Gandhi had been given. There are still no credible explanations for why no intelligence on the situation was available or forthcoming to the army. Neither are there answers for why the army did not ask for more time to plan, especially as an operation at the Darbar Sahib had been under consideration since February.
In 1984, the day marking the martyrdom of Guru Arjan fell on 3 June, two days before Operation Bluestar began. The choice to begin hostilities on 5 June was highly problematic, because a curfew had been imposed around the complex days before the attack, effectively trapping a large number of pilgrims, who had nothing to do with the militants, inside the temple.
Over the years, evidence has emerged of crimes committed within the premises by security forces. Brigadier Onkar Goraya’s 2013 book, Operation Bluestar and After, An Eyewitness Account, provides, for the first time, some clarity on the number of pilgrims inside the complex during the operation. Goraya, the head of the Admin branch of the 15th Infantry division posted in Punjab, was tasked with “lifting civilian casualties, disposal of the dead and evacuation of the wounded to the hospitals, apprehending the militants, guarding them in make-shift jails in the Cantonment, and arranging for their logistics.” He placed the casualties, based on the number of bodies disposed, at seven hundred, and stated that another 2,200 persons were rounded up and interned.
Even by the most exaggerated count, Bhindranwale’s men numbered no more than 250. Were they all counted among the dead, with another hundred from other militant organisations included for good measure, it would mean that, even by the most conservative estimate, the operation resulted in the deaths of over 350 people who had nothing at all to do with Bhindranwale. Considering that many people slipped out of the complex through the numerous doors leading to alleyways surrounding it, it is safe to say the number of people inside was far higher than the three thousand or so accounted for by the numbers of those dead, injured or captured.
The army has consistently maintained that pilgrims inside the complex were given ample opportunity to leave. But Goraya makes it clear that most never heard the army’s requests to surrender and come out. A day before the operation began, he found a district administration van outside the complex broadcasting announcements in Punjabi: “All those who are stranded inside the Darbar Sahib complex are requested to come out with their hands raised above their head. They will not be fired at.” The van was parked eighty yards from the main entrance. “The devotees and pilgrims, for whose benefit the announcements were being made, were well beyond its reach,” Goraya writes.
The scene within the complex after the operation was gruesome. Goraya writes of the stench of rotting bodies in the June heat: the task of disposing of them was so onerous that the municipal workers who eventually cleared them away did so only because they were permitted to strip the bodies of their belongings. The bodies of Bhindranwale and Shahbeg Singh were recovered from the basement of the Akal Takht on the morning of 7 June, almost two days after the operation began. Bhindranwale’s body was identified by his brother and quickly cremated in the presence of a few officers and jawans.
Goraya’s book confirms an allegation of long standing: that security forces shot at least a few men in cold blood. Evidence has already been published of at least one execution: a 2006 book by Harminder Kaur – Blue star over Amritsar – contains the post-mortem report of a young man shot through the chest with his hands tied behind his back. Goraya’s story strengthens the claim that there were multiple killings of this kind. “On 7th June, around mid-day, I saw about 90 detainees sitting on the hot marble floor of the Southern wing of Parikrama,” he writes. “They were naked except for the long underwear and their hands were tied behind their backs.
“Most of them appeared to be militants. Though subjugated they retained their defiant spirit. Instead of looking down, some of them dared to look into the eyes of their captors. A second Lieutenant of the unit who had fought these militants the previous night and lost a few comrades, could not stomach such defiance. When he asked them to look down one of them spat at him. The officer lost his cool and shot him in the forehead.”
On 23 June, when Indira Gandhi visited the Darbar Sahib for the first time after the operation, Goraya was at the tail end of the group surrounding her as she walked around the parikrama. As she looked at the Akal Takht, Goraya claims, she said to General Sundarji beside her: “I didn’t ask you to do this.”
An edited excerpt from “The Shattered Dome,’ published in The Caravan’s May 2014 issue. Read the story in full here.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.