Sword-wielding clashes in India’s Golden Temple today marked the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, a small recap of the violent yet successful effort of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to rid the temple of militarized squatters. Few were seriously injured in today’s incident.
Operation Blue Star was a six-day Indian military operation, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June 1984, with the intent of establishing control over the Sikh religion’s most sacred temple in Amritsar, the Golden Temple. Many died on both sides, but the controversial operation was successful in its desired outcome.
Leading up to the assault, buildings within the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) complex had become the residence of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his entourage. Bhindranwale was a leader of the Sikh religious group, Damdami Taksal, and he believed that Gandhi’s policies were strongly anti-Punjab. The north Indian state of Punjab is predominantly Sikh. In all, the Indian government reports that 492 were killed, although others claim the number is closer to 5,000. Of the Indian army, 83 died and 220 were injured.
Harcharan Singh Longowal, President of the Akali Dal, a Sikh-centric political party that believes religion and politics go hand in hand, extended an invitation to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to take residence inside the Golden Temple complex. Such a refuge held appeal, as Bhindranwale was in danger of being arrested for threats he made against some Indian nationalist organizations. Over the objection of the head priest of the Golden Temple, Jarnail Singh and his armed followers moved into the holy Akal Takhat within the Golden Temple complex. Bhindranwale used his political connections to overrule the priest.
The group armed themselves with self-loading rifles and fortified the temple with heavy machine-guns. In their book Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle, Mark Tully and Satish Jacob recap the lead-in to the execution of Operation Blue Star by noting that shopkeepers and neighbors who lived in the areas surrounding the temple knew each of the invaders by name and so the police would certainly have known them as well. Arrests were not made, however. “By this time,” they wrote, “Bhindranwale and his men were above the law.”
The operation began on June 3 with the imposition of a 36-hour curfew around Punjab. Public communication and travel services were suspended. The military portion of the operation is infamous for its brutality, with troops from the Indian Army having used tanks, heavy artillery, helicopters, armored vehicles and even chemical weapons. Some argue that excessive deaths could have been avoided with the use of blockade tactics.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale did not survive the battle. Nor did Indira Gandhi, as Operation Blue Star is acknowledged as the main reason for her murder. Five months after the operation, Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, ambushed and killed her.
Recently declassified documents from the United Kingdom (UK) provide a more contemporary recap of Operation Blue Star. The records reveal that a series of meetings took place between India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6. The meetings took place to formulate a plan to remove those holed up in the Golden Temple complex while minimizing civilian casualties.
By Gregory Baskin