01st June to 10th June 1984- an ominous time in the rubric of history. This was not retribution unleashed upon Biblical cities like Sodom and Gomorrah by a providential decree. It was a disparaging strike at the spiritual consciousness of a religion – Sikhism. The blue star turned crimson bathed in human blood. It was phyrric victory for the despotic and the hardened at heart. This incident triggered a detonation in the minds of every Sikh, who believed and adhered to the tenets of Sikhi. Every bullet fired, every burst of LMG and every 105 mm artillery shell hurled at Akal Takht resonated in the Sikh psyche long after the calibrated assault on the epicentre of Sikh faith. It was a tragedy without equals in the memory of a fledgling republic that had just recovered from the tenebrocity of Emergency Years (1975 – 1977) — a period marked by infringement of democratic liberty. While Emergency quashed the faith of the masses in civil liberty; Operation Blue Star seared the sensibilities of the Sikhs. Orphaned by the very land that was zealously served by valiant Sikhs for centuries with sacrifice and selflessness; they felt betrayed and abandoned.
The orders to execute this exhibition of deadly force directly came from the then Prime Minister of India.
To legitimize authorisation for the use of disproportional force The Punjab Disturbed Areas Act 1983 was passed. Ostensibly it was designed to suppress disorder and restore peace but the ground facts contradict this official position. Another act was additionally passed to add more teeth and talons to the carriers of order and peace(Security Forces and Allied Agencies). The Armed Forces (Punjab and Chandigarh)Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was passed in October 1983 that allowed the Security forces to detain anyone perceived as a threat or seem to be in possession of weapons. It allowed random search and impounding of vehicles deemed suspicious or thought to be connected to proclaimed offenders. It also allowed arbitrary search of residences. The previously passed National Security Act, September 1980, allowed the Security Officials to detain a person without charge or trial for a year.
The Army was given absolute authority to round up and detain protesters or anyone perceived as a present or prospective security risk. Every person who lived in those tarbulent times were left with memories of horror and pain. It left indelible bruises on the families, who had lost someone dear during those periods of unrest. Garlanded photos
of victims still adorn the empty walls of many Sikh households as a constant reminder of the dark times.
The army was pressed into service in line with their sacred oath of duty and service to the nation. The adversaries were the adherents of a charismatic Sikh leader Sant. Bhindranwale(a leader of the Damdami Taksal). His followers were ardently devoted to safeguarding the sanctity of their cause. I am not here to dwell upon the merits or rationale of their spiritual and political stand. So I decide to persist with my narrative.
It was a professional patriot pitted against a committed idealist of a different kind. The result was a million laceration on the heart of the very citizens whom the Constitution is committed to protect in times of distress and despair. Before the commencement of the final operation, the state of Punjab was sealed off from the rest of India and all ingress and points of exit were made inaccessible. Journalists were compelled to leave the state and some of them were literally dropped at the Haryana border and ordered to plan their own transportation from that point onwards. Those who remonstrated were shoved off in hurriedly arranged military escorted transports that whisked them out of Punjab and abandoned them at its borders. A strict curfew was implemented followed by suspension of power supply and complete press and media censorship. Punjab was ostracised from the rest of the civilized world.
The stage was set for the operation. On 4th of June 1984, the artillery bombardment of the water tanks began. On the 05th of June 1984 roughly around 7 P.M. under the blanket of stygian darkness a full scale military assault was unleashed. Troops advanced under the cover of artillery fire, mortar shelling, followed by firing of heavy projectiles from armored tanks. The (Harmandar Sahib ji) Gurdwara complex transformed into a battlefield where many rounds of fire were exchanged between the adversaries. A pitch battle raged for 3 days. It was on the 8th of June that the military was able to push through the battle hardened resistance of the alleged separatists and (Harmandir Sahib Ji) was finally occupied by the military. However a few isolated pockets of resistance remained until the 10th of June evening, which were cleared after intense fighting. In the end the operational objective of the mission was actualised by the military.
Only after days of blood bath and incessant firing from all directions, the guns fell silent leaving behind a gory trail of mangled and bleeding corpses everywhere. The assault neutralised the alleged extremists at a tremendous cost of human life and an unaffordable cost of complete moral bankruptcy. Many were left to mourn for the dead on both sides. Many civilians died as a result of the army assault.
Entire Punjab was left reeling from the shock of this event. When words of this infamous assault travelled like wildfire it left every Sikh numb in pain and seething rage. Many were horrified and refused to believe as it took time to swallow the impact of this bitter truth. It jolted the faith of Sikhs from their foundation. Even before they could recover from the horrors of this tragedy, the army cordoned off the entire state and conducted mass scale search operations. The Security agencies imposed extraordinary methods of engagement to pulverise the possibility of dissent. Random door to door searches were conducted, people were taken into custody for questioning. The techniques that were pressed into service have been heavily criticised by Human Rights Watch. What was argued as a necessary mean to restore normalcy as per our Leadership remains strongly opposed by several international Human Rights Organisations. People felt terrified and lived under a blanket of fear like the citizens of the Soviet state during the Stalinist pogroms of the 1920s. The mayhem and violence promoted a ‘Fear Complex’ in the minds of every Sikh, prompting them to wonder,”Am I next?”
The official justification for Operation Blue Star was the indiscriminate killing of Hindus and wanton disregard for law in the Punjabi countryside. The Leadership never though it necessary to vindicate their accusations by providing irrefutable evidence of the actions that the Akali Dharm Yudh Morcha stood guilty of perpertating. However, in compliance to the official version of events, there was a spurt of violence that was ascending at an alarming pace. In the absence of any credible source of confirmation and the dearth of transparency, we are compelled to accept the only version that was brought into circulation and forced fed into our brains.
None in the circle of academics, artists or intellectuals were vociferous in their condemnation of an event that shook the moral edifice of our nation. At the end of the operation, the sanctified grounds were defiled by the blood of extinguished lives. I am not a judge to engage in proselytism on the subject of moral rectitude. I am simply shaken by the disturbing images of corpses lined up for positive identification. The disturbing images of blood splattered everywhere and severed body parts strewn in the halls and courtyards of the temple is a harrowing sight. Was it not the same hallowed grounds where pilgrims set foot with reverence in their hearts and prayers on their lips ? Our silence has unstripped us of the lofty moral fabric that we pride in as our glorious possession. All these years, as loyal citizens of the republic, we offered our silence and our disgusting apathy towards the entire episode of violence. Sikhs were allowed to relive their pathos because we (the people) decided to renew our vows of silence year after year until time consigned this tragedy to the rustic pages of history.
A myriad questions clutter in my mind running riots to seek answers. Popular accounts of the disastrous army operation varies but everyone is unanimous in their claim that daconian measures were imposed in Punjab post Operation Blue Star. The top brass of the military defended these actions as an imperative to weed out extremism from Punjab. The military further asserted that desperate measures were the expedient need of those hours. Well! I never understood how an assault on a religious shrine of the highest order could help a Government achieve that objective? In my modest opinion, such an initiative would only impair the prospects of peace forever. More so, if the military perspective was right then another wave of discontent wouldn’t have gripped Punjab right after Blue Star.
In this context it must be noted that Lt. General S.K. Sinha, the then Vice Chief of Army staff (Indian Army) refused to carry out this directive because he was opposed to the use of Army in religious shrines. The General envisaged widespread discontent within the institution as a result of such involvements. Strangely his speculations were proved right by the future course of events that followed this disastrous assault. The army had to suppress internal mutinies post Operation Blue Star among non-commissioned ranks(9th Sikh regiment), who revolted against this scarilege.
It gave birth to Punjab militancy among the beleanguered and set into motion a cycle of events that is still affecting Punjab (the bread basket of India). An entire generation was virtually sacrificed at the altar of separatism as a result of direct military intervention on that fateful month of June 1984. Many among the present generation is battling the menace of drugs. It happens in most states and areas affected by internal strife and violence, where the psychological trauma of the past haunts and persues a society like cold phantoms gnawing at it from within. One decision changed the life of Sikhs forever. I am unable to atune myself to this public perception that it was for the greater good. The disturbed present of Punjab vindicates my strongly held belief that it was a historical blunder.
The damages done by Operation Blue Star to our secular heritage remains irreversible till date. A large diaspora of Sikhs migrated from this nation post this tragedy and many more felt marginalised and berated. Successive Governments continued to hold an ambivalent official position on this event. This silence and dubious ambivalence has further left the Sikhs emotionally battered forever.
But my question is, who failed the Sikhs? Was it the military whose job is to protect the sovereignty at all cost ? I earnestly dispute the soundness of this logic that allowed military intervention in the Vatican of Sikh faith. If desperate measures entail the decimation of lives in a religious shrine, then such initiatives are a recipe for a bigger catastrophe. It was not the shrine that was assaulted but the heart of the citizens that makes the idea of a Sovereign state meaningful. The emotional self of the Sikh identity was assaulted and rent asunder by this incident. It has left many unhealed scars that still remain open. Operation Blue Star is another outstanding example of Iron Fist policy and it’s embarassing debacle.
Was it the fault of the Leadership who engineered this tragedy? Well that is for the citizens of this nation to decide because with the right to citizenship comes the right to choose. The right to choose is an inalienable right and it must be appointed to fair office or else we fail in our responsibilities towards this assigned privilege. I am too small to judge those who regulate our lives and allow us to thrive under their vast shadows. It is for everyone to decide and choose unanimiously. Only the people can be the judge of these actions that I personally repudiate.
Finally, is it the people who deserve the brunt of the blame? After all it was our loyalty to the covenant of silence that facilitated the culmination of this tragedy without any significant opposition. We chose to silently entanlge ourselves in a web of moribund domestic concerns while Punjab burnt and our Sikh brothers and sisters wept tears of blood.
Well! When this act of violence was perpetrated; I was an infant. Sometime back I met a few Sikh brothers. Their suppressed agony and deep seated sadness compelled me to perform a deeper study into those tumultous years. My research into those events left me disoriented and in anguish. So I decided to uniform my disappointment and offer it the dignity of expression. As Hemmingway had rightly said,”There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”.
This month of July renacts every aspect of the tragedy in the heart,mind and soul of every Sikh, the world over. For us it ended with 1984 but for the Sikhs that night of indiscriminate firing and the deafening sound of explosion still rings afresh. Their wounds haven’t healed and we have done nothing about it excepting reading about this ‘incident’ over a hot cup of coffee. This was the principal impetus behind penning this piece. This is my own modest attempt to make the deaf hear.
While, I don’t know if the nation will offer an apology to the Sikhs in India and the world over.I don’t know if we will make amends by commemorating this day with some amount of remorse and sadness. It is not for me to decide and debate as I decide to leave it to the national consciousness to conclude and execute. On my part, I unite in grief with my Sikh brothers and sisters. I hope that our pledge to the idea of national integrity and that of a united India free of discrimination, stands redeemed. I extend my heartfelt empathy towards those broken lives that will never be repaired, towards those mothers who will never see their sons, towards the widowed and the orphaned, towards those lives martyred in the name of faith and country, towards the forgotten and unknownn dead whose bones may be corroding in some unmarked grave.
Whether there was another alternative is for you to decide? Whether what happened was a blunder, a tragedy or another historical incident is for you to consider? Whether the decision of one caused pain or brought peace is for you to access? Who prevailed in the end – justice or tyranny is for you to judge ?
I have done my part for now and I hope you will do yours.