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.