An army officer remembers storming the Golden Temple on this night thirty years ago

05 June 2014
To dislodge Bhindranwale, the army used the main gun of a tank to fire at the Akal Takht, nearly reducing it to rubble in the process.
Satpal Danish
To dislodge Bhindranwale, the army used the main gun of a tank to fire at the Akal Takht, nearly reducing it to rubble in the process.
Satpal Danish

On this night, thirty years ago, the first batch of army troops stormed the Golden Temple—or to use the name most invoked by the faithful, the Darbar Sahib—in Amritsar, which had been occupied by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers. Lieutenant Colonel Israr Rahim Khan led the operation. In this extract from ‘The Shattered Dome’ by Hartosh Singh Bal, Khan recounts the night with terrifying clarity.

On the night of 5 June 1984, 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 last month, 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.”

Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Operation Bluestar