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

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
05 June, 2014

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.”

“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.”

(An extract from ‘The Shattered Dome’ by Hartosh Singh Bal, published in The Caravan’s May 2014 issue.)