Explainer: Khalistan Movement, Bhindranwale & Operation Blue Star

The failure to separate Sikh religion from Sikh politics is what led to India’s first brush with militant extremism.

6 min read

(This story was published on 6 June, 2017, and is being republished from The Quint's archives to mark the 38th anniversary of Operation Blue Star.)

On 2 June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spoke on All India Radio and appealed to “all sections of Punjab not to shed blood, but [shed] hatred”.

The call was disingenuous, since the army was already preparing for its assault on the Golden Temple, notes Ramchandra Guha in India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy.

For nearly five days, the Indian Army used heavy artillery, tanks and helicopters to remove Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was demanding the establishment of Khalistan – a Sikh homeland – from inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

This was Operation Blue Star.

What Was the Khalistan Movement?

The fight for a separate Sikh state owes its origins to the Punjabi Suba Movement. The Akali Dal – a Sikh-dominated political party – sought to create a separate Sikh Suba or Province. When the States Reorganization Commission, constituted to assess the demand for separate states by linguistic groups, made its recommendations, it rejected the Akali Dal’s demand.

But after a series of violent protests, the Indira Gandhi government relented in 1966.

The state was trifurcated into Punjabi-majority Punjab, Hindi-majority Haryana and the Union Territory of Chandigarh. Some hilly regions of the state were merged into Himachal Pradesh.

What was the Anandpur Sahib Resolution?

The Punjabi movement galvanised considerable political support for the Akali Dal and after a brief split, the party came together under Parkash Singh Badal’s leadership, giving the Congress a tough fight in the 1967 and 1969 assembly elections.

The 1972 election, however, proved to be blip in the Akalis’ rising political graph. The Congress swept to power, prompting the Shiromani Akali Dal to introspect.

The failure to separate Sikh religion from Sikh politics is what led to India’s first brush with militant extremism.
Note: A divided Akali Dal fought the 1967 election. The graph denotes the combined seats (26) won by the two factions.

The venue for this introspection was the Anandpur Sahib Gurudwara, where the party adopted a resolution that would serve as a blueprint for the party’s future agenda. The resolution demanded autonomy for the state of Punjab, identified regions that would be part of a separate state, and sought the right to frame its own internal constitution.

This was the Anandpur Sahib Resolution.

The failure to separate Sikh religion from Sikh politics is what led to India’s first brush with militant extremism.

With the Anandpur Sahib resolution, the Akalis tried to create the perception that Sikh religion could not be separated from Sikh politics. Positioning itself as the sole guardian of the faith served a politically expedient narrative for a party looking to unseat the Congress in Punjab.


Who Was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale?

While its original authors may have abandoned its stated aims, the Anandpur Sahib resolution found an admirer in Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – a religious scholar who’d been travelling across Punjab advocating a return to the Khalsa or a more orthodox form of Sikhism. He targeted Hindus and ‘modernised’ Sikhs, who cut their hair and consumed alcohol in equal measure.

“He (Bhindranwale) used vituperative language against the Hindus”, writes Khushwant Singh in an 4 November 2004 article in the Outlook magazine.

“He used vituperative language against the Hindus. He exhorted every Sikh to kill 32 Hindus to solve the Hindu-Sikh problem. Anyone who opposed him was put on his hit list and some eliminated. His hoodlums murdered Lala Jagat Narain, founder of the Hind Samachar group of papers. They killed hawker who sold their paper.”

His message appealed to the Jat peasants who’d lost out on the gains of the Green Revolution to large landowners. He also found takers among lower caste-artisans and laborers who were looking to regain some social and economic standing.

By some accounts, Prime Minister Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi propped up Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to counter the growing political influence of the Akali Dal. There exists no evidence to prove these theories, except the Congress’ indifference of Bhindranwale’s evolution into a dangerous cult figure who led the movement for a separate state of Khalistan.

If the Akalis were a moderate faction espousing Sikh pride and politics, Bhindranwale represented the extremist view that among other things called for a separate state. But there were times when the lines blurred, like in August 1982 when Bhindranwale and Harcharan Singh Longowal, then President of the Akali Dal, launched the Dharam Yudh Morcha or a civil disobedience movement. Both took up residence inside the Golden temple, directing demonstrations and police clashes. Only when threatened with the prospect of being labeled a separatist party did the Akalis retreat.

In fact, Harcharan Singh Longowal completely distanced his party from the Anandpur Sahib resolution, which his own party had authored only a decade ago.

How did Bhindranwale Gain Popularity?


Why Was the Indian Army Called in?

At first, other options were discussed. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi almost gave the nod for a covert ‘snatch and grab’ operation to kidnap Bhindranwale. Two hundred commandos were trained for this operation. But when she asked how many civilian casualties could be anticipated, she did not get an answer. And so, Operation Sundown was rejected.

Perhaps the reason for suddenly sending in the Army, Amarjit Kaur writes in ‘The Punjab Story’, was the threat to kill all Congress (I) MPs and MLAs on 5 June and the plan to begin mass killings of Hindus in villages.

The failure to separate Sikh religion from Sikh politics is what led to India’s first brush with militant extremism.
London, 2012: Pro-Khalistan supporters tried to slash the throat of Lt Gen (retd) Kuldip Singh Brar in a revenge attack for his role in leading Operation Bluestar. (Photo: PTI)

What Did Operation Bluestar Entail?

Between 1-3 June, 1984, rail road and air services in Punjab were suspended. Water and electricity supply to the Golden Temple was also cut off. A complete curfew was imposed in Amritsar, with the CRPF patrolling the streets. All entry and exit points to and from the Golden Temple were also completely sealed.

At 10:30 PM on 5 June 1984, the first phase of the operation was launched. A frontal attack was launched on the buildings inside the Golden Temple complex. Trained fighters offered heavy resistance to the indian army. The army was unable to move towards the sanctum sanctorum where Bhindranwale was believed to be lodged.

In other parts of Punjab, the Army had launched a simultaneous operation to round up suspects from villages and Gurudwaras.

The failure to separate Sikh religion from Sikh politics is what led to India’s first brush with militant extremism.
Mindful of the trust deficit in the Sikh community, Indira Gandhi recalled her Sikh bodyguards – Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. They are regarded by some as martyrs. (Photo Courtesy: Sikh Siyasat News)

A day later, General KS Brar called for tank support to tackle the situation.

On 6 June, tanks rolled down the staircase right up to the parikrama – the perimeter that encloses the lake on which the sanctum sanctorum is built. Tanks shelled the exterior of the Akal Takth and while it suffered exterior damage, the structure remained standing. The bodies of Bhindranwale and his commanders were recovered and by 7 June, the Indian army gained control of the complex.

But it was another two days before four terrorists holed up in a basement were eliminated. Operation Bluestar finally ended in the afternoon on 10 June 1984.

As per Major Kuldip Brar, 83 Indian Army soldiers died and 249 were injured. According to the government, 493 militants and civilians were killed in the attack.

But independent organisations estimate that at least 3,000 people were killed in the course of the operation.


What Happened After the Operation Concluded?

Operation Bluestar coincided with the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan Dev, which led to a large number of pilgrims flocking to the temple complex. Because of this, many innocent civilians were killed in the cross fire between the Indian Army and the terrorists, notes Mark Tully, who was reporting for the BBC at the time.

Several Sikh politicians including Capt Amarinder Singh (current Punjab Chief Minister) resigned from the Congress. Prominent writers including Khushwant Singh returned their government awards. Sikh soldiers and administrative officers are reported to have rebelled and quit the services.

Four months later, on 31 October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards.

More than 8,000 Sikhs were killed in the ensuing anti-Sikh riots in 1984.

A year later, on 23 June 1985, Sikh nationalists based in Canada blew up an Air India flight killing 329 people. They said the attack was to “avenge Bhindranwale’s killing”.

On 10 August 1986, former Army Chief General AS Vaidya, who led Operation Bluestar, was assassinated by two bike-borne militants in Pune. Later that day, an unsigned note on behalf of the so-called ‘Khalistan Commando Force’ claimed responsibility for the killing.

On 31 August 1995, a suicide bomber took out Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh inside the Punjab civil secretariat in Chandigarh. Singh was credited with wiping out terrorism, which had spiked in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar.

(This story has been updated with an additional quote by Khushwant Singh)

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