(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.)
As the Colonel in charge of administration in the local infantry division based in Amritsar, Onkar Singh Goraya had an onerous task to perform once then Lieutenant Colonel Israr Rahim Khan leading his 10th Guards battalion and other units had launched an unprecedented attack to rid the Golden Temple of terrorists.
It was his job to remove all trapped devotees and pilgrims to safety, tend to the wounded and protect a few Sikh leaders such as Sant Longowal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra, who had been coerced by the extremists to stay put inside the complex.
Goraya writes in his book, Operation Blue Star and After – An Eyewitness Account that: “On the night of 5/6 June hardly anyone in Amritsar slept. Firing, which had started in the evening, continued throughout the night. Towards the small hour of the morning it was joined by loud bangs of main guns of tanks. As I entered my office in the morning, General Jamwal told me that the lives of a few prominent Sikh leaders, including Sant Laungowal, Gurcharan Singh Tauhra were perceived to be in danger because hard core extremists didn’t want them to leave the Complex alive. My task was to bring them out. I had to ensure that no harm came to them.”
Colonel (now retired Brigadier), gave it a good thought before coming up with a plan that would not only be foolproof, but also minimise risks to the Sikh leaders. “I tasked the Engineer Regiment to enhance security of the MES IB, where I intended to keep my guests. Instead of a soft vehicle, I decided to use an APC so that the leaders would be safe in case someone took a pot shot on the way to Cantonment. Lt Col Adarsh Sharma of my HQ was already there in the Temple complex to assist me.”
When Colonel Goraya entered the ravaged temple complex around 10:30 am, he was met with an “appalling” sight. “Sounds of firing could be heard from Akal Takht side but the Sarai complex was quiet except for the cries of the wounded. The compound in the centre was littered with dead and wounded, all civilians. The stench of blood and bodies decaying in the stifling heat was nauseating. The army casualties had been lifted away. There were still more dead, wounded and survivors in the verandahs and the rooms.”
As his gaze shifted to the Sarai complex, “A few soldiers with weapons at the ready were guarding a group of suspected terrorists, sitting on their haunches in the compound. Some soldiers were sitting on string cots in the verandahs. No one was tending to the wounded or even offering water. I asked the commanding officer to arrange whatever medical help was possible for the wounded even if some of them were militants.”
A little later, a former Congress Member of Parliament, Balwant Singh Ramoowalia “emerged from somewhere and introduced himself… He gave me a snap account of the events of the morning and the situation in the Sarai complex. I asked him about the whereabouts of the leaders whom I had come to escort to safety. He led me to the room where they had already been assembled… I recognised Sant Laungowal and Jathedar Tauhra whose pictures I had seen. Ramoowalia introduced the rest – Darshan Singh Issapur an Akali leader, Bibi Amarjit Kaur, Chairperson of Akhand Keeratani Jatha, Bhan Singh and Abhinashi Singh, Secretary and Deputy Secretary SGPC respectively, and two sewadars named Manjit Singh and Gobind Singh...
“…I led the way, followed by Tauhra, Laungowal and others. Sharma brought up the rear. Outside, the rear door of the APC was open and the JCO in charge was standing by. I asked Tauhra to enter. He hesitated and asked in Punjabi, “Thah kithe jaa ke karna e?” (Where are you going to knock me off?) I replied, “Babaji, I am an army officer and also a Sikh. Believe me I shall take you to safety. There is no plan to knock you off. Thah naheen karnaa.”
(This article is being republished from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Operation Bluestar’s 37th anniversary. It was first published on 5 June 2015.)