Friday 5 June 2009

INDO-SIKH BATTLE OF AMRITSAR


Indo-Sikh Battle of Amritsar


June 1984 marked a watershed in the minority’s relationship with a brute majority out to decimate it in a genocidal planHar Jagmandar Singh

This is a blow by blow account of the events of June 1-6, 1984. On the occasion of 25 years of Saka Akal Takht, the learned author, who visited Darbar Sahib, soon after the tragedy, recounts the happenings and touches the raw nerve of the Sikhs and those who wanted and still want to teach the Sikhs a lesson.
This rendition requires your patience and indulgence to go through the long piece in order to imbibe the pain and anguish suffered by those in the thick of the battle and those who still continue to suffer in silence.

The paramilitary forces started firing at the Golden Temple complex on 1st June and continued firing for seven hours. On the next day they fired for ten hours. It seems the purpose was to exhaust the adversary before the army started its action. More than one lakh soldiers were inducted into the Punjab. Twenty thousand army men, including specially trained commandos, were deployed around the Golden Temple complex. There was enormous jubilation among the Hindus. They welcomed the soldiers as saviours, offered them cigarettes and sweets and helped them in dragging guns in the narrow streets around the complex. The army took positions on 3 June. Curfew was clamped all over the state and all kinds of transport were stopped. The army started firing with machine guns and cannon on the complex and the surrounding buildings. Firing continued during the night of 3-4 June, the day of 4 June, the night of 4-5 and the day of 5 June. The answering fire continued incessantly from inside the shrine with great intensity. The earth shook with the thundering guns. The city was covered with smoke. The night sky glowed with lethal fireworks. Massive destruction was caused in the holy complex and the residential areas around. Hundreds of houses and whole markets were shelled and destroyed.
It is not known how much of the wealth, which had been accumulated in the Tosha Khana (treasury) since the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was lost in the army operation. Honesty of army men can be judged from the fact that they freely looted televisions, V.C.R.s, radios, pressure-cookers and utensils on which they could lay their hands in the houses around the Golden Temple. Brigadier Bedi conducted inquiries into the matter and recovered a large number of such items from soldiers.

Some army units made their entry into the Gurdwara complex in the evening of 5 June. But they were killed or repulsed. The next batches met with no better luck. Then the “black cat” commandos were sent in. They were the most special force raised in the days of Jawaharlal Nehru and reserved to be used in most critical situations. They had their baptism of fire in the Sikh shrine and soon bit the dust. New units continued to be sent in, they struggled to gain ground by inches, cowered under volleys of machine gun fire, and got killed or ran back. The army had not bargained for such fierce resistance; now its instructions were to finish the battle at the earliest by whatever means.
C.S. gas, as Lt. General K. Sunderji later admitted, was used, although it forms a part of chemical warfare and its use is forbidden under Geneva Convention. Finally thirteen tanks were brought in. They crushed the marble circambulance and reached near Akal Takht. They used blinding lights and shelled the Takht and the adjoining buildings. One of these tanks was destroyed, some others got stuck up. Thus victory over the central Sikh shrine was won by Indian army in the morning of 6th June, 1984.
The government propagandised that the terrorists had been flushed out and no harm was done to the holy buildings. Dittoing it, Kirpal Singh, the Jathdar of Akal Takht, announced on the television that a very slight damage was done to the Akal Takht and the Golden Temple was totally unharmed. Whereas the fact is that the Akal Takht had been almost destroyed. It was destroyed for the first time in its history; it had escaped even the fury of Ahmed Shah Abdali and other Muslim invaders. And, the Golden Temple had been riddled with bullets. Kuldip
Nayar, a veteran journalist, counted 300 bullet marks on its walls.

The Sikh Reference Library was set on fire on June 7. According to the army it caught fire during the gun battle. Actually it was ransacked before it was burnt. It contained thousands of rare books, portraits and manuscripts, many of them bearing the signatures of the Gurus. Many years later, it was disclosed by an official that the material had been packed into gunnybags and carried in army trucks to an unknown destination. It was later known that many of the items, which were found to be “seditious”, were destroyed. The Akali Dal and the S.G.P.C. did precious little to get the material back. Twenty years after the army action, the Punjab High Court, on the writ petition of one Satnam Singh, ordered the restoration of the “war property” to the library. But the order has not been implemented yet
Those who had vowed to defend the prime Sikh shrine defended it to the last. They withstood the whole might of the Indian army unflinchingly. The number of the Sikhs who actually fought was about 150. There were some Sikh girls among them who stuck to their machine guns until they were killed. Once again these warriors justified the claim of their Guru that he would make one man fight against a lakh and a quarter. Their hands and shoulders were bleeding as they had kept firing incessantly for 48 hours. A soldier is sure to be court martialled if he overuses his weapon like this. Big heaps of cartridges were formed. Major General Kuldip Singh Brar (Bulbul), who was in charge of the action, admitted that the Sikh militants took maximum advantage of their position and fought “most bravely and skilfully”. Regarding the intensity of the battle, Lt. General Ranjit Singh Dayal remarked, “I have not seen such fire power in three decades of my career, not even during the wars with Pakistan.” Three or four Sikhs kept firing from a basement until 8th June.
The whole complex was strewn with pieces of human flesh, blood and tufts of hair. Dead bodies lay scattered everywhere. The army men drank and smoked inside the holy precincts. The government broadcasted deafeningly its claim that it had restored the sanctity of the Golden Temple.
Apart from about 150 men who fought, all the Sikhs killed in the complex were pilgrims or residents of the nearby houses who had taken shelter in the Gurdwara complex after the armed forces had got their houses vacated. The report of a doctor, who had conducted postmortems, published in a French newspaper, revealed that the hands of many were tied behind their backs and they had been shot from a point-blank range; these included women and children. About a hundred young boys of the Damdami Taksal, who had come in connection with the martyrdom day of the fifth Guru, were also killed after being caught. A number of pilgrims hid themselves in a basement in Guru Ram Das Sarai. Water was pumped into the basement and those inside were drowned. Bombs were thrown into the rooms of the Sarai and Guru Nanak Niwas where pilgrims had taken shelter from the army fire. A ghastly scene greeted the eyes even three months later (when I visited the place). Wooden doors were charred, walls were blackened, steel furniture and fans were twisted into hideous shapes. There were prints on floors of human bodies as they had melted in the intense heat of bombing; pieces of skin and tufts of hair were sticking to walls and ceilings. The smell of burnt flesh still lingered in the rooms.
The government gave the number of the Sikhs killed as 516. Later, in the White Paper it was reduced to 493. But Kuldip Nayar says in Tragedy of Punjab, “There can be little doubt that if a zero were added to the official figure of 516 civilian/terrorist casualties, we would be closer to the actual number of lives lost.” In the Jallianwala massacre, which is remembered as the most heinous act of the British in India, only 379 people were killed. In the words of G.K.C. Reddy, “Thus the Operation Blue Star will go down in history as one of the biggest massacres of unarmed civilians by the organised military force of a nation.” As regards the army casualties, the government initially put the number at 45 dead and nine missing. Later, in the White Paper it was increased to 83. But Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, addressing N.S.U.I. session at Nagpur in September, 84, disclosed that “700 of our jawans” were killed in the Golden Temple action. The number of the wounded in battles is usually thrice the dead.
Those who were not killed were treated very cruelly. Many of them were shut up in rooms and were not given water to drink. Many were made to lie on the sun-parched circumambulance. Journalist Shekhar Gupta writes that the wounded Sikhs were beaten up as they were being carried to Kotwali (police station), and in the Kotwali they were beaten again. Subhash Kirpekar, writing on June 6 afternoon says, “On the way back to the hotel, I witnessed a scene at the Kotwali which is blood-curdling. This is where some Jawans were kicking some of suspected terrorists as they knelt on their bare knees and crawled on the hot road surface... The hundreds of spectators who saw this scene felt anguished. The sight put them off.”
To dispose of the dead bodies was not an easy job. In the June heat they had started putrefying and maggots developed in them. When the army could not complete the task, sweepers of the city were employed; they were given liquor and allowed to take away the belongings of the dead. Truckloads of bodies were burnt at several places outside the city. Bodies were burnt inside the Gurdwara premises also. Subhash Kirpekar saw from his hotel that smoke and acrid smell kept rising for two and a half hours in the morning of 7th June from near Guru Nanak Niwas where a mass cremation was carried out.
A Story of the Sikhs (Pursuit of Sovereignty)
The book is the result of 20 long years of research and analysis by former professor of English literature, Har Jagmandar Singh, and is inspired by the deep-rooted anguish that resulted from the incidents that occurred in Punjab during the years of militancy, especially the Indian army's attack on the Golden Temple, Amritsar. The book has more philosophy to it than history, 'Philosophy told in the context of history,' as he likes to put it.
In the book, the author says "I believe a writer should owe allegiance to the truth and endeavour to reveal whatever little bit of it he can; for it needs help to emerge from the thick layers of falsehood. Even if it is bitter, we should not flinch from it because it helps us to face reality."
A Story of The Sikhs goes way ahead of the starting point of Sikhism, starting with the advent of Aryans. The Aryans, to cope with their hostile environment, developed an escapist philosophy of life and produced a religion which rendered the Hindus weak and subject to countless invasions and domination by foreigners which entailed horrible atrocities and humiliations for two thousand years. Sikhism came as a remedy. Guru Gobind Singh created a new nation, vested with ever-ascending morale and inexhaustible energy, and launched it into time towards the goal of sovereignty. The Sikhs have struggled heroically, made glorious achievements and suffered great losses. Although misguided and misled, harmed and exploited, persecuted and massacred, they remain undaunted and keep moving forward.
Sikhism developed into an independent religion. A new religion always produces a new nation. Guru Gobind Singh formalized the Sikhs as a distinct nation, vested it with an ever- ascending morale and inexhaustible energy and launched it into time towards the goal of sovereignty. The Guru taught his Sikhs that sovereignty is necessary for the progress of religion and people, divorced from religion, are always treaded down. Sikhism faced as much hostility from Hinduism as from Islam. Enmity between religions is natural and permanent. The law of “struggle for survival” applies to religions as well as living organisms. When a religion expands, expansion being a mode of survival, it encroaches on the territory of some other religion and then conflict is inevitable.
Brotherly coexistence between different religions is a myth. The preaching of brotherhood between religions is useful for the peace and stability of society. But it is only palliative. It rather plants confusion in the minds of people and disables them to understand and face reality.
The book endeavours to be faithful to truth and nails some big lies, which may not please all. “Religiously, culturally and linguistically, Punjab is different from the rest of India. I do not feel obliged to succumb to the views of those which are opposed by glaring realities” says the author.
The distributors of the book, Singh Brothers may be contacted at singhbro@vsnl.com

The Sikh Reference Library was set on fire on June 7. According to the army it caught fire during the gun battle. Actually it was ransacked before it was burnt. It contained thousands of rare books, portraits and manuscripts, many of them bearing the signatures of the Gurus. Many years later, it was disclosed by an official that the material had been packed into gunnybags and carried in army trucks to an unknown destination. It was later known that many of the items, which were found to be “seditious”, were destroyed. The Akali Dal and the S.G.P.C. did precious little to get the material back. Twenty years after the army action, the Punjab High Court, on the writ petition of one Satnam Singh, ordered the restoration of the “war property” to the library. But the order has not been implemented yet.
It is not known how much of the wealth, which had been accumulated in the Tosha Khana (treasury) since the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was lost in the army operation. Honesty of army men can be judged from the fact that they freely looted televisions, V.C.R.s, radios, pressure-cookers and utensils on which they could lay their hands in the houses around the Golden Temple. Brigadier Bedi conducted inquiries into the matter and recovered a large number of such items from soldiers. The S.G.P.C. has not disclosed what valuables are missing from the Tosha Khana. The reason is they do not want to offend the Centre. In this respect, Kuldip Nayar has mentioned the priceless canopy, offered by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, which was burnt in the attack. When Giani Zail Singh, the President of India, visited the Golden Temple on 8th June, “He went round the Tosha Khana and saw the burnt shreds of the canopy which was worth crores of rupees. It had been given by the Nizam of Hyderabad to Maharaja Ranjit Singh who, in turn, gave it as an offering at the Golden Temple. Zail Singh noted that most of the hundreds of pearls decorating the canopy were missing. Only few remained tied in a handkerchief.”
Many Sikhs hoped that their co-religeonist President of India would do something. They thought he would, at least, resign his office. But they forgot that, not long ago when he was made President by Indira Gandhi, he had touched the feet of her son Sanjay and publicly declared that he would sweep her floor with a broom if she so desired. He visited the shrine immediately after the holocaust. Kuldip Nayar, describing his visit, writes, “The Giani appeared in this cremation ground like an aged bridegroom, resplendent in his sherwani and chooridars, sporting a rose-bud in a button-hole.”
The Hindus gloated over the army operation. They distributed sweets in almost every town of the Punjab. Leaders of all political parties congratulated Indira Gandhi on this action.
As the news of the attack on the Golden Temple spread, grief and anger surged through the Sikh masses. Large crowds marched towards Amritsar. They were intercepted and dispersed by the army. According to an army officer, “Each successive mob that we encountered was more furious and required greater use of force.” Army had to use tanks against one such crowd in Sultanwind near Amritsar. New leaders emerged in villages and gave calls to the Sikhs to gather at numerous nearby centres. The Sikhs came on foot or in tractor-trailers, with whatever weapons they could muster, ready to fight and sacrifice themselves. Fiery speeches were delivered, war cries were raised and oaths were taken to fight until the last breath for the Panth. But they did not know what to do. At last, they decided to return to their villages and wait for instructions from the higher leadership.
Parkash Singh Badal issued a statement: “The Centre has started war on the Sikhs. The Punjab is under the military Jackboot. The Sikhs will fight to the last man.” He called upon the Sikh men and women to wear black head-dresses, not to eat food on that day and to sleep on the ground. The Sikhs, including small children, responded to the call. But the next day the leader was in jail.
A mystique was witnessed again. Hawks had not been seen in the Punjab for years. But during these tragic days they suddenly appeared at several places. They landed on the Gurdwara buildings; some even entered the inner sanctums and sat there. These birds seemed to be afflicted with some pain or grief. All of them died.
Four or five thousand Sikh soldiers revolted in Bihar, Assam, Rajasthan and Jammu. They killed some officers, caught hold of whatever weapons and vehicles they could and moved towards Amritsar. Some of them were killed, others were arrested on the way. They were court martialled and some of them were given long imprisonments. Just after this revolt Indira Gandhi said that the deserters would be treated leniently. But one Sikh Lt. General, going out of his way, demanded death penalty for them. A little later, when he retired from the army, he was made Lieutenant governor of a union territory.
Balwant Singh, a senior Akali leader, as it later came to light, expressing his appreciation of the army operation, wrote to Indira Gandhi, “the government action in raiding the Golden Temple to flush out Bhindranwale and his terrorists has been very timely and most desirable... As desired by the authorities here (Chandigarh), I am giving this understanding to you that I will refrain from active politics and support the government action within the limit of my resources.”
For fighting in the Golden Temple battle, army men were given such rewards as had been given never before for fighting against an enemy country. One lakh rupees was announced as special grant for every soldier killed in this battle. On 24th March, 1985, about 200 soldiers were given awards by President Giani Zail Singh for showing valour in this attack; these included Ashoka Chakra, the highest military honour. Ranjit Singh Dayal was rewarded with land in Himachal Pradesh for his efficiency in this action.

A large number of Sikhs were arrested from the Golden Temple complex after the army operation and lodged in a camp. The sign board outside it read “ENEMY.” A few hundred were sent to a jail in Jodhpur where they were kept in painful conditions and tried for waging war against the state. One case particularly deserves to be mentioned. Four women and 22 children, who had gone to the Golden Temple as pilgrims, were arrested from there and lodged in Ludhiana jail. The children, ranging between one and sixteen years of age, were listed under three categories of terrorists — very dangerous, dangerous and potentially dangerous. The government denied that they were in its custody. They were let out when the Supreme Court ordered their release on a writ petition filed by a social worker named Kamala Devi Chatopadhiaya
The army action was carried out at 42 other Gurdwaras also. The government claimed that it was done to flush out terrorists. In all there were twenty-two “wanted” men whose list was given by the government to the S.G.P.C., who were alleged to be hidden in Darbar Sahib Amritsar. Sant Jarnail Singh’s name was not on the list. Was it just to tackle these 22 odd men that the massive war-machine, with its full fury, was pressed into action? The real aim was to crush the separatist urge of the Sikhs and to teach them “a lesson of subjection.” A woman Congress leader in Delhi exhorted minorities to learn a lesson from the example of the Sikhs.
A large number of Sikhs were arrested from the Golden Temple complex after the army operation and lodged in a camp. The sign board outside it read “ENEMY.” A few hundred were sent to a jail in Jodhpur where they were kept in painful conditions and tried for waging war against the state. One case particularly deserves to be mentioned. Four women and 22 children, who had gone to the Golden Temple as pilgrims, were arrested from there and lodged in Ludhiana jail. The children, ranging between one and sixteen years of age, were listed under three categories of terrorists — very dangerous, dangerous and potentially dangerous. The government denied that they were in its custody. They were let out when the Supreme Court ordered their release on a writ petition filed by a social worker named Kamala Devi Chatopadhiaya. The children said they had been tortured in jail. Some of them were arrested again and placed in Nabha jail. When the police could not recapture one of these kids, Kuldip Singh, they molested his 17 year-old sister and took away his 14 year-old brother and tortured him in the police station. Indian Express of 4th April, 85, published the story. To publish such news was a very risky job. Brahma Chelanney, a correspondent of Associated Press faced a lot of harassment for reporting such atrocities.
There were numerous Sikhs in high positions in army and civil administration, most of whom must have felt hurt. But only two of them showed the courage to answer the call of conscience — Simranjit Singh Mann, an I.P.S., and Harinder Singh Khalsa of Indian Foreign Service. Mann wrote to President Giani Zail Singh expressing his resentment over the army operation and called the Giani a “quisling”. He had to spend five years in the Bhagalpur jail and face torture.
When entry was allowed to Harmandar Sahib after the army operation, large numbers of Sikhs thronged to the shrine. Many burst into tears and cried like children to see the destruction. Hearts of the Sikhs bled all over the world. The Akal Takht was hurriedly built by the government through the services of Boota Singh, a Congress minister and Nihang Santa Singh, under army protection, and the circumam-bulance was relaid with inferior marble. The countless bullet-holes in the walls were plugged, leaving behind a pockmarked look. The devotees removed the cement plugs and made the holes gape again, as if they did not want their wounds to be concealed. The bullet marks in Jallianwala have been preserved with great care. When the S.G.P.C. took charge of the complex, they pulled down the Akal Takht constructed by the government, and rebuilt it through common services of Sikh devotees, in accordance with the Sikh tradition. The S.G.P.C. also saw to it that all marks and signs of the army attack were removed.
The use of military force failed to demoralise the Sikhs; it rather produced in them the conviction that they must have a separate sovereign country of their own where their religion and life could be safe. And, consequently, there followed a decade of secessionist activity by the Sikhs and oppression by the government.
Draconian laws were imposed in the Punjab. Under these special laws, the police could delay the putting up of cases before a court for a year. Bails were made virtually impossible. Special courts were set up, the appeal against which lay only with the Supreme Court which involved a lot of money and time. People could be detained without trial under National Security Act for two years, and this term could be extended by another two years. The normal principle of justice was reversed and an accused was held guilty unless he proved himself to be innocent. Detainees were not released even when their release was ordered by courts. The government issued the release and the rearrest orders simultaneously. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, remarked that compared with the Punjab enactments, the Rowlatt Act was a “merciful document.” The Rowlatt Act is regarded as the most oppressive measure imposed by the British in India. In 1988, the constitution was amended for the 59th time, to provide for the suppression of the right to life. The opposition parties opposed it, but they acquiesced in when the home minister reassured them that the bill was meant only to be used in the Punjab. But even these laws did not provide the policemen with the freedom of action which they wanted. They acted outside the frame work of any law. Sikh youths were their special target. How many of them were tortured and killed will never be known.
Gurcharan Singh Tohra, as president of S.G.P.C, filed a civil suit claiming Rs. 1000 crore as compensation for damage done to the central Sikh shrine in Operation Blue Star. He believed that the honour and faith of the Sikh community could be measured in terms of money.
The Sikh anger continued to seethe and found expression in militant activity. No day passed without violent incidents. The situation seemed to have passed beyond solution. A second-rung Akali leader one day talked to me. He asked what according to me could be the solution. I said there seemed to be no easy solution because the anger of the Sikhs was inexhaustible and there was no dearth of weapons and targets. But his view was different: “Let the Centre install our ministry; that is really what the whole turmoil is about. Then we shall control the Sikh anger and violence. We know how to do it. We shall arrange huge processions comprising hundreds of buses and trucks filled with people, waving flags and raising slogans of “Bole so Nihal...” from one corner of the state to the other. We shall tell the Sikhs that Khalsa Raj has been achieved and they will believe it. Everything will be alright.” As it turned out, he was right.
Prof. Har Jagmandar Singh was born in his maternal village Tharajwala, district Faridkot, Panjab, in 1939. His paternal family migrated, during Partition, from Pakistan to village Faridke in Mansa district, suffering a big loss of land. He received his education from government institutions and did his M.A. in English from Panjab University. He taught English in government colleges at Hissar, Bathinda and Ropar. He may be contacted at harjagmandarsingh@gmail.com.

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