‘She Could No Longer Respond to Challenges’: How Operation Blue Star’s Devastation ‘Exhausted’ Indira Gandhi

File photo of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

File photo of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Operation Blue Star was successful in the sense that it killed the bulk of the separatists, but the army mission was an utter failure because it failed to prevent the near complete destruction of Harmandir Sahib and the Akal Takht.


Rasheed Kidwai

Operation Blue Star was one of the most tragic and avoidable episode of post-Independence history of India. The Indira Gandhi government could not have chosen the worse time, June 5, 1984, asking the Indian army to storm the holiest Sikh Shrine, Golden Temple, on a day that marked martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev.

The civil administration of Punjab, under President Rule then, was not kept in the loop, nor was the President of India Giani Zail Singh, a proud Sikh and supreme commander of the Indian army. Lt General K Sunderji, GOC-in-C Western Command, had reportedly assured Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that a ‘knock-out blow’ on militant leaders Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, General Shahbeg Singh and other separatists would not last for more than two hours, without realising that sophisticated military weaponry was in place.

On June 5, 1984, when Indian army troops tried to advance, they met with a strong barrage of fire. An armoured car was knocked off by a rocket launcher. It is believed that sensing army build up in Amritsar, the then Chief Secretary S S Dhanoa had called up General Sundarji a day before to check if his men needed help. The army general had told him not to bother. By the time army’s six main battle tanks Vijayanta moved inside, the best and the most sacred parts of the temple were reduced to a rubble. Six tanks trundled down marble steps and parikarma to fire at separatists holed inside Akal Takht with 105 mm guns.

Operation Blue Star saw 24 hours of fierce gun battle and resulted in the death of 712 extremists. The operation was successful in the sense that it killed the bulk of the separatists, but the army mission was an utter failure because it failed to prevent the near complete destruction of Harmandir Sahib and the Akal Takht.

In Amritsar (Rupa Books 1985), authors Mark Tully and Satish Jacob recorded how a large number of pilgrims and innocent devotees were killed in the crossfire. “The army locked up 60 pilgrims in a room that shut not only the door but the windows also. Electric supply was disconnected. The night between June 5-6 [1984] was extremely hot…..the door of the room was opened at 8 am on June 6. By this tme, fifty out of sixty had died.” [page 172].

Indira was bitterly opposed to the creation of Punjab state on linguistic lines She had just taken over as prime minister in March 1966 when a demand for creation of a Punjabi suba was conceded. In her book, My Truth (Vision Books), published in 1980, she had recalled her concerns of 1965 when she was minister for Information and Broadcasting in Lal Bahadur Shastri cabinet and a committee under the then Lok Sabha Speaker Sardar Hukum Singh had favoured creation of Punjabi Suba. Indira wrote that she was opposed to formation of Punjab on the basis of language as it had let down Congress’ Hindu supporters. In her own words, “To concede the Akali demand would mean abandoning position to which it (Congress) was firmly committed and letting down its Hindu supporters in the projected Punjabi Suba….this startling reversal of Congress police was totally unexpected.”

After the 1947 partition of Punjab, Sikhs intensively demanded formation of a Punjabi speaking state but the First Reorganisation of State Commission 1956 under Justice Fazal Ali failed to address their concerns. Influential Akali leaders Fateh Singh and Tara Singh spearheaded a movement for a separate state in which Sikh religious, cultural and linguistic integrity could be preserved. When 1961 census was conducted, Akali leadership alleged that an overwhelming number of Hindus listed Hindi as their mother tongue, just to stall formation of a Punjabi speaking state or prevent Sikhs who formed 58 per cent of the population, to run the state. In 1966, Punjab was split into three states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

Some of Indira's biographers such as Katherine Frank, S S Gill and Pupul Jayakar noticed that when she had returned to power in 1980, Indira had turned a lot more sensitive towards the Hindu community than Muslims or Sikhs. By early 1984, anti-Sikh riots erupted in Haryana in retaliation of killing of Hindus in Punjab where militancy and separatism were peaking. Mark Tully and Satish Jacob wrote in their book Amritsar how Hindu mobs burnt down a gurudwara in Panipat and Sikhs were pulled out of buses, shaved and killed. Indira remained a mute spectator just as she had watched separatists in Punjab kill Hindus almost at will.

Against this backdrop, when gangs of killers on motorcycles began shooting moderate Sikhs and innocent people, Indira lost patience and summoned General Sundarji to evict Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple.

Author Marie Seton was in India during that period and felt that the prime minister was exhausted after Operation Blue Star. “She could no longer respond to challenges — always her strongest point. This she could always do. She could always improvise. Now she was retreating from communication. She always had moods like this. She would describe it as being stinking. She would say, ‘I am stinking now, right all the way through’.”

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