6.03.2004

Operation Bluestar 20 years later: the Search for Explanations

June 6th is the 20th anniversary of Operation Bluestar, where the Indian Army invaded the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in an effort to eradicate Sikh militants (or terrorists, take your pick) holed up within. 1,200 civilian lives were lost, not to mention several hundred militants (terrorists), as well as soldiers in the army. It was a humiliating moment for the Sikh community, and a low day for Indian democracy.

Bluestar was a bad day, though really the anti-Sikh riots after Indira Gandhi was assasinated were the worse trauma. I experienced these events remotely -- from a Washington DC suburb -- but still my childhood and adolescence was directly marked by this violence. I remember my parents trying in vain to get ahold of family members in Delhi for several days after the assasination (it took nearly a week, but everyone came out ok). And for most of the next 10 years, I heard daily reports of police actions and terrorist attacks in Punjab. The state was officially closed off to foreigners for several years; police checkpoints on the roads entering Punjab from the south were still active until the mid-1990s. The entire Sikh community, both abroad and in north India, felt itself to be beseiged.

Within the Sikh diasporic communities in England, Canada, and the U.S. support for a separate Sikh state (called Khalistan) rapidly grew, and remained active for years. For most, the traumas (desecration, communal riots) were experienced in the abstract, and the equally abstract solution of an independent state was devised, without consideration for feasability or historical justification.

It is profoundly unfortunate that this cause remained in the air as long as it did. One unfortunate consequence was weakened ties amongst South Asians abroad for many years; these are minorities that are too small and too isolated to divide along communal lines. More importantly, the idea of Khalistan served as a distraction from the realities of setting down roots in a foreign land. So when the 9/11 backlash began, brown-skinned men who looked vaguely Arab in the U.S. (especially turbaned Sikhs), suddenly found themselves the objects of suspicion from all sides. The community was caught completely off-guard. It seems to me that the urgent public relations demands within the U.S. after 9/11 marked the end of whatever real support for Khalistan existed in the Sikh-American community.

As with many issues relating to India, I can't claim to be a historical expert on the series of political events that led to this catastrophe. I can only recommend some things to read, and suggest a dialogue with my readers, including those who might disagree with my perspective. To begin with, I found this article in the Guardian helpful. The article conveys the general mood of Sikhs from different ideological stripes, including: 1) separatists (some of them linked to terrorist groups) who are abroad and hoping for amnesty, 2) average Sikhs in Punjab who feel the issue is over, but who want justice for the lives lost (approx. 2500) in the riots following the assasination of Indira Gandhi as well as the thousands of 'disappeared' victims of police actions in the years following (approx. 2000), and 3) people who have put the whole thing behind them, but are still amazed that India has a Sikh Prime Minister just 20 years after being in such a terrible place socially and politically. People are wondering: will Manmohan Singh address Sikh issues?

In fact, the worries of ordinary people in Punjab are more oriented to rising unemployment and the price of wheat than to human rights violations or separatism; in this respect Punjab is not so different from other states (the same concerns were cited in the collapse of the BJP in Andhra Pradesh in the recent elections). For myself, I do hope Manmohan Singh does publicly recognize this day, as well as the Indira Ganhi assasination and subsequents riots. But I fully expect him to continue to remain neutral on Punjab and Sikh politics issues.

I would also recommend this BBC piece, which has a picture of the Akal Takht, the holy shrine at the Golden Temple, after the attack. Also in the Indian Express, a column by S.S. Dhanoa, the former chief Secretary of Punjab.

For people looking for a more detailed history, here is a pretty competent (and politically neutral) article by Meredith Weiss on the history of Sikh militancy in the 1970s-1990s.

[UPDATE: See also this interview with General Kuldip Singh Brar, who led Operation Bluestar. I'm not sure I buy everything he's saying -- if he was so worried about the declaration of Khalistan, he might have planned an operation a day earlier, when the Golden Temple wouldn't have been filled with thousands of innocent pilgrims. But his perspective is interesting]