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Indian forces massacre Sikhs in Amritsar

This Day in World History

6 June 1984

Indian forces massacre Sikhs in Amritsar


After months of standoff between India’s government and Sikh dissidents, the Indian army attacked those dissidents who had taken refuge in the holiest Sikh shrine — the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, India — on 6 June 1984. The fighting left hundreds dead and more captured. The attack also enraged many Sikhs across India, which would have fatal consequences for Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the assault.

Sikh man at the Golden Temple. Created by Claude Renault. Used under Creative Commons license.

Sikhism is a faith that had its origins in the Punjab more than 350 years ago. Persecuted over the years by both Indian Hindus and Muslims, many Sikhs have dreamed for centuries for more autonomy. Those hopes were dashed when British India was portioned into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947 as the Punjab was divided between the two new nations. In the 1960s, India made some concessions to Sikhs, but to some Sikhs it was not enough.

Among these dissidents was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who led a group of militant Sikhs. In 1983, they moved to the Golden Temple, setting off a confrontation with the government.

The government had refrained from moving on the temple for months, fearing the backlash that would result. Finally, Gandhi ordered the attack, code-named “Operation Bluestar.” After a week of fighting, around 1,000 were dead including about 800 Sikhs, Bhindrawnwale among them.

Months later, in October, two Sikh bodyguards shot Prime Minister Gandhi during a morning walk in her garden. She died soon thereafter. The two guards had no time to explain the reason for their action. They were immediately killed by other guards. It is generally assumed, though, that they had been angered by the attack on the Golden Temple.

Unfortunately for India’s Sikhs, the attack on the prime minister prompted attacks on innocent Sikhs across India, in which more than a thousand people lost their lives until order was restored.

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4 Responses to “Indian forces massacre Sikhs in Amritsar”
  1. VK says:

    Tragically, the last line of this post is true.(“Unfortunately for India’s Sikhs, the attack on the prime minister prompted attacks on innocent Sikhs across India, in which more than a thousand people lost their lives until order was restored.”)

    But there is so much wrong with the rest of the post that I have lost confidence in this series as a whole.

    The problems in the post begin with the shocking title. The massacre happened months later, after the prime minister’s assasination. Indian troops were not responsible.

  2. Alice says:

    @VK

    Thank you for your concern about the accuracy of the series as we do our best to fact check everything.

    To clarify a few points:
    (1) Operation Bluestar began 6 June 1984. It was ordered by PM Indira Gandhi and carried out by the Indian Army. While many dissidents within the Golden Temple were armed, there were numerous civilian casualties.
    (2) Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards on 31 October 1984.

    Please let me know if there are any other points you would like clarified.

    – Blog Editor Alice

  3. vk says:

    I don’t know how many civilian casualties there were. But some civilian casualties in the course of an army operation against armed militants do not qualify as a massacre.
    US operations in Iraq caused many civilian casualties but we do not call it a massacre.

    You ask, so here are a few other problems:

    1. “a faith that origins in the Punjab more than 3,500 years ago”
    Doubt if even Hinduism qualifies as being that old. Guru Nanak was born in the 15th century AD. That is the earliest date for the origin of Sikhism. He was a spiritual leader who did not know he was starting a new faith.
    Sikhism took its current form when the tenth & last guru Guru Gobind Singh established the Khalsa in 1699.

    2. “the Sikhs have dreamed for centuries for more autonomy”
    Sikhs have always lived in a multi-religious land. Those who want ‘more autonomy’ are a minority among Sikhs. They know it would need brutal ethnic cleansing and the establishment of a theocracy.

    3. “The two guards had no time to explain the reason for their action” is a bizarre statement.
    Anybody who shoots the prime minister or president of any country is going to be shot down immediately. If the guards are doing their job properly, anybody who threatens a prime minister’s life will be shot down immediately.

    In this case the killers were themselves members of the nation’s elite security force, and on duty to protect the prime minister. No sane person would think they deserved a chance to ‘explain their actions’.

  4. Alice says:

    @VK

    Thank you for following up on this. I hope the following answers your questions.

    - Massacre (as defined by Oxford Dictionaries) is an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people; to deliberately and violently kill a large number of people. If I may elaborate on that, massacre typically refers to a specific incident within a limited period of time, usually against an unarmed, unprepared, or grossly outnumbered group. Casualty reports are disputed, but even the official Indian government report puts the number of civilian casualties (‘Innocents’) as higher than that of dissidents for roughly a week of fighting (the Wikipedia entry provides a brief introduction: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Blue_Star). US operations in Iraq have indeed caused numerous civilian casualties and certain incidents within it are referred to as massacres. For example the Haditha killings (of 24 unarmed men, women, and children) in 2006 is often referred to as a massacre.

    - Sikhism’s origin. You’e correct that the origin is in the 15th century and this is a typo which I failed to catch. It will be rectified immediately.

    - Sikhs have indeed always lived in a multi-religious land, but there have been multiple movements for more autonomy throughout Sikh history: the creation of the Sikh Empire in the 17th century, Giani Kartar Singh called for a separate Sikh state called Azad Punjab during partition discussions, and the campaign for a separate Sikh state in the 1980s (which resulted in this incident). Perhaps a modifier of ‘many’ or ‘some’ would be more appropriate? Moreover, I believe the writer used “more autonomy” instead of “total autonomy” because it’s difficult to encapsulate so much Indian history in a few sentences — from lobbying for greater representation within government to a separate state itself.

    - Lack of time to explain action. It isn’t a matter of why the guards were shot immediately or whether they deserved a chance to explain their actions. It is the fact that we can never know for certain the motivation of the guards/assassins. We can only assume their reason. (This is what I believe the writer was trying to convey.)

    This is clearly a subject that needs to be explored more and requires extensive scholarship. The BBC made a controversial documentary about Operation Bluestar titled ’1984 – A Sikh Story’. And I found the following titles on WorldCat: Operation Blue Star: the true story by K S Brar, Operation Blue Star by Tariq Ismail Sagar; Giānī Kirpāl Siṅgh’s eye-witness account of Operation Blue Star: mighty murderous army attack on the Golden Temple complex by Kirapāla Siṅgha and Anūrāg Siṅgh; Dharmi faujis and the Blue-star Operation by Amrik Singh; The Indian armed forces’ Sikh and non-Sikh officers’ opinion of Operation Blue Star by Apurba Kundu; and Operation Blue Star, asal kahani by Kis Brar and Karanjit Singh.

    Can any of our readers suggest further resources?

    – Blog Editor Alice

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