After Blue Star
Mark Tully, June 2004

Attack On Indian Unity

Twenty years ago, Amritsar was the stage for a bloody attack on Indian unity with consequences that still reverberate today.

Sikhs around the world remember it as their very own 9/11, their worst trauma in modern history, Operartion Blue Star, the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

It was a justified act to flush out militants, say the Indian authorities. But for many Sikhs it was a heinous defilement of their most sacred site, and the slaughter of hundreds of innocent pilgrims.

In After Blue Star, Mark Tully explores what was behind the military action. Why did it go so badly wrong? How did a separatist movement grow out of it? And how has it shaped Sikh identity all over the world to this day?

Survivors, Soldiers And A Saint

Twenty years ago, when the Indian army stormed the Sikhs' most sacred shrine, Mark Tully was there reporting for the BBC. He returns to the Golden Temple in Amritsar to assess both the trigger and the resulting wounds.

He speaks to the survivors of Operation Blue Star and hears about the inner torment of one of the Sikh generals who led the attack.

And he goes in search of the man who became a saint after Blue Star, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Sikh preacher and leader of the Sikh independence movement.

Thousands of miles away, in Britain, he meets the Sikh artist twins whose work has been inspired by Blue Star.

4Part 1

Seeking Sikh Independence

Operation Blue Star, the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, traumatised Sikhs worldwide. Mark Tully examines how this event has shaped the emotions, political outlook and identity of Sikhs both in India and overseas.

The Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards. Violence against Sikhs all over India followed.

Many who had been westernised were prompted by Blue Star to return to their Sikh roots and the separatist movement for an independent Khalistan, a Sikh state in Punjab, still has a strong following from Sikhs in Britain and the United States.

Please note that this transcript was prepared as part of the production process and not for publication. The occasional references to FX (sound effects or location sound) have been left in to make the transcript more intelligible.

Announcement: And now the BBC's long-standing correspondent in Delhi, Mark Tully, returns to the north of India where twenty years ago he covered an event that's deeply affected the political and religious outlook of an entire people, the Sikhs - in his new series, "After Blue Star."

4Part 2


Programme Transcript

Kanwarpal Singh: Operation Blue Star was attack on the Sikh faith to teach lesson to entire Sikh community, and we took it as a challenge, and that was the point where Sikhs alienated from the Indian state.

Simarjit Kaur: It was an event like 9/11, where you just couldn't take in the devastation of it, the magnitude of it.

Rabindra Kaur: Operation Blue Star broke the hearts of Sikhs worldwide.

General Brar: You may hear lots of stories about the extent of the destruction etc. but as a honest soldier let me tell you that that's not true.

Khushwant Singh: It's caused a deep hurt in the hearts of the Sikhs, and they're never likely to forget it.

Mark: The Indian Army called it Operation Blue Star. For Sikhs it was the desecration of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, their most sacred shrine, an assault on them and on their religion.

20 years ago I reported that dramatic event and its aftermath for the BBC. Now I'm back to explore why Operation Blue Star happened and how it's affected Sikhs in their homeland Punjab, and worldwide too. . .

As I enter the main gate to the Sikhs' most sacred shrine, I see the Golden Temple sparkling in the evening sunlight, casting a golden reflection too on the water of the pool it stands in.

Sikh men, bearded and turbaned, women, their hair covered too, and children, bow their heads to the marble pavement as they enter. Some sit at the edge of the pool listening to the hymns wafting across the water from the Golden Temple.

Although the buildings have been restored, there is still evidence of the grim and bloody battle fought here.

My guide is Kiranjot Kaur, a member of the committee that manages the Sikh temples.

Kiran: This is the place where a lot of dead bodies were piled up, and later the municipal corporation was called in to remove the dead bodies, but you can still see the bloodstains on the floor of the marble, and these very white marble has bloodstains as if fresh blood has just been spilt on them.

Mark: Have you tried to remove the stains from here?

Kiran: These marks do not go away. They are like this since the last 20 years.

Mark: Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was the militant leader who had occupied the Golden Temple, and Operation Blue Star was mounted to regain control of the Golden Temple.

It was from the North East gate that the army sent in the tanks, after it had failed to dislodge Bhindranwale. They came down the marble steps here right onto the pavement surrounding the Golden Temple.

It seems extraordinary to me, you know, standing here, seeing all the peace and harmony and indeed sanctity of this place, that it can once have been a bloody battlefield.

Kiran: It is very unfortunate, but that is what the Indian govt turned this into.

In its history of about 400 years this temple has been demolished about 4 times, (and this was in the 18th century, 17th and 18th century. Because this is the place from where Sikhs draw their spiritual power. And the ruler, any ruler, who tries to subjugate the Sikhs, for them this is one place where they feel if something is done to this place maybe they can subjugate the Sikh psyche and crush their spirit.

Mark: When you came here after Operation Blue Star, because you came here quite soon after the Operation and you saw the devastation, did you ever believe it could go back to what is was before?

Kiran: No, at that point of time it seemed absolutely impossible. And the feeling standing here was such that I did not know whether to cry, whether to hit out at somebody, or what exactly the reaction was, but it was something, a mixture of everything.

Mark: Saint Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had taken up position in the heavily fortified Akal Takht, the shrine facing the Golden Temple itself. Just as sacred to the Sikhs as the Golden Temple, the shrine was shattered by shells fired from the army tanks.

Some two thousand people were killed in Operation Blue Star., many of them pilgrims who had nothing to do with Bhindranwale. The Operation was launched on an important Sikh festival, so the complex was particularly crowded. One person had a narrow escape.

Giani Mohan Singh in Punjabi - fade under Mark's translation

Mark translates: "Giani Mohan Singh was the head priest of the GT. He spent one day and two nights inside the GT during this Operation.

When eventually Gianiji was allowed to leave the temple complex, he was given five soldiers to accompany him back to his home. As they were leaving the temple complex, some soldiers tried to fire on Gianiji. And the other soldiers accompanying him said, "He's the head priest, you must not fire on him. They said, "We have orders to fire on all pujaris, that is all people who worked in the temple.

Fortunately for Gianiji, the five soldiers saved him and managed to stop the attack on him.

Mark: The pilgrims visiting the Golden Temple on the day of Blue Star came from villages all over Punjab.

Mark: In Virpal about an hour's drive from Amritsar, a widow draws water from a handpump. In her home there's a framed picture of her husband, one of the pilgrims killed in Operation Blue Star.

Elderly woman in Punjabi with translation voiceover: He used to go to the Golden Temple every feast day, so on that day he was also there - it was the martyrdom day of one of our Gurus. And he did not come back.

Mark: When news of the impending army attack broke, other villagers rushed to the defence of the Golden Temple. Avtar Singh was one of them.

Avtar Singh in Punjabi with translation voiceover: There wasn't a lot we could do because the army was just streaming in. We did not have many people on our side. In the end we were arrested and there was nothing we could do.

Mark: And you were wounded before you were arrested. Were you wounded accidentally or did soldiers deliberately fire on you?

Avtar Singh in Punjabi with translation voiceover: I got two shots, one in my knee and one in my side. But after I was arrested, I was deliberately shot at by the army men, our hands were tied, and were made to sit in the open, and the army men really ill-treated us. We were not given water, and we were tortured.

Mark: Avtar Singh was one of several men from this village who was jailed after Operation Blue Star. Nine men lost their lives.

The army's objective was to regain control of the Golden Temple complex, which had been taken over by the militant Sikh leader, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He'd mounted a violent campaign in support of the demand for more Sikh autonomy. His men killed innocent people, robbed and extorted money.

But ironically, Bhindranwale had the blessing of the government when he started his campaign.

Patwant Singh: Bhindranwale was a creation of the Congress Party, he was a creation of Mrs Gandhi.

Mark: The Sikh writer Patwant Singh was close to Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India. He says she promoted Bhindranwale, a Sikh preacher, as a rival to the leaders of the Sikh religious party, the Akali Dal, the opponents of her Congress Party in Punjab.

Patwant Singh: The idea was to find a Sikh charismatic enough to weaken the Akalis, who were getting very strong, the Akali party..… There are so many giveaways of who Bhinindranwale, whose creation he was, but the public sort of continued to accept that he was his own person. Not that he did the bidding of the Congress Party down the line, not at all,

Mark: Tell us one or two of what you'd call the giveaways, which gave away the fact that Bhindranwale was a Congress plant?

Patwant Singh: The first is, all over Punjab, and he once came to Delhi, … on his saffron coloured bus, with people, gunmen armed to the hilt. And he sat in it. Now this is not allowed - this brazen sort of display of arms. Nobody stopped them to find out whether they were licensed arms or not. This was only done if the man is a creature of the government.

Secondly, the second thing which he did was that some of the speeches he made were quite inflammatory. Why wasn't he arrested for that? He wasn't, because that again wasn't on the agenda.

… Now I wouldn't say that Bhindranwale was a dishonest man. (But) he was a pious man. But that piety of his was exploited by the Congress, and he loved it, he loved the limelight.

Mark: Members of the government at the time have not been available to give their point of view on the rise of Bhindranwale.

He soon slipped out of Indira Gandhi's control and started championing demands for a larger share of the waters of the rivers flowing through Punjab, territorial adjustments with the neighbouring state, and greater Sikh autonomy.

Bhindrwanwale came to be seen by many Indians as the leader of a movement aimed at establishing an independent Sikh state called Khalistan. But the government delayed taking action against him until he occupied and fortified the Golden Temple complex.

Archive - Narasimha Roa: "If a place of worship is misused, in the first place the place itself loses its sanctity."

Mark: In a BBC interview just one month before Blue Star, Narasimha Rao, a senior colleague of Indira Gandhi, gave the first indication that her patience was running out.

Archive - Narasimha Roa: "All I can say at this moment is that no option is closed."

Mark: When the military option was chosen, command of the Operation fell to a Sikh general, Kuldip Singh Brar. He recalls the explanation he was given for the task he was called to undertake.

General Brar: The fact of the matter is that things have come to a situation where the government has decided that military action is necessary, otherwise in all likelihood Khalistan could be established any time.

And the only solution was to nip it in the bud and to ensure that the Golden Temple is freed of the militants who are entrenched inside it, and I was told that there are something like 2000 militants inside, the Golden Temple is very heavily fortified with every type of weapon, machine guns, rifles, grenades and everything, they have barricaded the whole place… obviously, everyone knew that this was going on for a long time, perhaps they'd closed their eyes to it.

Mark: As a Sikh himself, General Brar was only too well aware of the dilemma an attack on the Golden Temple would present to those of his soldiers who were also Sikhs.

General Brar: And I spoke to the troops, and I said, any of you who don't wish to go in on moral grounds, ethical grounds, anything, just raise your hands. Nothing will be held against you and you don't have to go in.

And this young Sikh officer was the only one from all the six battalions that I addressed who raised his hand: and I said "No problem, son, if you don't want to go in you don't have to." And he said, "No Sir, I want to be the first to go in, and I want to be the first to go to Akal Takht and get rid of the elements who have desecrated that place."

Mark: I remained in Amritsar reporting for the BBC until the day Blue Star started, when the police removed all journalists from Punjab.

When we were eventually allowed into the Golden Temple complex again, I was appalled to see the ruins of the Akal Takht, where Bhindranwale fought his last battle and died. A carpet of spent cartridges littering its floor showed how fierce the resistance had been.

General Brar makes it clear the army never intended to cause such damage. He was given specific orders not to harm Harimandir Sahib, the Golden Temple itself.

General Brar: I would like you to believe me when I tell you that the instructions were to go in and cause minimum damage, minimum loss of life, minimum use of force, and we stuck to that right to the end.

There were times when my battalion commander was screaming at me on the radio to say, Our men are dying and you are not allowing us to fire towards the Harimandir Sahib. I said, That order remains. You will not fire towards the Harimandir Sahib, and you will not damage any parts of the temple.

Mark: The Golden Temple was intact after Blue Star, although there were bullet holes in its gold plating, they could well have been caused by firing from Bhindranwale's men.

General Brar says the damage to the Akal Takht and other parts of the complex, the casualties, and the use of heavy armour were due to inadequate intelligence.

For Sikhs, Blue Star was unimaginable sacrilege. The loyalty of many Sikh soldiers broke under the strain. They mutinied in different places, and in the Sikh regimental centre they shot and killed their commanding officer.

General Brar blames the mutinies on the failure to keep the soldiers properly informed.

General Brar: Yes, sure, a lot of people mutinied, they mutinied on what they heard, there were so many stories going around … And here were these troops who were emotionally charged up. And they said my God, our temple is under attack. And they mutinied. But let me tell you one thing, … I had three brigades. Of these three brigades two were Sikh troops. … And they went in with me.

Mark: But General Brar did face hostility from his own family, and there is no doubt that Blue Star had a profound effect on most Sikhs, in India and other parts of the world.

Kiranjot Kaur: Blue Star has been a great turning point, especially for the Sikhs living abroad.

Mark: Kiranjot Kaur, who was my guide at the Golden Temple at the beginning.

Kiranjot Kaur: Because the people who were going away from their religion, Blue Star suddenly jolted them, made them realise who they were. And they went back to their roots.

"I'm Amrit Kaur Singh." "And I'm Rabindra Kaur Singh, and we are artists painting in the classical Indian miniature style, though with modern themes."

Mark: The artist twins, Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, have come down from the studios in Liverpool to the BBC's Bush House in London to show me their picture of Blue Star.

In the centre is the Golden Temple itself, standing in the middle of blood-stained water. Surrounding it are different groups. There are brutal soldiers, anguished pilgrims, there's a historic Sikh martyr who - legend has it - continued fighting after his head was cut off in an earlier attack on the Golden Temple.

And worryingly for me, there's a group of blindfolded journalists to symbolise the insensitivity of the media coverage of Operation Blue Star. The Golden Temple itself is painted from an aerial perspective.

Amrit: Really this is symbolic (they explain bird's eye perspective, diaspora, and why the painting is so full of blood and gore - reference to martyrdom.)

Mark: In India in the immediate aftermath of Blue Star, the legend of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale the martyr was born.

Before his death, Bhindranwale's support didn't spread far beyond his dedicated followers. Operation Blue Star had a radical impact on his image, according to Delhi sociologist Dipankar Gupta.

Dipankar Gupta: I think prior to Blue Star Sikhs would have been quite happy if the army had gone in and flushed out the militants. I've heard that said by many Sikhs. "Why didn't the army go in and get rid of these people, this temple isn't meant for such things."

But after Bhindranwale died the way he did, with not only many of his followers but innocent pilgrims, their blood is mingled with innocent blood, that is what hurt people the most, and the way the temple is pockmarked.

Mark: Before Operation Blue Star, leaders of the Sikh religious party, the Akali Dal, had regarded Bhindranwale with a mixture of fear and dread, dreading that he would usurp their position. When Dipankar Gupta talked to one Akali leader, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, after Blue Star, his attitude had changed.

Dipankar Gupta: He said to me very candidly, I'm trying to translate that as close as I can, that before 1984 I thought Bhindranwale was a scoundrel, but after what happened in Blue Star I think now he's a sant.

Mark: Sant is a saint.

Gupta: Sant is a saint.

Mark: And this is where Sant, or Saint, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was educated - a seminary near Amritsar which is the headquarters of the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh missionary order.

Bhindranwale must once have sat here like these young boys, swaying to and fro as they learn how to recite the Sikh scriptures.

Bhindranwale headed the Damdami Taksal, so I was certain he would be regarded as a martyr here. But when I asked, just to make sure, I got a surprise from Jaswinder Singh personal assistant to the head of the order.

Jaswinder Singh in Punjabi with voiceover translation: We believe that Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is well and in high spirits. We do not believe that he is no more and that he has attained martyrdom. We feel that he is absolutely fine.

Mark: Jaswinder Singh claims the photographs of Bhindranwale's dead body are pictures of another person. I didn't find many Sikhs who believed that. But I did find many who believed he was a martyr.

The Sikh tradition of martyrdom goes back to the ten Gurus who were the founding fathers of the faith. My guide in the Golden Temple, Kiranjot Kaur, explains the tradition's significance.

Kiranjot Kaur: The first Sikh martyr was the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev Ji. And he was martyred because of his religious beliefs. After that, the ninth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Tag Bahadur Ji, he was again martyred for his, not for his beliefs but for the right of a person to uphold his own beliefs. So giving up your life for a spiritual cause, or for the cause of others, is something very supreme in Sikhism.

So when we are talking about Bhindranwale as a martyr, Bhindranwale was killed but it was not for any personal gain. There was nothing personal in it. So somehow it came out that certain people considered that he had become a martyr because of this.

Mark: Bhindranwale's admirers believe he died a martyr. But they don't think during his lifetime he fought for Khalistan, or Sikh independence.

Jaswinder Singh: He never appealed for Khalistan. When in fact he was asked by some journalists he categorically said that we don't need Khalistan. We have videos to that effect. He only said that we want to stay with the rest of the country, but in case the others want to give us Khalistan then we would not say no. But he at the same time said that should there be an attack on the Golden Temple, the foundations of Khalistan would have been laid.

Mark: Next week in "After Blue Star" here on the BBC, I'll look at the building erected on this foundation. There is a Khalistan movement, but how strong is it? And I'll be recalling the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the massacre of Sikhs which followed. What was their impact on the legacy of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale?

Mark: "Long live Khalistan!" Young Sikhs shout for an independent homeland. The movement for Sikh independence from India grew out of Operation Blue Star, the Indian army's attack on the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' most sacred shrine, in June 1984.

Kanwarpal Singh: We have not forgotten, nor have we forgiven that heinous crime. And we took it as a challenge, and that was the watershed between the Indian state and the Sikhs.

Simarjit: "I was 17, and I first heard about Operation Blue Star on the BBC. It was devastating. As of June 1984 many of us began to feel that we needed a special country for the Sikhs."

Mark: Years of violence and tens of thousands of deaths in Punjab, the Sikhs' home state, followed Operation Blue Star. There were years of protests among Sikhs living outside India, too.

In this BBC programme I'll be asking why the resistance to Indian rule built up and what impact Blue Star had on Sikhs' awareness of their separate identity. I'll look at the way order was eventually restored in Punjab and ask whether the Khalistan movement is still alive. And could it ever succeed?

On the morning of 31st October 1984, just four months after Operation Blue Star, two Sikhs took their revenge on the the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. They were members of her bodyguard, and they shot her at point-blank range as she crossed the garden separating her home from her office.

Mark: The All India Medical Institute in Delhi is the country's premier hospital. This morning the corridors are crowded, there are patients even lying on trolleys outside the hospital waiting to be treated. But on the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Satish Jacob my BBC colleague came here, and he found the place empty.

Satish: Yes, … that day I was told that Mrs Gandhi had been rushed to this place. When I came here I found there were very few people. And there is another emergency surgical room on the 8th floor, and I took a lift and I went there, and as soon as I got out of the lift I saw one doctor wearing white clothes, and he had a mask, and he had plastic gloves, and he was just taking off his gloves, and I had some inkling that he could be part of the operation. And I didn't tell him who I was, I didn't say I was from BBC, I simply said, how is she? And he shook his head and he said, no hope.

Mark: Indira Gandhi's death was a direct consequence of Operation Blue Star. The Operation caused hundreds of innocent people to die and reduced one of the Sikhs' most sacred shrines to rubble. But at least there was a reason for it. The Golden Temple had been occupied by armed Sikh militants, who had mounted a campaign of terror throughout Punjab. There was no excuse for what followed Indira's Gandhi's assassination. I covered that for the BBC.

Mark: Violence engulfed Delhi when Hindus were allowed to take revenge on Sikhs for Indira Gandhi's assassination.

Only about a mile from where the BBC office was, one of the worst riots after Indira Gandhi was assassinated took place. Hari Nagar is typical of New Dehli today, crowded narrow lanes, choked with traffic, concrete houses about 3, 4, sometimes even 5 storeys high, overcrowded in every sense. And it was into this area that people streamed not just from the road, but from the railway line as well, and from the flyover which looms over this area. One of the residents of this area is Kuldeep Singh Bhogal, who is the secretary of the All India Riot Victims Relief Committee.

Kuldeep Singh Bhogal in Hindi

Mark (translating): He says in this area huge fires were started, trucks were burnt, and from the railway line Sikhs who were found on trains were thrown out and killed, and in one family five people were tied to their chairs, had oil poured on them, and were set on fire.

Mark (summarizes): There are no people apparently in this area any longer whose members of the family have died because they all fled to Punjab, not surprisingly they didn't want to stay here. But there's one gentleman here whose house was burnt.

Mark: Who did this?

Pritpal Singh: There was a mob. It was in collusion with the police.

Mark: So it was in collusion with the police that all this happened. Standing on top of the flyover?

Pritpal Singh: Yes, yes.

Mark: So they were standing on top of the flyover behind me here, and … and they did nothing.

Pritpal Singh: They did nothing.

Mark: So they did nothing.

Pritpal Singh: So police were not doing a thing.

Mark: An impression confirmed by Khushwant Singh, the Sikh author and historian who was a member of parliament at the time of Blue Star. Like most people I spoke to, he believes that the riots were not just a genuine response to the assassination of the Prime Minister.

Khushwant Singh: I have not the slightest doubt they were organised. The spontaneous anger could have been contained within a few hours if they'd imposed the curfew that they'd intended or gave orders to shoot at sight, which they should have done… that night, the night it happened, the mobs were rampaging, and I was here, I went out to see because they were attacking shops across the road… there were at least three dozen policemen there standing there watching the proceedings. And they'd had orders not to interfere.

Mark: To make matters worse, no-one was punished for the murderous attacks which killed several thousand Sikhs. Many who survived were so terrified that they shaved their beards, cut their hair and discarded their turbans so that they couldn't be identified as Sikhs.

Mark: At a Sikh festival in the English city of Leicester I meet men who've done exactly the opposite.

Dabinderjit Singh: At that time I wasn't as religious as I should be… but those events totally changed my perspective, and I became a practising Sikh.

Mark: Dabinderjit Singh is a campaigner for Sikh rights. A young student in 1984, he maintains Blue Star and the massacres after Indira Gandhi's assassination created a religious revival among British Sikhs.

Dabinderjit Singh: I think a lot of Sikhs who'd come to this country and perhaps cut their hair… saw this as an attack not just on the Sikh nation, but also on Sikh identity, and they wanted to show that identity and they completely changed their religious perspective.

Mark: And not just their religious perspective.

Mark: Dabinderjit Singh, making a political speech in a gurdwara or Sikh temple. He maintains support for Khalistan swelled in British gurdwaras after Operation Blue Star.

Dabinderjit Singh: There was a revolution, there was a revolution in our gurdwaras in terms of, we needed to preach about what had happened to the Sikhs, and the struggle, and that has continued to this day.

Mark: Dabinderjit's friend Ranjit Singh, general secretary of the Council of Khalistan set up in Britain, claims the independence movement is flourishing in many countries where Sikhs live.

Ranjit Singh: "Within this country, and also in the US and Europe, you have a very vibrant struggle for self-determination among the diaspora. And self-determination within international law is something we recognise as our human right, and we pursue that, and will continue to pursue that."

Mark: But do Dabinderjit and Ranjit Singh represent Sikh opinion back in India?

Young men, enraged by Operation Blue Star and the massacre of Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, did sustain violent resistance to the Indian government for several years. But Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Delhi's Jawarhalal Nehru university, who's studied the Sikh community, reckons most of the support for them was emotional, not political.

Dipankar Gupta: I rarely met anybody who said, Yes, we are with the Khalistani boys, and want secession from India.

What they said, or the impression I got was, there are these boys who are upholding our pride, our dignity. And that's why there's a kind of vicarious militancy on their part. They weren't with them in terms of their political demands, their agenda, in fact they were not at all with them. … They said, we are talking about Sikh pride and dignity, and look what you've done to us after 1984.

Mark: Only two years after Blue Star, a group of Sikh separatists did declare the independence of Khalistan here in the Golden Temple. Even more extraordinarily, in the same year the government allowed the temple to be recaptured by armed separatists.

Sarabjit Singh was the senior civil servant in Amritsar at the time; he admits the government once again failed to take effective action before it was too late.

Sarabjit Singh: When I was posted here the terrorists were already there. And we were aware that weapons were being sneaked into the GT. This was done under various covers. For example, trolleyloads of wheat came in, and the assaults were hidden in the bags. No-one could really search the whole trolley.

Mark: A dynamic police officer, KPS Gill, commanded the operation to clear the Golden Temple of armed militants for the second time. In this operation, no civilians were killed, the shrines were almost undamaged, and the separatists surrendered.

The success of this operation made KPS Gill the obvious man for the job when the government did eventually decide to tackle the Sikh separatist movement.

Patwant Singh: What happened with this so-called police chief, he was a mass killer.

Mark: Patwant Singh, a Sikh writer who lives in India, is highly critical of the methods KPS Gill adopted.

Patwant Singh continued: I mean he brutalised and savaged people. … When you savage and terrorise people, when the state does the terrorising, then of course things do quieten down, a whole lot of families, people have been killed, they have been burnt alive and so on, cremated and things like that.

KPS Gill: I look upon the Punjab operation as one of the most humane anti-terrorist operations in the world.

Mark: KPS Gill has never accepted the allegations against his police force - allegations of torture and illegal killings followed by secret cremations. KPS Gill maintains no-one can be cremated in India without public knowledge.

KPS Gill also points out that the separatists mounted a brutal campaign against the police.

KPS Gill: We found that whenever there was funeral and there was mass participation, at least ten new terrorists come up. So we said, let's not make this funeral a mass spectacle. … But….. the terrorists kidnapped 66 members of police officers' families, some of these officers, men, and their families. 66 of them. And said if you don't allow the religious ceremonies of this man to be held as a public spectacle, we will kill these. We did not allow that to happen, all the 66 were killed. It was a very, very serious situation.

Mark: KPS Gill has not succeeded in convincing human rights activists in India or abroad.

Gurjeet Singh: This little office here has 10,000 people, list of 10,000 people who got killed by the police.

Mark: From a cramped office in the English city of Leicester, Gurjeet Singh runs "Khalsa Human Rights", an organisation that has catalogued abuses against Sikhs in Punjab. This man's case is one of many examples.

Gurjeet Singh: He was picked up by the police and he was tortured to really third degree torture, and in the end, the family was a really well-off family, and they managed to bribe the police and they managed to get the body from the police. And when they had the body, they actually send us the pictures of the body, after he had been tortured he was boiled alive in hot water. You can see all his skin was peeled off.

Mark: By 1992 the police had brought an end to the armed separatist movement.

Kanwarpal Singh: People have suffered a lot. And after suffering a lot of harassment and repression, they are depressed, and moreover they have a sense of defeat in them.

Mark: In the Golden Temple complex I met one of the few people still campaigning actively for Khalistan in Punjab, Kanwarpal Singh of the Dal Khalsa movement.

Kanwarpal Singh: You can say that present day, there is no armed movement, guns have fallen silent. But spirit is there, dream is there.

Mark: The dream of Khalistan is actively being kept alive in Britain. Pictures of Sikhs considered martyrs for Khalistan adorn the walls of the Guru Teg Bahadur gurdwara in Leicester. The lectern bears the slogan, "India, free Khalistan! Self-determination now!" The faithful bow to the holy book and then sit cross-legged on the floor, listening to rousing calls for Khalistan.

Dabinderjit Singh doesn't see anything wrong with bringing politics into this place of worship.

Dabinderjit Singh: "You cannot divorce politics from religion, our gurus instituted the idea of miri and piri, the connection between the spiritual and the temporal. And that's why our gurdwaras are the place to talk about human rights etc. You cannot divorce politics from your daily lives.

Mark: Money pours into the collection box in the gurdwara, and it doesn't take too much imagination to think where some of it would go if the armed struggle for Khalistan was revived. And that has certainly not been ruled out here. Dabinderjit Singh again.

Dabinderjit Singh: "Since 9/11 we've had to rethink the concept of the armed struggle… but where there are human rights abuses you cannot deny an individual the right to take up arms and defend themselves.

Kiranjot Kaur: The people abroad who are campaigning for Khalistan are only creating problems for people living in Punjab.

Mark: Back in Punjab, Kiranjot Kaur is a member of the powerful committee controlling the Golden Temple, no time for foreign Khalistan campaigners:

Kiranjot Kaur: Because the people living abroad know very well that they are not going to live in the Khalistan that they are demanding. And the Punjabis who are living in India, since they are not demanding Khalistan I don't really see why this whole hue and cry about Khalistan now.

Mark: The veteran Sikh writer and historian Khushwant Singh has even started a campaign to persuade Sikhs abroad that no-one in India wants Khalistan.

Khushwant Singh: Well, I have spoken to them many times, openly, certainly in the United States I addressed a large meeting. I think I was able to bring a lot of them around to my point of view. That being angry with the government is one thing, asking for Khalistan is another. Because it's wanting to commit harakiri if you want Khalistan. It'll destroy whatever remains of the community.

Mark: And what does the most powerful player in Sikh politics in Punjab think about Khalistan? Gurcharan Singh Tohra played a prominent role in the Akali Dal, the Sikh religious party, for many many years.

Tohra in Hindi

Mark: So, the Akali Dal does not believe there is any scope for demanding Khalistan. (asks question in Hindi)

Tohra's answer and laughter in response.

Mark: I said to Tohra Sahib, ok, Akali Dal says there is no scope for campaigning for Khalistan, what is your personal desire, and he laughs and he says, there are some personal desires it is better to keep hidden.

Mark: We'll never know what Gurcharan Singh Tohra's personal desire was, because sadly he died only days after my visit.

Mark: Songs from Bollywood are the theme music of today's India. They and cricket link the country together. But do young Sikhs identify with these links? Well, when it comes to cricket the students of Khalsa College in Amritsar have no doubt.

Khalsa College: (Female) (laughs) Definitely!

(Male): It unites us, cricket. We are having preparation time for exams, but we are just concentrating on the India and Pakistan match, all night we watch television and our parents are just scolding us! (laughs)

Mark: But when it comes to more serious matters, some at least of the students are not convinced India offers them any prospects.

Khalsa College: (Male) We are not getting jobs according to our talent, our calibre, our qualifications, … That's why we are just migrating. … I'm thinking of migrating to a developed country, preferably Australia, my brother has already migrated to Australia, and I want to go there.

(Female): You know what I feel, there is always a place for the toppers. That's what my grandfather used to say, there's always a place for the toppers on the roof. You know the person who has got merit like 95, 98 percent, they can easily get job in India.

(Male): Everybody is not topper, and to be an average is not a crime (laughter).

(Male): … There is no social security, that's why we are migrating to Western countries.

Mark: Disgruntled students were the most active supporters of the Khalistan movement. So does that mean the lack of opportunities for young Sikhs today could revive that movement? Yes, says one student.

Khalsa College student: Now is the right time for any religious leader to come in and fuel another revolution. Because there are a lot of unemployed people. Whenever there is unemployment, idle minds, you can make them do anything.

Mark: Kanwar Sandhu, the editor of the Hindustani Times in Punjab, agrees that there is still a danger of disturbances, especially if opportunities for young Sikhs to emigrate dry up.

Kanwar Sandhu: If tomorrow the avenues abroad were closed, and there were to be no jobs here, I don't know what is in store for them and for all of us here. I think there could be another crisis in the making, I think that's the point we need to worry about.

Mark: A new generation of fervent Sikh preachers is being educated in this seminary near Amritsar. As I listen to the young boys reciting the scriptures, I can't help thinking how determined they will be to make Sikhs aware of their separate identity. There's nothing like a sense of grievance to help achieve that.

For the moment, Sikhs' sense of grievance and the demand for Khalistan is almost entirely a foreign phenomenon. But from what I've seen re-visiting Punjab twenty years after I reported on Operation Blue Star for the BBC, the government will have to create jobs for young Sikhs if it's to ensure there's no revival of the movement for Khalistan in India.

Home | Human Rights | Library | Gallery | Audio | Videos | Downloads | Disclaimer | Contact Us