40 years ago, a Sikh holy place in Punjab was the site of a bloody siege. The scars it left are still raw

The Golden Temple, located in Amritsar, Punjab. is one of the world's great wonders and an important place for the Sikh religion. June 1, 1984, was the first day of a bloody multi-day siege that killed hundreds and damaged the temple's inner shrine. (Salimah Shivji/CBC - image credit)
The Golden Temple, located in Amritsar, Punjab. is one of the world's great wonders and an important place for the Sikh religion. June 1, 1984, was the first day of a bloody multi-day siege that killed hundreds and damaged the temple's inner shrine. (Salimah Shivji/CBC - image credit)

Solemn prayers and speeches rang out inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of sites in the Sikh religion, as the northern state of Punjab marked the 40th anniversary of a deadly Indian military operation. Operation Blue Star, as it was called, left hundreds dead and damaged the temple's inner shrine.

At the same time, a group of about 200 supporters of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan were gathered in the corner of the temple's compound, chanting slogans and declaring that the "Sikh religious flag is flying high."

"Sikhs cannot forget this day," said 27-year-old student Harmandeep Singh after the Thursday ceremony. "The day on which our [inner shrine] was attacked."

The military siege in June 1984 was ordered by India's then-prime minister Indira Gandhi. The aim was to flush out militant separatist Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers, barricaded inside the Golden Temple, and stifle the burgeoning Khalistan movement for an independent homeland.

Glen Kugelstadt/CBC
Glen Kugelstadt/CBC

Official figures put the death toll at around 400 people. Sikh groups dispute that figure and say the number of people that died was in the thousands.

Gandhi would later be assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in apparent retaliation for the bloodshed at the temple. That, in turn, triggered days of anti-Sikh riots across India during which several thousand people died. The deadly incident also sparked years of violence and turmoil in Punjab.

Bitter feelings linger

The bitterness and rancour over the attack within India's Sikh community remains strong 40 years later, even among the younger generation.

"The Indian state attacked a pilgrimage temple — a place of peace," said student Manmohan Singh, 24.

"They used tanks, helicopters, commandos. Full [force]. To kill Sikhs," added his friend, Harmandeep Singh, who had travelled from the Punjab town of Moga, more than 100 kilometres away, for the ceremony.

"Why was that needed, that police would enter into that premises?"

Salimah Shivji/CBC
Salimah Shivji/CBC

Satpal Singh Danish, 75, was a photojournalist in Amritsar at the time and documented the days-long armed forces raid after first shots were fired on June 1, 1984.

It was hard to gauge how many army officers were surrounding the temple in the days preceding the attack because they were scattered in different locations, he told CBC News.

But when the military stormed inside, it suddenly became very clear.

Salimah Shivji/CBC
Salimah Shivji/CBC

"I realized that this was a war," he said. The fear in the city was intense, the photographer recalled, especially when the reality hit the residents that the military operation was "an attack on a religious place … that cannot be erased."

For Beant Singh, 81, whose brother was killed inside the temple during the military assault, the yearly commemoration ceremonies are increasingly difficult to attend because of his age.

But the pain associated with Operation Blue Star will never fade, he said in an interview.

Glen Kugelstadt/CBC
Glen Kugelstadt/CBC

Singh's brother, Sabeg Singh, was a former general in the Indian army who was suspended and subsequently became close to the militant Sikh leaders.

"We weren't even allowed to see [my brother's] body, and the government didn't give us his belongings," Singh said.

"This is a huge black mark on Indira Gandhi and the Indian government," he said. His community "will never forgive" the government, he added.

Discrimination continues

Forty years after Indian armed forces stormed the Golden Temple, there was a sense among some of those who gathered for the Thursday ceremonies — held annually on June 6 to commemorate the main day of the assault — that the current government, under newly re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is continuing the discrimination against Sikhs.

"There is not much difference between the government of Indira Gandhi and the current government," said student activist Harshwinder Singh, 19.

Singh believes there is a double standard when it comes to nationalist rhetoric from the Hindu majority compared to the minority Sikh community, which make up 1.7 per cent of the population of India but are the majority in Punjab state.

Salimah Shivji/CBC
Salimah Shivji/CBC

"Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders, they are directly talking about Hindu Rashtra on the stage," Singh said, referring to the ruling BJP party's rhetoric about India as a Hindu nation first. "And nothing happens to them. But if the Sikhs ask for Khalistan, they are sent to jails."

He means Amritpal Singh, a self-styled preacher and Khalistani activist who has fashioned himself as a successor to Bhindranwale, the Sikh leader killed during Operation Blue Star.

Amritpal Singh was the subject of a weeks-long manhunt in April 2023, before being caught and jailed. He ran as an independent in the recent Indian general election from his jail cell and won a seat.

The son of one of Indira Gandhi's assassins, Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa, also secured a seat in India's Parliament.

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But for others, the ceremony to commemorate Operation Blue Star is about educating future generations, and not about politics.

"We have to remember," said newlywed Prableen Kaur, visiting Amritsar from India's capital Delhi. "To not let it happen again."

She said it's especially important under an Indian government that doesn't always show regard for its religious minorities.

"Sikhs are still a minority in this country and you never know in this nation."