Thirty-eight years since a military operation was initiated by the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) complex has in the last few days seen intense activity of some Sikh separatists, trying to stoke the memory of the initial movement of that time.
Thirty-eight years have passed since a military operation was initiated by the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, to remove the Sikh Damdami Taksal leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers from the buildings of Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) complex in Amritsar. The temple complex has in the last few days seen intense activity of some Sikh separatists, trying to stoke the memory of, the initial movement of that time.
On 1 June 1984, Indian security forces commenced Operation Blue Star when they fired into various buildings with the objective of assessing the training of the militants ensconced inside, which resulted in the deaths of a few civilians. A variety of Army units and paramilitary forces surrounded the Golden Temple complex on 3 June 1984. The official stance of the Army was that warnings were made to facilitate the evacuation of pilgrims but that no surrender or release occurred till June 5 till 7 p.m. Following this, the final Operation which lasted a very tense and difficult 24 hours, saw the initial death of many soldiers and officers of the Indian Army, including dozens of followers and Bhindranwale himself. Hundreds had died. Very few believed that such an action could be taken. But post the action, which culminated in the partial destruction of the Akal Takht , the Temporal seat of the Sikhs, the World community wanted to have an urgent look at the Golden Temple complex. Every hour from the 6 June, pressure was building up from all internal political, social and international quarters.
The Home Ministry under Mr. Buta Singh initiated a quick air visit the next day, to the Temple complex, under very strict security. The first chartered flight to Amritsar from Delhi was carrying a camera crew along with a News Producer from Doordarshan who was at the last minute, made to sign for the flight. The plane had to return before dusk. The Producer was Ranjit Chatterjee. Colonel Fernandes and Lt. Col. Swaminathan joined the crew at Amritsar airport as liaison officers and escorted the crew, in a convoy, to the Temple complex and were with them during the entire shoot. The Producer-Correspondent recalls the first moments as he entered the complex “ there were blood stains around and an overbearing stench of human flesh and as we looked around we found at the higher plain there were wells with dried pits and from there we were shown fistful of precious stones, gold, jewellery and ammunition. On the parapets there were plenty of empty liquor bottles strewn around and in the foreground at one side, was the damaged Akal Takht.”
These were the first visuals which were to be carried in the evening bulletins. The country was about to see and understand the Operation scenario which had resulted in the elimination of the militants, who were well entrenched, sworn to their leader and trained in commando activities, guarding every nook and corner of the complex. In its wake the Operation perhaps uncontrollably, had resulted in many casualties of civilians, pilgrims and Temple staff, caught in-between the cross fire.
As the day passed, the importance and need of the State media assumed enlarged proportions. The country was waiting to know. So it did with some haunting visuals. The next morning, the then Deputy Director General of Doordarshan Mr Shiv Sharma along with veteran AIR Broadcaster Melville de Mello and camera crews were on their way to the Temple complex. News shooting with ENG cameras and special interviews with those who had carried out the Operations and those maintaining the later sanitized atmosphere inside the complex, as well as the first scenes of an unfortunate incident, were further being brought to the Indian public. The utter tragedy of a conflict by the state machinery, with its own people, was being unravelled by very telling visuals. The second sortie to Amritsar was back by late afternoon and it was a task to put through visuals for the evening bulletins and a special report which became the story of the ‘Impregnable Bastion’, a title which had been coined by me.
The rest of the very anxious private Media were still at bay. For a few days the Government had decided to have a chartered sortie everyday to enable the state Electronic Media to be able to do special stories. This action continued for the third day as well but there was a special visitor in the flight, none other than the Home Minister himself Mr. Buta Singh, specially sent by the Prime Minister to represent the Government , pay obeisance as a Sikh and identify the path for the reconstruction of the Akal Takh and the rest of the complex, including restoring the sanctity of the Harmandir Sahib.
On the fourth day the then Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Mr. S.S.Gill was himself flying out to Amritsar with more DD News teams. My colleague Producer Vijay Kumar and me were on that flight for further stories and detailed coverage of the post operations scene and activities. My own entrance inside the complex was with a heavy heart. I had been here a few times before, with deep reverence and humility. This day it was different, the stench of dead bodies was still overwhelming, with stains of blood still gripping the marble floors and the ground.
The teams that came the days before, also did not see the bodies of those who were killed, which we were informed, were strewn all around the Temple complex. These had already been taken away the very first day. While some of us still got a glimpse of some dead bodies in the far corners, but of those who were believed to have masterminded the militant movement and the leader Bhindranwale’s body itself, had been removed quite early. Officially we were instructed to spend every moment available to film the complex extensively and interview people available to speak to us, about the unfolding events. Once inside the complex, under cover of security, going out of the complex alone was out of question. The threat of a sniper here or there, was at the back of our minds as well as the liaison officers. At this stage we were largely met by the Senior Commanders Major General Kuldip Singh Brar, while Lieutenant General Krishnaswamy Sundarji and Lt Gen. R.S.Dayal were in the background, who spent a lot of time explaining the complexity of the operation and the circumstances therein. Intelligence reports had not been able to ascertain the precise strategy played out by the retired Army General Shabeg Singh who was the advisor to Bhindranwale.
Secret tunnels across the main entrance to the Temple complex and connected underground corridors, for communications and undetected movement of men and material, replete with periodic air ducts, proved to be a deadly trap to thwart the initial entry by the Army soldiers. This simple but unsuspecting plan, a structural facility which looked as if it had been planned well in the very beginning of the complex construction, as an original fortress, had puzzled the raiding party and taken them totally by surprise. In fact there were more concealed areas in the four corners of the complex, supported by the plethora of rooms, from where the militants hiding inside had been waiting to target the incoming soldiers.
A plan of action which had entailed the possibility of the least number of casualties of army, civilian/pilgrims or militants was not one which ultimately brought down the siege. Time was of essence and the Operation had to be accomplished within a specific time frame. The final assault, after careful consideration and requisite clearances, is history. The Army’s assault on the temple complex ended on June 8. The Army had underestimated the firepower possessed by the militants, whose armaments included rocket-propelled grenade launchers with armour-piercing capabilities. Eventually tanks and heavy artillery were used to flush out the militants, who responded with anti-tank and machine-gun fire from the heavily fortified Akal Takht . After a 24-hour gun battle, the Army gained control of the Temple complex.
The entire complex and the buildings inside are widely spread out. For News coverage one had to focus attention on specific areas and issues. The same had to be planned into the bulletins and special reports. There was no pressure of competing channels, but one knew that it was a matter of a day or two, when the entire World’s Press, would land at Amritsar and rush to the Temple complex. A clean-up operation codenamed Operation Woodrose was then initiated throughout Punjab.
The Akal Takht had surely been damaged but the Harmandir Sahib was providentially safe. The Government had shown alacrity in the days to come, to restore the Akal Takht to its pristine glory and the Harmandir Sahib to its purity and sanctity. The coverage for Operation Blue Star was post action, but comparatively, for us the coverage of Operation Blue Thunder later was, while it was still in action. One was executed by the military while the other was executed by the Punjab police.
The author is the former Chief Producer, News & Current Affairs, Doordarshan. (Fulbright Scholar, Syracuse University, Upstate New York).