In a bloody climax to two years of fighting between the Indian government and Sikh separatists, Indian army troops fight their way into the besieged Golden Temple compound in Amritsar–the holiest shrine of Sikhism–and kill at least 500 Sikh rebels. More than 100 Indian soldiers and scores of nonbelligerent Sikhs also perished in the ferocious gun and artillery battle, which was launched in the early morning hours of June 6. (Sikh groups dispute this figure and say thousands died, including a large number of pilgrims who were there for an important Sikh festival). The army also attacked Sikh guerrillas besieged in three dozen other temples and religious shrines throughout the state of Punjab. Indian officials hailed the operation as a success and said it “broke the back” of the Sikh terrorist movement.
The Sikh religion, which was founded in the late 15th century by Guru Nanak, combines elements of Hinduism and Islam, the two major religions of India. The religion is centered on the Indian state of Punjab in northern India, where Sikhs comprise a majority and speak Punjabi. In the 1970s, agricultural advances made Punjab one of India’s most prosperous states, and Sikh leaders began calling for greater autonomy from the central government. This movement was largely peaceful until 1982, when the Sikh fundamentalist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers launched a separatist campaign in Punjab.
Employing terrorism and assassination, Bhindranwale and his guerrillas killed scores of political opponents and Hindu civilians in the name of establishing an autonomous Sikh Khalistan, or “Land of the Pure.” Most Sikhs did not support Bhindranwale’s violent campaign, in which the extremists also assassinated several Sikhs who spoke out against the creation of Khalistan.
To appease the Sikhs, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nominated Zail Singh to be the first Sikh president of India in 1982, a significant choice because the Sikhs comprise a small percentage of India’s overall population. Most Sikhs distrusted Singh, however, because as Indian head of state he generally supported Gandhi’s policies. Meanwhile, the separatists occupied the Golden Temple and other Sikh holy sites and turned them into armed bases.
The Golden Temple, known as the Harmandir in India, was built in 1604 by Guru Arjun. It was destroyed several times by Afghan invaders and rebuilt in the early 19th century in marble and copper overlaid with gold foil. The temple occupies a small island in the center of a pool. There are a number of other important buildings in the 72-acre temple compound, including the Akal Takht, which is the repository for Sikhism’s Holy Book of scriptures and the headquarters of the religion.
To suppress the separatist revolt, which had claimed more than 400 Hindu and Sikh lives and virtually shut down Punjab, Prime Minister Gandhi ordered Indian troops to seize control of the Sikh bases by force in June 1984. On June 1, army troops surrounded the Golden Temple and exchanged gunfire with the rebels, who were heavily armed and commanded by a high-ranking army defector. The Sikhs refused to surrender, and in the early morning of June 6 army forces launched an assault on the temple compound. By daylight, the Sikhs were defeated.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the rebel leader, perished in the attack, allegedly by his own hand. The Indian government announced that 492 Sikh militants were killed, but the Sikhs put the number at more than 1,000. More than 100 army troops were killed and several hundred wounded. More than 1,500 Sikhs were arrested in the operation. The Golden Temple itself suffered only minor damage, but the Akal Takht, a scene of heavy fighting, was heavily damaged.
In the aftermath of the bloody confrontation, Sikhs rioted across India, and more people were killed. Some 1,000 Sikh soldiers in the Indian army mutinied, but these defectors were suppressed, and rebel leaders still at large were captured or killed. On October 31, in a dramatic act of retaliation, Indira Gandhi was shot to death in her garden by two Sikh members of her own bodyguard. This act only led to further violence, and thousands of Sikhs were massacred by angry Hindus in Delhi before Gandhi’s son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, called out the army to end the orgy of violence. Punjab’s political status remained a divisive issue in India, and disorder and violence persisted in the state until the early 1990s.