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"THE AMRITSAR TRAGEDY"

by Hardit Singh.

Sikh Gurus | Martyrs | Sikh Warriors
Historic Events | Personalities | Institutes


This page was last updated on July 1 2001.





Featured Article

History, Status and Sanctity of Golden Temple

The world famous Golden Temple of the Sikhs, situated at Amritsar in India, bears Harmandir, the Temple of God, as its original name, and it forms an island in a lake to which the name of Amritsar (pool of ambrosia) was given by the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjun Dev (1563-1609) in 1589. The town, which grew around this Harmandir subsequently, also acquired the same name.

In this Temple, the proposed centre of a world religion and culture, Guru Arjun Dev installed the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, in 1604, and ever since, the presiding place, even when the Sikh Gurus were resent, has remained reserved for the Holy Word.

In 1609, Guru Hargobind (1595-1644) created the Akal Takht (the Immortals Throne) edifice facing the Harmandir at the entrance bridgehead of the sacred lake, upon which the Guru sat in state wearing two swords representing both the spiritual (piri) and the temporal (miri) life of a man. The essence of this Sikh doctrine is that a man of religion must always owe his primary allegiance to Truth, i.e., God and morality. Man is a complete personality a single unit, which is not divisible to act differently in different circumstances. His religion, politics, socio-economics and conduct are hinged on unity of God, oneness of humanity, truths love and compassion.

This doctrine also envisages that when all means of peaceful persuasion fail, it is legitimate to move his hand to the hilt of the sword. This assertion is contained in Guru Gobind Singh's (1666-1708) communication, the Zafarnama, addressed to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

Amritsar is the holiest of the holy places. Indeed, a Sikh prays everyday for a look at the Harmandir Sahib and a dip in the sacred sarovar, the pool of immortality The preservation of sanctity of this place is a matter of prestige and self-respect, a life and death struggle for the Sikhs.

Tradition has it that the site on which the Golden Temple stands was sanctified by the visit to it by Guru Nanak (1569-1539) the first Sikh Guru. He had then asked the succeeding Gurus to develop the area into a great spiritual centre radiating the message of love and peace to the entire mankind. This place had also been sanctified by the presence and visit of seven of the ten Sikh Gurus.

What the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht mean to Sikhs cannot be fully described. To comprehend its sanctity, one requires the hearts of martyrs like Baba Deep Singh Shaheed and Bhai Sukha Singh and Bhai Mehtah Singh, heroes of the 18th century, who fought for the liberation of the Golden Temple from the overwhelming hordes of Afghans. Baba Deep Singh fought the enemy with a "practically" severed head for several miles till he reached the Golden Temple. The other two Bhais, despite heavy guards, beheaded the government official, Massa Ranghar, for converting the holy premises to profane use. The head of this arrogant official was carried by them all the way to Bikaner, defying troop concentrations in and around Amritsar. The late mystic poet, Bhai Vir Singh, said that the battles the Sikhs fought to protect and reoccupy the Golden Temple were so many and so furious in the 18th century alone that if the martyrs' heads were collected and paved together in the periphery of the Temple, these could not all be accommodated.

A good description of its significance appeared in The Indian Express, dated July 3, 1984, soon after the ill-fated Operation Blue Star, in an article by Sardar Jaswant Singh entitled The Temple Revisited:

"The Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) is entirely unique in the Sikh psyche. It is a part of the struggle of a section of the Indian people to evolve a dynamic and assertive identity of their own. It is not only a place of worship, it symbolizes Sikh history and is also the seat of temporal authority. More than that, it is a living symbol of struggle against all kinds of oppression. It is part of the very central core of the Sikh being. It is not just an edifice or a collection of buildings. Every stone there is thc brickwork of history itself."

The Golden Temple complex, right from its inception has been the hub of' the Sikhs and commanded the respect and unflinching faith of the Sikhs irrespective Of their position and status. The Sikh independent states, the twelve misls of the 18th century, and Maharaja Ranjit Singh had been humbly submitting and complying with the religious and temporal edicts issued by the Akal Takht. It is so, because of its highest theo-political status and spiritual potency.

The history of hostility towards Sikhism by rulers, priests, brahmins, and kazis, can be traced right from its inception in the 15th century. It was openly voiced by Emperor Jahangir in his autobiography, Tuzke-Jahangiri, when he ordered execution of Guru Arjun Dev in 1606 by torture. This was followed by the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur in 1675, the two sahibzadas of Guru Gobind Singh at Sirhind in 1704, Baba Banda Singh Bahadur in l719 and numerous other Sikhs who refused to abjure their faith. Ahmad Shah Abdali also saw a threat to his possessions and designs of loot and plunder of India from the Sikhs. During his seven incursions into India, he desecrated the Golden Temple three times. In his last invasion in 1762, he blew it up with gun-powder and filled the holy tank after desecrating it with cows blood. His object in doing so was to liquidate the Sikhs and their source of strength and inspiration. He also wanted to teach them a lesson for their audacity to rescue from him over two thousand young Indian women being carried away to his home as war booty.

In 1764, Abdali made a military visit to the Golden Temple to satisfy himself that the Sikhs no longer used it for political activities. He found it zealously guarded by 30 diehard Sikhs under the command of Baba Gurbakhsh Singh. Kazi Nur Mohammad in his Jangnameh of 1766, p. 100, writes as an eyewitness that though the Sikhs were thirty in number yet they had not a grain of fear about them, they fought tenaciously and sacrificed their lives for the Guru. Baba Gurbakhsh Singh's mausoleum still stands behind the Akal Takht.

A Punjabi saying current in the 18th century explains the high morale of the Sikhs in relation to their persecution: "Manu saddi datri, asin Manu de soe. Jion,jion Manu wadhda asin doon swaye hoe. Manu, (The most atrocious ruler of that time) is our sickle and we are his fodder, the more he mows us, the higher we grow. Instead of being crushed, the Sikhs flourished both in number and power. The Sikh wrath did not abate till the invaders were thrown out of India and the tide of invasions across the north-west frontier of undivided India was stemmed for all times to come. Soon after, the Sikhs extended their empire to the gates of Kabul.

Realising the theo-political status of the Golden Temple, the British Government retained its control through appointing a Sikh manager of their choice directly under the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar. This arrangement broke down, when they prevailed upon the Sikh manager, known as sarbrah, to honour General Dyer, the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, at the Akal Takht. The Sikhs resented it as a body, leading to Akali agitation which eventually succeeded in wresting the control of the Golden Temple and other historic gurdwaras from the corrupt mahants in Punjab. The control of the Golden Temple together with the Akal Takht and other specified gurdwaras was handed over to the Sikhs through the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925.

Punjab Problem Discrimination Galore

The Indian National Congress in one of its manifestoes before independence had committed itself to the creation of states in independent India on a linguistic basis. Soon after 1950, when the new constitution of India was approved by Parliament, linguistic states were created except in Punjab. In the census of 1951 and 1961, the majority community in Punjab, in order to thwart a Punjabi-speaking state coming up, falsely declared their mother-tongue to be Hindi. They even went to the extent of declaring that Punjabi is not a language but a dialect of Hindi. Earlier on, in the constitution of India, the Sikh religion was treated as a sect of Hinduism and was not given a separate status like Christianity and Islam. The Sikh representatives on the drafting committee had raised objection to this and refused to sign the document.

The Sikhs had to agitate for nearly 15 years until their demand was conceded in 1966. Its implementation was, however, made more on communal basis. Its capital, Chandigarh, was taken away and made into a Union Territory. Many Punjabi-speaking areas were ceded to the newly created states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The right to use its river water was curtailed and brought under central control and the major share of the electricity generated was diverted to other states. All norms and international laws had been violated in its half-hearted creation. The Punjab state, as of today, is truncated and economically weak.

The main political party of the Sikhs, the Akali Dal, submitted to the government a memorandum in 1980 to undo the injustice pointed out above along with some other minor demands such as grant of holy status to the city of Amritsar and installation of a transmitter for the relay of Shabad-kirtan from the Golden Temple. The Government dubbed these legitimate, linguistic and territorial demands as anti-national and secessionist. Several parleys were held and whenever any reasonable solution to the problem was in sight, the government backed out of it on one pretext or another. This forced the Akalis (followers of One Timeless God) to start a non-violent struggle called Dharam Yuddh—religious struggle on the same pattern as the Akali movement of 1920-25 to liberate their gurdwaras. As has been the custom in Sikh history, the centre of activity was the Akal Takht. During the 18th century misl period, the foreign invaders were also thrown out of India by sending out contingents from the Akal Takht. Not only this, on a complaint made by the Brahmins of Kasur, now in Pakistan, that one of their wives was abducted by the Muslim ruler of that town and forcibly converted to Islam, a strong Sikh contingent was sent from the Akal Takht on April 10, 1763, to attack the town and retrieve the lady. The Muslim ruler, Uthman Khan, was killed along with his five hundred followers. The Sikhs also suffered heavy casualties (Ghulam Mohiud-Din: Twarikh-e-Punjab—Persian Ms. 1848).

In 1975, when Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, declared emergency and curtailed political rights of the people, it was only the Sikhs who opposed it by sending unarmed contingents from the Akal Takht. It proves that the Akal Takht has been the centre of Sikh activity for all purposes, including that of humanitarian missions to fight tyranny and oppression.

The Akalis carried on their peaceful agitation for several years. The government did not agree to refer the water dispute to the Supreme Court.

The tribunals and commissions set up for territorial adjustment gave discriminatory and arbitrary awards. Instead of solving the problem, the government resorted to repressive measures and brought into force draconian laws such as the National Security Act and TADA. Gradually, the agitation passed into the hands of the hawks who maintained that having failed in the peaceful approach, time had come to achieve their legitimate objectives by stronger means as per the doctrine explained earlier.

Operation Blue Star

By the end of May 1984, it became known that the government had intention to enter the complex With the ostensible purpose of "flushing out terrorists" Towards this end, they had already, about six months earlier, secretly set up commando training camps at far off places like Chakrata in U.P. with mock-ups of the Golden Temple Complex. Concurrently, they were making solemn pledges that they had no intention to do so. Indira Gandhi said so only a few hours before the assault in a broadcast to the nation. Meanwhile, the government and the anti-Sikh media stepped up their campaign to malign the Sikhs as anti-national and secessionists. It was alleged that the Sikhs were killing innocent people. In the disturbed conditions that prevailed at that time, anti-social elements and corrupt officials and politicians were fishing in troubled waters. Many goondas were at work masquerading as Sikhs. The police, in order to avoid subsequent investigation and follow up action, were also attributing even normal crimes to Sikhs. If statistics of the incidents of this period are compared to that of the last few years, it would be seen that the crime situation did not worsen. The government was obviously waging psychological Warfare to prepare the ground for their planned operation.

The main thrust and allegation of the government and their controlled media was that the Sikhs were combining religion and politics; Guru Granth Sahib does not precisely endorse the unity of the church and the state; no Guru lad preached the Overthrew or defiance of the established government; Guru Granth Sahib is a spiritual master and it does not advocate political activity; and, above all, the Sikhs are misusing the gurdwaras for political gains. The answers to this misrepresentation of Sikh tenets has already been covered in e first part of this paper. The real intention of the government, as that of the Mughals and Abdali, was to destroy the Akal Takht, which is the source of strength and inspiration to the Sikhs.

The government and the anti-Sikh element also questioned keeping of guns in gurdwaras intended for worship of God. The answer to this question that it is enjoined on the Sikhs to wear and carry arms for the protection of the weak and saints and to defend their faith and holy places. The Sikh litany ardas, which is recounted after each prayer meeting, cites numerous incidents where the Sikhs have sacrificed themselves to protect their faith, identity and holy places all through their history. The particular verses are Dharam het sis dite —sacrificed their heads for the faith, and Gurdaarian di rakhiya lai shaheedian ditian—suffered martyrdom to protect the gurdwaras. It was the rightful cause for the Sikhs to arm themselves to protect their holiest place when the government appeared determined to attack the promises.

The Golden Temple complex was ironically attacked by the armed forces on 3rd June, 1984, the martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjun Dev, the builder of the Golden Temple. For this occasion, thousands of devotees had collected for the Celebration. No warning of the impending attack was given. Had it been so, most Of the pilgrims would have vacated the premises. Prior to the attack, a four-day curfew was imposed in the entire area of Punjab and the Union Territory of Chandigarh, curtailing all rail and road movement.

A total strength of eleven infantry divisions, roughly two lakh strength, apart from thousands of paramilitaries, were deployed in Punjab to flush out the so-called terrorists and to seal the Pakistan border. According to the Government version, 38 gurdwaras including the Golden Temple complex, were to be dealt with, but in actual fact 72 gurdwaras were attacked. For the Amritsar operation, one division, roughly 18,000 personnel, was earmarked to deal with 40 terrorists on the Government wanted list a figure given out by the Home Minister, Government of India, in the Parliament a few days prior to the attack. Even Rajiv Gandhi had said that Sant Bhindranwale, whose name was, most probably, included in the list of 40, was a religious leader and not a terrorist. This appeared to be a part of the cover plan to hide their real intention.

Apart from ground action employing machine guns, mortars and other infantry armaments, armoured tanks and artillery guns directed by helicopters were used from a close range of about 200 meters to blast the Akal Takht into shambles. The Darshni Deori, containing rare and historic embellishments used for ceremonial display, was severely damaged and its valuable contents burnt. Even the Harmandir Sahib, which was officially declared as unscathed, bore 300 bullet marks. Other buildings in the complex were attacked and burnt. The worst part was that after the action was over, the Sikh Reference Library, containing about 600 handwritten copies of Guru Granth Sahib, rare manuscripts, Hukamnamas bearing signatures of the Gurus and 20,000 books, was deliberately put on fire on June 6, 1984. The sacred sarovar was polluted by the disposal of victims' bodies into it.

The exact number of casualties in the complex is not known. The government version was 700 dead but this number could well be over 3,000 including innocent women and children.

True to the spirit of the Khalsa, the forty defenders fought to the last man and the last round. Only highly motivated persons fighting for a cause could do so. It proves that the so-called forty terrorists were not a collection of goondas, murderers or robbers, as was made out by the government. Against the overwhelming might of the armed forces, deployed around them, they had no chance of survival and yet they held on to their posts. There was no surrender. Sant Bhindranwale's body along with the bodies of his two close followers were exhibited outside the complex, for the others to celebrate the occasion with distribution of laddo's(sweets).

The severity of the operation executed and the sacrilege of the sanctum sanctorum of the Sikh faith is classic and rare in the annals of world military operations particularly against their own people, whose contribution towards India's integrity and freedom surpasses all the sacrifices made by the other communities as given in the appendix. Even in war, thc Geneva Convention prohibits attacks on religious places, hospitals and civil areas. An eminent retired Chief Justice had contended that the entry of the armed forces was a violation of Article 26 of the Indian Constitution and section 144 at the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925. The worst irony was that the Indian Parliament did not consider it worth while to discuss this tragic and heinous event. Whereas a hue and cry was raised when a few persons of another community, condemnic though, were alleged to have been killed by the so-called terrorists.

Conclusion

Had the government not been intransigent, had it accepted the legitimate and constitutional demands of the Sikhs, the Amritsar Tragedy could have been avoided. There were other ways to get the promises vacated. From the way things had been allowed to worsen and the manner in which negotiation's decisions were stalled, it had appeared that the government had a premeditated plan to bring the crisis to a point of no return and then assault the Golden Temple complex to destroy Akal Takht, the symbol of the temporal and spiritual sovereignty of the Sikhs. The Sikhs, who had shed so much of their blood to free India from the foreign yoke and had made tremendous sacrifices to maintain the integrity and well-being of India, felt humiliated and alienated. No action has been taken so tar to assuage the hurt feelings of the Sikhs, not even an apology. Operation Blue Star was most ill advised, suicidal and a political blunder of thc worst order The scars and shadows cast by it would be difficult to cure and obliterate. The destruction of the Akal Takht was a watershed in the history of India.

APPENDIX

SIKHS' CONTRIBUTION TOWARDS INDIA'S INTEGRITY AND FREEDOM

The ten Gurus were the pioneers and crusaders to install the spirit of freedom and Self-respect amongst the Indian demoralized masses, who had been subdued for eight centuries by foreign tyrannical rulers. Towards this end, Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh fought many battles against the Mughals, not for any territorial gain or self-aggrandisement but to fight against oppression. Guru Tegh Bahadur gave his life for religious freedom. Maharaja Ranjit Singh stemmed foreign invasion across North-West India for all time to come.

The Sikh sacrifices towards achieving India's independence from the British are the greatest, quantitatively, qualitatively, which amounted to more than 90%, although their population at that time was not more than 1.6%. The following are the figures:

                            Sikhs     Others    Total
Hanged                         93       28      121
Imprisoned for life 		2,147      499     2646
Killed at Jallianwala Bagh	  799      501     1300
Killed in Budge Budge Ghat 	   67       46      113
Killed in Kooka movement	   91       -        91
Killed in Akali movement	  500       -       500
Total.                      3,697     1,074    4771

When the British Government handed over the keys of the Golden Temple to the Sikhs, following the Akali Movement in 1921, Mahatma Gandhi sent the following telegram to Baba Kharak Singh, the veteran Akali leader, recognizing the role of the Sikhs towards Indian independence: "Congratulations ! The first decisive battle of Indian freedom has been won."

The Sikhs were in the forefront in the Babar Akali agitation, Komagata Mart episode and the Indian National Army under Mr Subhash Chandar Bose.

Dr Hari Ram Gupta, the famous historian has rightly stated: "Sikhs alone can boast of having erected a bulwark of defence against foreign aggression, the tide of which had run its prosperous course for eight hundred years and to whom all people of Northern India in general and people of the Punjab in particular owe a deep debt of gratitude."

REFERENCES

In this operation which was personally supervised by him, he was wounded in the nose by a flying brick piece. This wound became a festering incurable sore till he died of it in 1772.

These unfortunate women were subsequently returned to their kith and kin under escort of the Sikhs.
From book "Abstracts of Sikh Studies" written by Sardar Hardit Singh in an article "THE AMRITSAR TRAGEDY", July 1984 1380, Sector 33-C, Chandigarh 160 047



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