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OPERATION BLUESTAR: NEWS REPORTS & OTHER EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS OF THE ATTACK ON THE GOLDEN TEMPLE & 74 OTHER GURDWARAS IN PUNJAB
In early June 1984 the government forces attacked the golden temple in Amritsar on the pretext of flushing out terrorists. The attack was planned well in advance and was not in decision taken late in the day because there was no other alternative. In October 1983, the Indian Army selected 600 men from different units and sent the to rehearse the assault on a replica of the Golden temple at a secret training camp in the Chakrata Hills about 150 miles north of Delhi: 2 officers of the RAW, the Indian secret service, were sent to London to seek expertise from the SAS (see the report by Mary Anne Weaver in the Sunday Times 1984)
The attack was timed to coincide with the weekend of 2nd and 3rd, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev who built the Golden Temple and compiled the Sikh's Holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.
It was planned in the knowledge that there would be thousands of pilgrims and visitors. No warning was given to those pilgrims of the impending attack. Despite the government 's claims that only 'extremists' were killed other reports show that many visitors were killed by the army (see e.g. 'Indian Express' 18/6/84) 'India today (30/9/84) reported the case of Zaida Khartton, a Bangladeshi women who stopped to get food for her five children at the Golden Temple and ended up in jail. Water, electricity and telephone links to the Golden Temple were cut off. Many people died through lack of water. When the army entered the Golden Temple they told the pilgrims to drink the mixture of blood and urine that covered the ground. Even the hospital staff was threatened with death by the
army if they gave food or water to Sikh pilgrims wounded in the attack and lying in hospital (as reported by the Christian Science Monitor 18/6/84)
On 18/6/84 Christian Science Monitor reported: -
" For five days the Punjab has been cut off from the rest of the world. All telephone and telex links are cut. No foreigners are permitted entry and on Tuesday, all Indian journalists were expelled. There are no newspapers, no trains, no buses- not even a bullock cart can move."
The Sunday Times (10/6/84) said:
"About 20 million people in an area more than twice the size of Wales have had no contact with the outside world for a week."
The army used excessive force. Eyewitnesses say that the army deployed tanks, armed personnel carriers, rocket launchers, heavy machine guns and helicopters. Many of the buildings surrounding the Temple were reduced to rubble. It was a military operation using indiscriminate force against a non-military target and as such was in breach of Article 51 of the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Convention. In the Punjab as a whole, about 150,000 to 200,000 soldiers were used to flush out "terrorists".
There were several reports of barbaric acts by the army. The Guardian on 13/6/84 reported the following:
"A Sikh doctor drafted from the Government hospital to Jullunder to conduct post mortem examinations said that he had seen the bodies of two Sikhs who had been shot at point blank range, their hands tied behind their backs with their turbans. His colleagues had reported others, some of whom had been machine-gunned. This doctor headed a team that conducted 400 examinations. He said that most bodies were riddled with bullets and bore bomb wounds. He said, "It was a virtual massacre. A large number of women, children and pilgrims were gunned down."
The same doctor told journalists that bodies of victims were brought to the mortuary by police in municipal refuse lorries. (The Times of 13/6/84 and the Indian Express of18/6/84) reported that of the 400 bodies, 100 were women and between 15-20 were children under five. One was a two-month-old baby. The doctor said that one "extremist" in the pile of bodies was found to be alive; a soldier shot and killed him.
A local journalist stated that he saw a dozen Sikh Youths, arrested inside the temple, made to pull their trousers above their knees, kneel and march on the hot road whilst the soldiers repeatedly kicked and punched them.
This press report was made by Brahma Chellaney of the Associate Press. He was then accused by the authorities of falsely reporting certain facts about the army raid on the Golden Temple and inflaming sectarian passions.
Criminal charges were laid against him. Brahma Chellaney reacted by challenging the constitutional validity of the censorship and anti terrorist laws hurriedly imposed in Punjab.
Dead bodies were carried away in refuse lorries. The curfew gave no opportunity for the families to come to the morgues and identify their dead. The authorities were in flagrant breech of Article 17 of the Geneva Convention of 1949, which provides that the dead shall be honourably interred.
Associated press reports in The Times revealed that an Amritsar deputy police superintendent who helped to remove the bodies of 200 Sikhs from the Golden Temple had stated that at least 13 Sikhs had been tied up and shot.
Another police official told reporters that a lorry load of elderly Sikhs who surrendered on the first day of the military operation were brought to the main city police station and tortured there by the army. "The soldiers removed their turbans, pulled their hair over their eyes and tied the long hair around their necks. Then they threw sand into their faces .The old man shrieked, but I helplessly watched all this from my office window."(The Guardian and Times of 14/6/84).
Another eyewitness described how a group of about 50 Sikh males aged 8 years upwards were taken from a Sikh Temple near the Golden Temple and then killed with grenades.
Yet another eyewitness told of men, women and children being taken from a house used by a sniper and were shot in the street.
The following are extracts from the statements tape recorded and transcribed by Manjit Singh Khaira, advocate of Punjab and Haryana High Court and also a member of national executive of People's Union for Civil Liberties.
Statement of Balwant Singh Ramuwalia, an ex - Indian MP:
"..It was about 4.25 or 4.35 a.m. on the morning of the 6th. Then the firing stopped and after a while we got up. Slowly, we went into the nearby room and found women sitting down there. A little distance ahead, there was another man seated, five or seven of us got into the room, and then the military went up into Guru Ram Das Sarai. In several rooms, they broke the glass panes and threw bombs inside. We heard the sound of the bursting grenades, After a little while they brought some persons downstairs. There is an underground basement in Guru Ram Das Serai and they brought 40 men out of it.
They were bare and their hands were tied behind their backs. They were asked to squat on the ground in four rows and they were shot by the army. I was in the compound of Guru Ram Das Sarai, just near the waster tanks for bathing. It was there that they were asked to squat and were shot dead in cold blood. They were bare and had hands tied behind their backs and were made to sit in four rows and were shot there. They were shot before our very eyes by gunfire. They would move their heads this way and that, let out a shriek and drop dead.my clothes were drenched with blood and I had lost my shoes. I had put on bandages on an old injured man after having put him into my lap. In
this condition, I went to the Commanding Officer and got another man sanctioned. After having done this, another Colonel and Brigadier called Ravi also came.
I told the Brigadier that some people had already died and asked about the fate of those 400 people who remained alive. He indicated that they were prisoners of war. I then said that they should be taken somewhere. He answered, "MP Sahib, if you could do the job of preparing lists of men, women and children and old people separately." In 40 to 50 minutes we had prepared the lists. During this interval, the army had started taking people in batches of five each to another place, as they were doing this, doubts arose that they may be taking them away in order to kill them with impunity. I rushed to a Major named Parta and asked him why the people were being killed and took him to see Sant Longowal, who also insisted upon knowing whether they were being killed after being taken away in groups of five each. He replied that it was wrong, this could never happen. He further indicated that they regarded Sant Longowal as Mahatma Gandhi and asked us as to why we doubted him. Then I was sent along with him towards the other side and found 50 persons sitting there in one corner. I asked him the purpose of their being kept confined in that place. He told us that they were to be arrested and then taken away. Then I asked him to bring the others as well. All the rest were taken there, then transferred to camps.
People were killed like that. No medicine was provided, in fact no medical aid was administered at all. Sant Sujan Singh died because he was not given water. Many people died in the camps. Neither water nor medicine aid was provided and you could not even donate blood for the injured in hospitals as it was stated that they were POW's and hence no blood transfusions were permitted. The situation is so bad that you can only look up to God for solace."
The statement of Bhan Singh, Secretary of Shromani Gurudawara Parbandhak Committee, corroborated the statement of Balwant Singh Ramuwalia and further stated: -
"When these Assistant Managers who had been injured came to me and requested medical aid I went to Subedar and told him about it. He asked me to talk to a Major and so I went to him and made a request for some arrangement to be made in this regard. He immediately caught hold of my turban and shouted to the soldiers who were lined up in three rows of eleven each holding their guns, "shoot him." Before catching hold of my turban he has asked as to who I was, and then preceded to pull my turban and ordered that I be shot. At this moment, I ran and hid behind a pillar and then reached the room where Sant Longowal and Tohra Sahib were. They were in a room at the back of Guru Ram Das Sarai, where rooms for executives members are located, they were sitting there, by the time I reached them, one of the persons who had witnessed what had happened to me already had informed Tohra Sahib about it. Then Tohra Sahib came out and asked me whether I was injured.
It was precisely during this interval that those 40 young men whose ages were between 18 and 20 were shot. About 25 of them wore long hair and the rest of them wore their hair cut as young village Jats (agriculturalists) often do. Their bodies were naked and they had their hands tied behind their backs. It was precisely the same time when I was running to save my life that they were killed. This was the reason that the attention of the soldiers was diverted from me to that side and this was what saved me.
Sardar Nachattar Singh had died after remaining in agony for four hours. Some others also died. As far as I know some people were shot instead of being taken to hospital. There were some soldiers from the Kuamon regiment who treated us as enemies and they were treating us as criminals and worse than that. They never treated us as human beings or as people belonging to a friendly country, much less as members of their own country."
Statement of Devinder Singh Duggal, Custodian of the Sikh Reference Library at the Golden Temple: -
"During those three days more than 4000 people must have been killed there. Out of them more than 90% were pilgrims who had come on the occasion of the death anniversary of the 5th Sikh Guru and they could not go because of the curfew. Among them were mostly women, children and old people.
I know of several Sikh young men being accosted on the way, their hands being ties behind their backs and then being shot in the temple complex. I know about 60 to 70 people being killed like that. I know of some boys who were captured and taken to camps where they were denied water for more than 50 hours and died of thirst. It was extremely hot in those days. Where I was staying, more than 50 persons were caught in one place. A stage came when only 1 jug of water was left with us. Children were asking for water again and again. The elders were suppressing their thirst to meet the needs of the children. A stage came when we just put a small amount of water to our lips to save ourselves. The situation got so bad that some children almost breathed their last. These people who had been deprived of water for 32 hours before, were denied for another 50 hours in the camps and it was there that many died, crying for water."
One resident of Amritsar gave an eyewitness account to the editor of the Sikh Messenger, a British publication. Parts of that account are reproduced as follows: -
"On Friday 1st June, I went to my bank Chowak Fawara, some 300 yards from our home on the edge of the Golden Temple. We were to leave for Delhi on the 4th June and fly to London on the 9th. As I walked the short distance to the bank, I saw that the BSF and CRP (para-military) fortifications, previously set up on the taller buildings, had been visibly strengthened. As I entered the bank, a barefoot Sikh cycle rickshaw boy was being beaten mercilessly by a policeman with a lathi; it was not an uncommon site.
It was soon after midday, 12: 35 pm, when we first heard firing. I was about to leave the bank, but changed my mind as the firing grew in intensity. I had to walk an estimated 3-4 miles through side streets to get there (home). Frequently, I was stopped by the paramilitary, who asked my business in menacing and frightening terms in comparison to previous curfews, which had been comparatively lax. Sometimes they accepted the truth, that I was an old man trying to get to the safety of his own home. Sometimes they sent me back, forcing me to take a circuitous route. On several occasions I was told that I would have been shot if I were a younger man. Although the streets were almost deserted, there were still a number of Hindus going about unchallenged.. He (a Hindu fruit seller) said that police at the end of the street were particularly brutal and had already shot and beaten several Sikhs. He pointed me to a tiny side street and I eventually reached the comparative safety of my own home. Water had by now been cut off and no more was to flow through the taps for the next 8 days...
The curfew was extended for another 36 hours and, in fact, remained in force until the 10th. It was cruelly and rigidly enforced by the army who had now replaced the police and paramilitary. Two young Sikh boys were shot dead outside our home..
I would like to say with all possible emphasis, that at no time were pilgrims trapped in the Temple given any warning, until the 5th, of the proposed army action. Every man, women and child pilgrim inside the Temple were treated as 'the enemy to be shot and killed if possible or if wounded, to be denied first aid or water'. Even the warning on the 5th was couched in war terms - 'surrender at the police station or be shot'. Very few surrendered, preferring death from a soldier's bullet to death from torture at the hands of the police.
Our house and every other house in the neighbourhood was searched and ransacked several times over the next few days. Anything of any value was taken. We were lucky in that my wife was not stripped or molested as happened to several other women in the street. The excuse used by soldiers in making women remove their upper garments was that they were looking for tell-tale marks of bruising from rifle butts among terrorist suspects.
On Monday 4th June, at about 4:40 am, occasional shooting gave way to heavy gunfire that increased in intensity over the next three days. Through our now shattered windows we could see heavy guns being used. We also saw tanks and armoured cars. The stench of death was so powerful as to be truly unbearable. By the afternoon of the 6th, the Golden Temple seemed to be almost entirely in the hands of the army and this was confirmed by radio broadcasts. What now followed were periods of eerie silence punctuated by shellfire from guns and tanks as the army demolished structures sacred to every Sikh. There was also some occasional rifle fire, presumably from Sikh snipers.
The army pounding of the Golden Temple area continued over the next few days confirming our fears of deliberate and vindictive destruction.
On the night of the 5th, one of the houses backing onto the Temple precinct and owned by a Hindu, caught fire. The father sent his two teenage sons to the nearby square to get water. They arrived there to find that the army had rounded up some 14 Sikhs youngsters and were about to shoot them with Sten gun fire. They, too, were bundled alongside the Sikhs and only when they pleaded that they were Hindu and had come to get water to put out a fire on their home, were they spared. The soldiers then shot the Sikhs in front of their eyes.
Also on the night of the 5th, the aged and chronically ill father of the couple next door finally expired and on the morning of the 6th the army gave our neighbours special permission to take him to the crematorium. Even before reaching this site, they could smell the stench of putrid and burning flesh. On entering the crematorium grounds they saw a sight that literally made them sick with horror. Grotesque piles of dozens of bodies were being burnt in the open without dignity or religious rites like so many carcasses. The bodies had all been brought there by dust carts and from the number of carts; the attendant estimated some 3,300 had so far been cremated.
On the night of the 7th, an elderly Sikh soldier banged on the door demanding water. We showed him the water in the bath, now covered with a layer of dust from the soot and flames all round. He said he would get some from the hand pump in the square. As he turned to leave, my wife asked him why was the firing was still continuing when the radio had announced the capture of the Golden Temple a day earlier. Near to tears, the old soldier replied that the army was bringing in the young Sikhs from surrounding areas and shooting them in rows near the Golden Temple.
The curfew was lifted intermittently, a few hours at a time after the 10th, and over the next few days we continued to learn with horror of the barbarism, savagery and mindless destruction by the army. We were visited by a priest I knew well and whose face was black and blue with bruises. He said he had been beaten mercilessly by the army who eventually let him go when he was recognised by friends at the police station. He narrated how, on his way to the station, he was taken past a square where young Sikhs were being lined up and killed with sten guns and grenades.
ARMY ACTION IN THE PUNJAB
News of the attack on the Golden Temple spread quickly despite the curfew. Thousands of people in the surrounding villages gathered to march to Amritsar to defend the Golden Temple. At Golwand village in Jhubal District a crowd of several thousands gathered with makeshift weapons under the leadership of Baba Bidhi Chand and began to march the 25 km to Amritsar. Helicopter patrols spotted them and strafed them with bullets without warning. Within minutes hundreds were dead and wounded.
Crowds gathered at the villages including Ajnala, Rajash Sunsi, Dhandhesali, Fatehpur, Rajpurtan and Batala Gurdaspur). A large crowd gathered at Chowk Mehta, HQ of the Damdami Taksal, where the army killed 76 Sikhs and arrested 285. All across the region, wireless sets carried the message from army chiefs to soldiers to shoot on sight anyone on the streets.
The army continued its task of moving through the villages in the countryside and flushing out alleged 'terrorists'. The young Sikh men in the villages were lined up in rows; some were stripped and publicly flogged and accused of being terrorists or withholding information about terrorists. Some were taken away and sent to interrogation centres, never to be seen again.
In the Sunday Times of 22/7/84 Mary Anne Weaver reported:
"Thousands of people have disappeared from the Punjab since the siege of the Sikh's Golden Temple here seven weeks ago. The Indian army have been engaged in a massive flushing out operation, aimed at Sikh extremists. In some villages men between 15 and 35 have been bound, blindfolded and taken away. Their fate is unknown.
The worsening relations between Indira Gandhi's government and the Punjab's 9.4 million Sikhs could be observed recently in the tiny village of Kaimbwala. One evening during prayers 300 troops entered the small-whitewashed temple, blindfolded the 30 worshippers and pushed them into the street.
According to the priest, Sant Pritpal Singh, the villagers were given electric shocks and interrogated about the whereabouts of Sikh militants. Guirnam Singh, a 37 year old landowner, was held in an army camp for 13 days. Last week, his face bruised and his arms and legs dotted with burns, he said he had been hung upside down and beaten."
The army violated many other Sikh Temples in the Punjab on the pretext that they contained arms and terrorists. These violations were in breach of section 295 - 298 of the Indian Penal Code which protects religious shrines from such abuse. On the night of the 6th of June 1984 soldiers who had been surrounding the Dukh Niwaran Sahib Temple in Patiala began firing. The shooting lasted about half an hour. Twenty people were killed and seven others wounded. Newsweek on 2/7/84 carried the following report:
"Nobody ever explained to us why they had attacked, or why they had not given us a chance to come out first." Ajaib Singh manager of the Temple told me, "Not a single shot was fired from here."
The army set up camps in Punjab at which Sikhs were detained. One camp was at Jullander Shauni behind the military hospital. Another was set up in Hoshiarpur District near Shan Choracy and yet another in Ropar District at
the village of Kotla. There are reports of the torture of Sikh women detained at the camps in the Jullander area