Operation Blue Star, Sikh Riots and imposition of President’s rule
On 3 June Punjab was cut of from the rest of the country. The entire State was placed under curfew and movement within the State was restricted by the presence of troops everywhere. The supply of water and electricity to the Golden Temple Complex was stopped. On 4 June the army opened fire on the Golden Temple. The next day on 5th of June commandos entered the holy complex and subsequently in the early morning of 6 June tanks were also used on the Akal Takht. A large number of pilgrims, including women and children, died in cross-firing. The troops shot some young men dead with their hands tied at their backs with their own turbans. Some died of suffocation in the ‘prisoners camp’ set up in a room of Guru Nanak Nivas. According to one estimate, the total casualties of officers and men were about 700 and civilians about 5000.
The Sikh Reference Library in the Golden Temple Complex was gutted, resulting in the loss of the most treasured collection of Sikh records in the world. The Sikhs were outraged at the attack on the holy complex and the destruction of the Akal Takht.
The Akali leaders present in the Golden Temple Complex during the ‘Blue Star’ were taken into custody. Under Operation ‘Wood Rose’ the countryside was combed in search of arms and so called rebels. About 5000 young men were arrested. Many innocent persons were killed in the process. Those who were supposed to have waged ‘war’ against the State were to be tried by Special Courts. Sikh soldiers at several places in Bihar, Rajasthan, Assam and Jammu ‘mutinied’ to march towards Amritsar. Scores of them got killed in the attempt while Thousands were marked for court martial.
These incidents resulted in Punjab getting into a state of turmoil and on the morning of 31 October 1984 to avenge the operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two Sikh guards. On the fall of a huge tree, said Rajiv Gandhi later, the earth trembles. There were organized massacres of Sikhs in Delhi and many other places. In the words of M.J. Akbar, ‘Sikhs were sought out and burned to death. Children were killed, shops looted, cars burnt, markets destroyed, houses gutted. Trains were stopped and Sikhs were picked out and murdered.’ According to an eye-witness: ‘Three days of violence and loot and murder left the national capital dazed, reeling from the holocaust. The pattern was nauseatingly repeated everywhere: spontaneous arson and destruction at first taken over by criminally led hoodlums who killed Sikhs, looted or burnt their homes and properties while the police twiddled their thumbs’. The police did not merely look away some of its personnel actually led the mobs. This role was performed also by some well known Congressmen of the metropolis. As a result of this organized pogrom more than 7000 Sikhs lost their lives.
On 12 March Arjun Singh was appointed Governor of the Punjab. President’s rule was extended for six months before the end of March. Arjun Singh had secret meetings with Sant Longowal, which culminated in a meeting between Rajiv Gandhi and Sant Longowal on 23 July. As a result of this meeting the Memorandum of Punjab Settlement or the Rajeev-Longowal Accord was signed on 24 July.
However, unfortunately on 20 August Sant Harchand Singh Longowal himself was assassinated. The Government in an attempt to restore peace and harmony decided to hold elections in Punjab on 25 September. The Akalis won 73 seats out of 117, getting over 38 percent of the total votes. Sardar Surjit Singh Barnala was sworn in as the Chief Minister on 29 September after nearly two years of President’s rule in Punjab.
However, the Congress government at the centre did not honour its commitments and promises made in the Rajeev-Longowal Accord including the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab and this betrayal resulted in the derailment of the Accord and as a result of this Punjab plunged into a fresh era of violence and killings . In 1987, due to a police action on Golden Temple the Longowal Akali Dal was split and the Barnala Ministry was dismissed on 12 May 1987 and Punjab was once again placed under President’s rule.
Violence escalated in Punjab during the President’s rule and continued unbated till 1992. Fresh elections were held in Punjab in February 1992 and the Akalis boycotted these elections. This boycott was extremely successful and even by official claims, less than 22 percent of the total votes were polled. But there was no constitutional provision regarding the minimum percentage of polling and thus these elections were declared valid. The leader of the Punjab Congress, Sardar Beant Singh, claimed that he had the popular mandate and thus became the third Congress Chief Minister of the post-1966 Punjab.
The elections did not stop militancy. In fact the number of persons killed multiplied and there was further deterioration in ‘law and order’. In a conference at Anandpur Sahib, the demand for Khalistan was reiterated. There was also the demand for the release of Akali leaders who had been arrested before the elections. Early in April, the security forces raided parts of the Golden Temple Complex. At the end of the first Hundred days of Beant Singh’s Ministry, the Punjab appeared by independent accounts to have entered ‘a perilous phase’. The media, the bureaucracy, the educational institutions, and the Panchayats were obliged to follow the diktat of the militants. Two faculty members of the Punjab University were assassinated. Soon the militants evolved a 5-point programme: to subvert the banking system; to stop work on the SYL; to force ‘intellectuals’ to sign support for Khalistan; to force Sarpanches to resign so that ‘Khalsa Panchayats’ might be established; and to target the media officials if they did not conform to the given ‘code’.
The unpopular Congress Government under Beant Singh also started losing its mandate and as a result lost key by-elections to the Akali Dal. In the Assembly by-elections of Ajnala and Gidderbaha the Akali Dal candidates defeated the Congress candidates despite excessive and blatant misuse of government machinery.