The stated intent of Operation Bluestar, in the early days of June 1984, was to evict the separatists holed up in the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines. It defies logic but the Indian Army, under orders of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, chose 3 June, the day marking the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, the founder of the shrine, to launch the offensive. The number of pilgrims at the temple was unusually high. Facing intense resistance, the Indian Army brought armoured tanks into the sanctum sanctorum and the soldiers defiled the place by walking in with their boots on. Along with the separatists and their leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a large number of innocent pilgrims lost their lives. Simultaneously, the army unleashed its wrath on the Punjab countryside, picking up and killing innocents. All of this sounds like it was an operation conducted in haste, ill-planned and not well thought out. The operation was, in fact, an unparalleled disaster.
The Sikh community felt abused. They felt the nation had disrespected their religious freedom. Bhindranwale became a folk hero. Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her on 31 October. In the riots that followed, many thousands of Sikhs were killed, looted, maimed, raped and rendered homeless. The rage that the Sikhs felt resulted in an escalation of violence in Punjab for another decade. The events mark the erosion of the social contract between the Sikh community and the Indian State. A consequence of this was that many Sikhs sought to escape Punjab and India to start their lives in countries they felt will be less hostile to the community. Britain became one of the biggest destinations for the Sikhs who migrated away from India.
Recent reports coming in from Britain, from declassified documents, point to disturbing facts: they show that as early as February 1984, Indira Gandhi was in talks with her counterpart Margaret Thatcher seeking help from the Special Air Service (SAS) to flush out the separatists from the Golden Temple.
Labour MP Tom Watson and Lord Indarjit Singh have demanded an explanation. The British prime minister has ordered an urgent inquiry into the matter. More facts may emerge to tell us why the operation looked so ad hoc when it was being planned for months in advance.
Yet, one truth is clear. In a year the Sikhs mark a century of joining in the British Army — and later helping the Allies win World Wars I and II — the fact that Britain was complicit in the destruction of the Golden Temple and the Akal Takht, the seat of justice for the community, is a bloody blow to the Sikh psyche. This flies in the face of the questions the Sikhs who have migrated threw at the Sikhs who stayed back in India: does India treat the Sikhs better than other countries treat them? The Indian Sikhs often fail to respond affirmatively because of the three decades of denial of justice to them. Now, the files reveal, that line of questioning and engaging with each other is divisive for the Sikh community.
Now we know why it is wrong to believe that only one nation is hostile; nations often gang up against communities. Perhaps every Sikh child has grown up with these lines by Kabir: “Soora so pahchaniye, je lade deen ke het/Purja-purja kat mare, kabhu na chhade khet (The brave fights for the poor. Even when cut to pieces, the brave does not abandon the battlefield)”. Traditionally, Sikhs have been the soldiers of the society. Now that the declassified documents reveal the collusion of nations against them, it is time for the Sikhs to defend the community.
The British files are a reminder that there is no political succor in escaping India and looking for a safe nation elsewhere. A reminder that Sikhs must unite as a community and, instead of looking at individual governments to address our problems, we need to leave aside questions of which nation is better for us and find ways of becoming a viable and demanding constituency. The files are a prompt for the Sikhs to use their diverse strengths to come together and fight for the cause of justice.