Amritsar — The bullet has been patched and the shattered buildings rebuilt, but a year after the army attack on Sikhs in the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the political wounds are still open and festering.
The assault by Indian troops on June 5-6, 1984, was supposed to end a Sikh campaign of terror. Instead it led to the revenge assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, plunging the country into its worst communal strife since partition from Pakistan.
Political assassinations and terror bombings continue and sharp divisions among Sikhs have left the situation no closer to a solution than it was last June.
The decision to send the army into the Sikhs’ holiest shrine followed more than two years of abortive attempts to bring peace to the rich northern agricultural state of Punjab, where Sikhs form a comfortable 65 percent majority.
Sikhs in the state feared the country’s Hindu majority would swallow their religion, formed in the 16th century as a monotheistic alternative to both Hinduism and Islam.
Sturdy Sikh farmers also complained the central government discriminated against the state by diverting investment and irrigation water to nearby Hindu areas.
In a white paper issued after the attack, the government charged that Sikhs, led by charismatic priest Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale were struggling for “the creation of Khalistan, an exclusive nation for Sikhs, with the active encouragement, connivance and assistance of certain foreign powers.”
Bhindranwale’s popularity soared and he became increasingly anti-government. He moved into the
Golden Temple of Amritsar. Bhindranwal, with his long black beard, piercing eyes and a pistol on his hip, exhorted Sikhs to follow in letter and spirit the teachings of the great Gurus and reminded them that freedom was their birth right and they must secure it whatever be the cost.
Troops surrounded the temple on June 3. Two days later, they launched an as sault with armored personnel carriers, howitzers and crack commandos.
“There was a constant burst of mortar shells, grenades, bombs and machine gun fire for two days,” recalled Giani Sahib Singh, who lived in an apartment in the temple complex.
“I was told 1,400 bodies were counted stacked in the temple,” he said. “I myself saw hundreds of bodies piled in municipal garbage trucks before they were driven away for a mass funeral,” he said.
Riots broke out in New Delhi. About 2,000 Sikh soldiers mutinied against their officers and headed for Punjab to defend their temple, but loyal troops killed or captured most of them long before they reached Punjab.
With thousands of Sikhs being held without trial and the army in control of state security, an uneasy calm returned to Punjab.
Then on Oct. 31, two Sikh policemen, whom Prime Minister Gandhi had kept in her security guard to show she would not discriminate against Sikhs, shot and killed her as she walked from her office.
The assassination triggered anti-Sikh violence across northern India.
Mobs, sometimes led by Congress Party workers and watched by indifferent police, looted Sikh homes and burned Sikhs alive.
When the army finally brought the frenzy to an end, 2,987 people had died in the worst communal violence since the Hindu-Moslem clashes during the 1947 partition of Pakistan from India.
The once-moderate Akali leader, Harchand Singh Longowal, initially reflected Sikh anger at the desecration of the Golden Temple and vowed political agitation if Sikh demands were not met, but soon changed his tune. His weakness cost him his position and the Party is now headed by Joginder Singh, the 83-year-old father of Bhindranwale. Joginder Singh charges the government “has indulged in systematic annihilation of the Sikhs.”
He has demanded that the government “stop atrocities against Sikhs or else the consequences will be dire.”
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