Sikhs and Indian Government Clash at the Golden Temple Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Growing discontent among some sectors of the Sikh population in India culminated in an armed insurrection in Punjab that was put down by the Indian army but led to continued violence.

Summary of Event

The Sikhs, a religious group, constitute approximately 2 percent of the total population of India. The majority of Sikhs in India live in the province of Punjab, but followers of the Sikh faith are also scattered across northern India and in several other nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Because virtually all Sikhs are linguistically and culturally Punjabi, the identity of the Sikhs as a religious group has become intertwined with a sense of a separate social identity as well. Golden Temple (India) Operation Bluestar Sikh uprising (1984) [kw]Sikhs and Indian Government Clash at the Golden Temple (June 3-6, 1984) [kw]Indian Government Clash at the Golden Temple, Sikhs and (June 3-6, 1984) [kw]Government Clash at the Golden Temple, Sikhs and Indian (June 3-6, 1984) [kw]Golden Temple, Sikhs and Indian Government Clash at the (June 3-6, 1984) [kw]Temple, Sikhs and Indian Government Clash at the Golden (June 3-6, 1984) Golden Temple (India) Operation Bluestar Sikh uprising (1984) [g]South Asia;June 3-6, 1984: Sikhs and Indian Government Clash at the Golden Temple[05440] [g]India;June 3-6, 1984: Sikhs and Indian Government Clash at the Golden Temple[05440] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 3-6, 1984: Sikhs and Indian Government Clash at the Golden Temple[05440] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;June 3-6, 1984: Sikhs and Indian Government Clash at the Golden Temple[05440] Gandhi, Indira Bhindranwale, Jarnail Singh Gandhi, Rajiv Longowal, Harchand Singh Chauhan, Jagmal Singh

Sikhism Sikhism originated in the fifteenth century c.e., when its founder, Nānak, gathered a group of disciples (sikhs) who rejected the ritualism and caste hierarchy of Hinduism in favor of social equality and a mystical devotion to a single deity. Religious groups;Sikhs A succession of ten gurus led the Sikh community (the panth), which quickly acquired converts from various sectors of society, particularly from among the Hindu lower castes. Repression by both Hindu and Muslim governments led the Sikhs to develop a firmly militant identity, symbolized by the sword each Sikh carries and the highly visible turban that proclaims the Sikh faith. A secret brotherhood, the khalsa, or “pure,” led the Sikh community in this militancy.

Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in fact coexisted peacefully in many villages and locales in India even at the height of government repressions and communal tensions. The British colonization of India, however, drove a new wedge between the Sikhs and other Indians in that the British recognized the martial valor of the Sikhs and enlisted them in large numbers into the Indian armed services, in which they are still represented in disproportionate numbers.

As the indigenous movement against colonialism progressed, Sikhs were also alienated from the Hindu majority by the latter’s usage of specifically Hindu rhetoric in framing the anticolonial struggle. The common Hindu claim that the Sikhs were but a caste or sect of Hinduism particularly offended many in the Sikh community, which explicitly stated social equality and independence as axioms. Sikh identity eventually coalesced around a movement called the Akali Dal, “the army of the faithful,” which became the major political mouthpiece of the Sikhs and became a key political party in the region by the end of the twentieth century.

After India gained independence in 1947, Punjab was divided between Pakistan and India, with virtually all the Sikhs ending up on the Indian side. They shared Indian Punjab with Hindus, who were a majority in that state. In the 1950’s, a movement began to divide the state of Punjab again, this time along linguistic lines, with Punjabi and Hindi speakers to have their own territories, in accordance with a recognized principle in the Indian constitution. The new state of Punjabi-speaking Punjab, established in 1966, had a Sikh majority.

The idea that the Sikhs of Punjab should form an entirely separate and independent nation had been around since the time of partition, when the creation of the sovereign Muslim state of Pakistan provided an immediate example. Jagmal Singh Chauhan proposed a Sikh nation called Khalistan, Khalistan which he formally declared in 1980, establishing himself as president of Khalistan in exile. Although the notion of a sovereign Sikh nation aroused the support of only a minority of Indian Sikhs, it had a romantic appeal for many overseas and served as a rallying cry for political agitation in the 1980’s. Combined with separatist movements in the far northern, eastern, and far southern areas of India, the plea for Khalistan helped create a mood of fear that the Indian state might risk disintegration.

The discontent of the Sikhs focused on several areas. Religious questions, such as control over the gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and independence from Hinduism, were key for some groups, whereas issues of resource allocation, such as the distribution of river waters between Punjab and Haryana, were more important for others. Incidents such as the Asian Games episode of 1982, in which Sikhs were humiliated by not being allowed into New Delhi during the event (to forestall possible violence), were highly publicized by Sikh leaders. Crucial for the grassroots momentum of the Sikh movement was the fact that the state of Punjab had been undergoing rapid modernization, which created a class of highly educated individuals and transformed the countryside within a generation. Punjab became one of the wealthiest regions of India. One source of malaise was the continuing sentiment that the central government, while relying on Punjab’s flourishing economy, neglected the people of the state in favor of the mostly Hindu electorate of the central plains.

One man who was able to tap the frustration of many Punjabi Sikhs was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. (Sant is a respect term connoting a holy person.) Bhindranwale, an uneducated individual of agricultural origins, acquired a substantial following among some elements of the Sikh population that was enhanced by his involvement in a series of violent actions against Hindus. Sikh youths who were killed in retaliatory incidents were celebrated as martyrs, and frustration with the methods of civil disobedience that had been tried before gave way to enthusiasm for violent uprising among some sectors of the population. It should be noted that the great majority of Sikhs condemned these violent actions but supported the overall goals of the movement.

The Harimandir Sahib, commonly knwn as the Golden Temple.

(Nicholas/CC-BY-SA)

Demonstrations in the early months of 1984, centering on incidents such as the public burning of the Indian constitution and an attempt to block all roads in Punjab, led to the imposition of president’s rule in the state and the banning of the All-India Sikh Students Federation, which had been accused of involvement in several incidents. In May, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, president of the Akali Dal, called for the blockade of grain from Punjab as a means of bringing the central government to its knees. Thousands of police were then deployed in Punjab, and terrorist episodes increased dramatically.

Bhindranwale had meanwhile gathered a group of armed Sikh militants in the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. He issued a list of demands to the central government from this stronghold. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a curfew on the entire state, prohibiting all traffic and putting restraints on journalism. In a move called Operation Bluestar, she ordered the Indian army to take the Golden Temple complex from the Sikh insurgents. Four days of fighting (June 3-6, 1984) left five hundred to more than one thousand dead, including Bhindranwale. The Indian government cites the lower figure, whereas Sikh sources claim the higher number of casualties.

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The fact that the Indian army would invade the sacred Golden Temple complex turned many Sikhs across Punjab and northern India more firmly against the central government. On October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Sikh-Hindu rioting broke out in most major Indian cities, and thousands were killed, wounded, or rendered homeless. Accusations of government complicity in anti-Sikh actions further inflamed Sikh alienation and militancy, as did the election campaign of Rajiv Gandhi, which many felt purposely played on anti-Sikh sentiment.

Rajiv Gandhi was elected prime minister in a landslide victory, and he reached limited accords with Sikh rebels. Violent incidents between Sikhs and Hindus continued, however, and Sikh separatism remained a potent force in Indian politics. In 1988, a second major confrontation took place at the Golden Temple of Amritsar.

Significance

The immediate impacts of the Sikh uprising of 1984 included the deaths of large numbers of Sikhs. In addition to at least five hundred killed during the Golden Temple confrontation itself, several thousand more died in Hindu-Sikh rioting after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and up to fifty thousand more fled their homes.

The Sikh movement also brought about a crackdown by the central government, which deemed such action necessary to forestall further separatist agitation by the Sikhs or by other groups (for example, the Kashmiris). The imposition of president’s rule in Punjab and elsewhere, the restrictions on the press imposed during peak moments of the crisis, and the increasing numbers of arrests and of imprisonments without trial all contributed to a sense of crisis with regard to India’s vaunted democracy. Especially problematic was the government’s unwillingness to investigate accusations related to human rights abuses. Citizens’ groups such as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Citizens for Democracy carefully monitored these developments, as did several international agencies.

Perhaps the most difficult problem for the future was the increasing Hindu solidarity prompted by the Sikh uprising and other agitations on the part of geographically, ethnically, and religiously peripheral groups. This revitalized solidarity was expressed not only in political terms, through the continuing rise of the major Hindu party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, but also in populist movements such as the one that began attempts in the early 1990’s to build a Hindu temple on the site of a Muslim mosque at Ajodhya. This reaction, although understandable as an attempt to reintegrate a nation whose cohesion appeared threatened, had the long-term effect of further polarizing groups that feel excluded from or subordinated to the Hindu nationalist identity. The Indian army’s incursion into the Golden Temple precinct in 1984, however necessary from the government’s standpoint, carried indelible symbolic value for those who had previously relied on India’s claim to protect all religions equally.

At issue in the years following the crisis, then, were not only human lives and rights but also the continued existence of democratic, multiethnic, secular India. This state had some success in protecting human lives and rights in the past, but whether it would be able to continue to do so in the future was a matter of some concern. The brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 led many Indians to rethink all of these issues. Nonetheless, India survived this period, and in 2004, Manmohan Singh Singh, Manmohan became India’s first Sikh prime minister, a striking event indicating how far India had come in transcending a modern religious divide. Golden Temple (India) Operation Bluestar Sikh uprising (1984)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Richard G. Lions of the Punjab: Culture in the Making. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Work by an anthropologist describes the emergence of a distinct Sikh community in the Punjab. Provides commentary on the many ways in which British policy contributed to Sikh separatism that is highly relevant to an understanding of the political situation in India in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gupte, Pranay. Vengeance: India After the Assassination of Indira Gandhi. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. An experienced journalist covers reactions to Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the backlash against the Sikhs, and Rajiv Gandhi’s rise to power. Most useful for its region-by-region coverage and its revealing anecdotes that express the strains and tensions in contemporary India.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeffrey, Robin. What’s Happening to India? Punjab, Ethnic Conflict, and the Test for Federalism. 2d ed. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1994. Excellent survey of the events leading up to the Golden Temple incident and Indira Gandhi’s assassination focuses on the roles of media and modernization in Indian society. Concludes with a discussion of Indian federalism as a way of coping with regional discontent. Includes maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kapur, Rajiv. Sikh Separatism: The Politics of Faith. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986. Straightforward narrative traces the evolution of Sikh identity, its shift to a militant stance, and its role in the communal troubles of the early 1980’s. Appropriate for the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLeod, W. H. The Sikhs: History, Religion, and Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Presents a useful and learned introduction to the world of the Sikhs, including chapters on doctrine, history, literature, and politics. Appropriate for the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singh, Khushwant. The Illustrated History of the Sikhs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Authoritative account of Sikh history provides an excellent summary of the events surrounding Operation Bluestar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tully, Mark, and Satish Jacob. Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle. London: Jonathan Cape, 1986. Well-documented work centers on the Sikh takeover of the Golden Temple and the resulting siege by the Indian army. Provides a largely unflattering portrait of Gandhi in action and excellent reporting of the events that led to her assassination.

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