THE SIEGE OF THE GOLDEN TEMPLE

GOLDEN TEMPLE

The most serious issue which confronted Indira Gabdhi in her third term as prime minister was the rise of terrorist violence in the Punjab. One of the most fertile regions in the subcontinent, it enjoyed India’s highest per capita income and its households earned twice as much as other peasant families in the rest of the country. A large part of the Punjab was dominated by the Sikhs who,although they numbered barely 2 percent of India’s total population,formed one of the subcontinent’s most visible and most self-confident minorities.They were particularly well represented in the armed forces where they occupied nearly 10 percent of all the higher posts in the Indian military. Many Sikhs had also risen to prominent positions in the government and in 1982 Giani Zail Singh, Indira Gandhi’s home minister,was elected as India’s first Sikh president.

Since Independence there had been an increasing growth in Sikh political consciousness, led by the main Sikh party, the Akali Dal. In response to growing pressure,in 1966 the Sikhs were given their own state of Punjab which was separated from the other non-Sikh regions. The Akali Dal went on to become the most important political party in the state and in 1976 ousted the Congress party in both the provincial and central elections.Mrs Gandhi,however ,refused to topple the new government.To undermine the Akali Dal’s popularity,Congress politicians sponsored their own Sikh fundamentalist movement led by a young militant,Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (1947-84). Hoping completely to destabilize the Akali Dal,the government turned a blind eye as Bhindranwale attacked a number of its leaders and supporters. This strategy ,however, backfired: by 1983 Bhindranwale had proved himself more extreme and more dangerous than any other Sikh leader. With a group of armed followers he established his headqurters at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Founded in the sixteenth century,the Golden Temple is the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion .It stands in the middle of a lake,surrounded by pavements of pure marble, and is connected with the land by a long marble causeway.The outside was covered with gold leaf, so giving the temple its name.From this peaceful,dignified setting Bhindranwale launched a campaign of terror against the government . Going much further than the Akalis had ever dreamed of, he and his supporters called for an independent Sikh homeland-Khalistan. Anyone who opposed him was assassinated and by the end of 1984 he and his followers had murdered hundreds of moderate Sikhs and Hindus.

The government,which had remained curiously inactive for almost two years,was finally forced to act.In May 1984the Indian army launched a massive operation to clear out the Golden Temple,which had been transformed into a fortress by the rebels.Nearly 70,00 troops were used to surround the area and the army was given strict instructions to use the minimum of force so as not to damage the temple too much. The initial assaults,however, failed completely; Bhindranwale’s men had amassed a huge quantity of heavy weapons which they used to devastating effect.In the first attack alone, nearly 100 Indian soldiers were killed as they charged up the narrow causeway.Finally the army brought in tanks and artillery and battered down the defences.In the process one of India’s most sacred shrines was reduced to a pile of rubble. Operation Blue Star, as it was called, had cost the lives of 200-300 Indian soldiers and almost 1,000 rebels.

The political consequences of the siege were even more devatating.It left the Sikhs of the Punjab in a deep state of shock; the sanctity of their shrine had been violated and they felt deeply humiliated by what they saw as an outrage to their religion.Many amongst them held Indira Gandhi herself personally responsible.This mounting sense of anger found its outlet a few months later when, on the morning of 31 October, as she walked to work Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by two of her most trusted bodyguards, both of them Sikhs.

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