Lies being Taught; `100 persons 100 versions;
Now the truth; As told by journalists present on spot;
It is a futile night vigil on June 3, 1984. There are no lights in the Golden Temple. But from the terrace of my hotel, I can see that it is bathed in glare of flood lights. There is something being said on loudspeakers. I cannot hear the words (It was appeal to pilgrims to come out and warnings to terrorists to surrender and spare the Golden Temple of any damage). At 4.45 AM on June 4 there is machine gun fire at and from gun positions atop a tall building near Akal Takth. Thereafter there is lull. Throughout the next day there is only an occasional firing. That evening I hear the rumble of tanks which would also have been heard by all hiding inside the Golden Temple. An hour later there are a dozen tanks and dozen APCs (Armoured personnel carriers) The stage is set to free the golden Temple from terrorists hiding inside. The tanks are positioned at Sultanwind.
On Morning of June 5, loud bangs were heard. Everyone in the walled city immediately knew that army action had begun to liberate Golden Temple from terrorists. The first shells failed to make much impact. But the army meant business and soon, better ranges and angles were found. As Gurdev Singh, the acting Secretary of Akali Dal and one of the survivors in the Temple precinct recalls, ’Shells hit sand bags and send them flying alongwith men, with flailing limbs.’ For Major General Brar and his men, the initial workout was expected to stave off the possibility of a frontal assault. The show of firepower, generals felt, would overawe the terrorists thereby preventing resultant damage to Golden Temple in case of firefight.
Alongside the shelling and intermittent exchange of automatic fire, those in and around temple complex were getting used to one more sound, that of the warnings on megaphones, asking the terrorists not to be foolhardy and surrender. The civilians namely pilgrims, Akali Dal and SGPC officials and workers took the warnings seriously but there was no getting away without risking one’s life as bullets by terrorists flew all over. Only 117, including a large number of laburers engaged by the SGPC, took the risk of walking out and surrendering to the Army. As subsequent events proved, they are the one’s who weighed the odds correctly. Of those who chose to stay inside, no less than half never came out and many ended up maimed for life.
The warnings and entreaties to surrender had no affect on Bhindranwala. ‘Let the army come, we will teach them a lesson of their lifetime’. Bhinderanwala often used to say. His bravado was evidently in the hope that, firstly, the government would be hesitant to use the army, fearing large scale mutiny by Sikh soldiers and secondly, even if it did, the ‘inevitable’ revolt by the Sikhs not only in the Army but in all civil, paramilitary and police services would help him turn the tables. He had told me confidently just a fortnight before the denouement: even if that Brahim’s daughter (as he often referred to Mrs Gandhi) sends in the army, there is no doubt that the Sikhs will keep out of it. And we are absolutely good enough to deal with the topi wallas. It was the same wishful thinking that obviously added to his men’s overconfidence.
But on this day, they were in for a rude surprise. Commandants of four of the six assault battalions were Sikhs, two of the three commanding Generals, Divisional commander Brar and Western Command Chief of Staff Ranjit Singh Dyal, were Sikhs. And the battalion that launched the first assault, the 10 Guards were the mixed unit containing a general sprinkling of Sikhs.
The Parikarma was covered by deadly snipers hiding in Harmandir Sahib, shooting at whoever stirred out in the open. Officers and men survived jumping from one marble pillar to another. The heavily chipped pillars bore ample evidence of the fire which could have only come from the Golden Temple. But that was one fire the troops were prohibited to return. Officers recall situations of near insubordination as they tried to prevent their men from firing back. In the last minute address to the troops before the assault, Brar had said: ‘In no circumstances are you to fire at the temple. I know this amount to sending somebody to the boxing ring with one hand tied behind his back. But here, this will have to be done.’ The orders to officers were to hand out summary punishment, even dismissal to anyone violating this order and it is only because of this that the temple still stood intact after the operation barring some stray bullets that could have resulted from strays or ricochets in the heavy crossfire. Among those who fell to the snipers hiding in the temple was lieutenant Ram Praksh Rupariya of the 26 madras who caught a bullet in the neck on June 6, as he tried to climb down from the first floor of parikarma to bring water for his troops lying prone for hours under a withering sun.
To break the will of the terrorists, the bigger bangs were to be provided by the 3.7 inch howitzer, which fires at fairly close range horizontally, unlike the modern artillery pieces which fire at trajectory, which renders their use tricky at short ranges and in confined spaces. An artillery colonel – specialist observation post flier – was instructed to haul a howitzer up on a roof top overlooking the Akal Takth. The civilians from nearby houses helped the gunners haul up the howitzer with ropes. The stage was now set for the fire assault on Akal Takth Building.
Initially the howitzer fired only smoke shells to signal the terrorists hiding inside that Army meant business and that terrorists should come out and avoid damage to Akal Takth, but repeated warnings were of no use as terrorists all along meant to destroy Akal Takth. Afterwards, the real fireworks followed. With first light just an hour away, the tank men received the clearance to open up with the main 105 MM gun. Over 80 shells were fired and these accounted for the whole front façade of Akal Takth and pillars. A few shells got misdirected one even going 5 KM away in cantonment area and one at Tosha khanna. The guns did their job effectively and as dawn broke on 6 June there was only an intermittent fire from Akal Takth. The first indication of a capitulation came around 11 AM. Officers recall the strange spectacle of about 25 terrorists rushing out of the building, firing at troops. Troops returned fire in all their pent up fury. The Generals guessed that the mad dash was an indication that Bhindranwala was either dead, wounded or had run away. The situation was considered reassuring enough to allow the district authorities a two hour relaxation in curfew in the afternoon.
And how Amritsar came to life in those two hours. Since no vehicle was allowed, there was thus a procession of thousands of men on all roads who, came out shopping for food, vegetables, medicines. There were long queues in front of shop selling fodder. Since due to curfew they could not take their cattle out for grazing. In November 7, 1983 edition, the TIME Magazine had called Amritsar a city of death but now the clouds of death had been blown away by tanks of Army. The Punjabi sense of enterprise became visible once more, as citizens felt the blowing away of clouds of constant death and fear, nothing representing it more effectively than the figure of a Sikh youth with polythene shopping bags slung over his shoulders, skating merrily past the Mall beating the man on foot or bicycles. Scores of people were roaming on the roads offering Chapattis, Pickles, Dal and Lassi to the Army.
On the way back to the hotel, I witnessed scene at the kotwali where a Sikh army officer was lashing out at some 11 terrorists as they knelt on their knees and crawled on hot road surface. Afterwards they were lined up in the verandah facing machine gun and questioned by another Sikh officer. The machine gun never boomed though wild rumors later talked of dozens terrorists gunned down in Kotwali.
Inside the temple it was business as usual with firing going on. Around 5 PM, two police officers were sent to reconnoiter the area and who ran into a couple of terrorists who told them that Bhindranwala alongwith Shabeg Singh and Amreek Singh had died. Their bodies were found among a heap of 40-50 other dead terrorists.
On the morning of June 6, while the fighting raged all around, Army surrounded Teja Singh Samundari Hall and the guru Nanak Das Serai where Longowal, Tohra, Rammowalia and other Akali Leaders and Harminder Singh Sandhu were sitting in quiet wait. Bibi Amarjit Kaur of Akhand Kirtani Jatha was also nearby. They were asked to stay put till army could arrange an APC to safely transport them outside. Suddenly a band of terrorists came out of a room and started throwing in grenades and firing long automatic bursts killing over 70 pilgrims including former Akali dal secretary Gurcharan Singh. While continuing to fire from their automatic weapons, the terrorists went inside the rooms of serais. Hundreds of pilgrims had taken shelter in the serais. Terrorists went berserk, they lobbed bombs and blindly fired from their machine guns which accounted for over 500 civilians deaths. These civilians deaths only occurred in the rooms where terrorists were able to enter. In other rooms, there were no casualties and army was able to take civilians out safely. In the words of Jagir Singh, a youngster who survived the mayhem and spoke to me at Amritsar’s shahid baba deep Singh gurdwars on the day of his release by army authorities after screening. “There was firing all around. I alongwith a dozen others locked ourselves in a room, whereas bombs blasted in other rooms, our room was safe (since there was no terrorists there). I only remember army smashing a ventilator open and then an officer asking troops to take positions as we unlocked the door. The rest was not so bad as army took us to prison camp for verification. The only problem was that occasionally an odd jawan would rough up one of us shouting “Pakistani ki aulad” (offspring of a Pakistani). The troop’s ire resulted from the discovery of circumcised men among those fighting from inside Akal Takth and among those throwing bombs and firing at pilgrims in serais.
Odd bands of terrorists, continued to put in resistance. They hid in ruined buildings, under debris, inside small tunnels linking buildings and manholes to fire at troops and pilgrims. Some of these attacks were also made from the windows in the Ramgrahia Bunga. But greater problems were in store elsewhere. Next to the Akal Takth some terrorists continued to hold out in a building, ignoring repeated army entireties to surrender. Troops had to lob grenades to kill them, the blasts also blew up a stock of 60 LPG cylinders stored inside the building setting of a real blaze. Similarly, some terrorists continued to fire and throw bombs from Sikh library along the parikarma. Grenade hurled to kill them set the library on fire, which, fanned by a strong breeze quickly spread. Anticipating this situation, the army had already brought in a brigadier who specialized in putting out fires. But snipers and breeze made his task difficult. Another fire broke out in the Teja Singh Samundari hall as a grenade hit a car with full tank parked there.
Even with the capitulation of the Akal Takth and neutralization of the resistance from the Serais, there was no relief for army commanders. The ultimate objective, the golden temple, was still holding out. Boxing with one hand tied behind their back, the Jawans watched helpless as a small band of terrorists kept firing from inside the main temple and frustrated their repeated attempts to break in without firing. In the meantime the General’s got worried by the information given by the captains that the terrorists had put charges around the temple and were planning to blow it up. The frogmen of the 1 Para Commando Battalion were ordered to swim across the sarowar to defuse the explosives, but it was ruse by terrorists to lure the army. Snipers hiding inside the Golden Temple fired at them inflicting casualties. Army finally overpowered the heavily armed 22 terrorists firing from within the Golden Temple without themselves using any arms. Terrorists had been holed up within the golden Temple now for 2 days. The place was stinking. The terrorists had no place to ease themselves within the golden temple. After cleaning up, the religious practice was restored in the Golden Temple, which was done by 22 Sikh Jawans and a JCO drawn from the Engineers battalion before finally being handed over to SGPC after end of operation.
Fire from terrorists still hiding in numerous tunnels, rooms manholes continued to harass the army and pilgrims alike. Doctor Captain Rampal of Army medical corps was walking in parikarma checking on injured pilgrims and armymen when suddenly a band of terrorists came out of a room and kidnapped him along with a member of his medical team inside a basement. Army asked the terrorists to surrender and release the medical team including the doctor. But the terrorists wanted to talk to Giani Sahib Singh the head priest of Golden Temple. Giani Sahib Singh was summoned. He asked terrorists to surrender and release the medical team which was only doing humanitarian work. Terrorists asked Giani Sahib Singh to come inside the basement. Giani Sahib Singh panicked and ran. Army stormed the basement. In the firing all terrorists and 2 army men were killed. Dr Rampal was found dead. Both his arms severed and body had heavy wounds all over inflicted with sharp edged weapons. He was obviously tortured to death in that period. The following days, Commandos and troops went about scouring the basements, hidden rooms and tunnels till the whole complex was finally cleared of all terrorists. Mopping up and clearing operation took a week.
The Akali Dal wanted to preserve the Akal Takht in its damaged form, which was damaged due to terrorists taking shelter behind it for as long as it can. Akalis Dals objective being to use the momument in damaged for to incite the feelings of uneducated and educated uneducated Sikhs to polarize the sikh votes in future elections and thus come to power again. The government wanted to repair it and hand it back to SGPC the body whose official task was to manage and protect it. When Akali Dal took no action to repairs the temple complex, Baba Santa Singh was asked by government to make repairs. Akali Dal was quick to ask its protogee SGPC and five head priests to ex-communicate Baba Santa Singh. Baba Santa Singh looked upon this order of ex-communition with utter disdain issued by paid employees of SGPC owned by politicians of Akali Dal. He asked “why was no Hukamnama issued by these priests (owned by Politicians) when Bhindranwala had attacked and turned the temple complex into a fortress (for his shelter) inviting army action?
On 21st July, I visited the residence of Giani Kirpal singh Jathedar of Akal Takth and spoke to him on these issues. Here are excerpts;
Q. Baba Sants Singh asks why no Hukamnama was issued when Bhindranwala ensconced himself in the Akal Takth? What is your reply?
A. We did not issue any Hukamnama because no one complained to me about this matter.
Q. Do you need someone to complain before you can consider any issue?
A. Yes. (It has now come to be known that the India institute of International understanding did make a request to Giani Kirpal Singh to issue a hukamnama vide their registered letter of 12th march 1984, copies of which were sent to Jathedars of all the other Takths and to Mr Longowal Akali Dal President, and Mr Tohra, SGPC President.)
Q. Did anyone complain against Baba Santa Singh undertaking Kar Seva.
A. The Akali Dal and the SGPC.
Q. Did the Dal and SGPC also lodge any complaint when Bhindranwala was ruling the roost in the Akal Takth?
A. No, no one complained. Why did Baba Santa Singh not emerge at that time? Why has he come on the scene now?
Q. Since you are the Jathedar of the Akal Takth, the nation was expecting you to do something about it. Were you threatened to keep silent or face the gun?
A. There were several reasons why we could not protest against the happenings inside the Akal Takth and temple complex. I cannot disclose them now.
Q. Is not the SGPC responsible for the proper management of Gurdwaras? Would you say the gurdwaras has been managed properly?
A. I do not wish to make comments.
Q. why do you permit Bhindranwala to make the Akal Takth his residence? When I met him nside the Akal Takth on the evening of 3 june, I was searched for weapons by his men and then allowed to go the second floor. You had no control on the Akal Takth whatsoever as its jathedar?
A. (very weakly) he did not live in Akal Takth,but in the building behind it
Q. But how is it that most newsmen had earlier met him the Akal Takth itself? He had all the rooms to himself there.
A. I do not wish to comment.
Q. When Bhindranwala ordered the killings could he not be treated as an oppressor and punished?
A. Bhindranwala helped the congress against the Akali Dal and the SGPC in 1979. The government allowed him to roam freely in New Delhi with weapons all this as done to give us a bad name and humiliate us. He was a congress agent.
Q. you are right when you say he should have been arrested. But why did you thereafter allowed this congress agent to gang up with the Akali dal and SGPC and dominate the show. You consider hi a martyr now?
A. Ask the Akali Dal and SGPC leaders. I don’t know.
Throughout the interview, Giani Kirpal Singh gave the impression of a disillusioned and demoralized man. On questions involving Bhindranwala, he would lower his eyes and one discerned a trace of fear. As if there was some bandookwala behind the curtain and as if he was afraid of losing something precious if he becomes more forthright. I had hoped that Giani would be talking fairly and fearlessly now that Bhindranwala was now no more. But he looked a haunted man, weak willed, confused and brainwashed.
The Punjab story; Subash Kirpekar, Tavleen Singh and Shekhar Gupta.