On the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, an eyewitness has emerged to tell his vivid account of the first six days of June 1984 when the Indian army closed off the Darbar Sahib and massacred about 8,000 innocent pilgrims inside the complex.
The eyewitness, who still is afraid to reveal his identity, was discovered by Ensaaf, a California-based human rights organization working to document the tens of thousands of Sikh men, women and children who were killed extra-judicially during the Decade of Disappearances that followed the Darbar Sahib attack, from 1984 to 1995.
In its Punjab Documentation Program, Ensaaf representatives travel village-by-village and door-by-door in search of victims’ family members, and survivors of torture.
“We came across an eyewitness (to Blue Star),” said Jaskaran Kaur, co-founder and co-director of Ensaaf. “He wanted certain measures of protection for the interview. It was the first time he did a video testimony.”
The backdrop to his account is archival video footage from the Associated Press filmed during that first week of June, Jaskaran Kaur told Sikh Free Press. One of the clips shows a rare interview with Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale just after the first shots were fired. Other clips show conditions inside the complex.
The army was after Jarnail Singh, a dissident-turned-militant, who opposed the Indian government’s tyrannical policies in Punjab. The military operation ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was an unholy plan to flush Jarnail Singh and his men out of the holy shrine.
“This government’s attack on Sri Harmandir Sahib has exceeded all of the crimes of the British and Mughal empires,” Jarnail Singh told the AP, a few days before he was killed by the Indian Army. “I fervently appeal to all Sikhs to give a crushing response to this. Don’t just gear up, but gear up and move forward. There is no greater mark of slavery on Sikhs than the crime that has just been committed.”
In the 11 minute, 11 second film, "An Eyewitness Among the Bodies: Surviving Bluestar," the eyewitness tells the diabolical tale of how the Indian army systematically rounded up thousands of pilgrims and brutally killed them with machine guns and grenades. The eyewitness escaped that fate by being buried under the dead bodies and body-parts that landed on top of him. He sat still, praying, but he could see every thing going on around him.
“Once the army came inside, they didn’t distinguish if it was a child or elder,” he says. “They only thought, “We have to finish all of them.””
On June 1, bullets hit Darbar Sahib, he says. The number of devotees was greater than normal because of the shabeel fair, in which a cold watery yogurt drink is served. Eyewitnesses reported about 11,000 people had gathered there to commemorate Guru Arjan’s shaheedhee gurpurab, which was observed at that time during the first week of June, according to the Bikrami Calendar. The gurpurab is now correctly observed on June 16, according to the Nanakshahi Calendar, established in 2002.
On June 2, the army closed off the complex and stopped people from exiting. But people were still allowed to enter, he says.
“They had planned beforehand to kill everyone.”
All reporters were banned from reporting on the assault. They were confined by the security forces at a hotel, in Amritsar, and warned that if they tried to leave, they would be shot, Ensaaf says.
A bomb exploded outside of the sarai, the pilgrim housing, in the early hours of June 4, the eyewitness continues. Bombs kept exploding inside the complex until the evening of June 5. Many hit the lungar hall.
Then they broke through the gate with a tank and headed toward the yatri (pilgrim) buildings and Gurdwara Baba Atal Sahib on the south side of the complex, while firing in all directions, he says.
Teja Singh Samundri Hall, the offices of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, was where many staff and yatris were trapped. Those who were in an alleyway were killed. The eyewitness escaped by moving behind a closet, he says.
More than 400 people were moved out of the Samundri Hall and seated outside, including the eyewitness. There were three ranking officers there. Bullets and grenades began to rain on them. He kept sitting, praying, as the bodies fell on top of him, he says.
The door to one of the niwas was in front of him. He saw them open the door. About 250 people were sitting inside in the heat. As they came out, expecting fresh air, they shot them all. The security forces continued to rain bullets and grenades inside closed rooms. They did this until the next morning. The wooden parts of the buildings caught on fire. Fire burned from the top of all the sarai buildings, he says.
“I kept praying, but thanks to God’s grace, I could see everything.”
They rounded up people and sat them in three rows near him. Then they opened fire. Anyone who tried to get water was shot on the spot. He watched this for the next three or four hours, he says.
“There were women, men and children.”
At about 9 a.m., on June 6, the security forces changed shifts. The new shift ordered a ceasefire. They gathered the survivors and sent them to jail, he says.
“There were so many corpses that there was no room to set your feet down,” he says. “Even ants don’t die like that – corpses on top of corpses.”
An American journalist, Harry Reasoner, and his CBS 60-minutes film crew, reported that perhaps 15,000 troops invaded Darbar Sahib to kill Jarnail Singh and his couple of hundred men. But the civilian toll was astronomical.
According to the Indian government’s report, its army had killed 200 combatants. But its estimate of civilians killed in the collateral damage, 493, was grossly inaccurate. Eyewitness and independent organizations reported nearly 8,000 civilians slaughtered.
“On this side (of the complex), there were about 7,000 people killed near me,” the Ensaaf eyewitness says.
The army then secretly cremated the bodies, without identifying them.
“Operation Bluestar launched a decade of gross human rights violations in Punjab, including widespread and systematic torture, murder and disappearances,” Ensaaf says. “No government or security personnel has been held accountable.”