It was late 1983 when my family was staying in Chandigarh, India. As is common for Sikh families, we were planning a trip to Amritsar and Harmandir Sahib (Sikhism’s central Gurdwara, also known as the Golden Temple). I was nine years old at the time.
Little did we know that only a few months later, my family would be glued to our TV, watching reports of the Indian government’s military attack upon the heart of Sikhism in Operation Bluestar. In just that invasion, thousands of innocent Sikh pilgrims were killed. The Akal Takht, the highest seat of authority of Sikhism that faces Harmandir Sahib, was destroyed. Valuable and historic relics were destroyed or went missing. The sanctity of such a spiritual and historic place was turned into a morgue riddled with bullet holes and pouring with blood.
That attack happened 27 years ago during this very week, and set off a chain of violence, death and destruction in the days, months and years following. The wounds of that time are still carried by Sikhs today as they still seek justice that has been long denied.
The early 80s were a time of political unrest in Punjab. Sikhs were demanding rights and freedoms for their faith and for the state of Punjab, and voices calling for Sikh autonomy within or from India were only beginning to become more common. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had emerged as a major Sikh figure, and had taken residence within the precincts of Harmandir Sahib. Tensions between the Indian government, the Sikhs, and Bhindranwale’s movement were running high. Violence was becoming more frequent.
I remember that in the days leading up to our trip to Amritsar, my younger sister and I would scan the headlines of the daily newspaper for news of any shootings in Amritsar between police and Sikhs. They were infrequent, but these clashes were happening. At that young age, we were fully aware of the violence, and we were nervous. Nonethless, life seemed to go on as normal for most people, as for us as well – we indeed went to Amritsar to visit relatives and to pay our respects at the Golden Temple.
I remember walking through the main entrance to the temple, down the steps that led to the marble parikarma (the area surrounding the tank). As I made my first few steps on to the parikarma, a group of Sikhs – armed – walked with purpose and passed in front of me. The leading figure was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and who I assume were his guards. This historic figure was now recorded into the memories of a nine year old boy.
Later on this trip, I also remember seeing Harchand Singh Longowal – another Sikh leader who years later would meet his demise in the chaos that followed this attack - at a meeting in the Harmandir Sahib complex. He was standing on a stage area, his head bowed, preparing to make a speech. He was dressed in a grey, simple Punjabi suit.
While I was not directly affected by those times, Operation Bluestar was a major influence on my life and shaped my sense of identity through adolescence and adulthood. If even for preliminary moments, my eyes bore witness to those tragic and horrendous events of that time, and they will never be forgotten.