NEW DELHI: Operation Blue Star: an anniversary that some might be observing but a day that many would like to forget. A botched up operation that left all involved wounded and scarred. Many for life.

I remember that fateful day in June 1984 when some of us who been covering the Sikh agitation under Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale closely, with many meetings with him and his cronies Amrik Singh and Harminder Singh Sandhu, were flown in Army helicopters to Amritsar after the Operation was over. And the Golden Temple taken over by armed Sikh followers of Bhindranwale had been “sanitised” in military parlance.

Nothing had prepared us for what we saw. As soon as we entered the beautiful shrine, we saw this gaping space where the Akal Takht had been. I remember my heart sinking like a stone, for along with sheer dismay over the destruction was the immediate realisation that this would unleash a wave of trouble that the Congress government in power at the time would not be able to withstand. At that time the shrine had been opened for a controlled number of citizens and as I walked around the parikrama I felt this deep silence and sorrow, almost as if it was tangible. Old Sikh men and women were amongst the first visitors. Many were sitting in shock, staring at the big gap where the Akal Takht had been, tears streaming down their faces.

We cried with them, as the shock was not given words. It was expressed in silent tears, again a sign that this hurt was not going to heal easily. There was a sense of foreboding. And four months later then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards at her residence in Delhi.

The Army briefing that accompanied the visit, led to a spate of questions---there was fortunately no television then---asking why had they not anticipated the fight back, and why had they allowed their men to be left with no option but to blow up the Akal Takht. It was a question that was never really answered, although young officers who had participated in the Operation told us later that they had no idea that there was an underground----strange really as we all knew of the basement rooms----and that they should anticipate firing from the little skylights opening on the side of the stairway entry into the shrine. A large number of soldiers were killed in the dark as they were entering the Golden Temple, with the strategy laid out by the generals then clearly not factoring in this basic detail. Officially over 83 soldiers died in this Operation with over 200 injured. Unofficially many more.

Just as officially 492 civilians, including Bhindranwale, were killed inside the Golden Temple. Unofficially the figures given out by human rights organisations were much higher. Two narratives emerged at the time, the official that claimed Operation Blue Star as a major victory; the unofficial that regretted the death of innocent civilians in the operation, maintaining that the Army had not taken care to differentiate between the armed militants and the innocent families that were living inside the Temple at the time. Stories made the rounds, many exaggerated, in keeping with an environment where trust had disappeared and everyone---be it a soldier or a civilian---was suspect.

The Army had moved in with the men and the equipment but as postmortems by experts later would reveal---unofficially of course, as there is little that comes by way of official confirmation in incidents where governments are involved----it had done so without a clear assessment of the weapons in the Golden Temple, the number of armed militants, the fact that the Akal Takht too had been fortified by Bhindranwale’s men expecting such an attack (initially the Akal Takht was kept free of arms), and the determination of those fighting back what was intended to be a surprise attack. The Akal Takht like other parts of the Golden Temple had very narrow staircases, and tiny rooms occupied towards the end by armed militants as well, a fact that had not been strategised for and resulted in the blowing up of what Sikhs consider as the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine.

A regular visitor to the Golden Temple during the agitation, I had last visited just 8-9 days before Operation Blue Star. Writing for The Telegraph then, and accompanied by photographer Sondeep Shankar we checked into a guest house before preparing to go to the Temple. We were approached by a couple of men, clearly intelligence, saying that “you are under threat and we advise you not to go inside.” Clearly not given to accepting IB advise we ignored this and went in regardless.

Amrik Singh, a handsome, extremely intelligent young Sikh with piercing blue eyes, was one of the brains behind the agitation. He used to sit in a tiny room on the ground floor of the temple. As we entered the shrine we sensed a major difference in the atmosphere. For one, the last few civilians one would see going around the parikrama had all disappeared, and the place was overflowing with fully armed young men carrying sophisticated assault rifles. No one was smiling, all looked tense and on alert. We went into Amrik Singh’s room having met him countless times before. I asked him about a politician who had been gunned down in Delhi, and for which the Sikh militants had been blamed. He looked at me and said, “you want to know, why don’t you go and ask him.” By this time the tension was getting to us as well, and I realised that Amrik Singh was different now. Just then six armed young men crowded into the room, staring at us, saying not a word. Amrik Singh told them, “she wants to know what happened to that chap. I have told her go and find out.” Sondeep and I looked at each other warily, as this was clearly a threat. “Watch out,” I whispered to him as we edged out of the room to search for Bhindranwale.

Bhindranwale was sitting on the terrace. And holding court as he always did. Gunmen were walking around the roof. We went and sat beside him. He was having this conversation in chaste Punjabi with a Sikh gentleman sitting in front of him. By then I understood Punjabi completely, and was shocked to hear that the two were discussing a legal case where the judge was being difficult. Bhindranwale promised the visitor help in getting the judge set right. By this time, Bhindranwale had become arrogant to a point where he was having this conversation in the open, regardless of the outsiders like us around him. I listened intently, resisting the temptation to bring out a notebook, making a mental note of all the points.

Suddenly he looked at me and asked in Punjabi, “do you understand Punjabi.” The atmosphere since we had arrived was so tense, and I was on full alert, so fortunately understood that I would be in deep trouble if he even got a hint that I had understood what they were talking about. It was explosive stuff. I stared back at him blankly. Amrik Singh who had walked up---again out of character---and sat down with us by then looked intently at me with a, “of course she does. She understands every single word.” I looked blank ---at least I tried to---but knew that it was time to get out. And get out fast.

So without making a fuss I got up quietly and gestured to Sondeep to leave. This was probably the shortest visit to the Golden Temple, as we were used to spending a few hours inside, talking to Bhindranwale, his lieutenants and walking around the parikrama for the absolutely delicious prasad that the granthis would give out. I went back to Delhi and wrote the conversation between the Bhindranwale and the judge and remember that the next morning in Parliament senior journalists came up shaking their heads, and warning me against possible reprisal. “You want to die” one of them asked saying “you can never go back there now.”

A few days later I did go back. But to a different zone. Bhindranwale had been killed and the Army had to release the photograph of his body to still rumours that he was still alive. For months after he kept ‘appearing’ in different locations as those who followed this cult were reluctant to let go. The silent majority of course, were fed up with the violence and the turmoil wondering why the Congress government had not stepped in to prevent the few men who had walked into the Golden Temple right at the very beginning. And arrested them before they became a force, and virtual cult with thousands of supporters.

Punjab was desolate after Operation Blue Star. And the anger that emerged from the tears for the destruction of the Akal Takht got mixed somewhere in a mourning for Bhindranwale who seemed to have more supporters in death, than in life and that allowed the supporters of the violent preacher to turn him into a godman legend of sorts. Even today as the 32nd anniversary of the military operation is being observed, Amritsar has been turned into a fortress, and pro-Bhindranwale slogans are piercing the air.

Hundreds died, many more were injured, the Akal Takht was destroyed, and polity lay in tatters on that fateful day. An anniversary where there are only losers. Not a single winner.

(Photograph: This photograph of the Golden Temple after Operation Blue Star was carried by the Hindustan Times then)