War takes innocent lives. Open gunfire does not discriminate between target and bystander. Caught in the crossfire of friendly fire, unsuspecting citizens fall foul to military bullets.
On 1st June 1984, the Indian army was deployed across the Northern Indian state of Punjab. It is estimated that 70,000 army personnel were drafted in (1989: A History of the Sikhs Volume 2: 1839 – 1988, Kushwant Singh); and that 15,000 of these soldiers were posted in the city of Amritsar, the location of the Sikh Vatican, Harmandir Sahib or “Golden Temple” (17 June 1984: Sunday Times, Mary Anne Weaver). Accurate figures are unavailable due to the government-imposed state-wide media blackout at the time.
Under the pretext of flushing out alleged “Sikh extremists” from the Sikh Vatican, the Indian army launched a full-scale army operation and attacked the sacred shrine. Thousands of pilgrims were trapped inside the complex as the army began their assault. A pitched battle between the army and roughly 250 Sikhs started in the early hours of 4th June 1984. This battle raged, unabated, for 60 hours.
The Indian army had seriously miscalculated the whole assault. Sir Mark Tully, the BBC correspondent at the time, reported in his book that the Indian government allowed the Sikhs inside the complex to prepare for the conflict, by deliberately turning a blind eye to the arms being smuggled into the complex (1985: Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle). The arms were smuggled in via trucks that were searched prior to entry. The Indian government had underestimated the ferocity with which Sikhs inside the complex would return fire; they had knowingly allowed fortifications to take place, thinking that the army would placate the Sikhs in a few hours. Prior to the attack, the complex had been under the close surveillance of Indian security forces for at least 12 months. The Indian government issued no arrest warrants for the alleged “Sikh extremists” inside the complex before attacking it. When the army assault began, a blood bath ensued.
The Indian government’s White Paper on the “Punjab Agitation” states that 493 civilians/terrorists were killed (July 1984: White Paper on the Punjab Agitation, Government of India). Civilians and terrorists were grouped together within this fatality count, raising the question: did they even know who they were killing, when attacking with guns and explosives? Kushwant Singh, a prolific and respected Indian journalist, put the number killed at 5,000 (2006: xiv, Kushwant Singh in Harminder Kaur, Blue Star Over Amritsar). Ved Marwah, an ex-Indian police officer, put the figure at 4,712 (1996: Uncivil Wars: Pathology of Terrorism in India). It can be assumed that Kushwant Singh ascertained his figure through investigative journalism, but Ved Marwah’s figure is very specific and he may have learnt of this from official sources at the time, being the Police Commissioner of Delhi and subsequently becoming the Governor of three states in India. The difference in the estimated number of deaths generally varies from 500 to 5,000: the government’s estimate of the number of deaths against external sources stands at a huge variance of approximately 4500 deaths or 1000%.
Others sources put the death toll of innocent civilians at a much higher rate. Surviving civilians reported seeing up to 8,000 dead Sikh bodies strewn across the complex (1985: Oppression in Punjab, Amiya Rao et al).
The number of Indian soldiers killed is stated to be 83 in the government’s White Paper. Survivors of the attack (civilians) reported seeing up to 800 dead soldiers (1985: Oppression in Punjab, Amiya Rao et al). The variance between official counts of soldier fatalities and civilian counts is 717 deaths or approximately 1000%. These huge variances in death toll figures remain an obstacle in gaining a clearer picture of the attack; certainly, they make it difficult to trust the government’s account of what happened during the attack.
The ban on the Red Cross entering the complex during the army assault meant that, not only were civilians left wounded and untreated, but there was no third party to verify the situation and the number of deaths that took place.
Post mortems of the recovered bodies of Sikhs showed that many had their arms tied behind their backs before they were executed by gunfire (1985: Oppression in Punjab, Amiya Rao et al). This further adds to the suspicion of war crimes perpetrated by the Indian soldiers. The authors that reported such incidents of killing civilians at point blank were charged with sedition by the Indian Government – namely Brahma Chellaney and Amiya Rao’s team of researchers who wrote Oppression in Punjab.
Lieutenant General J S Arora, an Indian army General, wrote about the army assault in the following way: “Unfortunately, dead bodies by the hundreds lay in the open inside the complex, which were finally cleared after three days with the help of municipal committee vans. All those killed in the complex were cremated en masse. Relations were not permitted to claim the dead bodies. No proper record of those killed has been drawn up.” (1984: 130, The Punjab Story, Lieutenant General J S Arora)
The whole operation was rushed, as was the cover up of the fatalities suffered. Even in death, the innocent pilgrims’ corpses were left to decay in the scorching summer heat before being cremated en masse. The lack of effort made to identify the dead shows a complete disregard for the humanitarian obligations of the government towards its people. Even in war, humanitarian obligations for the dead should be fulfilled.
No accurate count of the dead has ever been made, nor will it be. These people went to bathe, meditate and bask in the glorious tranquillity of one of the most beautiful shrines in the world. As the shrine was ravaged and torn apart, the unsuspecting souls became the victims of reported “friendly fire”. The realities of how these people died are now lost to the annals of history, save the few surviving civilians who bravely came forward and told their stories.
The human story of the pilgrims caught amid this political drama has been largely ignored. The destruction of the innocence of the children who survived has never been told. Our radio drama attempts to redress the balance of attention from the politics to the people, by providing a glimpse of this tragedy from the perspective of those who came to pray. Some lost their lives while others lived on to endure relentless nightmares and harrowing memories of their ordeals. This is our humble attempt to pay homage to those who lost their lives in Amritsar in June 1984.