Golden Temple, life moves on (25 years after Indira Gandhi's assasination)
By P.P.S. Gill
It has been 25 years since prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated
Oct 31, 1984 perhaps, as a consequence of Operation Bluestar at
Amritsar's Golden Temple four months earlier. Events of those days
are still fresh in memory.
After Operation Bluestar ended and the complex was still in a state
of chaos and disorder, then president Zail Singh visited the place
June 8, 1984. Given the impact the incident had on the psyche of
people in Punjab and elsewhere, the authorities were in a hurry
to clean up the place, withdraw the army and hand over the Golden
Temple complex to the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC).
Consequently, over 1,200 workers from the municipal corporation
were engaged in sprucing up the place. It was amidst this exercise
that prime minister Indira Gandhi visited the Golden Temple on the
morning of June 23. Local media persons were not allowed access
to the complex. In fact the media was not permitted to cover the
visit of even Zail Singh.
The walled city was under tight security cover and even the movement
of pedestrians was restricted. Deciding not to let the occasion
be given a miss, my colleague, Gurdip Singh and I walked towards
the walled city and reached near the footbridge when we saw a cavalcade
of vehicles heading towards the army cantonment.
Indira Gandhi was returning from the complex and was seated in
the front seat of a white Ambassador car, wearing a white-bordered
sari and goggles. We waved to her and she reciprocated.
Minutes later, we were with Giani Sahib Singh, head priest of the
Golden Temple, who had briefed Gandhi exhaustively. After paying
obeisance inside the sanctum sanctorum, she had sat down to listen
to 'kirtan' (religious hymns). The Giani showed her the extensive
damage to certain buildings, particularly the Akal Takht (the highest
temporal seat of Sikh religion). The priest told us that he had
made some demands, including allowing devotees to pay obeisance
daily even if it was only for a fixed time period.
That was the last I saw of Indira Gandhi.
She was assassinated on the morning of Oct 31, 1984. As the day
advanced, the news cast shock, anguish, confusion and fear in the
city. The confusion was all the more prevalent in the Shiromani
Akali Dal, among the head priests and the SGPC who took vacillating
stands on the killing.
Nevertheless, in the intervening period between her visit to the
Golden Temple in June and her assassination, Gandhi launched what
came to be known as 'healing touch' aimed at assuaging the hurt
religious sensibilities of the devotees and the devout especially
The direct broadcast of gurbani from 'Harmandar Sahib' (popularly
known as Golden Temple) at dawn and dusk was one such step. The
other 'healing touch' was to repair and restore the buildings, particularly
the Akal Takht, damaged because of army operations in as short a
period of time as possible.
In this decision fault-lines were visible sooner than later as
neither the Sikh political nor religious leadership accepted the
entrusting of this task to Nihang chief, Baba Santa Singh, who was
drafted into this kar sewa by the then union home minister Buta
Singh, with the centre providing the finances and the army engineers
With the passage of time, the government-repaired Akal Takht was
demolished. The rest is history.
The morning after Gandhi's assassination, some local journalists
went to Agwan, a non-descript village, barely 20 km from the border
with Pakistan. It is about eight km from Dera Baba Nanak. This was
the village of Satwant Singh, one of the assassins of Indira Gandhi.
When we reached the village, we found that some people had not
heard about her assassination. The sarpanch (village headman) and
others heard the news in disbelief and could not believe that their
own 'munda' (boy) could do such a thing.
The house of Satwant Singh was deserted. The police had taken away
Tarlok Singh, his father, in the wee hours of November 1. Other
family members had fled.
Looking back, one observes that Amritsar and its people have shown
resilience and are back in business-as-usual mode. This is evident
from a revisit to the place this month after a prolonged gap.
The chaotic traffic inside the walled city has become more pronounced.
The disorder is on account of the construction of flyovers, particularly
on roads leading to the Golden Temple from the bus terminus. Vehicle
entry is restricted beyond Jallianwala Bagh.
Devotees now walk to the complex from beyond Jallianwala Bagh.
Inside the complex, it takes over half-an-hour from the main 'Darshni
Deori' to the sanctum sanctorum to pay obeisance. Some repair and
construction work is still underway in the 'Parikrama' (symbol of
prayer). The physical marks of Operation Bluestar may, over a period
of time blur. But will the scars embossed and embedded in the psyche
ever get erased?
(The writer is a senior journalist who covered Operation Bluestar
and terrorism in Amritsar for The Tribune in the 1980s. He is presently
State Information Commissioner in the Punjab Information Commission
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)