1986 – Operation Black Thunder 1

What became subsequently known as Operation Black Thunder 1 (30thApril 1986) whereby the Indian security forces recaptured the Sri Harimandir Sahib complex, Amritsar, from different varieties of militants was an important event in the current history of Punjab, after the battle of Amritsar in June 1984.

The International Human Rights Organisation activists, D.S. Gill, Gurcharan Singh Grewal, Avtar Singh Gill, G.S. Bal and Bhupinder Singh Somal, in a team had enquired into the events and had compiled a detailed report. The report in a summarised form is being reproduced below.

The period between June 1984 and April 1986 saw several ups and downs in Sikh politics. The Akali Dal led agitation has fizzled out in the wake of operation Blue Star. Militant Sikhs who were in disarray tried to reassemble their forces culminating in the January 26, 1986, Sarbat Khalsa (Sikh congregation at the Akal Takht), in the Golden Temple Complex. Within the militants, there were strands of thought and action. The Panthic Committee comprising hard-core militants led an armed struggle against the Indian State while a large number of militants followed Baba Joginder Singh, father of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Baba led militants were operating semi-underground while the Panthic committee led militants were acting completely underground.

On the other hand, the Shiromani Akali Dal led by Surjit Singh Barnala, and Balwant Singh, with Parkash Singh Badal, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, etc., trailing behind the Akali “haves,” ran the State with the active co-operation and guidance of the Congress-(I) led Union Government. The Centre was quite worried about the re-emergence of militancy as an organised force even after the power had been allowed to be transferred to the Akali Dal. The Barnala ministry was embarrassed by the occupation of the Darbar Sahib complex by militants although the SGPC was in the hands of the ruling party. The Badal-Tohra faction that was virtually kept out of effective levers of power was not willing to confront the militants. This faction, in fact, was in favour of a compromise so that it could tilt the balance of Sikh power in its favour to the detriment of the ruling faction.

Delhi was watching Punjab with keen interest. It strengthened its security forces and intelligence system in Punjab. The Barnala Ministry’s Home Affairs were, in fact, in the Union Home Ministry’s hands, probably with an arrangement arrived at even before the Akali Ministry was installed into power. The execution of selected targets by militants was continuing. Every such development came as a big blow to the prestige of the Congress (I) Government at the Centre. The media and the public opinion elsewhere in the country attributed every militant action to their positions in the Darbar Sahib complex. On the other hand, the ruling group at Delhi was being cornered as a result of the growing opinion that the Operation Blue Star was unwisely conceived and executed.

In this scenario, the Government of India was pressing the Barnala Government hard to evict the militants from the Darbar Sahib complex but Surjit Singh Barnala was dragging his feet. There was a pincer movement against him from the Centre and the militants. He finally opted for Delhi and against the militants. Barnala accepted the first step Delhi took to recontrol the situation- the appointment of J. F. Rebeiro as Director General, Police, and Punjab. Rebeiro was a Christian, not a Hindu. His command of the security forces in Punjab prima facie absolved him of the charge of being a Hindu communalist out to crush Sikhs. Second, Rebeiro was skilled in Portuguese fascist police training methods.

There was obviously a Central plan at hand for Punjab. Delhi was planning to invade the Golden Temple complex. It was waiting for a suitable opportunity. Its only concern was that the action at the Darbar Sahib should ostensibly be taken by the Barnala Government and that it should not look like a Hindu action against the Sikh historic temple. Delhi persuaded Balwant Singh to play it card. He shaped the scheme of things by holding a so-called “Sarbat Khalsa” at Anandpur Sahib on February 16, 1986. General Jagjit Singh Arora was another active player of Delhi’s game that he was later duly rewarded. Arora became a Member of Parliament (MP, Rajya Sabha).

Circumstances leading to the “action”
Immediate “provocation” to the operation undoubtedly was provided by the “declaration” on April 29 of “Khalistan” by the Panthic Committee. The news was received by Mr. Barnala when he was having tea with Mr. N. T. Rama Rao and Mr. Jyoti Basu at the Parliament House annexe where a reception was organised for “non-Congress (I)” Chief Ministers by opposition MPs. Most opposition parties fondly regarded Barnala as a non-congress Chief Minister.

The announcement was dismissed by most as a non-event. Mr. Rama Rao said there was no need to panic and advised Barnala to ignore the “declaration.” Mr. Basu said no cognisance should be taken of such an incident. Meanwhile, Mr. Barnala described the proclamation as “absurd, senseless and sacrilegious” that showed that “those elements and their foreign collaborators have become desperate in the face of firmness shown by his government.”

As stated above, the Centre was ready with its plans. Far from treating the Panthic Committee’s announcement as a non-event, Rajiv Gandhi summoned Barnala at night, revealed his cloak-and-dagger tactics. Barnala agreed to accompany Arun Singh and Arjun Singh to make a mid-night trip to Amritsar to meet Rebeiro. The operation Black Thunder I had been planned although Barnala announced at a prolonged Cabinet meeting held at Chandigarh the next day- hours before the Amritsar action- that members of the Panthic Committee had vacated the complex.

The IHRO Committee did not feel the necessity of obtaining the official version as Rebeiro at different Press conferences had narrated the story starting with raids on Guru Nanak Niwas, Guru Ram Das Saran and Akal Rest House at 4.50 PM on April 30.

The operation lasted 14 hours. It was supervised by the Punjab Director General of Police (DGP) himself. According to him the operation was mainly carried out by the police through assistance was obtained from Para-military forces. About 200 Para-military youth (Private) made search operation in the inns of the Golden Temple Complex. In all, three thousand security persons were deployed around the complex.

Mr. Rebeiro revealed that the operation was done in the wake of threats posed by the declaration of “Khalistan” by the Panthic Committee. About 100 persons were rounded up on April 30 including Akal Takht acting Jathedar Gurdev Singh.

He further claimed that there was no resistance and no exchange of fire, and security forces used the minimum force. However, about 200 “stun grenades” were exploded which were non-lethal in nature but caused some damage to two rooms of the “Parikarma.”

The operation was carried out in two phases. The first lasted two hours. It involved a search operation that was done smoothly. The second phase started at 10.30 PM when more than 300 commandos resorted to firing.

Among 300 persons rounded up from the Harimandir Sahib at 6 AM on May 1, included acting Jathedar of Akal Takht who surrendered on the advice of Giani Puran Singh, head priest of the Golden Temple.

The security forces seized some weapons from the complex including one pistol, one revolver, a .303 rifle, a .12 bore gun, 20 cartridges of various bores, 15 swords and 10 spears along with a number of documents and Khalistan literature, according to Rebeiro.

Out of 378 persons rounded up, 233 were arrested and others were let off. Of the arrested, 37 were non-Sikh Bangladesh citizens. The police registered cases of sedition against 56 persons, while the detention of the remaining 174 was of a preventive nature, the state police chief added.

He asserted that at no stage did he seek Army assistance for the action. The purpose of the action had been achieved. The complex would be handed over to the SGPC “The declaration of “beginning of the battle” for Khalistan was the provocation for storming the Temple to liberate it from the anti-nationals,” he stated.

He, however, admitted that the police could not keep secrecy and the persons who actually made the “declaration” had escaped. He said that one person had died and two were injured. He stated that only three rounds were fired during the entire operation.

Facts about the “operation”
The official version of the incident by the DGP is approximately supported by the evidence available. However, there are few exceptions to the way it was carried out and some undisclosed facts and circumstances that was revealed when the matter was properly investigated and analysed by the Committee.

Bibi Harinderjit Kaur testified, that hundreds of swords-wielding youths wearing saffron turbans were seen on the Parikarma (pavement around the sacred pool) when police and security forces poised to enter the Parikarma and there was no exchange of fire as 12 trucks carrying the security forces entered the complex.

Jaspal Singh of United News of India (UNI) disposed that five Battalions of commandos were airlifted under the command of two Major Generals of the Indian Army. Three belonged to the Army known as “Black Cats” and two to Border Security Force (BSF). About of 600 commandos were involved. But he was not sure whether all the commandos were pressed into the operation. He further stated that the commandos entered the Complex with their shoes on.

Another journalist Mahinder Singh rebutted the allegation that the operation was mainly conducted by the police. The commandos under the orders of Army Generals conducted the main operation in the Parikarma and Harimandir Sahib.

The Police and commandos armed with automatic weapons searched the inns of the complex, Bibi Rajwinder Kaur stated. She also saw blood stains on the floor of Room Number 28 of Guru Nanak Niwas where an AISSF convened meeting had just ended. She further contradicted the allegation of the Police that no woman or child was rounded up. She, along with Bibi Harinderjit Kaur and a boy of eight were detained and lodged in Akal Rest House’s room number 28 under the surveillance of security persons.

Bibi Harnam Kaur, an old lady worker of Istri Akali Dal saw blood stains in front of Jora Ghar (Shoe-Deposit House), near Guru Nanak Niwas and also on the second floor of Langar building where, according to her, four persons were feared to be killed and two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) persons injured in a scuffle. The Committee also inspected the spot and found a bundle of black hair.

However, a few journalists ruled out the possibility of resistance from any quarter except Parikarma and Darshani Deori. An eye witness stated that a boy of 15 was shot dead near Dukhbhanjni Beri and Mr. Ranjit Singh, Manager, Darbar Sahib, stated the names of injured as Mr. Nishan Singh, Mr. Harjit Singh and another Bihari Singh, all Sewadars of SGPC.

The recovery of arms by the police including one gun and a rifle seems to be correct. The gun and rifle are licensed in the name of Jathedar Gurdev Singh. The press reports regarding the theft of the gold of Sri Akal Takht Sahib were vehemently denied by Baba Arjan Singh, an assistant of Sant Uttam Singh of Khadoor Sahib. The gold is lying intact under the custody of “Kar Seva” babas. These reports seem to be politically motivated.

The different versions about the dead and the injured could not be supported by any evidence, but according to Bhai Bakshish Singh, two dead bodies were lifted form Darshani Deori by the security persons, whom he saw when he was reciting the holy book by the side of Akal Takht.

Political repercussions
The Sikhs, all over the world, were shocked. The operation, had quick repercussions.

There was a crisis in the Akali Dal. The Akali “have-nots” were upset over the “State Government’s action.” They were perturbed that even a Panthic Government could send forces in the Golden Temple complex. As many as 27 ruling party Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) resigned from the Akali Dal (L) to form a new Akali party of their own. The Barnala Government was left in a minority. It received support from Congress (I) as well as from the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). There was no danger so long as the Centre wanted Barnala to continue. But the Ministry lost legitimacy among the Sikh masses.

This operation was God-sent to the militants. None of them were inside when the operation took place. They quietly left the place after making the announcement. However, the group led by Baba Joginder Singh was nabbed by the police. The operation thus resolved the Panthic Committee versus Baba Joginder Singh tussle to the detriment of the Baba. The armed militant youths continued and stepped up violence outside the complex.

A significant aftermath of the operation was that the ruling family a Delhi claimed that the operation Blue Star was not a mistake as the “Panthic Government” itself had to enter forces inside the Sikh holy place. This propaganda further eroded the Barnala Ministry’s credibility. With stepped-up violence, the Ministry was sacked after about 13 months. In fact, the events subsequent to the operation Black Thunder- I, were foreseen by Delhi, which had appointed S. S. Ray and J. F. Rebeiro to take over Punjab well in advance.