• “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
• “The best paintings… are those that tell you what you know already.”
• “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
• “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
• “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
• “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
• “Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”
• “Big Brother is Watching You.”
• “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
• “I enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles my own mind except that you happen to be insane.”
• “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?”
• “Confession is not betrayal. What you say or do doesn’t matter; only feelings matter. If they could make me stop loving you-that would be the real betrayal.”
― George Orwell, 1984
At about 7.30 on the morning of June 6 1984, Operation Blue Star, one of the most extraordinary battles in military history, came to a head when Indian army tanks pounded the Sikh shrine, the Akal Takht, with 105mm high-explosive squash head shells. It stands opposite the centre of the Sikhs’ religion, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The complex housing the two had been occupied and fortified by a fundamentalist Sikh preacher, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was demanding the establishment of Khalistan, a Sikh homeland.
The assault was the climax of a nine-hour, gruelling battle between the Indian army and Bhindranwale with his heavily armed and well-trained followers. Sikhs in India, and in the West, were outraged by what they saw as the defilement of their holiest place. And that anger remains 30 years later, as I have found in making a documentary for the BBC World Service on the divisive legacy of Operation Blue Star. That division is highlighted today by the sword fight at the temple between Sikhs who were marking the anniversary of the raid.
Back in 1984, as the BBC’s Delhi correspondent, I had been in Amritsar for the four days leading up to the Indian army’s attack. The atmosphere was tense. There had been a spate of murders by Bhindranwale’s supporters and now they were threatening to disrupt the supply of food throughout the Punjab.
For six years, Bhindranwale had been telling Sikhs that they had become slaves of the majority Hindu population in India. His young supporters had mounted a reign of terror and murder in Punjab, attacking police, terrifying villagers and extorting money.
The Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had originally seen Bhindranwale as a valuable political ally because of his popularity. When he turned against her, she had taken no action, even after he occupied the Golden Temple complex. When she announced on national radio her decision to call out the army, it was clear to me that she had realised Indians were losing faith in her ability to act.
The next morning I found the Golden Temple complex surrounded by the Bihar Regiment. Bhindranwale held a defiant press conference in the Akal Takht at which he promised to give the army a fitting reply. I could see how heavily fortified it was, and thought that there was bound to be a bloody battle unless Bhindranwale cracked.
The army was in too much of a hurry to bother about public relations, so all the journalists were then bundled out of Punjab. As we drove through Amritsar, we heard intermittent small-arms fire and the occasional whoof of a mortar. The government had clamped a strict curfew on the whole state. Frequent army check posts insured that there was no traffic on Kipling’s Grand Trunk Road.
Even the dogs seemed cowed in the villages we passed. I remember thinking to myself, “sending the army into a sacred place would be sacrilege in any religion. Indira Gandhi won’t be able to keep the lid on outraged Sikhs’ anger for ever.”
Five infantry battalions, the equivalent of two companies of commandos, six tanks and two companies of paramilitary police were assembled to oust Bhindranwale. In his book describing the battle, Major-General Kuldip Singh Brar, the Sikh officer Mrs Gandhi put in charge of the assault, says the first infantry contingent, soldiers of the 10 Guards Regiment, entered the complex through the North Gate and immediately came under fire from machine guns concealed at the bottom of the steps.
Young Sikhs emerged from manholes, opened fire or hurled grenades, and dropped down to secret underground passages before the soldiers could return fire. Bhindranwale’s defence of the complex had been brilliantly planned by a retired Indian army officer, Shabeg Singh, who bore a grudge because he had been dismissed for alleged corruption. He was commanding the battle from the Akal Takht. Bhindranwale was at his side.
The Akal Takht stands at the western end of the complex. Major-General Brar planned for the infantry to advance down the north and south wings to cover commandos who were to dash up to the shrine and stun the defenders with CS gas. But the infantry advances were held up by intensive firing. Repeated attempts by commandos to reach the Akal Takht were driven back.
Only a few managed to get near enough to launch gas canisters. All apertures in the Akal Takht had been blocked with bricks and sandbags, leaving only small holes for gun emplacements, so the canisters bounced back affecting the soldiers, not the Sikhs defending the shrine. The casualties mounted alarmingly. The battle became, in Brar’s own words, “a massacre” and the space in front of the Akal Takht a “killing ground.”