Operation Blue Star: The Launch of a
Decade of Systematic Abuses and Impunity
(Fremont, CA) Operation "Blue Star" marked the beginning of the Government of India's systematic policy in Punjab of destroying fundamental human rights in the name of "national security," and launched a new era of impunity and the erosions of the rule of law in India.
Twenty-five years ago, on June 2, 1984, the Indian government declared Punjab a "restricted area," banning travel to Punjab and the Indian Army assumed police functions. On June 3, the government imposed a statewide shoot-on-sight curfew, forbade news coverage of the attack, and cut phone lines across Punjab. Eyewitnesses reported that over 10,000 pilgrims and 1300 workers had gathered inside the Harminder Sahib complex (popularly known as the Golden Temple) by June 3 to join a civil disobedience campaign or to commemorate the martyrdom anniversary of the fifth Sikh Guru. The Harmandir Sahib complex—the center of Sikh religious and political life—is located in Amritsar city.
Beginning on June 4, the Indian army launched a full-scale military assault upon on the complex and attacked 41 other gurdwaras (Sikh house of worship) on the pretext of removing armed militants quartered in these gurdwaras. During the three-day assault, the military employed cannons, tanks, helicopters, and special forces to target those trapped inside the gurdwara complex. Inside the complex, the Akal Takht suffered destruction of its first floor; bullets punctured the Harmandir Sahib; and the Army looted and burned down the Sikh Reference Library, housing rare manuscripts and Sikh artifacts.
After the initial military operations ended, military personnel detained and executed civilians and non-combatants captured alive in the gurdwara complex, including women and children. One eyewitness reported military personnel executing 150 Sikhs at point blank range, after tying their hands behind their backs with their turbans.
The Army never released a list of the dead. To destroy the evidence of its crimes, the military secretly cremated en mass the bodies of its victims. Security forces would continue to use secret mass cremations for more than a decade after Operation Blue Star to destroy the bodies of victims of its "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions, extensively discussed in Ensaaf's recent reports.
Twenty-five years later, the government continues to refuse to hold accountable senior military officials, civilian leaders, or lower level military personnel responsible for targeting civilians and the excessive use of force during the military operation. International humanitarian law (IHL), or the law of war, requires the military to make a distinction at all times between military targets and civilian life and property, and strictly prohibits military from targeting civilians. Targeting civilians during a conflict constitutes a grave breach of IHL. International humanitarian law further requires the use of force to be proportionate to an actual threat. Given the large number of civilians killed and the extent of damage caused to the Harmandir Sahib complex during the operation, the Indian army's use of force was excessive and violates the principal of proportionality.
Without a true accounting of the abuses perpetrated by the government, as well as justice and reparations for victims and survivors, impunity will continue to prevail in India. Ensaaf's joint report with Human Rights Watch suggests a comprehensive framework to address the institutionalized impunity that has prevented accountability in Punjab from 1984 to 1995. The detailed recommendations include establishing a commission of inquiry, a special prosecutor's office, and an extensive reparations program.