‘I was not Sikh but damage to Akal Takht horrified me’

By Ritu Sharma, IANS,

New Delhi : A quarter of a century has passed since Operation Bluestar, the Indian Army operation in the Golden Temple that not only killed hundreds of Sikhs but left a deep gash on their collective psyche, but its memories are etched deep in Satish Jacob, the journalist who witnessed the “earth-shaking” event.

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“Incident is a minor term to describe Operation Bluestar. Whenever the history of India will be told it will be remembered as one of the black days,” said Jacob. He covered for the BBC the three-day operation of the Indian Army to flush out the terrorists, led by separatist preacher Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, holed up inside the premises of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

“Though I did not see many bodies. I managed to get a glimpse of the body of (Jarnail Singh) Bhindranwale.

“In the attack, Harmandar Sahib (the main shrine) was intact but the Akal Takht was badly damaged. When I first saw the damage done to Akal Takht, although I was not Sikh, I was horrified. It (Akal Takht) was in bad shape. There were bullet holes all over,” recalled Jacob in an interview to IANS.

Built by the sixth Sikh guru, the Akal Takht is a symbol of political sovereignty of the community and of political and military resistance against the Mughal empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 18th century, Ahmed Shah Abdali led a series of attacks on the Akal Takht and Harmandar Sahib.

“Covering the events which led to the Operation Bluestar and the operation itself meant playing with our lives. One could sense tension as one approached Amritsar. There was curfew in the city and even a soldier could have shot you.

“Secondly, in those days there was lack of communication. We did not have basic things, even telephones were not available. Nobody could call in or out of Punjab…. We used to bribe truck drivers going to Ambala to telephone our office and read out the story. Sometimes the dispatches did not reach on time,” he recalled.

The operation which started on June 3, 1984 went on till the morning of June 6 as the Indian Army mobilised tanks and heavy artillery against the Sikh extremists led by Bhindranwale hiding in the Akal Takht premises.

“Because a major battle was going on we could not contact many people outside the temple. Many rumours were going on. What to believe and what not to believe was a major question,” Jacob explained.

Later Jacob co-authored a book “Amritsar: Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s Last Battle” with BBC’s then bureau chief Mark Tully.

“Writing the book was a nightmare because we had to get everything confirmed. Our own integrity was at stake. Luckily we managed to get all the facts correct for the book,” he said.

“In 1984, the future of Amritsar looked bleak – unlike today,” Jacob added.