A journalist recalls the horror of Operation Bluestar

By Ritu Sharma, IANS,

New Delhi : A quarter century later, a journalist who covered the Indian Army operation to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar still remembers vividly all that he saw during those horror filled days of June 1984.

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Although not a Sikh, “Operation Bluestar”, as the army assault was called, is etched in the memory of Satish Jacob, formerly of the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC).

“Whenever the history of India will be told, the army operation will be remembered as one of the black days,” said Jacob, now 63 and who left BBC in 2002 after years of distinguished service.

Jacob was among the few journalists who remained in Amritsar during the army operation that left hundreds dead — Sikh pilgrims, militants and soldiers. Several journalists were orderred out of the city by officials.

“Though I did not see many bodies, I got a glimpse of the body of (Jarnail Singh) Bhindranwale,” he said, referring to the man who emerged as the spearhead of the Sikh separatist campaign that ravaged Punjab for a decade until it was crushed in 1993 after the loss of 25,000 lives.

“In the attack, Harmandar Sahib (the main shrine) was intact but the Akal Takht was badly damaged,” Jacob recalled to IANS in an interview. “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.”

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 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 highly-acclaimed 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 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.”