The Amritsar Massacre, British Sikhs and UK involvement – what you need to know 16 February 2014

The story of the tensions between British Sikhs and the UK government regarding its involvement in the Amritsar Massacre of 1984 has been covered in a number of news outlets. For those unaware of the nature of the controversy, we answer the biggest questions below.

What is the 1984 Amritsar Massacre?

The massacre goes by a few other names too, such as the Golden Temple Massacre or Operation Blue Star.

It refers to a military operation by the Indian army, approved and instigated by the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi, in case you’re wondering), to storm the Golden Temple in in the city of Amritsar, India.

The operation resulted in huge numbers of casualties and was an attack upon the holiest of Sikh temples.

What led to the operation?

The motivations, context and lead up to the plan are ferociously debated even today.

The Indian government argues it was foremost an operation to remove Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple. Bhindranwale was a charismatic and conservative Sikh leader who vehemently opposed many of Prime Minister Gandhi’s policies. The Indian government accused Bhindranwale of amassing violent supporters and weapons during his prolonged stay in the Golden Temple, and felt it essential to remove him and any threat he posed.

Some Indian Sikhs argue differently, and believe the Indian government sought to violently undermine increasingly vocal, but largely peaceful, protests from Sikhs for greater civic rights and representation in the public sphere that were gaining momentum in the 1980s under the banner of ‘Dharam Yudh Morcha’.

What was Operation Blue Star?

In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi approved a number of military operations against Sikh activists. This included raids on rural gudawaras, but most significantly, an attack on the Harmandir Sahib (better known as the Golden Temple).

The operation was deadly. Official estimates by the Indian Army put the number of casualties as 492 civilians dead and 136 military officers. These figures are considered by many to be wildly conservative, with civilian deaths estimated to be around 3,000-5,000 by human rights organisations and Sikhs themselves.

What was the aftermath?

The Harmandir Sahib is the holiest temple in the Sikh tradition, and the very heart of Sikhism. Operation Blue Star also coincided, many argue by design, with the Sikh pilgrimage to the temple in honour of fifth Guru, thus greatly increasing the presence of Sikh civilians.

The symbolic resonance of such an attack, as well as the sheer violence and loss of life, stunned Sikhs across India. Thousands of Sikh soldiers mutinied from the Indian army. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for Operation Bluestar.

The assassination itself led to serious ramifications, specifically through anti-Sikh rioting by Hindu supporters of the Prime Minister – the riots led to thousands more Sikh lives lost.

How is Britain involved?

Records of cabinet meetings are routinely released after 30 years to the National Archives. The 2014 release dated back to 1984, and revealed that Margaret Thatcher had sent an SAS officer to India to advise the Indian government on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his presence in the Golden Temple.

The massacre at the Golden Temple was one of the bloodiest and darkest in India’s history. The revelation that Britain may have played a role in designing Operation Blue Star will be shocking in the utmost to many Sikhs. David Cameron however downplayed British involvement, arguing it was ‘limited’ and thus there was no need for an apology or any further action.

British Sikhs were not so easily reassured, and pressured the government to investigate British involvement in the massacre at Amritsar. This led to a Whitehall report on Britain’s involvement, largely based on available archive evidence. The report confirmed Cameron’s earlier statements, finding that Britain’s involvement was indirect and innocent.

What is happening now?

TheSikh Federation of Britain was not satisfied with the Whitehall paper that investigated the claims, and insists upon a fuller inquiry and a release of any relevant documents regarding Britain’s involvement.

Amrik Singh, who leads the Sikh Federation, explained that the organisation was seeking support from MPs. “We already have the support of over 50 politicians for an independent public inquiry from across the political spectrum. In the next few days we are confident this number will increase to over 100.”

It is unlikely, in the lead up to an election year, the Coalition Government will be able to shrug off this issue. The Amritsar Massacre is also deeply important to many Sikhs globally, and 2014 marks 30 years since the incident and will thus be firmly in the mind of many British Sikhs.

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About On Religion Team

On Religion's editorial team is made up of postgraduate students and researchers of religion and across the UK.