In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the launch of Operation Blue Star, an eight-day internal security mission undertaken by the Indian Army to capture Sikh leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers. Bhindranwale and his followers had been hiding themselves and their weapons in the Sri Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, one of the most sacred Sikh buildings in Amritsar, Punjab.
The Indian Army imposed a strict curfew for 36 hours in the state of Punjab, immediately suspending all public travel, communications, and electrical supply. Shortly after the curfew was implemented, it launched a series of attacks to infiltrate the Golden Temple. In the attacks, they killed thousands of civilians and militia, held hundreds of civilians hostage inside the Golden Temple, and bombed Sikh places of worship, including the Akal Takht and the Golden Temple.
Gandhi’s handling of the overall situation was extremely unpopular among the Sikh community, and the Indian Army’s actions were criticized by the Sikh community worldwide. Many interpreted these actions as assaults against the Sikh religion, which angered them further. In response, many Sikh soldiers in the army deserted their units, several Sikhs resigned from the civil administrative office, and others returned awards received from the Indian government.
On Oct. 31, possibly in response to her treatment towards Sikhs, Indra Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. Her assassination triggered genocidal killings around the country, especially in New Delhi, the country’s capital. Mobs attacked Sikhs throughout the country, burning Sikh-owned stores to the ground, dragging Sikhs out of their homes, cars, trains, and clubbing them to death or setting them on fire.
In New Delhi, mobs gang-raped Sikh women, murdered Sikh men, and burned down Sikh homes, businesses, and Gurdwaras, Sikh houses of worship. Additionally, law enforcement and government officials participated in these massacres by encouraging violence, inciting non-Sikh civilians to seek revenge, and providing mobs with weapons and safety.
According to a report by Time, the New Delhi police did nothing as “rioters murdered and raped, having gotten access to voter records that allowed them to mark Sikh homes with large Xs, and large mobs being bused into large Sikh settlements.” These riots only led to minor arrests, with no politicians or police officers convicted.
Within three days of Gandhi’s assassination, nearly 3,000 Sikhs had been murdered according to official counts, although unofficial estimates indicated that the number was closer to 17,000, with countless others injured. Reports released after the riots estimated that over 20,000 civilians had fled the city, and at least 1,000 people were displaced.
In 2011, the Human Rights Watch reported that the government of India had “yet to prosecute those responsible for the mass killings.” Furthermore, those who survived the riots and violence are still waiting for any semblance of justice as many of the affected families continue to live in extreme poverty, even today.
Contrary to popular belief, the anti-Sikh violence of 1984 was not a riot. The massacres that occurred across the country were not spontaneous or disorganized. According to a report commissioned by the government of India in 2000, “but for the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons, killing of Sikhs so swiftly and in large numbers could not have happened.”
Defining these crimes as unorganized riots is a part of the problem. It allows for the Indian government and the international community to treat the violence as unplanned riots instead of what they truly were — a crime against humanity.