The government of India sent the army into the Golden Temple compound in the first week of June, 1984, after years of deadly skirmishes with militant Sikh leaders fighting for Sikh rights and Khalistan. Government officials said their goal was to dislodge terrorists who had turned the religious hall and adjacent buildings into an armed fortress.
The assault coincided with a religious pilgrimage that had drawn thousands of Sikhs to the site on June 3 to pay homage on the martyrdom day of the fifth guru, Arjan Dev. Most were trapped in the compound after Indian forces launched continuous artillery bombardments and mortar fire. Unable to flush the terrorists out, the army stepped up its attack on June 4, sending infantry into the compound.
The deadly exchange of fire with Sikhs armed with machine guns, rifles and pistols ended on June 6. A government white paper says 493 people, including religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, were killed. Non-governmental groups say as many as 10,000 people, mostly innocent pilgrims, were killed and priceless historic artifacts, including religious books and historical documents in the library, were destroyed. Bodies were cremated without notifying relatives and without autopsies. No official records of cremations were kept. Many Sikhs perceived the attacks as calculated assaults on their faith, culture and identity.
The events fuelled the secessionist insurgency. Radical fringe groups championing the Khalistani cause found themselves suddenly in the mainstream. In Canada, less than a week after the assault, thousands of angry people marched in protest in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, vowing to avenge the attack on the Golden Temple. Effigies of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi were stabbed and burned. Some carried placards with slogans such as "Death to butcher Indira" and "Indira Gandhi dead old meat." An Indian flag was set on fire on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature.
Ms. Gandhi was assassinated four months later. In June, 1985, Sikh radicals had explosives checked onto two flights from Vancouver. The explosions on opposite sides of the world caused 331 deaths.
This year in Canada, events are considerably quieter. The World Sikh Organization held a dinner in Ottawa on Thursday for parliamentarians, community leaders and members of the Sikh community. Public forums are being held throughout June in several cities on how the events of June, 1984, shaped the Sikh community.
In downtown Vancouver, a group of Canadian-born, religious youth are holding a vigil today. Earlier this week, members of the organizing group spoke to The Globe and Mail about the changes within their community since 1984. Following Sikh tradition, the women in the group wished to be identified by the family name Kaur and most of the men identified themselves only as Singh.
Some said they believe many of their generation are unaware of what happened in 1984. "The only reason my history-12 class knew anything about it was because my teacher asked me about it," said Paneet Singh, who was born six years after the assault on the temple. His Grade 12 history textbook had only two paragraphs on the events and his teachers did not elaborate. "It is not as though it is going to be on a final exam," he said.
Their parents' generation was hesitant to talk about 1984 after the Air India bombing. Those who spoke up were tagged as extremists or terrorists. Many remained silent and over the years became apathetic, the members of B.C. Sikh Youth said.
However, the youth are indifferent to the charge of promoting Khalistan. They say the accusation is a myth intended to divert attention from the injustices. "Our main concern at these events is strictly human rights," said Jagjit Singh, the main spokesman for the youth group. Kirpa Kaur, a recent graduate in psychology and social equity, said some of the youth may be supporters of Khalistan. "But these events are about fighting injustice and [the secessionist movement is]absolutely irrelevant to what we are doing."
Prabhroop Kaur, 21, has been going to annual vigils for events in 1984 "ever since I can remember," she said. Her parents instilled in her a strong commitment to justice. "They sat me down and told me what happened. We were supposed to fight injustice everywhere.... We grew up with that. We see clearly injustice and we have to do something about it."