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Why Was Bhindranwale There?

Sant Jarnail Singh in the Harimandar Sahib Complex


Why Was Bhindranwale There?

Sant Jarnail Singh in the Harimandar Sahib Complex

Sikh Genocide
Sikh History
June 1984
Remember 1984
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Why Was Bhindranwale There?

Sant Jarnail Singh in the Harimandar Sahib Complex


Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale is a pivotal figure in the events of 1984. There is much consternation and confusion over his actions and choices in the lead-up to the June 1984 Ghallughara.

Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale is a pivotal figure in the events of 1984. There is much consternation and confusion over his actions and choices in the lead-up to the June 1984 Ghallughara.

Some common critiques and questions of Sant Jarnail Singh’s actions include:
Why was he in the Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Complex?
Why did he bring weapons into a religious site?
Why did he fight the government and not surrender?
Why did he not fight the government somewhere else?

This article, using Sikh history, provides context to Sant Jarnail Singh’s actions in 1984.

Condemnation of the Indian government’s actions in the June 1984 Ghallughara1 is fairly universal from almost all segments of the Sikh community. However, some believe that Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale (the Sant) and those he led are responsible, at least partially, for what occurred 40 years ago in Amritsar Sahib. As popular and lauded as the Sant is in segments of the Sikh community, he is also a source of discomfort for many. The same questions and critiques are repeated year after year. These criticisms come from many sides and are voiced by drastically different groups of the Sikh populace. With the recent rise of Nihang culture amongst young Sikh men, there has been renewed and increased vitriol in the criticism of the Sant’s choices. This essay will contextualize the Sant’s actions through the lens of Sikh history, placing him and the events of June 1984 into a Sikh framework.

The Critiques

The primary criticism of Sant Jarnail Singh regarding 1984 are:

1. Why was he in the Harimandar Sahib Complex in the first place? Why had he made it his base of operations?
2. Why was he personally located in Akal Takht Sahib? 
3. Why was he and those he led armed with weapons? 
4. Why was the Complex so heavily fortified? 
5. Considering the Complex's sanctity and historical importance, why did he not surrender to the Indian army once it became clear the attack would happen?
6. There has been a new question recently: Why did Sant Jarnail Singh not fight the government’s forces at a different location? Why did the battle have to happen in the Harimandar Sahib Complex and not, for example, on the outskirts of Amritsar or at Anandpur Sahib2?
7. There are also critiques that Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale was too harsh in his language, precisely two instances where he threatened the lives of Hindus.

Many of these criticisms are not new and were first voiced before the Ghallughara happened. They were part of a campaign of demonization that the Indian government and press carried out in the lead-up to the June 1984 attack on Harimandar Sahib. This anti-Sikh propaganda was what was used to justify the attack. In the decades since the Ghalluahra, these criticisms have continued and are oft repeated. This paper is an attempt to address all of these critiques systematically.

The Morcha Tradition

Why was Sant Jarnail Singh in the Complex at all? Why had he made the Complex his headquarters? 

The answers to these questions lie in the tradition of morchas that began in 19203. A morcha, a Sikh term meaning a position on a battlefield, had come to mean a non-violent protest movement designed to pressure governments to achieve a goal. The morcha tradition started in 1920, with the beginning of the Akali movement, when Sikhs began to organize the liberation of Gurduaras and other Sikh institutions from British government-backed Mahant4 control5. The morchas continued for five years until the Sikh Gurdwara Act was passed in 19256

After Partition in 1947, Sikhs began to organize again, this time for Panjabi Suba, a state where the Panjabi language could be safeguarded7. The Panjabi Suba Morcha was an epic movement in which tens of thousands of Sikhs gave themselves up for arrest to pressure the government to create a Panjabi-speaking state8. The Panjabi Suba Morcha was led first by Master Tara Singh and then by Sant Fateh Singh, the leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the preeminent Sikh political party.9.

Since the 1920s, and perhaps even earlier, it had become government policy not to enter the Harimandar Sahib Complex and to treat the confines of the Complex as Sikh sovereign space10. This policy had been broken by the Indian government once, in 1955, when the Panjab Police entered the Complex11 and arrested and beat Sikh activists during the Panjabi Suba Zindabad Morcha12. In the aftermath of this incursion, the then Chief Minister of Panjab, Bhim Sen Sachar, came personally to the Complex and promised that the government would never again enter the Complex13

Panjab Police officers marching on the Parkarma (walkway) of the Harimandar Sahib Complex during the 1955 attack on the Complex.Photo credit:  Harjinder Singh Dilgeer, 1955 da Panjabi Suba Morcha (Tasviran Vich), Amritsar, 1999.

How was the Panjabi Suba Morcha carried out? 

In a tradition developed from the earlier morchas of the 1920s, a jatha14 would come to the Harimandar Sahib Complex; they would first go to the Harimandar Sahib and bow down to Guru Granth Sahib. Then, they would go to Akal Takht Sahib, where they would do an ardas (a supplicatory prayer). In this ardas they would state their intention to give themselves up for arrest, and they would promise, in front of the Guru, that they would remain peaceful. They would then go to a large gurduara in the Complex called Manji Sahib Divan Hall15, where political speeches would occur. After listening to speeches, they would leave the Complex and give themselves up for arrest. This process would then continue, day after day, until the morcha was successfully concluded. 

During the Panjabi Suba Morcha, arrest warrants were issued for activists and leaders associated with the movement. Because of the government’s policy of not entering the Harimandar Sahib Complex, those leaders and activists with arrest warrants issued in their name would stay within the Complex, where the government could not enter and arrest them. It was also tradition for the leadership of the morcha to remain within the Complex while the morcha was ongoing16. In the Complex, they could organize and plan without fear of government interference. This tradition would be replicated from 1982 to 1984 during the Dharam Yudh Morcha, of which Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale was the co-leader. 

The Dharam Yudh Morcha

By 1982, Sant Jarnail Singh was growing more popular in the Sikh community17. He had become one of the most prominent leaders in the Panth18. In July 1982, Bhai Amrik Singh, the Sant’s right-hand man and the head of the All India Sikh Students Federation19, as well as senior Taksal figure Baba Thara Singh, were arrested on fabricated charges20. The arrest of these two Sikhs, along with the previous harassment and arrest of other Sikh activists associated with the Damdami Taksal, led the Sant to come to the Harimandar Sahib Complex on 19 July 1982 and start a morcha, which he named the Dharam Yudh Morcha21 (DYM), for the freeing of Sikh political prisoners, primarily Bhai Amrik Singh and Baba Thara Singh. As with previous Panthic morchas, he started this morcha by doing an ardas at Akal Takht Sahib. 

The Sikh masses immediately supported the DYM. The Shiromani Akali Dal, which had been searching for political relevance22, saw the massive support being given to Sant Jarnail Singh and decided to launch a morcha as well23, not only for the release of prisoners but for the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution24. Sant Jarnail Singh humbly decided that the best course forward was for the community to have one morcha under the leadership of the Shiromani Akali Dal and its president, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal. 

Sirdar Kapur Singh, the renowned Sikh scholar, politician, and architect of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, sitting in discussion with Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale

On 4 August 1982, Sant Jarnail Singh merged his morcha with the Akali Dal’s, and the Dharam Yudh Morcha was declared the joint morcha of both Sant Jarnail Singh and the Shiromani Akali Dal. While Sant Harchand Singh Longowal was officially the leader of the morcha, AKA Dictator Sahib25, in practice, both Longowal and Sant Jarnail Singh shared the leadership of the morcha. 

Sant Harchand Singh Longowal and Sant Jarnail Singh, as well as other Panthic leaders, including Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Prakash Singh Badal, Surjit Singh Barnala, and others26, made an ardas at Akal Takht Sahib to start the morcha. They vowed to the Guru that they would not end the morcha until it was successful. This success was defined as the release of Sikh political prisoners and the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution27. This ardas is integral in understanding why the Sant remained in the Harimandar Sahib Complex. 

Sant Jarnail Singh sitting while Sant Harchand Singh Longowal makes a speech in front of the Akal Takht Sahib on the day they made their oaths to start the Dharam Yudh Morcha.

Since the 1920s, Panthic precedents have called for the leadership of a morcha to remain in the Harimandar Sahib Complex while the morcha was ongoing. As co-leader of the Dharam Yudh Morcha, which was ongoing at the time, Sant Jarnail Singh followed the tradition of the preceding six decades, remaining in the Harimandar Sahib Complex.

This explains why Sant Jarnail Singh was inside the Complex, but why was he personally located in Akal Takht Sahib? To understand that, we must delve a little deeper into the history of the Dharam Yudh Morcha

Sant in the Akal Takht Sahib

For the majority of the Dharam Yudh Morcha, Sant Jarnail Singh was based out of room 32 of Guru Nanak Niwas, one of the rest houses within the Harimandar Sahib Complex. His mornings were spent giving and listening to speeches in Gurduara Manji Sahib Divan Hall. His afternoons were often spent on the roof of the Langar building, where he met with various officials and well-wishers. He would sleep and rest in room 32.

By late 1983, the relationship between Sant Jarnail Singh and Sant Harchand Singh Longowal had deteriorated. The Akali Dal had grown increasingly uncomfortable with how central Sant Jarnail Singh was to the movement. In addition, the Shiromani Akali Dal was negotiating with the Government of Indira Gandhi and was willing to make serious concessions. Sant Jarnail Singh, holding the ardas he had done at Akal Takht Sahib as paramount, refused to back down on the promise made before Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh Panth – the DYM would only end when the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was implemented.

The Babbar Khalsa, a militant movement made up of members of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, which was primarily involved in bringing to justice Nirankari leadership28, was also based in the Complex29. At the urging of the Shiromani Akali Dal and Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, on 15th December 1983, the Babbars, a relatively small organization compared to Sant Jarnail Singh’s movement, which was made up of both members of the Damdami Taksal and the All India Sikh Students Federation, came to room 32 and demanded that Sant Jarnail Singh leave. Sant Jarnail Singh’s followers were incredulous at the demand, especially since there were so few Babbars demanding this, but Sant Jarnail Singh was a firm believer that Sikhs should not fight Sikhs, especially within the Harimandar Sahib Complex, and so, without argument, he left Guru Nanak Niwas. 

Longowal and the Akali leadership had pushed the Babbars to remove Sant Jarnail Singh because they wanted him out of the DYM. But, they forgot how strong Sant Jarnail Singh’s commitment was to the promises that he had made. He simply would not break his word. If he said he would remain in the Complex until the morcha was successful, he would remain in the Complex until the morcha was successful. If the Akalis wanted him out of Guru Nanak Niwas, then so be it; he would leave Guru Nanak Niwas. But in a brilliant maneuver that outflanked the Akalis, Sant Jarnail Singh did not leave the Complex when pushed out. Instead, he moved his base to the heart of the Complex, to the Akal Takht Sahib. 

Sant Jarnail Singh was well aware of Panthic history. In the 1960s, Sant Fateh Singh had also stayed in the Akal Takht Sahib during the Panjabi Suba Morcha30, so there was precedent for the leader of a morcha to be within the building of the Akal Takht. By acquiescing to the demands of the Babbars and the Shiromani Akali Dal but then repositioning himself within the seat of Sikh social and political power, Sant Jarnail Singh was sending a bold message. Not only would he not give up, but he had shown that his commitment to the movement was unparalleled and that he would not, through any pressure, leave the Complex before the movement was successful. When criticized that he was somehow disrespecting the Akal Takht by living inside of it, Sant Jarnail Singh was quick to remind Akali supporters that their own previous President, Sant Fateh Singh, had also stayed within Akal Takht Sahib.

This is why, in June of 1984, Sant Jarnail Singh was within the Akal Takht Sahib when the Indian army launched its attack. Here, we have an explanation for why Sant Jarnail Singh was not only in the Complex but also within Akal Takht. We also have a reason why Sant Jarnail Singh did not leave the Complex. An ardas made before the Guru is a sacred bond, one that a Sikh would rather die than break. There are plenty of anecdotes from Sikh history that demonstrate the strength of a Sikh’s commitment to ardas. One is the morcha to take back Nankana Sahib in 1921. When Bhai Lachhman Singh led a jatha to Nankana Sahib to free it from mahants, he and his jatha had first done ardas in front of Guru Granth Sahib that they would remain peaceful, regardless of what the mahants did to them. Upon entering the grounds of Nankana Sahib, Mahant Narain Das’s hired thugs began to attack the Sikh activists physically. Having made a vow of non-violence before the Guru, the Sikhs refused to fight back, and over 250 Sikhs were slaughtered as a result, in an incident now known as Saka Nanakana Sahib. Bhai Lachhman Singh himself was burnt alive, but he and his fellow Akalis refused to break their promise31. The ardas of a Sikh is unbreakable. 

Having explained the critiques of why Jarnail Singh was in the Complex and why he did not leave, let us now turn to why Sant Jarnail Singh was so heavily armed and why he and his followers had fortified the Complex. 

The Nature of the Harimandar Sahib Complex

Violence in and around the Harimandar Sahib Complex is not unique. The Complex has been the site of many conflicts throughout Sikh history in the post-Guru Harigobind Sahib period. If anything, long periods of peace at the site are rare; lack of violence is the exception. 

The source of this conflict can be tied directly to the Sikh principle of Miri Piri, a central component of the Sikh worldview. Miri Piri, simply put, is the idea that the Guru, and by extension, the Sikh people, are fully sovereign in all realms and spaces, both in what are traditionally considered spiritual areas and those more temporal fields, such as society and politics. The Sikh worldview is holistic, not one that divides or creates duality, so that spiritual and socio-political sovereignty are not oppositional forces but are instead intermixed, immersed if you will, within each other32. In the post-Baba Banda Singh Bahadur33 period, when Amritsar grew in prominence and became the capital of the Sikhs, it was never just the spiritual center of the Sikh people but also their socio-political and military headquarters as well. In fact, the very idea of a spiritual capital removed from socio-political concerns is an anathema to Sikhi: an impossibility. The very architecture of the Harimandar Sahib Complex is a testament to the integrated nature of Sikh sovereignty.

Uniquely in Sikh history, the Harimandar Sahib Complex is the work of three subsequent Guru Sahibs. Guru Ramdas Sahib, the fourth Nanak, built the Amrit Sarovar, or Pool of Immortality. The next Guru, Guru Arjan Sahib, built the Harimandar Sahib (the Golden Temple) within that pool. The sixth Guru, Guru Harigobind Sahib, built the Akal Takht facing the Harimandar. This purposeful and thoughtfully planned-out Complex was built to reflect core Sikh principles and ideals34

Harimandar Sahib was built as a palace for the wisdom of Guru Granth Sahib. The building was inaugurated when the original recension of Guru Granth Sahib, the Adi Bir, was completed and reverentially placed inside it35. The unique architecture of the building, with its four doors, symbolized that this was an institution open to the whole world, not just Sikhs, as the wisdom of Gurbani was meant for all of humanity. In fact, according to some traditions, a non-Sikh, the famous Sufi saint Sain Mian Mir36, was the one who placed the foundation stone of the building37

The Akal Takht, properly known as the Takht Akal Bunga Sahib38, was built by Guru Harigobind Sahib as a very different institution from the Harimandar Sahib. Whereas the Harimandar was constructed by the masses of Amritsar, Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike, Akal Takht was a very Panthic space from even before its inception. In fact, according to Sikh tradition, Guru Harigobind Sahib himself fashioned and baked the bricks for the original structure, with only the most pre-eminent Sikhs of the time, Baba Buddha and Bhai Gurdas, were allowed to actually build the Takht39

Why the difference? Because the Akal Takht, regardless of how it is now treated, was never meant to be a Gurduara. Harimandar Sahib was designed to be open to the masses so that the fragrant wisdom of Bani could spread to all. On the other hand, Akal Takht was a space only for those who had committed themselves to the Sikh path. This was due to the nature of the institution. The Akal Takht was where Guru Harigobind Sahib made social, political, judicial, and military decisions40

When Guru Harigobind Sahib relocated to Kiratpur, the sovereign authority of the Guru traveled with him, thus, the Akal Takht was tied to the Guru. It was a manifestation of the Guru’s divine sovereignty, granted by Akal Purakh, the Timeless Being, to Guru Nanak Sahib and passed down from Guru to Guru through the generations. This is why at Kiratpur Sahib, there is a Takht Kot Sahib, which is where Guru Harigobind Sahib, Guru Harirai Sahib, and Guru Harikrishan Sahib all made their socio-political, judicial, and military decisions. When Guru Teghbahadur Sahib built the town of Chak Nanaki, he built a new Takht, known as Akal Bunga, where he made his socio-political decisions. When Guru Gobind Singh Sahib later changed the name of Chak Nanaki to Anandpur Sahib and built the five forts of the city, he turned the Fort of Uncut Hair, Kesgarh, into his Akal Takht, his throne, where he governed. 

Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, who was never able to establish Khalsa rule in central Panjab fully, kept the capital of the Khalsa at Mukhlispur (in the modern state of Haryana), but after his martyrdom, the Sikhs needed a central location to organize the community. The leaders of the community after Banda Singh’s death, the Mothers, Mata Sundari and Mata Sahib Devan Kaur, astutely, in their wisdom, directed the community to gather at Amritsar Sahib at the Harimandar Sahib Complex, and it is from there that the community began to develop itself41

Just as it had in Guru Harigobind Sahib’s time, the Akal Takht once again became the socio-political and military decision-making place of the Guru. Now, however, the Guru was both Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh people as a whole – the Guru Khalsa Panth. And so, twice a year, and when needed, the Khalsa would gather at Akal Takht and make decisions through consensus-based decision-making in a legislative body known as the Sarbat Khalsa42

Though Maharaja Ranjit Singh halted the Sarbat Khalsa and moved executive decision-making to Lahore, and invested the governing power of the Khalsa within himself, the Panth remained sovereign, and the institution of Akal Takht remained separate from the Sikh state. This was demonstrated within his own rule when the mukh sevadar43 of the Akal Takht, Akali Phula Singh, called Ranjit Singh to Akal Takht as a tankhaiya44 for his aberrant behavior45

In the post-colonial period, Akal Takht kept its sovereign nature. While the institution was undermined during British rule when the Akali movement was officially launched and the SGPC was created, it was done through a Panthic meeting at Akal Takht Sahib. Through the 20th century, while the Akal Takht officially fell under the control of the SGPC, it remained a sovereign institution and the center of Sikh political and social sovereignty. 

This is all to say that the nature of the Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib Complex is unique. It is not just a “religious” site, for such a designation is impossible in the Sikh psyche. Instead, the Complex is both the spiritual and temporal capital of the Sikh people, and the institutions of the Harimandar Sahib and the Akal Takht Sahib demonstrate this sovereignty. The twin Nishan Sahibs46 standing to the side of Akal Takht, called the Miri Piri Nishan Sahibs, further manifests this ideal47

For this reason, the Complex has been the site of much violence in the post-Guru Gobind Singh Sahib era. The state, be it Mughal, Afghan, British, or Indian, has recognized, rightly, that the Complex is not just a spiritual site but is a physical manifestation of the Khalsa Panth’s socio-political and spiritual sovereignty. Thus, when the Sikhs come into conflict with the state, which is quite often, considering the radical nature of Guru Nanak Sahib’s vision, the brunt of the state’s forces often comes down hard on the Complex. It has long been a belief of tyrants that to destroy the Sikhs, one must destroy the Harimandar Sahib Complex. Everyone from Zakhriya Khan to Yahiya Khan48, to Ahmed Shah Durrani49, to Indira Gandhi believed that the path to subverting Sikh power and undermining Sikh sovereignty was to attack the Harimandar Sahib Complex. 

The Sikh Response to Violence Against the Complex

Considering that the state has often targeted the Harimandar Sahib Complex, what can we learn from Sikh history about the Sikh response to this violence? I will examine five events from the 18th century. Despite colonization and neocolonialism, there has been remarkable consistency in the Sikh response to interference and violence at the Harimandar Sahib Complex. 

The first instance of violence at the Complex actually occurred during the time of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib. In 1699, soon after the revelation of the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh Sahib sent Bhai Mani Singh50 with a jatha of Sikhs to forcibly take control of the Complex from the Sodhis that were controlling it51. The Complex had fallen into the hands of the descendants of Prithi Chand, the elder brother of Guru Arjan Sahib, to whom Bhai Gurdas gave the title Minas (rascals). The Minas controlled the Complex and used it for their self-aggrandizement. After the creation of the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh Sahib decreed that Sikh sangats should overthrow the masands52 and instead govern themselves. As a part of this larger project, Guru Sahib decided to free Amritsar from the control of the Mina masands

Sikh history tells us that control of the Complex was not given willingly, and the Khalsa had to fight to drive the Minas out. So we see here, already, three hundred years before 1984, a precedent where violence is used at the Complex. In this case, the militant response is being exercised by the Khalsa against usurpers who had taken over these central Sikh institutions from the community. 

Bhai Mani Singh would remain connected to the Harimandar Sahib Complex for the rest of his illustrious life. After the death of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, Mata Sundari, and Mata Sahib Devan Kaur sent him to run the Complex and organize the community. This occurred in 1721. For the next decade and a half, Bhai Mani Singh acted as the mukh sevadar of the Akal Takht and the head granthi53 of Harimandar Sahib. In 1738, Bhai Mani Singh tried to organize the annual Divali54 celebrations at the Complex. The government used this as a pretext to arrest, torture, and execute him, as well as his wife, Mata Sito Kaur, and 22 of his students. Bhai Mani Singh’s principled stance against government interference in the Complex, at the cost of his own life, demonstrates that maintaining the Complex's sovereignty was supreme. 

After Bhai Mani Singh’s martyrdom, the Complex fell to the control of the Mughals. The Amrit Sarovar was filled with logs from trees growing around the Complex and with the carcasses of animals. Most of the city was destroyed and burnt down, and a large number of Sikhs were taken as prisoners to be executed in Lahore. 

Massa Ranghar55 occupied the Harimandar Sahib Complex. He turned the building into a government office and used the central area of the building (the main divan hall) as a dancing hall. Bhai Mehtab Singh of Mirankot village (Amritsar District) and Bhai Sukha Singh of Mari Kambo village (Tarn Taran District) joined together. They marched from the deserts of Rajasthan where the Khalsa was camping, and pledged to punish Massa Ranghar for his sacrilege. They rode their horses up to the central gate leading to the bridge to Harimandar Sahib and tied them to a tree56 that still stands there. Disguised as tax collectors, they entered Harimandar Sahib. While Sukha Singh kept watch, Mehtab Singh executed Massa Ranghar and took his head back to the Khalsa in Bikaner, Rajasthan, as a demonstration of Sikh justice. This occurred in 1740. 

The execution of Massa Ranghar, which occurred within the confines of Harimandar Sahib itself, demonstrates that when violence, even within that sacrosanct location, is the only option left to free the Complex of abuse and denigration, the decision is both clear and appropriate. 

The Sikhs would not get access to the Complex until 1748, when the Dal Khalsa57, under the command of Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, defeated Salabat Khan, the faujadar (local Mughal official) of the area and took control of Amritsar. In order to defend the Complex in the future, the Sikhs built a small fort near the sarovar (pool) of Ram Sar (about 1 kilometer from the Harimandar Sahib Complex). They named it Ram Rauni (after Guru Ramdas Sahib). The Sikhs re-dug the sarovar and repaired the Complex, but just a year later, Mir Mannu58, the governor of Lahore, attacked the Sikhs, and Harimandar Sahib fell to the Mughals once more. It would not be until Mir Mannu died in 1753 that there would be some respite for the Sikhs, and the Complex would once again come under Sikh authority. 

In 1757, Ahmed Shah Durrani (aka Abdali), the Afghan emperor, invaded India for the fourth time. Sikhs carried out guerilla attacks against Durrani and his forces, liberating much of his spoils and freeing many of the enslaved people he was taking back to the slave markets of Kabul. Durrani was enraged and wished to destroy Sikhs once and for all. He thought the best way to do this was to attack and destroy the Harimandar Sahib Complex. The sarovar was once again filled with animal carcasses, and this time, to ensure the defeat of the Sikhs, Abdali packed Harimandar Sahib with explosives and blew up the building. This was the first time the structure of Harimandar Sahib, built by Guru Arjan Sahib, was destroyed. The foundation built by the Guru remained. 

One of Bhai Mani Singh’s protegés, now an old man himself, Baba Dip Singh59, was based at Damdama Sahib in southern Panjab, where he spent his time as a scholar, teacher, and scribe. Upon hearing of the destruction of Harimandar Sahib, Baba Dip Singh declared that he would not rest until he had freed the Complex from outsider control. With his few students, he started to march to Amritsar, 220 km away. Along the way, Sikh villagers, who were not professional soldiers, joined him and pledged themselves to his cause. Baba Dip Singh was mortally wounded, but his forces managed to defeat the Afghans under the command of Durrani’s general, Jahan Khan and freed the Complex60. The spot where Baba Dip Singh’s head landed on the Parkarma of Harimandar Sahib is memorialized to this day with a small Gurduara that marks the spot. 

The story of Baba Dip Singh, who sacrificed everything to free the Complex from Afghan control, is significant in understanding Sant Jarnail Singh’s actions in 1984. The Sant was the head of the Damdami Taksal, which traced its origins back to Baba Dip Singh, so he saw himself as sitting on Baba Dip Singh's seat. The historicity of this is not the issue; it is just the fact that the Sant fervently believed this61

Seven years later, Ahmed Shah Durrani invaded India again, his seventh invasion of the sub-continent. The Sikhs held a Sarbat Khalsa and decided to return to the jungles to be able to attack the Afghan emperor using their guerilla tactics. However, the Sikhs had not wholly abandoned the Complex. Thirty Sikhs, under the command of one of Baba Dip Singh’s protegés, Baba Gurbakhsh Singh Nihang62, had volunteered to remain at the Complex to defend it. 

The story of Baba Gurbakhsh Singh and his 29 compatriots is integral to our understanding of the events of 1984. Why did the Khalsa leave just 30 Sikhs behind to defend the Complex? What was the point of this tiny group against a force of tens of thousands of Afghani soldiers? The issue was a matter of principle. While it made strategic sense for the Khalsa to retreat from Amritsar, they could not give up control of the Complex without putting up a fight. A foreign army could not enter the Complex and take control of it without Sikhs fighting back, even if this fight was against overwhelming odds. Baba Gurbakhsh Singh had volunteered to stay behind to demonstrate to the Afghanis that Sikhs would not willingly give up control of their institutions. 

The thirty defenders of the Harimandar Sahib Complex fought bravely against an army of almost 30,000 Afghanis. They did not stand a chance, but they did not surrender. Each one fought to their last breath. According to Sikh historian Bhai Rattan Singh Bhangu, Baba Gurbakhsh Singh Nihang and his compatriots fought for several hours against the vastly superior force. Ahmed Shah Durrani was so frustrated by this show of defiance that he desecrated Harimandar Sahib again and once again filled in the sarovar with animal carcasses63

It is entirely possible that had Baba Gurbakhsh Singh not been there and fought back against the Afghanis; the Afghan army would have simply left the Harimandar Sahib Complex and not destroyed it. It was the act of fighting back, it can be argued, that led to Complex being damaged and destroyed. However, principle is more important than buildings. Buildings can be rebuilt. Brick, marble, and gold can be replaced. Sovereign principles can not. It is just as Jarnail Singh famously said, “I do not consider the death of the body to be a real death; it is a death of principle that is a true death."64 A monument Gurduara to Baba Gurbakhsh Singh, stands behind Akal Takht Sahib to this day.65

The Complex would be free of conflict from 1765 onwards, once the Khalsa Sultanate was achieved66, which in turn was replaced by the empire, Sarkar-i-Khalsa, of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The next time the Complex would see conflict was after British colonization in 184667. These incidents from the 18th century demonstrate that violence within the confines of the Harimandar Sahib Complex is not a rare event, and according to Sikh history, it is often necessary to defend the Complex from invasion and occupation. In Guru Nanak Sahib’s radical vision of Ik Oankar, the One creative and pervasive Force68, there is no division between sacred and non-sacred space. For the Gurus, all spaces contain the Divine. Harimandar Sahib, in theological terms, is no more sacred than any other place in the world. Sikhs reject both the Vedic and Islamic ideas of particular places being more pious than others. 

That is not to say that the Harimandar Sahib Complex is not important. It is a place of deep reverence for the Sikh community and afforded much respect. However, according to Sikh ideals, the notion that a location is somehow so sacred that violence should be avoided there does not make sense. Not only does sacred space not exist, but a militant response is in no way, in the Sikh tradition, profane. According to Sikh principles, a militant response is necessary and a responsibility. It is immoral in the Sikh tradition to turn from violence when the need for an armed response emerges. As Guru Gobind Singh Sahib famously puts it in his letter to Aurangzeb, the Zafarnama Sahib, “When all other means have failed, It is just to take up the sword”69

Therefore, the Harimandar Sahib Complex is not a pure place where any violence would be considered sacrilegious. Instead, it is a place where a militant response is often needed to protect Sikh principles, institutions, and ideals. Having explained why a militant response within the Complex is not problematic within a Sikh context, let us extend our argument to the fortifications of the Complex. 

Fortifying the Complex

General Shabeg Singh was a master of guerilla warfare and was pivotal in the Bangladeshi war for independence from Pakistan70. He joined Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale as a member of the movement during the Dharam Yudh Morcha. In preparation for the inevitable invasion of the Indian army on the Complex, Shabeg Singh set about creating fortifications and coordinating positions for fighters to fight from. Was the active fortification of the Complex contrary to Sikh tradition and principles? 

Sikhs of the 18th century understood the need to fortify the Harimandar Sahib Complex. They had built the fort of Ram Rauni about 1km from the Complex to defend it. The fort was later developed by Sardar Jassa Singh71, who became so synonymous with the fort that his entire Misl72, and into present times, his entire caste73, are given the title of Ramgarhias. Later in the 18th century, Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia built two large towers and a fort on the Parkarma of Harimandar Sahib. These towers and the fort between them were built to protect the Complex from attack. The building and towers74, still stands on the eastern side of the Parkarma, the walkway around Harimandar Sahib, and is called the Ramgarhia Bunga75.

The Ramgharia Bunga, with its two towers on the Parkarma (walkway) of Harimandar Sahib

Therefore, fortifying the Complex was not a modern phenomenon but a concern for Sikhs in the 18th century. As a place that was the focus of so much government oppression, fortifying the Complex was and remains a necessity. General Shabeg Singh was not doing anything counter to Sikh tradition, but instead was following in the footsteps of the great Misl leader, Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia. 

Weapons in a Temple

One common justification for the government’s attack in June of 1984 is to show images of Sikhs with firearms in the Complex during the Dharam Yudh Morcha. The argument being that there were “extremists or terrorists” in the Complex that the Government needed to remove. Was it wrong, according to Sikh tradition, history, and scripture, to have weapons in the Harimandar Sahib Complex?

This is perhaps the easiest critique to refute. Weapons hold a central place in the Sikh tradition. In fact, weapons sit on the throne at Akal Takht Sahib, representing the Divine’s creative power, justice, and wisdom. These historical weapons, from the Gurus and famous Sikhs from the 17th and 18th centuries, are a source of veneration in Akal Takht Sahib. These weapons are authentic tools of war that were used in battle by figures like Guru Harigobind Sahib, Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, Baba Dip Singh, and Sahibzada Baba Ajit Singh. 

For those who might argue that there is a fundamental difference between cutting-edge weapons and firearms, the fact that there are two pistols in Akal Takht Sahib, belonging to Guru Hargobind Sahib and Baba Dip Singh, demonstrates that firearms are treated as any other weapon in Sikh ethos and that historically, there were never any issues with firearms within the Complex76. The Gurus are known to have used pistols and rifles. Thus, the rifles and sten guns of the Sikhs in 1984 were no different than the pistols carried by Guru Harigobind Sahib four hundred years ago.

The historic weapons of Akal Takht Sahib. The two pistols can be seen on the top left of the image.

Besides, Baba Jarnail Singh and his followers' weapons in 1984 were hardly sophisticated. They lacked ammunition and mainly used guns from the World War II era77. The army greatly surpassed them in terms of firepower78. The fact that they could hold out for so many days and stop one of the world’s largest armies is a testament not to their weaponry but to their dedication and courage. 


As explained above, Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale would not have surrendered once the battle had begun due to his promises in front of Guru Granth Sahib and the Akal Takht Sahib. The Sant saw himself as someone with the legacy of Baba Dip Singh and Baba Gurbakhsh Singh Nihang to live up to, meaning once a battle had begun, there would be no option but to fight to the end. Above all of these concerns was the fact that the Sant took the principle of upholding the sovereignty and sanctity of the Harimandar Sahib Complex as paramount. 

Lieutenant General SK Sinha, who served as Vice Chief of Army Staff, was initially tasked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to plan the attack on the Harimandar Sahib Complex. He refused to plan the attack as he believed a political solution was the only viable option and was forcibly retired because of this refusal79. He states that Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale had no choice but to defend the Complex from attack: “In view of these military preparations, if Sant Bhindranwale and his men decided to defend the Golden Temple with all of their might and means, no one can, and should, blame them. You are duty-bound to do your all when you know someone is going to raid your house. In this case, the house was the holiest Sikh Shrine in the world”80. Even a highly decorated officer of the Indian army could understand why Sant Jarnail Singh had to defend the Harimandar Sahib Complex. More than that, Sinha’s statement shows that the only sane and just response was the one that the Sant took. 

A more fundamental reason often ignored when discussing 1984 is that the Sant could not have surrendered before or during the attack. Simply put, in June of 1984, Sant Jarnail Singh was not a wanted man. There was no arrest warrant out for him, and by the standards of the Indian government, he was a free citizen without any criminal charges. In fact, Sant Jarnail Singh had been charged with murder in 198281, and had willingly given himself up for arrest. Due to a lack of evidence, he was set free from holding, and the courts did not follow up on the charges. Why, then, would he have surrendered if the government had not charged him with any crimes and he was a free man at the time of the June 1984 attack on the Harimandar Sahib Complex? Despite all the claims by the government and Indian press that the Sant was a terrorist, there was not one criminal case lodged against him at the time of the June attack on the Harimandar Sahib Complex. According to the Indian government, he was an innocent man. 

A Field of Battle?

A new critique of Sant Jarnail Singh and his armed presence in the Harimandar Sahib Complex has emerged in the past ten years. This critique is often leveled by those who follow the Nihang tradition and greatly idolize the controversial Sikh figure, Santa Singh Nihang, the man who was the head of the Buddha Dal82 Nihangs in 1984. Because he collaborated with the Indian state, both before 1984 and in the immediate aftermath of the attack83, Santa Singh was excommunicated from the Khalsa Panth in the summer of 198484. Contemporary supporters of Santa Singh wishing to rehabilitate his image often justify his collaboration in various ways. The point of this paper is not to counter these claims, so I will not delve into them except to refute one specific claim that has become increasingly common. 

Followers of Santa Singh state that Baba Jarnail Singh should have fought the Indian army elsewhere, not in the Harimandar Sahib Complex. Without any historical evidence, they claim that Santa Singh offered Sant Jarnail Singh to act as a liaison between himself and the government to organize a battle at a different location, often stated to be Anandpur Sahib. This, presumably, is meant to have saved the Harimandar Sahib Complex from an attack.

1984 was not the 16th century when armies would meet on a battlefield and a victor would emerge. This was not a battle between two opposing armies but between an army and a force of about 200 brave Sikh warriors85. The government intended to attack the Harimandar Sahib Complex, Sant Jarnail Singh being there or not; the government’s goals were clear. They had planned the attack months in advance86, from the very start of the Dharam Yudh Morcha87. They chose the timing of the attack carefully to inflict maximum civilian casualties88. Ignoring the fact that the Sant had pledged before the Guru to remain in the Complex and all the reasons why he could not easily leave the Complex, the idea that the government would allow him and his followers to choose a place of battle and then go to war, like feudal fighters, is absurd. This argument betrays a lack of basic logic, and those who make it are either knowingly making a bad-faith argument or somehow lack an understanding of the nature of warfare in the 20th century and a basic understanding of history. 

The battle at the Harimandar Sahib Complex in June of 1984 followed a decades-long pattern of harassment and discrimination by the Indian state, which had begun before Partition. It was the culmination of systemic demonizing of Sikhs in general and the Sant in particular. Like the 18th-century attacks on the Complex, it was an attempt to silence and destroy Sikh social and political activism89. It was a brutal siege and a bitter fight to defend the Complex, and it could not have somehow, magically, taken place hundreds of kilometers away. 

Use of Questionable Language

There are two recorded instances where Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale used controversial language in regards to Hindus. In the first instance, he threatened to kill 5,000 Hindus if detained buses containing members of the sangat (Sikh congregation) were not released. In the second instance, on 1 December 1983, he stated that if Sikhs were forced out of other parts of India, the Hindus of Panjab would suffer the consequences. Let us look at both events in more detail to understand their context and Sant Jarnail Singh’s response. 

In the first situation, buses had been detained. The sangat in these buses had traveled to celebrate the death anniversary of Sant Kartar Singh Bhindranwale, the head of the Mehta Chowk branch of the Damdami Taksal before Sant Jarnail Singh, who was also Bhai Amrik Singh’s father. Mata Labh Kaur, the very elderly mother of Sant Kartar Singh, was included on the bus. The buses had been detained without cause or explanation. Sant Jarnail Singh was incensed by this detention and harassment of the sangat, especially his mentor's mother. He made a public statement that if the buses were not released within a certain number of hours, 5,000 Hindus would die: “If our bus is not returned by five o’clock, I shall kill five thousand Hindus in one hour90.” The buses and their sangat were promptly released. 

Did Sant Jarnail Singh actually plan to kill 5,000 innocent Hindus? At a later date, he said he had no intention of following through on the threat but knew that this would be the fastest way of ensuring that the buses were released.

Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale addressing the Sangat at Gurduara Manji Sahib Divan Hall within the Harimandar Sahib Complex.

In the second situation, an extremist Hindu group called the Jai Hindu Sangh in the state of Rajasthan threatened to force out all the Sikhs of Rajasthan from the state91. Sant Jarnail Singh responded by saying that if “Sikhs were uprooted from any part of the country, it would be done at the cost of Hindus in Punjab”92. This incendiary statement was made in response to a threat, intending to assure extremist Hindu groups that there would be consequences if Sikhs were killed or harassed in other states.

In reality, Sant Jarnail Singh was not anti-Hindu in the least and, in many instances, had cordial relations with Hindu leaders. He relays several incidents in his speeches where Hindus came to him for assistance93. He abhorred violence against civilians and condemned any targeted killings of any community. These statements, while unsavory, were made tactically to ensure the safety of Sikhs. 

Sant Jarnail Singh was a principled individual who epitomized Sikh values. He was a man who was fully committed to Sabad-Guru (the wisdom of Guru Granth Sahib) and deeply connected to Nam (identification with the Divine One94) and Bani (wisdom of the Gurus). He was an excellent human being, not perfect. In the Sikh ethos, only the Guru and Kartar (the Creator) are perfect95. In fact, Sant Jarnail Singh would repeatedly stress that he was flawed and not near perfect or infallible. Again and again in his speeches, he admonishes people when they call him a Brahmgiani (one who has deep knowledge of the Divine), a title of respect given to saintly Sikhs.  

“For this reason, pray to the Guru that the True King (Guru Granth Sahib) give me the opportunity to dust the shoes of the congregation; that he give me faith in Guru Granth Sahib, his own form; so that, living as a Sikh, keeping the five k’s, I can serve the Panth. You should just say this prayer for me. Just saying empty words [of praise] causes me a lot of hurt. With folded hands, with this palla (strip of cloth worn around the neck, a symbol of humility) around my neck, prostrating myself on the ground, I appeal to the spokesperson that it is not a sin to say this (call someone a Brahmgiani) about a great man who might come to the stage but it is not proper to use these words for an insignificant person like me.”96

Another instance demonstrating the humility and humanity of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale is found in M.S. Deora’s Akali Agitation to Operation Blue Star, Volume 1:

“An ultimatum was given by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinranwale to publisher-cum-author of a book to withdraw from the market a book published by him in praise of the Sant. Mr Bhindranwale objected to his (Sant’s) characterisation in the book as a “dharam rakshak” (protector of Dharam).

In [the] ultimatum, Mr. Bhindranwale stated that Guru Gobind Singh alone could be described as “defender of dharam” and by the using the term for him (Sant) the author had indirectly insulted the great Guru as well as brough the Sant into contempt. The publisher [should] stop circulation of the book and seek an apology97.”

I include these two quotes to demonstrate that Sant Jarnail Singh was not perfect, which he readily acknowledged. The two statements about Hindus that he made were not ideal, and it can be said that they did not completely reflect Sikh values. It is a fair critique to point out that these statements were inflammatory and discriminatory. However, consideration is also needed for the circumstances that prompted these tactical statements. In addition, it is impossible that every statement made by Sant Jarnail Singh would be free of fault or critique. He was a fallible human being, and it can be said that these two instances demonstrated this fallibility. Nonetheless, he was a man fully committed to the Sikh ethos.

From Critiques to Empowerment

All of these critiques are predicated on the belief that, to some degree, the blame for the Ghallughara of 1984 should not be placed just at the feet of the Indian government, but that there were two sides and both were to blame, for how the events of June 1984 played out. There is a logical fallacy in this belief in that the events of 1984 have been demonstrated not to be an aberration to Sikh-India relations but instead were the end goal of a multi-decade-long process that began before Partition in 194798. While Sikhs have never been passive participants in their own history, a fair reading of 1984 demonstrates clearly that the government was responsible for the aggression leading up to the attack and for the attack itself. 

These criticisms of Sant Jarnail Singh and his followers in June of 1984 betray a desperate desire to make sense of June 1984 without facing up to the straightforward and historically verifiable fact that the responsibility for the attack lies at the feet of the Indian government and its leader, Indira Gandhi. These critiques are an attempt to mitigate this guilt somehow, to spread the blame from the government to the Sant as well.

These explanations are not simple; they can not be easily encapsulated in a list or a quick soundbite. But this does not make them any less accurate. These explanations require an understanding of Sikh history and traditions. One needs to know about Baba Gurbakhsh Singh Nihang, Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgharia, and the Panjabi Suba Morcha to understand why Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale was in the Harimandar Sahib Complex, why he was armed, why he fortified the Complex, why he did not surrender, and why the battle could not have taken place somewhere else. 

When viewed from the long-term perspective of Sikh history, the actions of Sant Jarnail Singh in 1984 bear remarkable similarities with the beloved and celebrated Sikh figure Baba Dip Singh. For this reason, many segments of the global Sikh population celebrate him fervently. For those who are uncomfortable with Sant Jarnail Singh and feel that he is to blame, even partially, for what happened in 1984, there is a need to be self-reflective and critical. One must ask oneself why it is so difficult to assign blame to where it should rest, with the Indian government. There is a need to challenge oneself to try and understand what occurred in 1984 through a Sikh lens and not fall prey to disinformation and propaganda. An understanding of 1984 through a Sikh framework is a must so that the Sikh community can learn from what occurred in 1984, celebrate the brave warriors who defended the Harimandar Sahib Complex, and commemorate all who were martyred in the 1984 Ghallughara


1     Ghallughara is a Sikh term first used in the 18th century to describe large-scale calamitous massacres and battles in which a large number of Sikhs were killed. Those who die in a ghallughara thus include not only those who are non-combatants and are killed or executed by opposing forces (usually the state) but also those who fight back against these forces. Therefore, while terms like ‘massacre’ or ‘genocide’ capture some semblance of what is meant by ghallughara, they do not embody the entire connotation of the term. While the term historically was used for a campaign of violence against Sikhs in 1746 (Chotta, or Lesser Ghallughara) and a battle/massacre in 1762 (Vadda, or Greater Ghallughara), in which half the population of the Sikh Panth was killed in one day, the term has become the accepted name to refer to the events of both June and November 1984. These are sometimes referred to as the Tija ( third) Ghallughara or Charasi da Ghallughara (1984 Ghallughara). Smaller scale massacres of Sikhs, like the 1921 Nankana Sahib Massacre or the 1978 Amritsar Massacre, are referred to as a Saka. Ghallughara is reserved for an event of more epic proportions in which a large number of Sikhs are killed. The June 1984 Ghallughara thus refers to the non-combatant pilgrims who had come to Harimandar Sahib Complex to celebrate Guru Arjan Sahib’s Shahidi Purab, the activists who were there as part of the Dharam Yudh Morcha, and the fighters who defended the complex against the Indian army. 
This last critique is a new one that has most vociferously been voiced by those who idolize Santa Singh, the head of the Buddha Dal Nihang Singhs. There are claims, without evidence or logic, that Santa Singh offered to have the battle take place in a different location to preserve the dignity of the Harimandar Sahib Complex. 
There was the earlier Rakab Ganj Gurduara Morcha in 1913, though it was not performed in the same method of the Akali Morchas of the 1920s.
Mahants were Udasis or Nirmalas who had controlled Sikh Gurduaras for generations. During the Sarkar-i-Khalsa (Sikh Empire), many of these Gurduaras had been given large land grants. This wealth and power had led to many of these Mahants growing corrupt with time. The British government supported the Mahants in their struggle against the Akali reformers. Guru Gobind Singh had nullified their agency prior to the inauguration of the Khalsa in 1699.
The movement to free Gurduaras from Mahant control began in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919, when over 1500 people were killed, a majority of them Sikh. In October of 1920, Sikh activists who were advocating for the rights of women and so-called low caste people who were barred from Mahant controlled Sikh spaces, took control of the Harimandar Sahib and Akal Takht Sahib Complex. Later that year, in December, the Akali movement was officially launched with the creation of the Shiromani Akali Dal as a political party to advocate for Sikhs. 
Mohinder Singh, The Akali Movement. New Delhi, [1977] 1997.
Sikhs had been promised a state organized on linguistic grounds before Independence/Partition in 1947 by senior Congress leaders. After 1947, the government, led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, refused to create a Panjabi speaking state as promised. This led to the Panjabi Suba Morcha
Officially, over 60,000 Sikhs were arrested in the Panjabi Suba Morcha: Gurmit Singh, A History of Sikh Struggles, Volume 1 (1946-1966). New Delhi, 1989.
Sant Fateh Singh created his own Shiromani Akali Dal on 2 October 1962 which soon eclipsed Master Tara Singh’s Shiromani Akali Dal. After Master Tara Singh’s death in 1967, the two Akali Dals merged: Jitinder Kaur, “Fateh Singh, Sant” from The Encyclopedia of Sikhism Volume Two, ed. Harbans Singh, Patiala, 1995.
Immediately after colonization of Panjab in 1846, the British entered the Harimandar Sahib Complex leading to conflict. However, by the 1920s they were careful not to bring police into the Complex. Upon victory of the Chabian (Keys) Morcha in January of 1922, the government was forced to recognize the sovereignty of the Harimandar Sahib Complex.
On 4 July 1955 the Panjab Police led by Deputy Inspector General of Police Ashwani Kumar entered the Harimandar Sahib Complex and beat Sikh activists and congregants. The Langar Hall was captured and langar was stopped, Guru Ram Das Saran was raided and the headquarters of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the SGPC, Teja Singh Samundari Hall was occupied. Tear gas was used on the Parkarma (walkway) around the Amrit Sarovar (the pool of immortality) that surrounds Harimandar Sahib. 237 Sikhs were arrested, many more were beaten, with two dying from injuries sustained in the attack: Harjinder Singh Dilgeer, 1955 da Panjabi Suba Morcha (Tasviran Vich), Amritsar, 1999.
The Panjabi Suba Zindabad Morcha was a morcha launched in 1955 because the government had made it illegal to say Panjabi Suba Zindabad (Long Live the Panjabi State). It was launched on 10 May 1955. Over 21,000 Sikhs were arrested during the Morcha in just three months. The morcha ended on 12 July 1955 when the government lifted the ban: JS Grewal, The Sikhs of the Punjab. Cambridge, 1998.
Sachar came to the Complex on 10 October 1955: Dilgeer, op cit.
Jatha is a Sikh word, originally used for small bands of warriors in the early part of the 18th century. It has come to mean any group of Sikhs, including Sikh organizations. 
Divan Manji Hall is located within the Complex, just off of the Parkarma (walkway) of Harimandar Sahib, across from the Langar Hall building.
This policy of the police not entering the Complex was even honored during the Save Democracy Morcha that the Shiromani Akali Dal launched during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975. Sikh leadership that otherwise would have been arrested due to Indira Gandhi’s suspension of civil liberties were free to plan the morcha from within the Complex.
Sant Jarnail Singh became the head of the Mehta Chowk branch of the Bhindranwale Taksal (a part of the larger Damdami Taksal) on 25 August 1977. He became prominent in the community after the Amritsar Vaisakhi Massacre of 1978 where 13 Sikhs who were a part of a peaceful protest were killed.
Panth, literally meaning path, is the Sikh term for the Sikh people as a whole. Guru Gobind Singh Sahib granted the position of Guru to the Sikh Panth, and it is now referred to as the Guru Khalsa Panth. Panthic therefore refers to something that is of the Panth.
The All India Sikh Students Federation was founded in the 1940s as the youth wing of the Shiromani Akali Dal. Most major Panthic leaders, authors, and ideologues would come out of the AISSF. In 1978, Bhai Amrik Singh was voted in as leader of the AISSF and he launched a revitalization of the organization. The AISSF was a major part of the movement headed by Sant Jarnail Singh. After 1984 the organization splintered and has never returned to the prominence it once had in the Panth. 
 Previously, three members of the Damdami Taksal, Bhai Jagir Singh, Bhai Narinder Singh and Bhai Ajaib Singh, had been arrested in connection with a protest to get Amritsar Sahib ‘holy city status’, a status that prominent Hindu religious cities had. They had been arrested on the charge that they had ‘contraband’. Bhai Amrik Singh and Baba Thara Singh were sent to talk to the police about the arrests and bail out the Taksal members, but were themselves arrested. They were arrested on murder charges relating to the murder of a Sant Nirankari leader. Eventually, they would be released due to a lack of evidence on 6 August 1983: Gurmit Singh, A History of Sikh Struggles, Volume II. New Delhi, 1991.
Dharam Yudh is usually translated as Religious War, though the term Dharam connotes much more than just religion in the Sikh ethos. The Guru Granth Sahib Project defines it as, “religious practices/ritual/custom/observance; duty/obligation; righteousness, virtue, morality, goodness; Divine principle/law.”
After the achievement of Panjabi Suba in 1966, the Shiromani Akali Dal had found itself without a major program of action.
The Shiromani Akali Dal was at the time running a smaller-scale Morcha from Kapoori village (Patiala district) against the Sutlej-Yamuna-link-canal (SYL): Harminder Kaur, Blue Star over Amritsar: The Real Story of June 1984. Amritsar, 2006.
The Anandpur Sahib Resolution was drafted by Sirdar Kapur Singh in 1973 and was approved as the political goal of the Shiromani Akali Dal on 28 October 1978. The Resolution was a list of both religious and socio-political demands. Largely, its goal was the devolution of powers from the Central Government to state governments, as well as socio-economic programs for the marginalized.
The leader of a morcha was often given the title of Dictator Sahib. 
Gurmit Singh, A History of Sikh Struggles, Volume II. New Delhi, 1991.
It must be noted that Sant Jarnail Singh’s original goal, the release of political prisoners, was achieved by August of 1983 and that it was the Shiromani Akali Dal’s goals, of the implementation of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, that remained as an issue. Sant Jarnail Singh, once committed to the goal of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution would not back down from it, even though this was not originally the goal of his morcha
The Sant Nirankari Mission was a cult that developed in the mid-20th century. There was an earlier group also called the Nirankaris, who were founded in the late 19th century, who were Sikh reformers. The Sant Nirankari Mission, on the other hand was not a part of the Sikh community but instead was a cult propped up by and supported by Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party. Their leaders were highly disrespectful to the Sikh Gurus which incited protests against the movement. In 1978, Bhai Fauja Singh, a member of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha (AKJ), led a group of Sikhs from the AKJ and the Damdami Taksal in a peaceful protest against the Nirankaris on Vaisakhi in Amritsar. The Nirankaris opened fire on the protesters and 13 Sikhs were killed with many more being injured. 
The Babbar Khalsa was created by Bhai Sukhdev Singh, a protegé of Bhai Fauja Singh. Its primary goal initially was to bring justice to the Nirankaris who had been responsible for Bhai Fauja Singh’s death.
Kapur Singh, “These Havan Kunds”, 1968.
Mohinder Singh, The Akali Movement. New Delhi, [1977] 1997.
See SikhRI’s State of the Panth Report on Miri Piri for further information on this subject from a Gurmat perspective (Bani (Wisdom),Tavarikh (history) and Rahit (Sikh lifestyle)). 
Baba Banda Singh Bahadur was a Sikh who was given leadership of the Khalsa army by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib in 1708. He quickly established Khalsa Raj in the Southern Panjab region. However, the Mughal Empire came down heavily on the Sikhs and Banda Singh was captured and executed in 1716. It would not be until 1726 that Sikhs began to actively fight against the Mughal empire once again. 
See SikhRI’s article on Amritsar, by Harinder Singh, titled, “Amritsar: Harimandar, Ramdaspur, Darbar, or Golden?” for further information and contextual Gurbani analysis of the development of the city. 
The Ad Granth Sahib was placed in the newly completed Harimandar Sahib in October of 1604: Madanjit Kaur, The Golden Temple: Past & Present. Amritsar, 2004.
 Sain Mian Mir was a famous Sufi saint born with the name Mir Mohammed Muayyinul Islam. He had close relations with both Guru Arjan Sahib and Guru Hargobind Sahib: Z.H. Faruqui, “Mian Mir, Hazrat” from The Encyclopedia of Sikhism Volume Three, ed. Harbans Singh, Patiala, 1995.
According to Madanjit Kaur’s comprehensive history of the Harimandar Sahib Complex, The Golden Temple: Past & Present, it was Guru Arjan Sahib who laid the foundation stone of Harimandar Sahib and the tradition that Sain Mian Mir laid the stone is a later one introduced by Muslim historians.
The Takht, or throne, refers to the original brick platform built by Guru Hargobind Sahib. The Bunga is the building built over the platform. 
Gurmukh Singh, “Akal Takht” from The Encyclopedia of Sikhism Volume One, ed. Harbans Singh, Patiala, 1995.
See SikhRI’s State of the Panth Report on Akal Takht Sahib for further information on the Akal Takht.
Kartar Singh Chibbar, Bansavalinama: Dasan Patshahian ka [Genealogy of the ten Emperors], ed, Piara Singh Padam. Amritsar, [1769] 1997.
See SikhRI’s State of the Panth Reports on both Miri Piri and Akal Takht for further information. See also the Free Akal Takht organization’s proposals for a modern Sarbat Khalsa for further discussion on the issue of Sarbat Khalsa: https://www.freeakaltakht.org/ 
Mukh Sevadar, means senior person who renders Seva. The title of Jathedar of Akal Takht Sahib first appeared in 1920. 
Tankhaiya means someone who receives a wage, and is a Sikh term for someone who receives punishment for countering Sikh ethics.
Gurmukh Singh, “Akal Takht” from The Encyclopedia of Sikhism Volume One, ed. Harbans Singh, Patiala, 1995.
Nishan Sahib is the flag of the Guru that flies outside of every Gurduara. 
A thorough explanation of the Harimandar Sahib Complex’s sovereignty within the framework of Miri Piri is provided by the esteemed Sirdar Kapur Singh in his essay, “The Golden Temple: Its Theopolitical Status”. 
Zakhriya Khan and Yahiya Khan were Mughal governors of Panjab, based out of Lahore, in the 18th century.
Ahmad Shah Durrani (popularly Abdali) was the Afghani Emperor in the 18th century.
Bhai Mani Singh was an esteemed Sikh who served the ninth and tenth Guru Sahibs. He was the scribe for the final copy of Guru Granth Sahib prepared by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib at Damdama Sahib. He was a scholar and warrior who was a well respected leader in the community in the post-Guru Gobind Singh Sahib era. The Damdami Taksal traces its origins to Bhai Mani Singh and his protegé, Baba Dip Singh.
51     Madanjit Kaur, The Golden Temple: Past & Present. Amritsar, 2004.
Masands were deputies of the Guru who were in charge of sangats (congregations) of the Sikhs. They were introduced by Guru Amardas Sahib but by the time of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, most of them had become hopelessly corrupt. 
Granthi is someone who cares for and reads the Guru Granth Sahib. The position of head granthi of Harimandar Sahib was first given to the esteemed Baba Buddha by Guru Arjan Sahib.
Since the time of Guru Amardas Sahib, the Indian festivals of Divali and Vaisakhi were repurposed by the Guru to be days of gathering for the Sikh Panth. This tradition continued after Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, with these two days being the days that the Sikhs would often gather for Sarbat Khalsas
Massa Ranghar, born Musalal Khan, was a Mughal official and zamindar (large feudal land owner). He was the choudhary (official) of Mandiala (Gurdaspur District) who was appointed the commandant of Amritsar in 1738 by Zakariya Khan, governor of Lahore: Rattan Singh Bhangu, Sri Gur Panth Prakash, ed. Balwant Singh Dhillon. Amritsar, [1813] 2004.
Guru Arjan Sahib would sit under this tree while Harimandar Sahib was being built. 
The Dal Khalsa, or Army of the Khalsa, was the name for the united Sikh army.
Mir Mannu, whose actual name was Mu’in Ul-Mulk, was governor of Panjab between 1748 and 1753. He is remembered in Sikh history for his brutal and genocidal campaigns against the Sikhs: Bhagat Singh, “Mu’in Ul-Mulk” from The Encyclopedia of Sikhism Volume Three, ed. Harbans Singh, Patiala, 1995.
Baba Dip Singh was born in Pahuwind village (district Amritsar) in 1682 and came to live with Guru Gobind Singh Sahib at Anandpur Sahib at a young age with his mother. He studied under Bhai Mani Singh and became an important scholar and warrior in the post-Guru Gobind Singh Sahib period. He fought under Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, was later made one of the Jathedars of the Taruna Dal, and created a jatha which became known as the Shahidi Misl. Along with Bhai Mani Singh, he is considered one of the founders of the Damdami Taksal: KS Thapar, “Dip Singh Shahid, Baba” from The Encyclopedia of Sikhism Volume One, ed. Harbans Singh, Patiala, 1995.
According to Sikh tradition, Baba Dip Singh was beheaded, but upon being reminded of his ardas to the Guru, he stood up, placed his head on his hand and continued fighting; such was the power of his ardas
Sant Jarnail Singh was the head of one branch of the Damdami Taksal, a lineage of scholarship that stretches back to Bhai Mani Singh and Baba Dip Singh. The branch he was in charge of was the Mehta Chowk lineage of the Bhindranwale group: Didar Singh Khalsa, Damdami Taksal de Mahapurkh [Great Men of the Damdami Taksal], Amritsar, n.d..
Baba Gurbakhsh Singh Nihang was born in Lil village (Amritsar District) in 1688. He received Khandi ki Pahaul (Amrit) at the historic 1699 Vaisakhi. He studied under both Bhai Mani Singh and Baba Dip Singh and was a renowned scholar and warrior. He led Baba Dip Singh’s jatha after Baba Dip Singh’s martyrdom. He is considered the second head of the Damdami Taksal: GS Nayar, “Gurbakhsh Singh, Bhai” from The Encyclopedia of Sikhism Volume Two, ed. Harbans Singh, Patiala, 1995. 
Rattan Singh Bhangu, Sri Gur Panth Prakash, ed. Balwant Singh Dhillon. Amritsar, [1813] 2004.
ਮੈਂ ਸ਼ਰੀਰ ਦੇ ਮਰਨ ਨੂੰ ਮੌਤ ਨਹੀਂ ਮੰਨਦਾ, ਮੈਂ ਜ਼ਮੀਰ ਦੇ ਮਰਨ ਨੂੰ ਮੌਤ ਮੰਨਦਾ ਹਾਂ.
With the recent building of a Gurduara commemorating Sant Jarnail Singh and the defenders of June 1984, there are now Gurduaras in the Complex for all three of the major defenders of the Complex: Baba Dip Singh, Baba Gurbakhsh Singh Nihang and Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale. 
The Khalsa Misls, under the command of Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, took control of Lahore in 1765, thus finally freeing Panjab from Mughal and Afghani rule. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia was proclaimed as Sultan-i-Quam at that time. 
On 30 January 1846, after their victory in the First Anglo Sikh Wars, British soldiers and officials entered the Harimandar Sahib with their shoes on. The Mukh Sevadar of Akal Takht Sahib, Akali Ganda Singh, and other Sikhs protested this act, leading to a fight in which a British soldier was killed. Henry Lawrence, the newly appointed Resident of Punjab (governor), condemned Akali Ganda Singh and some other Sikhs to execution by hanging, and expelled several others from Panjab. This was the only real act of violence within the Harimandar Sahib Complex during British Colonization: Satnam Singh Khalsa, Sri Amritsar ji de Darshan Ishnan ate 500 Salan di Ithasik Directory, Amritsar, 1992. 
See The Guru Granth Sahib Project for more discussion of the concept of Ik Oankar.
ਚੁ ਕਾਰ ਅਜ਼ ਹਮਹ ਹੀਲਤੇ ਦਰ ਗੁਜ਼ਸ਼ਤ ॥ ਹਲਾਲ ਅਸਤ ਬੁਰਦਨ ਬ ਸ਼ਮਸ਼ੀਰ ਦਸਤ ॥
Shabeg Singh was a Major General in the Indian army. He helped train the the Bangladeshi guerilla resistance fighters, the Mukti Bahini, during the Bangladeshi War for Independence against Pakistan: Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants. 1996, Philadelphia. 
One of the prominent military leaders of the Khalsa in the mid to late 18th century, Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia was the founder of the Ramgarhia Misl. 
Misls were the subdivisions of the Khalsa army introduced at a Sarbat Khalsa in 1748.
The Lohar and Tarkhan sub-castes are known as Ramgarhias in the Sikh tradition because of their association with Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia. 
The Ramgarhia bunga towers were damaged in an earthquake in 1903. They were used as defensive positions in the Battle of Amritsar in 1984. They have recently been renovated and repaired. 
In fact, major Sardars (Sikh leaders) built a series of Bungas around the parkarma (walkway) of Harimandar Sahib. Before their destruction in the 1920’s, there were a total of 81 bungas around the Complex: Madanjit Kaur, “Bungas” from The Encyclopedia of Sikhism Volume Two, ed. Harbans Singh, Patiala, 1995.
The historic weapons kept at Akal Takht are presented to the Sangat everyday in the evening.
"The order from Bhindranwale was to use limited firearms with discretion. There were only about 100 people to fighting, and there were less than 100 arms consisting mostly of 303 rifles used in World War II, 315 (bore) guns, and a few sten guns.”: Pancholi, et al., Report to the Nation: Oppression in Punjab. New Delhi, 1985.
"Operation Blue Star will go down in history as one of the biggest massacres of unarmed civilians by the organised military force of a nation … the word unarmed is used deliberately as the disparity in arms on the two sides was so great that those resisting army invasion of the temple could hardly be termed armed.”: G.K.C. Reddy, Army Action in Punjab: Prelude and Aftermath. New Delhi, 1984.
Before his refusal, it was widely expected that General Sinha would be made the Chief of Army Staff, the head general of the Indian army.
Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha, 16 July 1984 from the Spokesman Weekly
Without cause, Sant Jarnail Singh had been charged with the murder of the newspaper publisher Lala Jagat Narain, who was famous for his inflammatory articles against the Sikhs. Due to a lack of evidence these charges were dropped. 
The modern Nihang Singhs have organized themselves into a Buddha Dal and Taruna Dals, but these groups have no relation to the 18th century divisions of the Khalsa and are instead a modern innovation.
Santa Singh’s collaboration continued into the early 1990s, when he supported the Panjab Police’s genocidal counter-insurgency.
 Santa Singh was excommunicated on 22 July 1984 due to his support of the government’s occupation of the Complex and rebuilding of Akal Takht Sahib: Gurmit Singh, A History of Sikh Struggles, Volume II. New Delhi, 1991.
Dal Khalsa published a book with the number of Sikhs who fought and died during the Battle of Amritsar. They list 196 martyrs: Harcharanjit Singh Dhami, Kanwarpal Singh & Sarbjit Singh Ghuman, Martyrs of June 84: Indo-Punjab Battle, June 1984. Amritsar, 2007.
86     “The Army Action was not the ‘last resort’ as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would have us believe … It had been in her mind for more than 18 months … Shortly after the Akali agitation of 1982, the Army began rehearsals of a commando raid near Chakrata Cantonment in the Doon Valley, where a complete replica of the Golden Temple complex had been built … Another training involving Aviation Research Centre Commandos was given in the Sarsawa area and Yamuna bed in helicopters converted into gunships.”, Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha, 16 July 1984 from the Spokesman Weekly.
See SikhRI’s article, by Harinder Singh, titled “June 1984 Ghallughara: Lies, List, Light” for further information on the Ghallughara and a critique of the military’s narrative of the attack. 
The attack took place on Guru Arjan Sahib’s Shahidi Purab (commemoration of the Guru’s martyrdom) one of the most popular days of the year at the Harimandar Sahib Complex. 
See SikhRI’s recent article, “The Attack on Political Sikhi: The Indian Government’s Goals in 1984
From Ranbir Singh Sandhu’s Struggle for Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale, p. 278
M.S. Deora, Akali Agitation to Operation Blue Star, Volume 1. 1991, Delhi.
Ranbir Singh Sandhu, Struggle for Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale, 1991, Michigan, pp. 279-280.
See The Guru Granth Sahib Project’s explanation of Nam for further information.
ਭੁਲਣ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਸਭੁ ਕੋ ਅਭੁਲੁ ਗੁਰੂ ਕਰਤਾਰੁ ॥ “Imperfections are within all, only the Guru and Kartar (the creator) are perfection.” Guru Nanak Sahib, p. 61 of Guru Granth Sahib.
From Ranbir Singh Sandhu’s Struggle for Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale, pp.159-160.
From M.S. Deora, Akali Agitation to Operation Blue Star, Volume 1, p. 282.
SikhRI’s paper, published in February 2024, lays out the case for this perspective. SikhRI’s course that covers the history from 1947 to the eve of June 1984 that details the Indian government’s long-term tactics in detail: https://sikhri.org/courses/betrayals-broken-promises 


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Research Associate

Santbir Singh is a Research Associate with SikhRI. He is currently doing his Ph.D. in Sociology at York University. His graduate research focuses on Sikh activism and the inherent relationship between Sikhi and anarchism explored through historical and contemporary Sikh movements, such as the Kisān Morcha (Farmer’s Protests) of 2020-2021. 

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