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Time, May 12, 1986
Photo: Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (center), with armed entourage
Worshipers in Amritsar's Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in Sikhdom, were interrupted by an unsettling warning from loudspeakers on the shrine's periphery. Outside the temple complex, police commandos and paramilitary forces stood by to reclaim the holy place from the Sikh extremists who had seized control three months before. Pilgrims were advised to leave. Soon afterward, 300 commandos swept into the outer offices of the complex, arresting student leaders. Then, with another 700 troops, they fanned out onto the marble pathway surrounding the main temple shrine, where the militants were holed up. The search for the extremists, punctuated by occasional gunfire, ended eight hours later as the last of the rebels surrendered.
It was the second armed government operation at the temple since the June 1984 army assault in which hundreds of Sikhs, including the extremist leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, were slain. That bloody raid provoked widespread Sikh outrage and eventually led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards. By contrast, last week only one person was killed and two were injured. Moreover, this time many moderate Sikhs seemed to accept the well-planned raid as a necessary move to stem the increasing violence that has racked the northern Indian state of Punjab over the past few months. Indeed, the final go-ahead was given by Punjab's chief minister, Surjit Singh Barnala, who was compelled to move against the extremists after they issued a call for Sikhs to take up arms against New Delhi and declare an independent Sikh nation, Khalistan.
Police commandos captured 300 suspected separatists at the Golden Temple. Unfortunately, they did not include any members of the five-man committee that issued the seditious call to arms. They had slipped out of the temple before the raid and escaped. Later, extremists retaliated by killing seven people in terrorist attacks. Still, the forced abandonment of the holy shrine was a humiliating defeat for the extremists. Said Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi: 'We will not allow the voice of fanaticism to be raised and will make every effort to stop such fanatics from disintegrating the nation.' The operation marked a political victory for Gandhi, who negotiated a pact with moderate Sikhs in July 1985 and urged them to crack down on their militant brethren.