This Week in History recalls memorable and decisive events and personalities of the past.

5th June 1984 – Operation Blue Star: Under orders from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Indian Army begins an invasion of the Golden Temple, the holiest site of the Sikh religion

The Golden Temple, after Operation Blue Star []

When India achieved its independence in 1947, there were great hopes for a nation which hosted one of the largest populations in the world and had in the time of the Mughal Empire led the world in Gross Domestic Product. 

Freed from the shackles of colonial rule, it was hoped that India would soar to become the leader of a new modern world order. In a speech given hours before independence became official the soon to be Prime Minister of an independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, declared: ‘The appointed day has come – the day appointed by destiny – and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent.’

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, addressing the newly independent state on 15 August 1947

Unfortunately, the country was beset by great struggles from the first day of its existence. The partition of India into a Hindu and a Muslim country, India and Pakistan, created one of the largest refugee crises in history, with millions being forced to flee their homes, and was accompanied by a tidal wave of violence between Hindus, Muslims, and, in some parts of the country, Sikhs. This violence would lead to the deaths of anywhere between 200 000 to two million people.

Even once the country’s worst violence was over, great problems remained. The population was poorly educated and, arguably, the most poverty-stricken on Earth.

Nehru’s Indian National Congress (INC) government adopted policies which tried to build up India’s domestic industry by way of import-substitution industrialisation and saw the entrenchment or establishment of huge state-owned enterprises. This period saw the creation of a host of regulations and licensing requirements mockingly referred to as the Licence Raj. This suite of policies opened up the scope for corruption and saw India’s economy grow sluggishly for decades as it struggled to modernise.

Socially, Nehru tried to end caste discrimination across India, see the adoption of Hindi as the sole official language, and secularise society. There were some successes on these fronts, but ultimately none of them would be achieved by the time Nehru died in 1964. India to this day suffers from deep divisions along caste and religious lines, and has refused to adopt Hindi as the sole official language.

Nehru was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who led the country through the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, but died shortly after signing the peace agreement with Pakistan in 1966.

Replacing Shastri as prime minister was perhaps India’s most controversial – and first female – prime minister, Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi

Gandhi had been a major player in the INC for much of her life and, once she became prime minister, effectively dominated the party’s internal politics, with its modern leadership still hosting members of her family in senior leadership positions.

Gandhi took the country’s politics further left, nationalising banks as well as the coal, steel, copper, refining, cotton textiles, and insurance industries. She also aligned the country more closely with the Soviet bloc and developed India’s nuclear weapons. She would also win the 1971 India-Pakistan war (which you can read about in this edition of This Week in History) and would centralise most of the power in India’s government in her office in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Indira Gandhi on 21 March 1977

Unrest grew across India as Gandhi battled the courts after they had blocked her moves to pass legislation which the judges found undermined fundamental human rights. Things came to a head when Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975 and ruled India by decree. Tensions soared across the country, as many believed this would be the end of India’s democracy. (It was during this time that India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, first became involved in politics, the topic of this edition of This Week in History).

Some of the largest and fiercest protests against the state of emergency were led by Sikh groups. These had originally been formed to manage Sikh places of worship, but now organised mass protests in Punjab state, where most Sikhs live.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale

As part of her efforts to win back support after her defeat, the INC got heavily involved in Sikh politics. Though initially successful, the INC fell out with some of the Sikh radicals, notably a man named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

The victory of the opposition was short lived; in the next elections in 1980, the unity of the opposition collapsed and the INC swept back to power, with Gandhi once again becoming prime minister.

Under massive public pressure, Gandhi finally called elections in 1977 and ended the state of emergency.

Running under a banner of ‘choosing between dictatorship and democracy’, the opposition Janata Party alliance swept to victory, becoming the first non-INC party to win an election.

Bhindranwale and his followers moved to the Akal Takht complex in December 1983

After breaking with the INC, Bhindranwale tried to establish a parallel government in Punjab province, where he and some of his supporters took up arms and fortified themselves in Sikh temples.

In 1984 Bhindranwale’s Sikh radicals were firmly established in the Golden Temple, the holiest place for Sikhs in the world. Initially the Indian government tried to negotiate with them, but these negotiations failed.

Fearing that the Sikhs were being backed by Pakistan and were planning to lead an uprising against Indian rule, the Indian government decided to act: on 5 June 1984, under Prime Minister Gandhi’s orders, the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple.

After a week of fighting, hundreds of Indian soldiers and Sikh militants, as well as Sikh pilgrims, had been killed, with the attack sparking outrage across India’s Sikh community.

The Golden Temple [Bernard Gagnon,

A few months later, on 31 October, two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards would assassinate her in an act of revenge for the storming of the Golden Temple. This led to massive anti-Sikh riots, which claimed the lives of more than 10 000 people and significantly damaged relations between India’s government and its Sikh community.

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Nicholas Lorimer is a politician-turned-think tank thinker. His interests include geo-politics, and history (particularly medieval and ancient history). He is an unashamed Americaphile, whether it be food, culture or film. His interests include video games and armchair critique of action films from the 1980s.