With very rare exceptions, in the United States the military is prohibited from performing domestic security functions. In recent years, due primarily to a perceived need to use the vast resources of the military to efficiently combat terrorism, there has been a move underway to reassess these restrictions. When examining this issue, however, it is not enough to enumerate the skills, training, and resources that the armed forces could potentially bring to the domestic security table. There are other nations that do not have similar restrictions on using the military in domestic police functions, and their experiences should be scrutinized. One such nation is India, and there are few better examples of negative effects from using the military for internal security functions than Operation Blue Star.
Operation Blue Star was a military action undertaken by the government of India to rid a rural region dominated by a religious minority of a volatile insurgent and terrorist leader and his associates who had set up an armed base in a temple complex that was of great significance to the local population. Not only did the military action itself go awry, but the fallout from this action had repercussions for years to come. This paper will examine the events leading to Operation Blue Star, the operation itself, the aftermath, and finally will compare civil-military relations in India and the United States and the legality of using the U.S. military in a similar role in this country.
Note that Sikh “eyewitness” versions of event have been included. Without the reports of independent observers due to total press censorship by the Indian government, these versions of events became quite significant in forming the general opinion and reaction of Sikhs.
EVENTS LEADING TO OPERATION BLUE STAR
The Punjab is India’s primary agricultural region with a large Sikh population. Sikhs, in the rest of India, are a minority group in the largely Hindu population. For several decades, Sikhs in the Punjab believed the central government had failed to meet their needs, and that failure was at least in part due to religious intolerance towards the Sikhs. The government under Indira Gandhi appeared particularly unresponsive to the needs of the region. The Akali Dal emerged as the predominant Sikh political party and became progressively more uncooperative with Gandhi’s government. During this time, a relatively small separatist movement began in the region, calling for an independent Sikh state to be known as Khalistan. Gandhi used her superior access to the media to characterize her opponents in the region as dangerous religious fanatics intent on secession. In 1980, she had declared “President’s Rule,” in the region, which dissolved the state’s legislative assemblies and required new elections in order to get a supportive local government. At the time of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, virtually the entire Akali Dal leadership was in prison.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a leader against various fanatic Hindu organizations. Many of his followers were young, poor, and unemployed Sikhs disillusioned with the central government. Bhindranwale also fiercely opposed those Sikhs who disagreed with his extremist views. It is widely believed that Bhindranwale was receiving indirect support from Indira Gandhi, who hoped to fragment the Akali Dal party and create tensions between Sikhs and Hindus in order to allow her regime to eventually move in a cooperative local government. The central government and newspapers blamed numerous terrorist acts on Bhindranwale and his followers, including dozens (in some estimates hundreds) who were killed by terrorists on motorcycles who would suddenly appear and fire machine guns into crowds. He was arrested in 1982, but released two days later. In the later half of...