1984: The Terrible Year That Changed India Forever

1984: The Terrible Year That Changed India Forever

By Aayush Soni

Bophal, 1984


Because India keeps getting more and more important — and if you’re anything like us, you need a refresher course in its crucial historical moments.

By Aayush Soni

Through the optimistic and relatively peaceful lens of 2014, India in 1984 seems far away. Today, the world’s third-largest economy is prepared to move into a new political era.

But 30 years ago, one of India’s most prosperous states was teetering on the verge of secession, the nation’s prime minister was assassinated and the world’s worst industrial disaster left thousands dead in Bhopal. “Marked by instability and conflict, by assassination and mass murder, it was in 1984 that the Republic of India came closest to being, as it were, a non-functioning anarchy,” wrote the historian Ramachandra Guha in Outlook magazine in 2009.

It all began in the summer of 1984: Three decades ago, three events changed India — for better and worse.

Operation Bluestar

It was the start of the descent into chaos. In the first week of June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma) ordered the Indian army to launch an attack on the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, the holy shrine of India’s Sikh minority. Armed Sikh radicals, led by the fiery preacher Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, had occupied the temple between 1982 and June 1984, demanding a separate “Sikh homeland” called Khalistan. Negotiations between the government and Sikh religious leaders had failed. Militants were on the loose in the northern Indian state of Punjab, killing anyone who appeared to be against what they stood for. Reports emerged that Khalistan would be declared an independent country from inside the temple.

Indira Gandhi with her son, Rajiv Gandhi

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (far right) in 1984

Source Getty

The Gandhi-led government, left with little choice and staring at the possibility of secession, decided to send in the army. What followed was a six-day-long armed battle between the army and the militant Sikhs. Thousands of innocent pilgrims were killed. The Akal Takht, the center of Sikh authority, was reduced to rubble.

Today, India’s Sikhs seem to have been reintegrated into the mainstream, but the wounds of Operation Bluestar haven’t healed. A small minority in the state of Punjab continues to hero-worship revolutionary activist Bhindranwale. And perhaps most sensationally, a sword fight broke out among Sikhs just months ago at the site of the massacre — over how best to commemorate this bloody anniversary.

Indira Gandhi’s assassination

Four months later, on the morning of Oct. 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards as revenge for Operation Bluestar. They shot her as she was walking from her residence to her office, located in the same compound. As Gandhi’s body lay in state at the former home of her father — India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru — angry mobs of Hindus were attacking Sikhs in New Delhi. The mobs burned down shops and killed men indiscriminately. They raped women and wiped out entire families. The official death toll says that 3,000 Sikhs died in a one-sided massacre. Unofficial estimates put that number at 7,000.

The world literally halted. Good Morning America, ABC News’ popular show, did not air the morning after; networks spent two hours on the assassination story instead. In London, a handful of Sikhs celebrated Gandhi’s death as the rest of England was gripped by media coverage that lasted four days.

Rioting in India with policemen and civilians

Anti-Sikh riot on Oct. 31, 1994

Source Corbis

Leaders from Gandhi’s Congress party filled public spaces with slogans like Khoon ka badla khoon (“Murder as revenge for murder”). Such was the fear among Sikhs that Khushwant Singh, the eminent writer and historian, said, “I felt like a refugee in my country. In fact, I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany.”

Thirty years later, not a single one of the accused — including Congress leaders Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler — has been convicted for those bloody anti-Sikh riots.

The Bhopal gas tragedy

It wasn’t all about Gandhi that year, though. In the aftermath of the bloody summer came one of the world’s largest industrial disasters.

On the night of Dec. 3, the 900,000 citizens of Bhopal — the capital city of the central state of Madhya Pradesh — breathed in air filled with toxic gas. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), a chemicals manufacturing company, had set up a plant in the city to manufacture pesticides. As a result of negligence by staff at the factory, the hazardous chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) was released into the air of Bhopal. Officially, the state government put the death toll at 3,787. Unofficial estimates say it killed 20,000 and injured over 500,000 people, making it the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Man with his child in his lap

Source Getty

Warren Anderson, then-CEO of Union Carbide, was arrested upon arrival in India — only to be released immediately. What followed was a long, drawn-out legal battle between Union Carbide and the Indian government. Again, no convictions. India has yet to secure Anderson’s extradition from the United States; on the subcontinent, he has been charged with manslaughter and is known as a fugitive. An investigation in 2010 by the BBC showed that groundwater near the plant was still contaminated.

The year 1984 shifted the tectonics of one of today’s most important nations. We’re still feeling those fault lines moving today.

This OZY encore was originally published July 3, 2014, and has been updated slightly.