Candlelight vigil returns to remember 1984 Sikh genocide, Operation Blue Star

Hosted annually at the Vancouver Art Gallery, by SSA UBC and SSA SFU

Hosted by the Sikh student associations of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, the annual candlelight vigil for the 1984 Sikh genocide was held on June 3 to remember Operation Blue Star. (Sukhmani Sandhu)

Hosted by the Sikh student associations of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, the annual candlelight vigil for the 1984 Sikh genocide was held on June 3 to remember Operation Blue Star. (Sukhmani Sandhu)

Trigger warning: this article mentions violence, genocide, police brutality, murder, and rape. If you or someone you know needs help or support, the HealthLink BC hotline is 811, or the 24/7 Wellness Together hotline is 1-866-585-0445. Help is available, please reach out. 

The annual candlelight vigil for the 1984 Sikh genocide was held on June 3, at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Sikh student associations of the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University hosted the event. 


Operation Blue Star

The vigil is held in remembrance of the genocide of Sikhs from June 1 to 6, 1984, commonly referred to as Operation Blue Star. 

“Operation Blue Star was the military invasion of Darbar Sahib, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June 1984. Commonly referred to as the Golden Temple, Darbar Sahib is the religious and political center of Sikhs,” wrote Manpreet Kaur Kalra, writer and social impact advisor, in an email statement to The Runner. 

The attack occurred during remembrance programs for the martyrdom of the fifth Sikh Guru, Arjun Dev Ji. These programs draw large crowds to Gurdwaras, meaning thousands were trapped and attacked inside the Golden Temple. 

“The military assault was coupled with media black-outs, Sikh historical documents were destroyed. Our history erased, experiences denied. Sikh men were burned alive, women raped, and vocal youth disappeared, and shot at the hands of the police,” Kalra wrote. 

“Thousands of innocent people were shot to death and even more tortured and murdered during the systematic government-sanctioned genocide of Sikhs that followed,” she wrote.

While the attack on Sri Harmindar Sahib is more well-known, another operation took place at the same time, called Operation Woodrose. 

A report by Never Forget 84 found that across Punjab, the Indian army attacked 42 to 74 Gurdwaras, resulting in mass casualties. The total number of Sikhs killed by Operation Woodrose is not known, however, at Gurdwara Dukhniwaran Sahib in Patiala, 257 people were shot and killed. 

“The Indian government claimed that the attack was to capture ‘terrorists,’” Kalra wrote. “[I]n reality Operation Bluestar was about silencing demands for Sikh political autonomy.” 

Sikh political leader Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale was seen as a threat to the Indian government because his platform called for autonomy for the Sikh state of Punjab. 

“Bhindrawale and other Sikh activists were labelled terrorists. Many false charges were hyperbolized by the government-controlled Indian media,” Kalra wrote. 

Kalra also says that at the time, Indira Gandhi’s re-election was fast approaching, and by dehumanizing Sikhs, she used them as her scapegoat to unify the fractured majority Hindu vote. 

“It was an easy ‘out’ to blame any social unrest on the Sikh community, spreading polarizing propaganda. Operation Blue Star was in many ways as much about ethnic cleansing as it was about the terrors of oppressive nationalism,” she wrote. 

The report by Never Forget 84 found that in the decade following 1984, over 70,000 people were detained under emergency terrorism legislation (TADA), but only one per cent of them were convicted of a crime. 

Human rights organizations are also often denied accurate assessment of the mass genocide and death of Sikhs. There has been a push for the United Nations to recognize the human rights violations by the Indian state against Sikhs during the 1984 Sikh genocide, but groups that petition the UN to recognize the genocide are often labelled radicals or terrorists by Indian media, controlled by the state. 


The vigil 

The candlelight vigil is an important event for the local Sikh community as it is an opportunity to remember and commemorate the genocide together. 

 “The 1984 candlelight vigil has been taking place annually in the lower mainland for about a decade,” wrote Eknoor Kaur, an executive from the Sikh Student Association of UBC, in a statement to The Runner

“It has continuously provided a safe space for the Sikh sangat [audience] to reflect upon the atrocities which took place in Punjab, … as well as a medium through which Sikh youth learn about our ancestors and commemorate our history,” she wrote. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the vigil could not run, but it returned last year.

“The vigil has always been run by youth, and the seva [selfless service] was passed onto B.C. SSAs … to help us … stay in touch with our history …,” Eknoor wrote.  

The vigil began with a prayer, followed by a land acknowledgment and paddle song from Cecilia Point, a member of the Musqueam First Nation.

“My heart breaks every time I learn of another genocide,” said Point. “I’m in solidarity with you. My heart is with your heart and all of the atrocities that happened to you.” 

The first speaker at the vigil was Isha Kaur, a master of Public Health student at UBC and co-founder of Sikh Heritage Alberta. Isha Kaur spoke about inclusivity and supporting Sikh women in the collective Sikh community. 

“In this current movement, many of our Sikh bibia [women] are being left behind …. [We need] … to dismantle the barriers that prevent Sikh women from being fully included,” she said. 

“We must acknowledge the immense contributions that women have made throughout history, often in the face of adversity. Their strength, resilience, and compassion have been the backbone of our community. It is time to change the narrative to create spaces where women are not only seen but also heard.” 

Gurpreet Kaur, who has been serving on the national board of the World Sikh Organization of Canada since 2017, also spoke at the event about how the Sikh genocide did not end in 1984 but continues today. 

“Don’t get too comfortable in this state that we’ve created in the standard that we’ve accepted,” she said. 

Gurpreet also spoke about how Sikhs are still targeted, even outside India. She mentioned the recent announcement that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser, Jody Thomas, specifically stated that India is a country conducting foreign interference at a conference, as reported by CTV News

Harleen Kaur came to Canada 13 years ago as an international student from Punjab, and spoke about the aftermath of Operation Blue Star and how mass migration affected the Sikh community. 

She also brought up the ongoing human rights and social issues in Punjab, including the drug epidemic, loss of language, and youth who have not learned of the history of genocide and colonialism. 

The final speaker of the evening was Akashdeep Singh, a volunteer of the Undying Morcha, which is a Sikh organization that aims to normalize the culture of Sikh martyrs and be a resource for perspective and equity. 

“Oftentimes when discussions arise [about 1984], there’d be a focus on people with good intentions trying to make the best case for our shaheeds [Sikh martyrs],” Singh said. 

“I’d hear things like Indira planned the attack months prior, so there was no other option. She backed them into a corner, so there was no other option. There’s an inherent implication with this kind of soch [thinking/mindset].”

Singh spoke of the Sikh community under Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale and how now, June 1984 is viewed through the lens of the oppressor and the oppressed. 

“I can’t help but feel that we’re viewing June through terms that aren’t our own but everyone else’s,” Singh said. “We make ourselves small to avoid any further criticism or confrontation, but victimhood and self-preservation are no way to pay homage to our shaheeds [Sikh martyrs].” 

“Indira came to break the backs of Sikhs and left with an entire generation reinvigorated with the spirit of our jujharoos (warriors). And now, 39 years later, the choice is still with us.”

Sikhs across the globe remember Operation Blue Star with prayers, vigils, and ceremonies to honour the Sikh martyrs. June is a time of remembrance for Sikhs and reinvigorating their spirit. Sikhs promise to #neverforget84, so they can educate other communities, call for justice, but most importantly, so future generations will know of their history.