The Sikhs’ holy city of Amritsar is the largest city in Punjab: noisy and congested, but its old city in particular is as lively as any in India, and contains the fabled Golden Temple, whose domes soar above the teeming streets. Amritsar is also an important staging-post for those crossing the Indo–Pakistan frontier at Wagha, 29km west.
Amritsar’s twentieth-century history has been blighted by a series of appalling massacres. The first occurred in 1919, when thousands of unarmed civilian demonstrators were gunned down without warning by British troops in Jallianwalla Bagh – an atrocity that inspired Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. During Partition, Amritsar experienced some of the worst communal blood-letting ever seen on the Subcontinent. In 1983, heavily armed Sikh fundamentalists under the preacher-warrior Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale occupied the Golden Temple’s Akal Takht, and in early June 1984 Indira Gandhi ordered a paramilitary attack on the temple, code-named Operation Blue Star, in which two thousand people were killed, including pilgrims trapped inside.
Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards just four months later provoked the worst riots in the city since Partition. But Congress learned little from its mistakes and in 1987, Indira’s son Rajiv reneged on an important accord with the main Sikh party, Akali Dal, strengthening the hand of the separatists, who retaliated by occupying the temple again. This time, the army responded with more restraint, leaving Operation Black Thunder to the Punjab police. Neither as well provisioned nor as well motivated as Bhindranwale’s martyrs, the fundamentalists eventually surrendered.