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This article was first published 1 year ago  » News » 'We had to save India from breaking apart'

'We had to save India from breaking apart'

Last updated on: March 17, 2023 12:15 IST
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'I told them I am a Muslim, you are Sikh, you are Hindu, but we have one country to save.'

IMAGE: Brigadier Israr Khan receives the Kirti Chakra from then President Zail Singh in 1985. Photograph: Kind courtesy Brigadier Israr Rahim Khan

The framed picture of Lieutenant Colonel Israr Rahim Khan receiving the Kirti Chakra for gallantry from the President of India is placed in a prominent place in the retired officer's drawing room.

The Kirti Chakra is the second highest medal for gallantry for military operations conducted during peacetime.

The black and white picture stands out in a room filled with a tasteful collection of antiques that have remained with the officer's family for over 100 years.

"It was the most dangerous, difficult and ferocious operation fought by an army anywhere in the world," says Brigadier Israr Khan, retired, who was among the first to enter the Golden Temple with his troops to flush out terrorists holed up inside.

Operation Blue Star was launched on the night of June 5, 1984. It took the Indian Army several days to clear the temple of the terrorists who had unleashed mayhem in Punjab and threatened to break India apart.

Brigadier Israr Khan -- then a lieutenant colonel -- was the commanding officer of the battalion of 10 Guards that was tasked to launch an attack from the northern side at nightfall.

In a ferocious battle fought in pitch darkness, the soldiers fought valiantly against the well-trained terrorists who were fortified to their teeth.

10 Guards lost 19 men and 53 wounded in an hour. The Indian Army lost 89 soldiers in Operation Blue Star.

"The battle was not against the enemy, but our own people who had gone astray," Brigadier Khan tells's Archana Masih in a detailed multi-part interview.

At a time when trouble is once again brewing in Punjab with the rise of Amritpal Singh, a radical advocating Khalistan, it is extremely important to listen to soldiers like Brigadier Israr Khan so that we do not go down that bloodied path again.


When did you know that you and your battalion were going to be part of Operation Blue Star to flush out terrorists from inside the Golden Temple?

I had received my promotion to lieutenant colonel and took command of the 10 Guards battalion in Jalandhar.

I got a call from my Brigade Commander Brigadier D V Rao who asked me to come to his office. He told me that there are orders for the brigade to move to Amritsar.

I asked, 'Sir, what for?' because it was peace time, and I asked what was the task that merited a sudden move. He said he didn't know himself and asked me to get the battalion in 'battle order' as if you are moving for war and the task would be told to us later.

My brigade was part of the 9 Infantry Division. Major General 'Bulbul' [Kuldip Singh Brar] was the General Officer Commanding of the division headquartered in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh.

How quickly did you have to move your troops from Jalandhar to Amritsar?

It was May 29. My 1,000-strong battalion had to carry the entire war paraphernalia -- kitchen, langar, vehicles, administrative tail, paani, khana, everything.

In 24-hours we packed up everything, sealed our barracks in a peace station and moved with all things required for battle.

Apart from our component of vehicles, we would get a second line of vehicles to move by road to Amritsar.

I was told that my battalion had to be parked in the open fields on the road from Amritsar to Attari border.

I sent an advance party to recce the place and we landed there on May 30, 1984. My second in command was already there and had made markings where we could pitch our tents etc.

There was already a division in Amritsar and I was wondering why we were being moved. The information about Operation Blue Star had been kept at the GoC level [General office Commanding] and not passed down to the battalion as yet.

The division from Meerut arrived and set up an office in a hall in the city.

When did you finally know that you had to launch an attack to clear the Golden Temple of terrorists?

I was called by the brigade commander and told that my battalion will clear the Golden Temple of the terrorists -- 'You have to take them dead or alive', I was told.

He told me that the GoC Major General Bulbul Brar wanted to see me. I went to the headquarter of the 15th Division to meet him.

Brigadier Rao had told Major General Bulbul that my battalion would be sent to clear a gurdwara in Taran Tarn which was infested with terrorists and 10 Dogra would go into the Golden Temple.

Our brigade comprised 12 Bihar, 10 Dogra and 10 Guards.

But Major General Bulbul changed that and wanted my battalion to go into the Golden Temple and 10 Dogra to go to Tarn Taran.

IMAGE: Then Lieutenant Colonel Khan, commanding officer 10 Guards with his troops. His battalion which was tasked to flush out terrorists from the Golden Temple, comprised 30% Sikh and the rest Rajput, Jat and Dogra soldiers. Photograph: Kind courtesy Brigadier Israr Khan

What did you say to him when he told you so?

I said, 'Sir, I won't let you down'.

He said, 'Orders will follow'.

I came back told my battalion and asked them to pack up from those fields and move to Govindgarh fort in Amritsar which was in the army's possession at that time.

I remember there was a subsequent headline in the British press which said Indian Muslim army officer chosen to lead the attack in Golden Temple.

It was nothing like that, there was no religious bias -- Major General Bulbul had confidence in 10 Guards and in me.

I came to Govindgarh in the heart of Amritsar and parked my battalion. We prepared for battle.

What was the mood among your troops when you told them about launching an attack inside the Golden Temple?

On the morning of June 3, GoC Major General Brar came to address the troops.

The class composition of 10 Guards was as follows: 30% Sikhs and the rest were Rajputs, Jats and Dogras from the northern states.

In the army if you have 25-30% troops from a religion you have a mandir, masjid or gurdwara depending on the composition of the troops.

Similarly, I had a gurdwara and mandir in my battalion with a granthi and panditji.

Our granthi was Subedar Sangat Singh, a staunch religious Sikh from Bathinda. He had a flowing beard. Our panditji was Subedar Shastri.

The religious teachers are men in uniform of the rank of subedar. When required in war, they will wear uniform, but in peace they look after the place of worship.

In a section of 10 men, I had 3 Sikhs. I had to command and take them into battle [inside Sikhism's holiest shrine]. A battle which was not against the enemy, but our own people who had gone astray.

I asked my granthi in Punjabi about what he thought and he said we will all follow your command.

In the army we do what our troops do. As their commanding officer I used to attend both mandir and gurdwara services with my men on Sundays.

Before leaving Govindgarh fort, we had a mandir service and a gurdwara service in one of the rooms of the fort. All my men were ready to follow me.

The GoC was aware of the fact that I had Sikh troops, but we had to undertake the mission in the Golden Temple in the interest of the nation.

IMAGE: Brigadier Israr Khan, Kirti Chakra. Photograph: Seema Pant for

What did you tell your troops before going into a mission that had never been done in India's military history?

I told them I am a Muslim, you are Sikh, you are Hindu, but we have one country to save. If we don't do that, India will break. These terrorists will secede and create another country called Khalistan -- and Pakistan will be the first country to recognise it.

I told them our territory, unity, integrity, sovereignty is at stake. I further said that as a child I had seen the horrors of Partition in 1947 -- the misery it [secession] will bring to the whole country is unimaginable; there would be a massacre again and we can't allow this.

My men readily agreed and said we are with you.

I had confidence in my troops and they in me. Those troops including the Sikhs who are now retired like me are all in touch with me.

In the aftermath of Operation Blue Star many Sikhs fled from several army units, but not a single Sikh deserted 10 Guards even after fighting inside the Golden Temple.

After the operation I had a lot of casualties and I asked my men that should a time come when you have to do this again, will you?

They said if it has to be done again we will follow you.

I can never forget that feeling of knowing the faith that my troops had in me. You can't describe what it means for a commander.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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