Raghu Rai Operation Blue Star 1

InConversation- Raghu Rai on Photographing the aftermath of Operation Blue Star

Operation Blue Star is a difficult part of Indian history to navigate through without the discussion getting political and polarised. It represents a time when insurgency was at its peak in the Indian state of Punjab with secessionist sentiment being floated by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He had a substantial group of armed supporters who were ready to lay down their lives for what they considered their ultimate goal. The people of Punjab (and to a larger extent, the rest of the country) could be divided into two, those who supported him and sympathised with his ideology and those on the other side who disagreed with the armed struggle and in some sense, considered it as going against the founding principles of Sikhism as a religion.

The tensions in Punjab began to rise sometime in the early part of the 1980’s and started to build to a climax in April 1983 when Bhindranwale took residence in the Harmandir Sahab (popularly known as the “Golden Temple”) in Amritsar and made it his functioning head quarter with many of his armed followers inside the vast temple complex to protect him.

The troubling situation reached its peak in the beginning of June 1984, with the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi ordering a military operation to  drive out Bhindranwale and his followers from the temple and establish, (what she considered) Indian control over it. The massive, five day operation codenamed “Operation Blue Star”, began on the 3rd of June and ended on the 8th with many lives being lost in the process. The operation was carried out with tanks, armoured vehicles, tear gas and armed helicopters. The resulting aftermath and partial destruction of the Golden Temple, and subsequent imposing of a ‘State of Emergency’ by the then Prime Minister attracted massive criticism and cost her the next election, and ultimately her life as she was assassinated in October of 1984 by two of her sikh bodyguards.

This week marks the 32nd anniversary of the operation.

Before, during and after the Operation, freedom of press was extremely restricted. Images and headlines were closely monitored by the administration, though some photographers did find good access. One of them, with an exceptionally inspiring story is Raghu Rai. Though the story is well known to many senior photographers and journalists, it is not well known to those outside of photography parlance.

” I reached Amritsar, a few days before the official operation was to begin. I had a good reputation with Bhindranwale and had photographed him a few times, infact I used to call him ‘Praaji’ (brother). Once, two of his followers came to my hotel room at night, telling me to not call him ‘Praaji’ and to only call him “sant ji” (saint). I simply said, that since he does not mind it, I will continue to do so. They gave me this so called warning and left.” is how Rai begins his story.

” During the first few days that I was there, there was not much happening from the point of view of what I could photograph. I went inside the Golden Temple and took a few pictures as well as a portrait of him. (below). It was not clear whether officially the operation would begin or not, so I decided that it was better to come back to Delhi” he elaborates further.

Raghu Rai Operation Blue Star 1

ABOVE: Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (centre) with his followers inside the Golden Temple complex, a few days before the beginning of the Operation Blue Star. Image copyright- Raghu Rai. Used with permission from the photographer/ studio.


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ABOVE: Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s followers are seen in a moment of showing of solidarity somewhere inside the Golden Temple complex, a few days before the beginning of the Operation Blue Star. Image copyright- Raghu Rai. Used with permission from the photographer/ studio.


He goes on to narrate further – ” After the operation finally began I rushed back to Amritsar. I reached there and waited. Overnight, we could hear all the gunfire. As soon as the operation was over, all us photographers were waiting to go inside and see the aftermath. The security forces did not let us enter. Only after they had performed a basic cleaning up did they open the door to pilgrims who wanted to go and offer their prayers inside the temple. I went there first to see and observe the situation. I noticed that they were only allowing pilgrims and there was a lot of security and checking, especially at the main gate. I also noticed that pilgrims were allowed to carry flowers inside. Later that evening I bought a small cloth bag, as well as a whole lot of flowers and garlands. Back in the hotel I borrowed a small, compact automatic camera from the owner (of the hotel). I was staying at The Ritz. It was a very small camera, I do not remember the model or the brand, but I remember that it had a fixed, 50mm lens. I wrapped it up completely with garlands and flowers and put it inside the bag that I had bought. On top of it I put more flowers. In the morning I left for the temple, with two more people to accompany me. On the gates, the guard asked me what I was carrying, I told him that it was only flowers and held it out for him to check. He felt inside by putting his hands, he could not find the camera as I had wrapped it up well. Once inside, I saw the destruction and the bullet marks that were on all the walls. The Akal Takht (a symbol of the seat of power, a vital part of the temple complex) was significantly destroyed. I took quite a few shots inside. I told the two people who were with me to stand close to me on either side. I sort of hid myself in the middle of them and clicked. I took a round of the complex and finished the roll and then came out. Thankfully the security did not question me as to why I had returned with the flowers.”

On how he felt and how he developed the film he says ” I headed straight back to Delhi. I had the confidence, that since I had atleast shot a full roll, I would have pictures.”

Rai says that twelve images from that roll found its way to a four page spread in a subsequent issue of India Today.

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Visitors to the temple look at the destruction to the Akal Takht inside the Golden Temple complexImage copyright- Raghu Rai. Used with permission from the photographer/ studio.

On the impact of the images he says ” There was a lot of criticism of the images from the armed forces and administration and a lot of questions on how we could publish these images, but they also knew, that they could not do much once it was out there. My editor Aroon Poorie stood by me. My publications have always stood by me and I have always given them a reason to do so. ”


Certain details from this interview are excerpts from a previous conversation with the photographer during the process of  formulating another article.

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About the Photographer- Raghu Rai is one of India’s most well known photojournalist. He joined Magnum Photos in 1977.  Read more about his latest project- Creative Image Magazine here.


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