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Sikh Reference Library: Smoldering Controversy


The Tribune, Jun. 7, 2003

The smoke screen resulting from the fire at the Sikh Reference Library, [Golden Temple Complex] Amritsar, refuses to clear up even after 19 years. The repository of over 1,500 invaluable rare manuscripts, including copies of the Adi Granth, Damdami Bir (dated Bikrami 1739) and portraits was destroyed during the 1984 Operation Bluestar. Even after a lapse of nearly two decades what exactly happed to the Sikh Reference Library is not clear. Conflicting statements of Defence Minister George Fernandes have not helped clear the confusion.

Ranjit Singh Nanda, a retired [Central Bureau of Intelligence] C.B.I. inspector, had made a startling disclosure that the rare manuscripts, hukam-namas [edicts], books, and other materials were taken in gunny bags and big trunks to an unknown place after Operation Bluestar. This started the controversy. Although President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, during his recent visit to the Golden Temple, had assured the [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] S.G.P.C. chief that he would take up the issue with the department concerned, the S.G.P.C. is unlikely to get back its 'treasure-house.' While the Army authorities maintain that the library had caught fire during exchange of fire with the militants who had taken shelter on the premises of the Golden Temple, the S.G.P.C. says that the Army deliberately put the 'empty library' on fire after taking the rare and invaluable material away.

Besides rare historical books, documents, manuscripts on Sikh religion, history and culture, the Sikh reference library also had a number of handwritten manuscripts of the Guru Granth Sahib, hukam-namas, some bearing signatures of revered Sikh Gurus, and a few rare documents pertaining to India's struggle for independence. The S.G.P.C. alleges that after picking up the material from the library in gunny bags and transporting it to the Youth Hostel in Amritsar, a make-shift camp office of the C.B.I., in military trucks, the empty library was set on fire and it was made out that everything preserved there had been reduced to ashes. 'But all this was nothing more than a concoction and camouflage.'

The S.G.P.C. says that fresh lists were prepared of the material taken from the library. The cataloguing was abruptly stopped in the wake of the Sikh convention scheduled for September 1984 and all the belongings of the library were dispatched to an unknown destination by the C.B.I. Since then the apex religious body of the Sikhs has written to a number of prime ministers in the past including Chandra Shekhar, V.P. Singh, I.K. Gujral and the present premier, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In spite of repeated requests, the S.G.P.C. either got the reply that the 'library was burnt to ashes' or that 'it was returned to the S.G.P.C. in compliance with the court's order.'

The material returned by the Army to the S.G.P.C., it is alleged, hardly included any document of historical value. The documents returned to the S.G.P.C. comprised a few office files and passports of some prospective pilgrims to Sikh shrines in Pakistan. Some of the records taken away by the Army during Operation Bluestar were returned to S.G.P.C. by the C.B.I. and the few of the items have been returned by Ranjit Singh Nanda, who was working with C.B.I. at that time. All these items are intact and in good condition. None of them look damaged by fire or smoke at all. While the C.B.I. has returned portions of the records, the material returned comprises hardly two per cent of the total. What happened to the rest of the material is too important to be brushed aside or hidden behind a smoke screen.

The Sikh Reference Library, Amritsar, was established in 1946 vide resolution number 822 dated October 27, 1946, of the S.G.P.C. According to Sukhdev Singh Jhand and Santokh Singh Shaharyar, eminent Sikh scholars, the credit for establishing the library goes to the S.G.P.C., but a significant role was played by the Sikh Historical Society, established in 1930 at Lahore under the leadership of Bawa Budh Singh. They say that though the society could not remain active after the death of its founder, it sowed the seeds for establishing a central library which could house literature related to Sikh Gurus, Sikh religion, and related fields. As a result, a meeting of Sikh scholars, historians, and others interested in this cause was held on February 10, 1945, at Khalsa College, Amritsar, under the presidentship of Princess Bamba, daughter of the late Maharaja Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

The Sikh Historical Society was formed at this meeting and its formal meet was held at Teja Singh Sammundri Hall on April 29, 1945. At this time, bylaws of the society were passed and a working committee constituted. It comprised Teja Singh, Bawa Prem Singh, Bawa Harikrishan Singh, Gurmukh Nihal Singh, and Ganda Singh. This society became instrumental in establishing the Central Sikh Library. Later, the name was changed to Sikh Reference Library.

Ranjit Singh Nanda, a former C.B.I. inspector, was a part of the five-member team that scrutinised the literature taken from Sikh Reference Library at the time of Operation Bluestar. He has spilled the beans recently. Nanda said that the C.B.I. had taken materials from the Sikh Reference Library to its make-shift office at Amritsar's Youth Club where the officials of his department were desperately looking for a purported letter written by Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. This purported letter was never found. However, Nanda said that he himself had seen some letters written by Jagjit Singh Chauhan and other leaders addressed to Sant Bhindranwale.

Manjit Singh Calcutta, a former secretary of the S.G.P.C., while corroborating Nanda's statement also alleged that the Army had set the Sikh Reference Library on fire in desperation when it failed to find the letter. Even as C.B.I. officials denied that such material was still in the agency's possession, Nanda said that the material of Sikh Reference Library was packed in gunny bags and trunks after proper cataloging before taking them from the Youth Hostel to an unknown place. These disclosures have substantiated the S.G.P.C.'s claims that the materials taken from the Sikh Reference Library are still lying with the C.B.I.

Nanda said the five-member C.B.I. team had scrutinized each and every book and manuscript and thereafter packed them into 165 gunny bags. Each bag was numbered. The entire material was bundled into waiting Army vehicles and taken away in wake of a crucial meeting convened by Sikh high-priests at the time. He alleged that he was stunned to see a volume of hand-written Guru Granth Sahib with bullet holes. Nanda showed a letter of appreciation from his seniors which reads: 'It is submitted that inspector Ranjit Singh of Punjab Police who is assisting the C.B.I. team since long has rendered valuable assistance in the investigation of this case, particularly during examination of documents from the S.G.P.C. etc. It is therefore requested that he be considered for the grant of a suitable cash award.'

The letter buttresses the S.G.P.C.'s claim that the C.B.I. had taken away materials from the Sikh Reference Library with some ulterior motive. Nanda said that he himself handled the manuscripts and other books. In May 2000, the Central Government for the first time acknowledged the claim of the S.G.P.C. that the Army had taken away valuable historical books and relics during Operation Bluestar. In a communication to the then secretary S.G.P.C., George Fernandes said that the material is with the C.B.I. He suggested that the S.G.P.C. should take up the matter with Union Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances, and Pensions since the C.B.I. falls under the jurisdiction of that ministry.

This statement was widely hailed since it was after 16 years of communication with the Centre that the S.G.P.C. had come to know that the books were 'safe.' However, much to the dismay of the Sikh community, during his visit to Jalandhar on August 17, 2000, Fernandes told media persons that on 'court orders,' the C.B.I. had destroyed as many as 117 items which were found to be 'seditious.'