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The missing chapter of 1984: Book by book, Sikh Reference Library struggles to restore glory

Turning a new leaf: Rare manuscripts and other texts allegedly taken away by army have not been returned despite legal moves and community appeals; but its future is not all bleak.

punjab Updated: Jun 06, 2018 11:38 IST
Surjit Singh
Surjit Singh
Hindustan Times, Amritsar
1984,Operation Bluestar,Sikh library
An employee sorting books at Sikh Reference Library at Golden Temple in Amritsar on Tuesday. (Sameer Sehgal/HT)

Reduced to ashes 34 years ago during Operation Bluestar that the Indian Army carried out against Sikh militants in the Golden Temple complex, Sikh Reference Library is struggling to rebuild itself. The key fight is for recovery of rare manuscripts and documents taken away allegedly by the army.

Established by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) in 1946, the library, adjoining Golden Temple’s deodhi (entry gate) from the Atta Mandi side, lost its precious repository of rare manuscripts of Guru Granth Sahib, original hukamnama (edict) records of the gurus, besides other literature, as the building was burnt. While army authorities maintained the library caught fire during exchange the battle with militants who had taken shelter on the premises of the shrine, SGPC says the army deliberately set the library on fire after taking rare material away.

The issue hangs fire even as June 6 marks the anniversary of the 1984 operation that is considered a dark day by many in Sikh circles and beyond.

There have been reports that those library contents were confiscated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), but no progress has been made despite a case in the high court too.

Heritage lost and found:
  • Before Bluestar
  • Handwritten rare manuscripts of Guru Granth Sahib: 512
  • Total approx manuscripts of Sikh scriptures: 2,500
  • Rare books, including other manuscripts: 12,613
  • Hukamnamas (edicts) issued, signed by gurus: 20-25

In 2002, during the BJP-led central regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a statement by the then defence minister George Fernandes and a reported disclosure by Ranjit Singh Nanda, a former CBI inspector who was in a five-member committee “examining” the seized library material, endorsed the theory that CBI had the material. Nanda said the manuscripts, edicts, and books were taken in gunny bags and trunks to “an unknown place” after Operation Bluestar.

Besides efforts made by the SGPC through legal proceedings, media statements and meetings, a man named Satnam Singh Khanda also filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana high court in 2002 seeking return of the material. The court in 2004 ordered the Centre and other agencies concerned to return it. “However, nothing concrete has been done by the government and SGPC, which kept on emphasising the loss but not the demand for return of the repository in court,” Khanda told HT.

SGPC spokesperson Diljit Singh Bedi said they wrote to the then President Pranab Mukherjee seeking recovery of the material seized. “Besides, SGPC passes resolutions in this regard in every meeting, and raises the issue through media. It is also a part of a case pending in Delhi high court filed by SGPC,” he added.

For the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which controls the SGPC and is also a partner of the BJP in the central government, spokesman Daljit Singh Cheema did not remember the exact date when the party leadership met the central authorities in this regard, but he said, “We take up the issue with the Centre time to time, at every stage. Yes, the issues remains unresolved, but the SAD is sincere to ensure recovery of the literature.”

How it happened

The lone survivor staffer of the library from 1984, Hardeep Singh, who served as a helper there from August 1981 to June 4, 1984, and then from 1989 to 1993, said he was in the library with Davinder Singh Duggal, the then in-charge, till 11 pm on June 4. “After that, the army intensified the attack and imposed restrictions on civilians’ entry. It was impossible to go to the library in such a terrible situation.”

A staffer examining archives of the Hindustan Times at Sikh Reference Library at Golden Temple in Amritsar on Tuesday. (Sameer Sehgal/HT)

“As my residence was in proximity of the Golden Temple, I came to know that the library’s building was safe till June 6, but the material had been taken out from it. The army set the building on fire on June 7 at 10 am,” he said.

Hardeep was arrested by the army on June 7 afternoon from his residence at Mahant Mool Singh Bunga, and along with others he sent to a jail in Jodhpur from where he was released in 1988.

He recalled another incident alter to underline his claim. “After his retirement in 1991, (former CBI inspector) Nanda came to meet the then SGPC secretary Manjit Singh Calcutta and handed over a bag containing some documents. Calcutta immediately called me from the library and asked us to register these documents. When I saw the bag, I found numbering on the documents that had been given in the library before the army action. This established that the material was not burnt but was is in custody of the government,” he said.

There was some hope following that. “After coming to know that the material is in CBI’s custody, SGPC wrote to the Centre seeking recovery. The CBI accepted to return a small portion of the seized material, which also contained three of four entry registers. On the basis of these registers, the loss was assessed to a certain extent,” he said, explaining, “Approximately 2,500 handwritten rare manuscripts of Sikh scriptures, including those of Guru Granth Sahib and Dasam Granth, were there in the library. However, the number of registered ones was 512.”

What’s lost

Noted Sikh scholar Shamsher Singh Ashok also wrote in an article: “From November 24, 1920, to 1984, all records were well-preserved in the library. This included registers of SGPC proceedings. Handwritten rare manuscripts of Guru Granth Sahib and Dasam Granth were also repositories of different types of handwriting that prevailed in old times. Apart from Gurmukhi (script now use for Punjabi), scriptures in Persian, Arabian and Tibetan (scripts) were also kept in the library before 1984.”

He specifically mentioned a “rare handwritten copy of Kartarpuri bir of Guru Granth Sahib”, besides copies of “Mangat Wali Khari bir and two copies of Damdami bir”. “Guru Gobind Singh got Damdami bir authored by adding bani of Guru Teg Bahadar ji in Samvat 1739,” wrote Ashok, who served as a scholar at Sikh History Research Board that is also in the same building, from 1964 to 1981.

As for other texts, the library had 12,613 books with 10% of those being on general issues. Plus, it had 512 registered manuscripts of Guru Granth Sahib’s birs (copies), as per data assessed by HT from the library. Rare journals and periodicals, 18 volumes pertaining to paintings, and other material is also still missing.

Khanda said, “There were also copies of Hindu texts, such as Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Gita, besides the Quran Sharif and literature of other faiths as well. A few rare documents pertaining to India’s struggle for independence were also there.”

Revival by people

Hardeep further told HT, “After I resumed duty upon being released from jail, I found that there were rare books and documents in the library, though it was difficult to revive it without recovery of the material taken away in 1984.”

“Since the library made headlines for the arson it faced in the operation, people started donating more documents and books,” said Bagicha Singh, present in-charge of the library. “In the last 34 years, 550 manuscripts of Guru Granth Sahib have been collected, besides 24,000 other books and documents, and 1,300 general manuscripts.” While the SGPC collected some books on its own, individuals too donated, prominent being Prof Surjit Singh, Prof Parkash Singh, and historian Sangat Singh, who donated 3,000, 450 and 750 books, respectively.

Heritage lost and found:
  • After Bluestar
  • Manuscripts of Guru Granth Sahib: 550
  • Manuscripts of Dasam Granth:75
  • General manuscripts: 1,295
  • Rare books: 24,000
  • Hukamnamas (edicts): None

Around 5,000 books were shifted from Guru Ram Das Library, also run by the SGPC near the Golden Temple, to this library. Many rare manuscripts were provided by a man named Narinder Singh. Further, Gursagar Singh, owner of a publishing house, Singh Brothers, said, “We got emotional after the attack and destruction of the library, so we donated all our publications to this library.”

Digitisation on

The library is now headed for a digital step, which will help counter any future loss. SGPC president Gobind Singh Longowal said more than 15% of the collections have been digitised since 2008.

The SGPC had assigned the project to a private agency, which did not work properly; it restarted work on its own in 2013. Besides appointing technical experts, it set up a studio in the library that has two cameras and a scanner besides other equipment. The process is on six days a week, 10am to 5pm, and turns six books into PDF format everyday. Of the 4,500-odd documents that have been digitised, 800 are general manuscripts and 300 are copies of Guru Granth Sahib.

Recently, Longowal said the SGPC has decided to digitise rare documents available with historian Harwinder Singh Khalsa, too, under the project. He made an appeal to those having rare documents or books to contact the SGPC for preservation.

Also, as the paper of manuscripts in particular is affected by micro-insects and moisture, the library has a treatment plant equipped with a fumigation chamber to preserve these as well. Guru Nanak Dev University, too, has installed such a chamber on its lines.

Files of newspapers at the Sikh Reference Library in Golden Temple in Amritsar. (Sameer Sehgal/HT)

Plan for new building made amid opposition

As for its building, until 1984 the library was a small, two-storey building. With the stock having increased, SGPC later expanded it to include a a sizeable adjoining portion. However, SGPC recently resolved to shift the library from the Golden Temple complex to Bhai Gurdas Hall situated in the neighborhood. The plan is facing opposition from some Sikh bodies which say that the library is a witness to what happened during the army operation and thus should be kept intact to remind devotees of the episode.

First Published: Jun 06, 2018 09:23 IST