It was a turning point in contemporary Indian history that rewrote political and social equations in lines of blood. It claimed the life of a Prime Minister and subsequently the lives of over 8,000 Sikhs at the hands of vengeful mobs in 1984. It spawned terrorism for the first time in India on a large scale, in which hundreds—ordinary people, militants, policemen and journalists—perished. Just after noon on June 3, 1984, Indian security forces started the first phase of Operation Bluestar that ended on June 8, 1984, to flush out militants occupying the Golden Temple, the most sacred of Sikh shrines. By the time the seige ended, the Army calculated that 492 terrorists and 142 soldiers were killed. What was little known was that the Indian government had asked the British government then headed by Margaret Thatcher for military advice on how to take the temple. Knowledge about this caused major uproar in both India and Britain, after declassified documents on Operation Bluestar were shown by Labour Party MP Tom Watson, who asked Prime Minister David Cameron for a review into events in Amritsar in 1984. A series of letters (reproduced here) suggest that the Indian Government kept Sikh sentiments in mind while deciding to execute the siege of the shrine. It was concerned about civilian casualties. Hence, advice given by the Special Air Services (SAS) agent sent by the United Kingdom on how to go about flushing out extremists from the Golden Temple was eventually ignored, resulting in a high number of casualties. The SAS officer who visited India between February 8 and 17 went to Amritsar on February 10, 1984. On February 13 he recommended a surprise attack (airdropping troops from helicopter), and that armed intervention should be the last resort. On February 10 he made a ground reconnaissance of the Golden Temple. The SAS agents plan was approved by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “It was clear to the officer that the Indians had not given much thought to how they should root out the extremists, beyond applying the ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ principle.
On March 7, 1985 the UK High Commissioner in Delhi Sir W Harding stated, “Although some of the recommendations were used, the main concept changed once the Indian Army took over.”
The communications also reveal that the British felt that if the visit becomes public knowledge, it would provoke a Sikh backlash at home. Meanwhile, the controversy has ignited a political war in Punjab. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal sought an unconditional apology from the British government. “Both the national governments were equally guilty for this unpardonable act and the Sikhs would never forgive them for this sin against humanity.” The Akali Dal was in power when Operation Bluestar occurred. Accusing Badal of trying to make political capital out of a sensitive situation and blaming him for various acts of omission and commission before and after the operation, former Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh said Badal was raking up the issue again for partisan gains. But it is far from dead.
Excerpts from the letters
FEBRUARY 6, 1984
The Prime Minister (Thatcher) is content that the Foreign Secretary should proceed as he proposes.
10 DOWNING STREET
From the Principal Private Secretary
Thank you for your letter of 3 February about the Indian request for advice on plans for the removal of dissident Sikhs from the Golden Temple. The Prime Minister is content that the Foreign Secretary should proceed as he proposes. She will look forward to receiving a report on the adviser’s visit and notes that the Home Secretary would be informed if the Indians seemed likely to proceed with their plan.
I am copying this letter to Richard Mottram (Ministry of Defence) and Richard Harfield (Cabinet Office)
Brian Fall, Esq. ,
Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
June 14, 1984
Although the hard core of the terrorists within have been liquidated, we have a difficult period ahead.
Message from Shrimati Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India to the
Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Dear Prime Minister,
We have a troubled situation in Punjab. Of all malefactors, those who wear the religious garb are the most dangerous.
As you know the Akali Dal lost to ...the Congress in the general elections of 1980. Towards the end of 1981, the Akalis raised a number of demands, hoping to regain their following among Sikhs. The government tried its utmost to come to some agreement with them. Unfortunately as the talks proceeded they shifted their stand and in the end hardened their attitude considerably.
In the meantime, the terrorists were strengthening their position. It is now established that they were in contact with and receiving help from hostile outside elements. Their objective was secession and disrupting the unity of our country. The para military forces were insufficient in number to control growing terrorist activities. So we had to send in the Army. The troops and officers included men of all faiths, including Sikhs. It is never easy to undertake security action involving a place of worship, especially in a country where religion is so easily and often used for political ends. But this place, so sacred to people of the Sikh faith, have been converted by terrorists into a base of operations. We did know that arms were being collected there... Many bore foreign markings... For months a reign of terror was unleashed from the temple complex, holding all Punjab to ransom. We had no choice but to send an army unit which exercised the utmost restraint, using a minimum of force. They had strict instructions not to damage the holiest shrine in the area, the Golden temple proper. In the process they suffered heavy casualties.
...One of the main religious leaders in-charge had told us that it (Akal Takht) was taken over by the terrorists and that he himself had not been allowed there for nearly 4 months.
Many in the Sikh community have been shaken by this traumatic event. The process of healing and conciliation will take but we shall persevere.
With warm regards,
3 February 1984
“A positive response would earn good deal of credit... Mrs Gandhi would find hard to
understand a refusal.”
TOP SECRET AND PERSONAL
AUS (D SATFF)
INDIAN REQUEST FOR ASSISTANCE
1. This submission seeks MOD approval for a------to visit India----------to provide advice to the Indian authorities.
2. Representatives of various extremist Sikh groups have, over the last year or so, taken up residence within the Golden Temple at Amritsar; some of them are believed to be armed. By a convention dating back to the British period in India, representatives of the Indian authorities, including the police and armed forces, do not enter the temple precincts in uniform. A recent widening of the rift between the moderates and extremists may soon force the Indians into some sort of action. They are now therefore preparing a contingency plan for action against the extremists.
3. It is in this plan on which the Indians have sought expert advice. The request was----------by the Indian intelligence Co-ordinator. It was clear this approach has been made after very careful consideration and that the matter was of considerable importance to the Indian Government. Believe that Mrs Gandhi would be aware of this request. The High Commissioner in New Delhi fully supports the proposal. He has commented that the request demonstrates the close relationship between Britain and India. A positive response would earn good deal of credit; at the same time Mrs Gandhi would find hard to understand a refusal.
4.-----------has been consulted and confirms that he can provide a suitably qualified and experienced officer at the short notice to provide the advice sought.
5.----------would arrange for the visit to be carried out--------------. They would make it clear to the Indians that the identity of the adviser should be adequately safeguarded and that HMG could not contemplate any assistance beyond that which might be given by the adviser.
ASSESSMENT OF RISK
6. Knowledge of this request has been tightly controlled by the Indians; and it is very much in their interests that the visit should not come to public notice. In these circumstances assess that the risk of any embarrassment to HMG is slight.
7. The Foreign Secretary believes that, in the interests of our bilateral relations with India, we should respond positively to the request. Subject to the concurrence of the Prime Minister and if necessary the Secretary of the State for Defence, he has therefore authorised-----------make arrangements with the Indians for an early visit by a suitable qualified adviser. The Foreign Secretary would inform the Prime Minister of the outcome of the adviser’s visit; and, in view of possible repercussions among the Sikh community in this country, the Home Secretary would be informed if the Indians seemed likely to proceed with their plan.
8. I recommend MOD approval is given for an early visit to India by a --------------in order to meet this request.
3 February 1984
“The latest developments at the temple where the rift between the moderates and extremists has now widened, may soon force the Indian Government’s hand.”
TOP SECRET AND PERSONAL
Foreign and Commonwealth Officer
London, SWIA, 2 AH
3 February 1984
Indian Request for Advice on plans for the Removal of Dissident Sikhs from the Golden Temple
The Indian Intelligence Co-ordinator --------------has sent an urgent request to------for advice on an Indian plan for possible action against the dissident Sikhs currently occupying parts of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Foreign Secretary believes that the Prime Minister would wish to be aware of the approach and our proposed response. Representatives of various extremist Sikh groups have over the last year or so taken up residence within the Golden Temple some of them are believed to be armed. By a convention dating back to British period in India, representatives of the Indian authorities, including the police and armed forces, do not enter the temple precincts in uniform but understand from that a contingency plan for possible action against the extremists is being drawn up by the Indians.
The Indians have requested that-------------provide an expert to advise on this contingency plan. The fact that this request has been made personally by------underlines not only its delicacy but the importance attached to it by the Indian Government. Given the nature of the request and what is known of the role played. It seems likely that Mrs Gandhi would’ve been informed before the request was made. In putting the request, made it clear that it had not been made lightly and that he was looking for help from them on matter of real importance to the Indians.
The High Commissioner in New Delhi fully supports the proposal. He has commented that the request demonstrates the close relationship between Britain and India. A positive response would earn a good deal of credit; at the same time Mrs Gandhi would find it hard to understand a refusal.
That it is of importance that a response should be given quickly, not least because they understand that the latest developments at the temple where the rift between the moderates and extremists has now widened, may soon force the Indian Government’s hand.
The Foreign Secretary believes that in the interests of our bilateral relations with India we should respond positively to the request. He has therefore authorised---------discuss the request with the--------and with the MOD and, subject to the agreement of the Prime Minister and (if the visit is to be made by a member of the armed services) of the Secretary of State for Defence, to make arrangements with the Indians for an early visit, either by----------------or by another suitable qualified adviser.--------would make it clear to the Indians that the true origin of the advice must be adequately safeguarded and that HMG could not contemplate assistance beyond that which might be given by the adviser. The Foreign Secretary would inform the Prime Minister of the outcome of the adviser’s visit; and, in view of possible repercussions among the Sikh community in this country, the Home Secretary would be informed if the Indians seemed likely to proceed with their plan. I am copying this letter to Richard Hatfield (Cabinet Office) and Richard Mottram (Ministry of Defence)
F E R Butler Esg, 10 Downing Street
23 February 1984
“It was clear to the officer that the Indians had not given much thought to how they should root out the extremists, beyond applying the ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ principle.”
TOP SECRET AND PERSONAL
Foreign and Commonwealth Officer
London, SWIA, 2 AH
You asked for a report on the visit by-----------to India to advise the Indians on their intention to divest the Golden Temple of Sikh extremists.----------has reported as follows.
a. The------------spent eight days with the Indians. He travelled and operated. Our speedy response to the Indians’ request for assistance was much appreciated by them and they put every facility at the disposal of their visitor. He made a ground reconnaissance of the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar on 10 February, flown from there by a special helicopter. It was clear to the officer that the Indians had not given much thought to how they should root out the extremists, beyond applying the ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ principle. With his own experience and the study of this kind of problem, he was able to advise the Indians of realistic ad workable plan which Mrs Gandhi approved on her return from Moscow on 16 February.
b. Sir R Wade-Gery, who was most impressed by the officer, made three points to him at the beginning of his visit:
(i) Our reaction to the Indians’ request can have done Anglo/Indian relations nothing but good;
(ii) It was therefore vital that there should be no leak about the visit.
If there were, it would be extremely embarrassing for both sides, and, if the leak sprung from us, the Indian would never forgive us;
(iii) If and when the Indians put the plan into operation and it went wrong, they should not be able to pin any blame on us. On this last point, a difficult one, the---draws attention to likely difficulties and various requirements that need to be fulfilled if the plan is to have a reasonable chance of success.
c. In summary,------believes that this was a very useful visit which passed off well and should have left the Indians well satisfied . It remains to be seen whether Mrs Gandhi has the political will to act. The officer had the impression from the Indians that she would proceed. ------have seen the telegram from New Delhi reporting the shooting in the Gold Temple last weekend and the deployment of a ‘commando squad’. The-------------was not present at the time.------------do not consider that the shooting arose from an attempt by the Indian authorities to implement their plan, but believe that the arrival of the commandos, if confirmed, could presage an operation.
(Disclaimer: Some of the documents were not readable.)
23 february 1984
“It might also, therefore, increase tension in the Indian community here, particularly if knowledge of the SAS involvement were to be become public.”
TOP SECRET AND PERSONAL
Foreign and CommonwealthOfficer
London SWIA 2AH
The Home Secretary will have seen press reports of communal violence in the Punjab. The Foreign Secretary wishes him to be made aware of some background which could increase the possibility of repercussions among Sikh community in this country.
The Indian authorities recently sought British advice over the plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Foreign Secretary decided to respond favourably to the Indians’ request and, with the Prime Minister’s agreement, as SAD officer has visited India and drawn up a plan which has been approved by Mrs Gandhi. The Foreign Secretary believes that the Indian Government may put the plan into operation shortly.
An operation by the Indian authorities at the Golden Temple could, in the first instance, exacerbate the communal violence in Punjab. It might also, therefore, increase tension in the Indian community here, particularly if knowledge of the SAS involvement were to be become public.
We have impressed upon the Indians the need for security; and knowledge of the SAS officer’s visit and of his plan has been tightly held both in India and in London. The Foreign Secretary would be grateful if the contents of this letter could be very strictly limited to those who need to consider the possible domestic implications.
I am copying this letter to Robin Butler (No 10), Richard Mottram (MOD) and Richard Hatfield (Cabinet Office).
7 March 1985
“We were not given any specific briefing until the day of the actual invasion of the Golden Temple...”
TOP SECRET AND PERSONAL
Flag A 1. Sir W Harding asked for a further note.
Flag B 2. With my minute of 22 February, 1984, I submitted a draft letter to No 10 reporting on the--------visit to India.
I attach a note----------------on subsequent developments.
1. Subsequent to---------------visit, and in response to FCO telegram 362 of 11 May to Delhi, asking for prior warning of military intervention in the Golden Temple and pointing out the importance of forewarning in the context. In the end we were not given any specific briefing until the day of the actual invasion of the Golden Temple took place (5 June, 1984). However,-------------(then Indian equivalent of our intelligence Co-ordinator) asked--------in Delhi on 13 June, 1984 to express his gratitude to--------the prompt and helpful response which resulted in the------report. Although some of the------- recommendations were used, the main concept changed once the Indian Army took over----------who sponsored-----visit).
A frontal assault was attempted using some of the Indian Special Forces and casualties were suffered.---------emphasised that the large number of deaths was not the result of poor implementation of the------plans, nor of any deficiency in the plans but was due to the army’s decision to do it their own way.
2. We have received so specific comments----------about the army’s assault on the Golden Temple.
“I am greatly concerned about unity and stength of our country. That is why it is important to discuss and settle all differences peacefully.”
(Mrs Gandhi to Bhindranwale)
Bharpor Singh Balbir ‘Netaji’ has brought to my notice your letter 19.2.1983. I agree with your view that every person should sincerely follow his religion. Bharpor Singh Balbir ‘Netaji’ spoke to me about your religious program and also ...... me detailed information about your sect.
As you know that I am greatly concerned about unity and strength of our country. That is why it is important to discuss and settle all differences peacefully. Religious leaders can help in this. The differences which have risen between the Sikhs and Nirankaris are causing trouble to a large section of our society. Please try to resolve this.
I send my respectful regards and best wishes.
Read V Sudarsan's article: A Controversy Comes Back