10 February 2014

Back to Amritsar

February 9, 2014 


Indira Gandhi rightly concluded that a sovereign nation cannot tolerate any challenge to its integrity.

Try hard as we may, the year 1984 keeps coming back to haunt India. And now, the UK as well. Last month, some documents were released indicating that the UK government had been asked to send a military adviser to help tackle Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale during his occupation of the Golden Temple. Last Tuesday, MP William Hague made a statement in the House of Commons. It was repeated in the House of Lords as per normal practice. The minister in charge was Baroness Sayeeda Warsi of Pakistani origin and I was present in the Chamber when the statement was read out .

The report by Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood was prepared and released within less than four weeks of the original news about the advice. Along with the statement are copies of some original letters from government files dated February to June 1984, as well as a letter from Indira Gandhi to Margaret Thatcher dated June 14, 1984. One file had been destroyed after 25 years in a routine operation, but some papers were copied on to other files and it is those that have survived. Whether there was anything crucial in the destroyed file, we shall never know.

That one mystery apart, the news itself is intriguing, but tame. The ‘Indian Intelligence Coordinator (no name mentioned)’ requested expert advice. The then British high commissioner “commented that the request demonstrates the close relationship between Britain and India”. (All quotes from documents released were given to the members of the House of Lords and are available on the UK government website). He added that “Mrs Gandhi would find it hard to understand a refusal”. After consultation between the PM and the foreign secretary, a military adviser was sent. The Special Air Service (SAS) officer (also unnamed) visited India for eight days in 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.

After a ground reconnaissance of the site, the assessment of the adviser was that “a military operation should only be put into effect as a last resort, when all attempts at negotiations had failed”. It recommended including an “element of surprise and the use of helicopter-borne forces, in the interests of reducing casualties and bringing about a swift resolution”.

This advice was obviously not accepted by the Government of India. One can sense that the SAS officer was using the experiences of Entebbe and the Munich Olympics ,where rescue operations of great daring were carried out. By June, however, the situation had worsened much more and the decision to launch Blue Star was made. As the statement by the Foreign Secretary says, “After the UK military adviser’s visit in February, the Indian Army took over the lead responsibility for the operation and the main concept behind the operation changed”.

Lord Robin Butler, who was the principal private secretary to Thatcher in 1984, was also present in the House on Tuesday and was able to confirm that Thatcher had been consulted about the visit and kept a watch on what happened. Indira Gandhi wrote to her after operation Blue Star, explaining what had happened. “Their objective was secession and disrupting the unity of the country. The paramilitary forces were insufficient in number to control growing terrorist activities. So we had to send in the army.”

The Sikh diaspora will no doubt continue to demand more answers from the UK government. It seems clear that the advice given by the SAS officer was about a much more limited and stealthy operation. But the Government of India rejected the advice. The clear conclusion that I could reach was that this was India’s problem and that India tackled it in its own way. Advice was requested but not taken.

Indira Gandhi rightly concluded that a sovereign nation cannot tolerate any challenge to its integrity. She paid for her decision with her life. As she wrote to Thatcher, “Of all malefactors, those who wear the religious garb are the most dangerous”. But many others died then as well as later. They still haunt the nation.

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