An avoidable operation
The British government has rejected a petition by the Sikh community in London to make public all papers concerning Operation Blue Star. Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, was close to the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and reportedly helped her to plan the Indian military action at the Golden Temple in Amritsar between June 1 and 8, 1984, to oust militant religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers from the Harmandir Sahib Complex.
It has now come to be known that one British officer had visited Amritsar on a reconnaissance and collected all the data which came in handy to the Indian army when it launched the attack on the militants holed up at the Golden Temple. It is now realised that the operation was not necessary and that Bhindranwale could have been removed from the Akal Takht through some other methods.
But even after 34 years, the public does not know why the operation was undertaken. True, Bhindranwale had converted the entire Golden Temple complex, including the Akal Takht, into a state within the state and fortified it. He became an authority and issued orders to the Sikh community. The operation which followed led to the use of tanks. I recall the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was woken up at midnight because the first batch of Indian forces had to retreat in the face of well-planned gunfire by Bhindranwale and his followers.
Even today, one can see the bullet marks on the walls of Harmandir Sahib. The military action by the Indian government annoyed the liberal Sikhs who consider the Golden Temple as their Vatican. In the absence of information which the British government has, it is difficult to know why the Indian forces had to enter the Harmandir Sahib at the first instance.
The military action led to an uproar amongst the Sikhs worldwide and the increased tension following the action led to assaults on members of the Sikh community in India. Many Sikh soldiers in the Indian army mutinied while many Sikhs resigned from the armed and civil administrative offices. In fact, some Sikhs even returned the awards and honours they had received from the government.
Indira Gandhi was conscious that the Sikh community would retaliate. She said in a public meeting in Bhubaneswar that she had an intuition that she could be killed. But what she contemplated was necessary in the interests of government's authority. What happened to her four months later was tragic. She was assassinated by Sikh security guards in what was viewed as an act of vengeance. And it did not stop there. More than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in the ensuing anti-Sikh riots in Delhi alone, according to an official statement.
I was a part of the team which comprised General Jagjit Singh Aurora, Air Marshal Arjan Singh and Inder Gujral, who subsequently became prime minister. Our finding was that the army operation was not necessary and that Bhindranwale could have been dealt with otherwise. We said so in our report to the Punjabi group which had deputed us to probe into anti-Sikh riots.
PV Narasimha Rao was the then home minister and he was equivocal when our team met him to appraise of the government action. All other people including the witnesses whom we spoke to made a case where it was clear that the government had overreacted. The anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and neighbouring areas could have been suppressed immediately. But the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, did not deliberately ask either the police or the army to intervene. He reportedly remarked that the riots were spontaneous. He even reacted by saying that when a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake.
Now three decades after the army stormed the Golden Temple, the freshly declassified British documents show that the UK gave military advice to India on retaking the temporal seat of Sikhs, kicking off political storms in both London and New Delhi. The British government has ordered an inquiry into the revelations and the BJP has demanded an explanation.
However, intelligence officials involved in operations against Sikh extremists in Punjab during the period and military commanders who led Operation Blue Star have denied using any British plan. They said as far as they were concerned, the entire operation was planned and executed by the Indian Army.
The revelation is contained in a series of letters declassified recently by the National Archives of UK after the 30-year secrecy obligation. In an official communication dated February 23, 1984 titled "Sikh Community", an official with the foreign secretary told the private secretary to the home secretary that "the foreign secretary wishes him to be made aware of some background which could increase the possibility of repercussions among the Sikh communities in this country."
"The Indian authorities recently sought British advice over a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The foreign secretary decided to respond favourably to the Indian request and, with the prime minister's agreement, a SAS (Special Air Service) 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," the letter said.
The letter went on to say that if the British advice were to emerge in public, it could increase tension in the Indian community in Britain. However, there is no evidence in any of the communication if the British plan was finally used for the June 1984 operation.
In London, the UK government said it will investigate its involvement. "These events led to a tragic loss of life and we understand the very legitimate concerns that these papers will raise. The prime minister has asked the cabinet secretary to look into this case urgently and establish the facts," a UK government spokesperson said in a statement.
Operation Blue Star papers have to be thrown open to the public because as time passes, one feels that it was an operation which should not have taken place.
Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.