Just under thirty years ago, Indian troops stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar as part of Operation Bluestar, intending to flush out the armed Sikh radicals who had taken refuge there. The outcome was catastrophic: at least several hundred civilians were killed, there was outrage among Sikhs in India and worldwide, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards four months later, resulting in widespread anti-Sikh pogroms.
Decades on, though the insurgency in Punjab is long gone, tensions can still run high. Only last year, three Sikhs were convicted in London for stabbing General Kuldeep Singh Brar, who had led the raid.
Now a political controversy has erupted in Britain, where documents declassified under our 'thirty-year rule' suggest that Margaret Thatcher, responding to an Indian request several months before the operation, authorised an SAS officer to visit India. The officer had 'drawn up a plan which has been approved by Mrs Gandhi'. The home secretary was informed in case the news leaked and caused tensions in Britain’s Indian community, where Sikh nationalism was prominent.
General Brar has dismissed claims of British involvement, and others have pointed out that the SAS, an elite small-unit force, would be extremely unlikely to have drawn up plans for the infantry operation (with tanks) that eventually unfolded.
But late last week the Hindu reported from its own sources that the then chief of India's external intelligence service, RAW (for more on which, see my previous Interpreter post), Girish Saxena, had consulted with Britain’s MI6 in the run-up to Bluestar, and that this did indeed include 'at least one visit by a mid-ranking officer of the élite SAS commando unit to frame an assault plan which would minimise civilian casualties'.
But 'the SAS plan, the sources said, was rejected because Mr Saxena was unconvinced it would work', prompting Gandhi to hand over responsibility to the Indian Army. Intriguingly, the Hindustan Times has also elaborated that the SAS officer was a colonel who, a few years later, would visit India’s ill-fated peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka, the IPKF.
Confusing the picture further, B Raman, former head of counter-terrorism for RAW, noted in his 2007 memoirs that two officers from Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, had visited the Golden Temple as tourists, at the request of RAW, and concluded, like their Indian counterparts, that Gandhi should 'be patient and avoid action or use the police' rather than the army.
Prime Minister David Cameron has now ordered an inquiry, both into the events themselves and why such sensitive documents were released. But, even if it is eventually shown that the UK’s role was negligible, as seems likely, much of the political damage has been done: the Telegraph’s Will Heaven titled his post on the issue, ‘will British Sikhs ever vote Tory again?’ Sikh voters are key in some marginal constituencies, but identify overwhelmingly with Labour.
The episode is a reminder of how even three-decade-old documents can cause ripples, and the possible repercussions of using special forces to engage in even low-profile covert counterinsurgency or counterterrorism assistance, something Western nations will increasingly do as they seek to limit their direct involvement in conflicts.
Photo by Flickr user ChrisGoldNY.