UK docs on Operation Bluestar: Time to probe Indira Gandhi's role

Thirty years ago Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the head of the Sikh seminary Damdami Taksal, had turned the GoldenTemple into a fortress. Firmans of violence and death were issued from the holy shrine.  On the night of 4 June the Army attacked. Codenamed Bluestar, the controversial operation ran into stiff resistance, armoured vehicles were brought in and the ensuing damage to the shrine left a community and a country at odds. It took a decade for peace to be restored to Punjab, it has taken much longer to even consider the possibility of reconciliation.

 UK docs on Operation Bluestar: Time to probe Indira Gandhis role

Golden Temple in Amritsar. Reuters

The basic question of how the country blundered so badly that night has still not been answered. Who was responsible for planning the botched up sequence of events that unfolded on that night and why have we failed to address the question of responsibility in straightforward fashion? Why do we believe that some issues are best left as they are, even as they continue to fester?

Yesterday, David Cameron ordered a probe after recently declassified documents suggest that the UK played an active role in planning the actual operation. Made public by Labour MP Tom Watson, the documents do not just seem to reveal the extent of British involvement, they also raise serious questions about how Indira Gandhi went about conceiving this operation. While it was for Sikhs in Britain to worry about the unravelling of the  naïve faith they have in their own government as they go about berating India, is it not time that we in this country should consider a public probe into what transpired?

Consider what the documents reveal. In a letter, written by Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary from 10 Downing Street to Brian Fall, private secretary to then foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, "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."

The other letter made public, dated 23 February, is written by Fall to his counterpart under the home secretary,"The Indian authorities recently sought British advice over a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar…an SAD (sic) officer has visited India and drawn up a plan which has been approved by Mrs Gandhi…the knowledge of the SAS officer’s visit and of his plan has been tightly held in India and in London."

Clearly then, if the documents are authentic, and they certainly seem to be so, Indira Gandhi had already approved of a plan to remove Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple as early as February 1984. Yet, the person who commanded the operation, Lt General KS Brar, was first told about the operation less than a week before it was carried out.

In an interview, Brar has said,"I caught the morning flight from Delhi to Chandigarh. I arrived in Chandimandir and told my wife that I’ll be back in the evening and we’ll catch the flight (to Manila). I'm rushed to the operations room. Maps on the wall and I'm still wondering what’s going on. I am told,"You know the situation in Amritsar is very bad" and I said yes."

"The Brigadier General Staff gave me a briefing and it appeared to me that I am being sent off to carry out an operation. So in the middle of all those briefings I said, "I am proceeding abroad tonight. I have been sanctioned annual leave for my honeymoon." And so he looked at General Dayal and they whispered to each other and then he said, Bulbul, your leave is off. You go another time. There’s an aircraft waiting outside to take you to Amritsar. Give orders to your division to move from Meerut to Amritsar immediately. I give you 36 hours to settle down there and make your plans and I shall come there for my first briefing…"

"So I got to Amritsar and got my staff and we got down to making plans. I didn't even know the layout of the Golden Temple. I had never been there, so I did a quick reconnaissance, met the local civil administration, the police. They weren't of any help, as they were defunct for many months. Bhindranwale was in full control. They weren’t able to give me any information about what was happening inside the GoldenTemple."

Once the operation was launched Brar said, "I won’t say we underestimated them but the information given to us indicated that there were not so many people and that they didn’t have the type of weapons that they should. Intelligence was lacking."

What was the government and the Army doing between the end of February and the end of May? How come not even the plans of the temple complex were available? No intelligence seems to have been gathered, and if the SAS officer had suggested a plan what happened to it? What were the political machinations Indira Gandhi was involved in while the actual details of the operation were seemingly ignored for three months? Why could the Indian government not even ensure that the operation was not carried out at a time when the complex was full of pilgrims because of an important festival?

So far we have been given to believe that matters unravelled so quickly in Amritsar that Indira Gandhi had no choice but to respond in haste.  This effectively gave the Army little time to come up with a coherent plan. But if it is true that the operation had been cleared and planned as far back as February 1984 none of this stands, and Indira Gandhi stands accused of near criminal culpability for pushing the country into one of its worst crises since Independence.

There are those who will claim we should let such matters rest. But the ham-handed operation led to a mutiny in the Army, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the mass killing of Sikhs in Delhi and several other parts of India as well as the rise of an insurgency in Punjab that was, perhaps, the most violent challenge to the Indian state since 1947. How do we ignore and pretend to forget the culpability of our own government in such events?

Updated Date: Jan 15, 2014 07:41:55 IST