Politics, Historic

Thatcher colluded with Gandhi on Operation Blue Star

The February File
By Anju Kaur | January 13, 2014
The National Archives, Phil Miller

Two recently released top-secret letters from February 1984 show British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a British Special Forces military advisor to India to help Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi plan the June 1984 attack on Harmandar Sahib.

A top-secret letter released by the British government, dated February 1984, shows that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a special-forces military officer to India to help Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi plan Operation Blue Star, the invasion and attack on Harmandar Sahib in June 1984.

“The Indian authorities recently sought British advice over a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar,” says the Feb. 23, 1984, letter sent from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the British Home Office. 

“The foreign secretary decided to respond favorably to the Indian request, and with the prime minister’s agreement, an SA(S) officer has visited India and drawn up a plan, which has been approved by Mrs. Gandhi,” writes Brian Fall, the foreign secretary's principal private secretary. SAS stands for Special Air Services.

“The foreign secretary believes that the Indian government may put the plan into operation shortly.”

The “plan” manifested in June 1984 as Operation Blue Star. Known by the British as the Golden Temple, this historic gurdwara has become symbolic of the Sikh religion and embodies a special historical and spiritual significance to Sikhs all over the world. 

In the two years leading up to the Indian army’s attack, Sikhs were heavily protesting the federal government’s tyrannical civil and economic policies, including the diversion of Punjab’s river waters out of the state. The oppression led many Punjabi Sikhs to consider seceding from India. Although there was no unity among Sikhs for the idea or a concrete plan in place for secession, the Indian government decided on a hostile siege of the Punjab. The “plan” began with a military siege of Harmandar Sahib where Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, leader of the dissidents, was staying with many of his followers. 

The treacherous “plan” involved the Indian army, heavy artillery, tanks and helicopters. In the months leading to Operation Blue Star, the Indian government evicted all foreigners, journalists, and foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations; imposed curfews; suspended all transportation in and out of Punjab; and cut all communications – completely closed from the rest of the world.

The diabolical “plan” was carried out on Guru Arjan’s martyrdom gurpurab, when Harmandar Sahib is inundated with devotees. Thousands of innocent men, women and children were mercilessly slaughtered in the attack. Many other gurdwaras in the state also were attacked, as the Indian state began its military occupation of Punjab.

The top-secret letter implicating the British government’s collusion in Operation Blue Star was released as part of the government’s 30-year rule that requires secret documents be disclosed to the public after that period of time has passed.

The letter was among a small collection of top-secret documents contained in a file released by The National Archives. The file was discovered by Phil Miller, a blogger on Britain’s immigration policy. 

The majority of the documents in the file are letters involving Thatcher’s negotiations of British arms sales with India, Miller says in his blog post, today. “(But) in a remarkable series of letters, buried among the new-year releases at the National Archives in Kew, southwest London, I discovered the gamble that Thatcher’s administration took with the volatile situation in India and the diaspora.”

In the letter, titled ‘Sikh Community,’ Fall advises his counter-part at the Home Office, Hugh Taylor: “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 the Sikh communities in this country.”

“The “background” in question was the covert role of an elite British military adviser in India,” Miller says.

Only four copies of the letter were circulated, to keep the scheme hidden. The other three were sent to Robin Butler, Thatcher’s principle private secretary at 10 Downing Street, Richard Mottram, private secretary to the Secretary of State for Defense at the Ministry of Defense, and Richard Hatfield at Thatcher’s Cabinet Office.

“Despite these precautions, SAS involvement was rumored in a Sunday Times article written by Anne Mary Weaver shortly after the raid in June,” Miller adds. “This new evidence provides conclusive proof that British Special Forces were involved with planning a raid on the temple. It also starkly reveals the risks involved with Thatcher’s covert foreign policy for events in India and Britain.”

Although the letter does not give any details of the British-Indian “plan” for the attack, the strategy may have been disclosed in three other letters in this chain of missives. But those letters are missing from the file. They remain classified under the Public Records Act of 1958. 

“This requires a thorough, independent and impartial investigation,” said Sukhman Singh Dhami, co-director of Ensaaf, a California-based advocacy group investigating the aftermath of Operation Blue Star. “As a fully functional democracy, the United Kingdom should not have difficulty instituting an inquiry and making the findings public.” 

The only other letter included in the file is a direct correspondence from Fall to Butler, dated Feb. 6, 2014, which shows that Thatcher authorized the collusion on a "plan."

“The prime minister is content that the foreign secretary should proceed as he proposes,” Fall says in the letter. “She will look forward to receiving a report on the advisor’s visit and notes that the home secretary would be informed if the Indians seemed likely to proceed with their plan.”  

The March and subsequent file(s) for the rest of 1984 may not have been released yet by the archives.

Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on Oct. 30 that same year. What followed were several days of government-sponsored anti-Sikh pogroms that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Sikh men, women and children, mainly in Delhi.

“If true, it is unfortunate that the British government got involved in an event that clearly escalated the violence and resulted in gross human rights violence, beginning with Operation Blue Star and cascading into the Decade of Disappearances,” said Sukhman Singh of Ensaaf, which is documenting the state-sponsored extrajudicial killings from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. 

Tens of thousands of Sikh men, women and children were “disappeared” by the Punjab police, which continues to enjoy state-sanctioned impunity from prosecution for its crimes against humanity.   

Sikh humanitarian organizations and legal advocacy groups consider Operation Blue Star the beginning of a Sikh genocide that continued through the pogroms and lasted through the Decade of Disappearances. Sikhs have not received any justice from the Indian legal system in prosecuting offenders, and continue to be persecuted by federal and state policies, and by the police.

“An operation by the Indian authorities at the Golden Temple could, in the first instance, exacerbate communal violence in Punjab,” Fall says in the Feb. 23 letter. 

But his concern was not Punjab. The purpose of his letter was to warn the British Home Office of possible repercussions from the British Sikhs following an attack on Harmandar Sahib, especially if they came to know of the  conspiracy by their own country. 

“It might also, therefore, increase tension in the Indian community here, particularly if knowledge of the SAS involvement were to 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.”

While 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, it also marks the 100th anniversary commemorating the service of Sikh soldiers in the British Army during World War I. 

More than 80,000 Sikh soldiers died fighting in both world wars, not only for England’s freedom but also for India’s independence. 

_________________________From Sikh News Network archives.