UK's Role in Operation Bluestar 'Very Limited': Probe

Aditi Khanna/ London
UK's Role in Operation Bluestar 'Very Limited': Probe
File Photo
UK's Role in Operation Bluestar 'Very Limited': Probe

Britain's role in assisting India in mounting Operation Bluestar to flush out militants from the Golden Temple in 1984 was "limited" and "purely advisory" and had little impact on the actual assault, Foreign Secretary William Hague said today.

Presenting the findings of a probe into the Margaret Thatcher government's role in helping her counterpart Indira Gandhi, Hague told parliament that the UK played no role in the operation by the Indian Army.

"The Cabinet Secretary’s report therefore concludes that the nature of the UK's assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian government at an early stage in their planning," he told the House of Commons.

Noting that the assistance was provided over three months before the operation was carried out during June 5-7, 1984, Hague said the probe concluded that a British "military officer's advice had limited impact on Operation Bluestar".

An analysis of nearly 200 files and 23,000 documents confirmed that a "single British military adviser" travelled to India during February 8-19, 1984 to advise the "Indian Intelligence Services and Special Group on contingency plans" being drawn up for an operation against militants in the temple complex, including ground reconnaissance of the site.

Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the inquiry after newly declassified secret documents revealed that an officer of the elite Special Air Service visited India to offer advice for the move against militants in the holiest Sikh shrine.

Hague said Britain had advised that a military operation "should only be put into effect as a last resort" when all attempts at negotiation failed. It recommended including an element of surprise and the use of helicopter-borne forces to reduce casualties, he added.

"The Cabinet Secretary's report includes an analysis by current military staff of the extent to which the actual operation in June 1984 differed from the approach recommended in February by the UK military adviser. Operation Bluestar was a ground assault, without the element of surprise, and without a helicopter-borne element," he said.

The probe's conclusion the UK advice had limited impact was consistent with a statement on January 15 by Operation Bluestar commander, Lt Gen K S Brar, who said "no one helped us in our planning or in the execution of the planning", Hague said. 

Hague said the conclusion was also consistent with an exchange of letters between former premiers Indira Gandhi and Thatcher on June 14 and 29, 1984, discussing the operation, which "made no reference to any UK assistance".

While admitting that some military files covering various operations were destroyed in November 2009 as part of a routine process undertaken by the Ministry of Defence, he said copies of some documents in the destroyed files were found in other departmental files.

The probe also examined concerns raised by British MPs and by the Sikh community that parliament may have been misled about Operation Bluestar or that the decision to provide advice may have been linked to UK commercial interests.

"The report finds no evidence to substantiate either of these allegations," Hague said. The inquiry did not find any evidence that the provision of British advice was linked to "potential defence or helicopter sales, or to any other policy or commercial issue".

The only British request to the Indian government was for prior warning of any actual operation so that authorities could make appropriate security arrangements in London. "In the event, the UK received no warning from the Indian authorities before the operation was launched," he said.

The report by Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood included relevant sections of five more secret documents that shed light on this period but which would not normally have been published, the minister told MPs.

"This giving of military advice was not repeated...And the Cabinet Secretary found no evidence of any other assistance such as equipment or training," he added.

Britain's only Sikh MP, Paul Uppal, spoke in the Commons to stress that the report makes clear that the UK played no "malicious" role in Operation Bluestar. He called on the government to work with Sikh groups and the Indian High Commission for a "process of truth and reconciliation so that the community can finally begin to feel a sense of justice".

A few months after Operation Bluestar that left more than 1,000 people dead, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in a revenge attack.

The row over how much the British knew of the incidents 30 years ago threatens to derail Conservative party attempts to attract Sikh voters, who could play a major role in marginal seats in London and Leicester in any election.

Sikh groups in the UK criticised the scope of the inquiry and claimed it focussed on a very "narrow period".

In a letter to Cameron, Sikh Federation UK chairman Bhai Amrik Singh said: "We are dismayed the terms of the review were only formally made available almost three weeks after the review was announced and only days before an announcement of the results of the review are expected in Parliament."

Speaking in a video message to the UK Sikh community following the publication of the report, Cameron said there is absolutely no evidence of UK Government involvement in the operation itself.

"30 years ago, a great tragedy unfolded at the Sri Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar. Many lives were lost and the scars in the Sikh community still run deep.

"So when documents came to light a few weeks ago raising the possibility that the then-UK Government was involved in the Indian Army s operation that June people were shocked, they were angry, and they rightly wanted answers. I immediately set up an inquiry to find those answers. I tasked the Cabinet Secretary with getting to the truth. He did so, and there are two main findings.

"One: around four months before the events, at the request of the Indian Government, a single UK military officer provided some advice. But critically, this advice was not followed, and it was a one-off."

"Two: there is absolutely no evidence of UK Government involvement in the operation itself. This conclusion has been made after a thorough search of some 200 files and over 23,000 documents. But let me be clear. I want the dialogue between this Government and the Sikh community to continue.

He said British Sikhs had made and would continue to make a vital contribution to "our national life from serving in two world wars to running businesses and playing a massive part in our communities today. I never forget this. I am grateful for it".

He expressed hope that the probe will provide some reassurance to the Sikh community in Britain and elsewhere.

Also see: Full statement by UK

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