India ignored British advice on Golden Temple assault, probe finds

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 1:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2014, 4:43am

The British government has acknowledged advising the Indian government ahead of its 1984 raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar but India ignored it before storming the shrine in Amritsar.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague gave Parliament the results of a probe by Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron last month after archived government papers revealed the adviser's mission. The assault to free hostages in the temple resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, and then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards that year in a revenge attack.

Hague said Margaret Thatcher's ministers agreed to a request for advice from Gandhi's government after armed Sikh separatists took over the temple, Sikhism's holiest shrine.

The officer, who hasn't been named, visited India in February 1984, and said a military assault should be a last resort and should be conducted by paramilitary forces using helicopters to achieve surprise. The eventual attack in June, Operation Blue Star, was conducted by the Indian army. "The main concept behind the operation changed," Hague told MPs. "Operation Blue Star was a ground assault, without the element of surprise, and using ground troops without a helicopter-borne element."

Hague said the military advice was "purely advisory", but the acknowledgement of any kind of a link to the deadly attack may be discomfiting.

"It is awkward," said Sumit Ganguly, an Indiana University professor and the co-author of a book which covered the attack on Amritsar.

"The evidence that the British government might have provided some assistance in terms of the planning of this event is once again going to stoke old memories, memories that had long been buried. It's of enormous significance. This involved sending in the Indian army into one of the holiest shrines - if not the holiest shrine - of Sikhism. Even Sikhs who were opposed to the insurgency were deeply and profoundly hurt by the use of armed force against their place of worship."

When Gandhi was subsequently killed, the country erupted.

Mobs overran trains and went house to house across northern India, beating and lynching Sikhs, hacking many to death and burning others alive.

Associated Press, Bloomberg