New Delhi, Jan. 14: The UK documents that claim to show Margaret Thatcher sent a British adviser to counsel the Indian military on the 1984 Operation Bluestar focus attention on the botched attack by a shadowy unit called “Establishment 22” that reported to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s office.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has launched an inquiry into the alleged British role that was mentioned in “top-secret” letters attributed to senior officials of the Thatcher government 30 years ago. (See chart)
There is no public record in India that New Delhi sought — and got — British advice for Bluestar, the operation to flush out extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
But former officers who participated in the operation suggest such counsel could have been given only to the Special Group of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), the official name of “Est 22”, that even now reports directly to the cabinet secretariat.
The British adviser, according to the documents, was from the Special Air Services (SAS), an elite Special Forces wing that also operates only on instructions of the UK political leadership.
“The SFF jokers came in at the last minute and they were clearly not prepared,” Lt Gen. Prakash Katoch, who was inside the Golden Temple complex during the operation, said in a conversation with The Telegraph this evening. Katoch has since retired.
The toll in Operation Bluestar is still debated because of the political implications of the attack and varies from 1,000 to 2,000. The casualties include around 140 from the army.
“They (the SFF) were carrying rocket launchers that we were asked not to carry (because of their damage potential to the holy shrine),” Katoch said.
A major in 1984, Katoch was commanding a company of 1 Para, the only army Special Forces unit in the operation. Katoch said he was inside the Golden Temple complex through the operations.
He said that he had moved with his company from headquarters at Nahan (in Himachal Pradesh) on June 2. For three days, he and his men were surveying the complex in preparation for their task — time that the Special Group of the SFF that reached only a day before the operations could not devote.
“They said they were given orders and they moved without preparation. They were carrying gas cartridges made in Tekanpur that had expired in 1977. This showed how ill-prepared they were,” said Katoch.
“Had they been getting advice from the SAS in February (of 1984), they would have done much better with or without the SAS accompanying them. Why the Indian government would contact the SAS instead of relying on own special operations capability is beyond me but one can hardly rule it out, considering the grey matter of our political bosses,” said the outspoken Katoch.
“They had practically not done a recce on the ground. There were a lot of mistakes. The norms laid down in the army manual on ‘Fighting in Built-up Areas’ were violated. Most important, the main operations (on June 5-6) were on a full moon night when they should have been in pitch dark and a lot of their men were cut down by the LMGs (light machine guns),” recalled Katoch.
He said this showed that the army had not got any advice or the advice was wrong. “These things never get known,” he said. By their very nature all special operations are clandestine.
Katoch’s company was initially tasked to clear the Akal Takht and the Darshini Deori (the Viewing Gate of the Golden Temple’s sanctum sanctorum) but he was superseded by the SFF because of the political clout it carried, reporting as it did to the PMO.
Mark Tully, author of Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, who was the BBC bureau chief in 1984 and reported from the Golden Temple, also told an audio-visual news agency today that he did not see a British role.
“As far as I know, there was no role, and these reports are not confirmed yet. There is just one MP who claimed it, so, it cannot be taken as a fact,” Tully told ANI.
“Also, there are a few reasons because of which I am doubtful about this. First, at that time, the relations between Britain and India were very bad. The Indian government was dissatisfied with the kind of cooperation they got from British police in dealing with members of the Khalistan Movement,” he said.
“When I wrote my book on Amritsar, I consulted the British military attache at that time. He said that in all of his time in India, he spent a lot of time trying to persuade the Indian government to make use of the experience that the British had with a similar movement in Northern Ireland, but he got nowhere with it,” said Tully.
Katoch said that on the night of June 5 and June 6, the casualties were probably the highest because of the underestimation of the militants’ firepower by the SFF.
Part of the reason was that the Amritsar-based 15 Division of the army, that knew the terrain best, had weeks earlier been moved out to the Pakistan border.
On the morning of June 6, because the SFF had failed to get in and clear other objectives, the army called in tanks after enough BMPs (armoured personnel carriers) could not be found, said Katoch.