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India altered Bluestar plan, not us: UK

Margaret Thatcher, (below) Indira Gandhi

London, Feb. 4: Britain today confirmed that it aided India in Operation Bluestar but the “assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided” over three months before the operation to flush out extremists from the Golden Temple was launched in June 1984.

The UK also suggested that the actual Indian action contrasted sharply with the approach proposed by a British adviser who travelled to India.

“The cabinet secretary’s report finds that the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian government at an early stage; that it had limited impact on the tragic events that unfolded at the temple three months later; that there was no link between the provision of this advice and defence sales and there is no record of the (British) government receiving advance notice of the operation,” British foreign secretary William Hague told the House of Commons today.

This can be summed up as: what happened wasn’t our fault.

The big question is whether the present British government of David Cameron is off the hook for the assistance offered to Indira Gandhi by Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

The answer is probably “yes”, considering the report by cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood claimed that British advice on how to avoid loss of life was ignored and that the heavy casualties that resulted in the Indian Army’s assault on the Golden Temple between June 3-8, 1984, were solely India’s responsibility.

In particular, the lone British military adviser sent to India had emphasised that force should be used to remove militants from the Golden Temple only as a last resort, and in that eventuality helicopters — rather than ground troops — should be deployed to achieve the element of surprise and keep loss of life to a minimum.

Heywood’s report contained an assessment by current military staff, comparing Bluestar with the approach recommended by the unnamed adviser. Bluestar was a ground assault, without the element of surprise or helicopter-borne troops.

New Delhi confirmed this evening that Britain had shared with India the findings of the probe. “The UK government has kept the Government of India informed on this matter and has also shared the outcome of the UK government’s enquiry with us,” the foreign office spokesperson said in New Delhi. “We have noted the report and the statement made.”

As Prime Minister, Cameron has invested heavily in relations with India and with Sikhs. There appeared to be a consensus during the Commons debate today that Heywood had done a creditable job and there was no desire among Labour MPs to whip up the passions of the past.

Ed Miliband will be paying his first visit to India as Labour leader from February 16-19, accompanied by Indian-origin MPs. He will have to decide how he responds to questions on Bluestar. Foreign secretary Hague confirmed a British adviser travelled to India in February 1984, but his recommendation for a surprise assault using helicopters was not reflected in the raid which took place in June that year and resulted in extensive bloodshed. Estimates of the casualties vary between 1,000 and 2,000.

“This loss of life was an utter tragedy,” the foreign secretary said. “Understandably, members of the Sikh community around the world still feel the pain and suffering caused by these events.”

Hague said Heywood “has established that a single British adviser travelled to India between 8-17 February 1984 to advise the Indian intelligence services and a special group on contingency plans that they were drawing up for operations against armed dissidents in the temple complex”, including ground reconnaissance of the site.

The adviser’s assessment was that a military operation should only be put into effect as a last resort when all attempts at negotiation had failed. It recommended including in any operation an element of surprise and the use of “helicopter-borne forces in the interest of reducing casualties and bringing about a swift resolution”.

Hague noted that the Indian plan “changed significantly” between February and June 1984, with a considerably larger dissident force and extensive fortifications within the temple complex. After the UK adviser’s visit, the Indian Army took over responsibility for the operation, and the “main concept” behind it changed. Britain had asked to be tipped off in case of an Indian assault but was apparently not given any advance notice of Bluestar. “The cabinet secretary’s report, therefore, concludes that the UK military officer’s advice had limited impact on Operation Bluestar,” Hague said.

The investigation involved searching 200 files and 23,000 documents, according to Hague, but the ministry of defence’s papers on the advice given to the Indians had been “destroyed” in 2009. Copies of some of the destroyed documents were contained in other departmental files and “taken together, these files provide a consistent picture of what happened”.

Other documents reveal that the British adviser was told that the Indians “should not be able to pin any blame on us” if their operation went wrong. A letter from Brian Fall, the private secretary to then foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, to Robin Butler, who was the principal private secretary at No 10, revealed the briefing given to the officer on his arrival in India.

Robert Wade-Gery, the British high commissioner, told him that agreeing to the Indian request “can have done Anglo/Indian relations nothing but good” but any leak of the visit would be “extremely embarrassing for both sides”.

He added: “If and when the Indians put the plan into operation and if it went wrong, they should not be able to pin any blame on us.” The document states that it was “clear to the officer that the Indians had not given much thought to how they should root out the extremists, beyond applying the ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ principle”.