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Why Britain did not dare refuse Mrs G
‘Surprise sacrificed to save civilians’

London, Feb. 5: The following are some of the key passages from the report by the UK cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood on Operation Bluestar.

Heywood has given his assessment of the documents and conversations and interviews with surviving key players from 30 years ago but not actually the raw material for scholars to scrutinise and make up their own minds. Heywood’s report is called: “Allegations of UK involvement in the Indian Operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar 1984.”

The reason

Heywood gets to the crucial questions — “Why did the UK provide India with advice from a military expert?”

His answer begins: “It is clear from documents on file that this was a response to an urgent request from the Indian intelligence co-ordinator for expert military advice on Indian contingency plans for potential action against those occupying the temple complex. The recommendation and decision to agree to this request were based on advice from the British high commission that it would be good for the bilateral relationship, whereas refusal would not be understood by the Indian Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi.”

He goes on: “The recommendation to ministers was explicit that the UK government could not contemplate assistance beyond that which might be given by the military adviser. There is no evidence in the files, or from discussion with officials involved at the time, that other forms of assistance for the operation — for example equipment or tactical intelligence — were provided for the Indian operation.”

He adds: “There does appear to have been some internal UK military consideration, immediately after the UK military adviser’s visit to India, of whether to offer training for the potential operation, if requested by the Indian authorities, and if agreed by UK ministers. But there is no evidence in the files that any Indian request was made, or that ministerial permission was ever sought. Nor do officials interviewed recall any such request or offer.”

Defence sales

Heywood says: “As would be expected in the normal course of bilateral relations, the files confirm that there were on-going contacts between UK and Indian officials around the time of Operation Bluestar on potential defence-related sales, including the potential sale of Westland helicopters for civilian purposes. However, there is no record linking the provision of UK military advice to the discussion of potential defence or helicopter sales; or to any other policy or commercial issue.”

No warning

He emphasises: “The only UK request of the Indian government, made after the visit, was for prior warning of any actual operation, so that UK authorities could make appropriate security arrangements in London. In the event, the UK received no warning from the Indian authorities of the launch of the operation.”

The advice

What was the nature of the military advice?

Here is the answer: “The UK military adviser was in India between 8-17 February, including a ground recce, with the Indian Special Group, of the temple complex. This was before — and unrelated to — the exchange of fire between Indian security forces and the occupiers of Sri Harmandir Sahib that started on 17 February.”

Heywood writes: “I have seen the UK military adviser’s visit report and the assessment which he gave the Indian authorities on 13 February. It is clear from this that the purpose of the visit was to advise Indian counter-terrorist team commanders on the concept of operations that they were already working up for action in the temple complex, including tactics and techniques. It is the long-standing practice of successive governments that we do not release such documents. However, I can confirm that the report makes clear that the military officer’s instructions were that no UK manpower or equipment should be offered beyond the visit of this single military adviser. His assessment for the Indian authorities also made clear that this type of operation should only be put into effect as a last resort when all other courses of negotiation had failed. Beyond this, it made no comment on the timing of any potential future operation.”

Key difference

Heywood reveals: “The UK officer’s report back to the UK authorities stated that the main difference between the original Indian plan and his advice was that the original plan was based on obtaining a foothold within the south complex and fighting through in orthodox paramilitary style. With a view to reducing casualties, the UK military adviser recommended assaulting all objectives simultaneously, thereby assuring surprise and momentum. The advice given to the Indian authorities identified sufficient helicopters, and the capability to insert troops by helicopter, as critical requirements for this approach. The UK advice also focused in command and control arrangements, and night-time coordination of paramilitary and Indian Special Forces.”

Advice impact

What was the impact of the UK advice?

Answer not much but Heywood pads it out: “The files provide limited insight into the overall impact of this advice on the Operation Bluestar which took place over three months later on 5-7 June. There is no record in the files of any formal or detailed military debrief from Indian to UK personnel, only references to the fact that one had not been received. The UK high commission in Delhi reported in February that the revised plan had been approved by Mrs Gandhi. However, it was not clear to contemporary UK officials whether this referred to a revised plan drafted by Indian officials that they had edited in the light of the UK military officer’s advice, but which UK personnel had not seen; or whether Mrs Gandhi had been shown the UK military adviser’s paper.”

He points out: “Recent Indian media reports suggest the operational plan developed by the Indian interlocutors of the UK military adviser was called “Sundown”, and focused on detaining Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the Sikh dissidents occupying Sri Harmandir Sahib. There is no mention of Operation Sundown in UK files. Nor do those interviewed recall that name. Nor was the UK military adviser’s report of February focused on a “snatch” operation. The plan it focused on was designed to re-establish control over the temple complex. It is, of course, possible that Indian planning went through several iterations after the UK military adviser’s visit and report.”

Current analysis

The report states: “A quick analysis by current UK military staff confirms that there were significant differences between the actual June operation, and the advice from the UK military officer in February. In particular, the element of surprise was not at the heart of the operation. Nor was simultaneous helicopter insertion of assault forces to dominate critical areas. The paper on the operation made public by the Indian authorities on 13 June 1984 makes clear that it was a ground assault, preceded by a warning, without a helicopter-borne element, which became a step-by-step clearance supported by armour and light artillery. The UK military adviser’s report suggested that the Indian intention in February 1984 was to pursue a police/paramilitary operation and avoid use of the army.

Army role

“However, Mrs Gandhi’s letter to Mrs Thatcher of 14 June 1984, explaining her decision to take military action against the occupiers of the temple complex, stated that the occupiers had been strengthening their position, that India’s paramilitary forces were insufficient in number, and so the army had had to be sent in.

“A key UK officer recalls being told in July 1984, by one of the Indian intelligence co-ordinator’s senior officials, that after the February visit, it had emerged that the Indian Special Group and the army did not have the helicopter capabilities for a simultaneous assault. The decision had also been taken to sacrifice surprise by warning civilians in the complex to leave before an impending assault, in an effort to reduce casualties.

Limited impact

“The overall impression that the UK military officer’s advice had limited impact in practice on the operation implemented by the Indian Army is consistent with the public statement on 15 January 2014 by the operation commander, Lieutenant General Brar, that ‘no one helped us in our planning or in the execution of the planning’. It is also consistent with recent reporting in the Indian media that there was a change of plan and approach in the months after the visit of the UK military adviser.”

Conclusion

“My overall conclusions are based on the available written records in UK government files 30 years after Operation Bluestar, and discussion with officials involved at the time. My conclusions focus on the facts of the extent of any UK assistance. They do not make a subjective assessment of whether that assistance should have been provided. Nor do they assess the Indian government’s decisions on whether and how to conduct the operation; or how UK-Indian relations developed following the tragic events at Amritsar.

“My conclusions are as follows:

(i) The UK Government did send one military officer to provide military advice on Indian contingency plans for an operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib.

(ii) This military advice was a one-off. It was not sustained.

(iii) There was no other UK military assistance, such as training or equipment, to the Indians with Operation Bluestar.

(iv) The UK Government did not link the provision of this military advice to defence sales. The decision to help was taken in response to a request for advice from a country with which the UK had — and has — a close relationship.

(v) The military advice from the UK officer had limited impact in practice. The actual operation implemented by the Indian Army differed significantly from the approach suggested by the UK military officer.”