Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's decision to order the army to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984 would lead to her assassination. The assault on the Sikh holy site to evict separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, involving tanks and helicopters, incurred heavy civilian casualties. Outraged Sikhs in Britain responded with a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, and thousands more sought refuge in the UK as the violence in Delhi and the Punjab escalated, in what some call India’s Sikh genocide.
Top secret Whitehall correspondence now reveals that British special forces advised Indian leaders on retaking Amritsar, despite acknowledging privately that “an operation by the Indian authorities at the Golden Temple could, in the first instance, exacerbate the communal violence in the Punjab”. In a remarkable series of letters, buried among the New Year releases at the National Archives in Kew, south west London, I discovered the gamble that Thatcher’s administration took with the volatile situation in India and the diaspora.
Letter on Sikh Community dated 23 February 1984. Credit: Phil Miller
A letter dated 23rd February 1984, titled ‘Sikh Community’, noted “The Home Secretary will have seen press reports of communal violence in the Punjab. The Foreign Secretary wishes him to be made aware of some background which could increase the possibility of repercussions among the Sikh communities in this country”.
The ‘background’ in question was the covert role of an elite British military adviser in India.
“The Indian authorities recently sought British advice over a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Foreign Secretary decided to respond favourably to the Indian request and, with the Prime Minister’s agreement, an SAD [sic] officer has visited India and drawn up a plan which has been approved by Mrs Gandhi. The Foreign Secretary believes that the Indian Government may put the plan into operation shortly”.
The file stops short of detailing this “plan”, so it is not clear how similar this was to Operation Blue Star, the code name for the eventual assault in June. However, three other letters in this chain (between Thatcher’s private secretary Robin Butler and his counterpart at the Foreign Office) have been weeded out of the file and remain classified. The file stops in March 1984, and the next part of the folio is still unavailable, obscuring more details about the months leading up to the raid.
However, in a crucial letter, the Foreign Secretary’s Principal Private Secretary, Brian Fall, explains to his opposite number at the Home Office, Hugh Taylor, how a raid on the Temple might:
“increase tension in the Indian community here, particularly if knowledge of the SAS involvement were to become public. We have impressed upon the Indians the need for security; and knowledge of the SAS officer’s visit and of his plan has been tightly held both in India and in London. The Foreign Secretary would be grateful if the contents of this letter could be strictly limited to those who need to consider the possible domestic implications”.
Only four copies of the letter (stamped ‘Top Secret and Personal’) were made, and circulated to principal private secretaries at Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence, to keep the operation under wraps. Despite these precautions, SAS involvement was rumoured in a Sunday Times article written by Anne Mary Weaver shortly after the raid in June. This new evidence provides conclusive proof that British Special Forces were involved with planning a raid on the Temple. It also starkly reveals the risks involved with Thatcher’s covert foreign policy for events in India and Britain. The majority of letters in the file relate to Thatcher’s involvement in negotiating British arms sales to India.
Letter 6th February 1984 proves Thatcher was briefed on advice given to Indian officials. Credit: Phil Mille
Sikh activist Jagdeesh Singh, of the 1984 Genocide Coalition, argues “These documents now confirm the depth of this murderous collusion. June 1984 resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths, disappearances and wider devastation. It was 9-11 many, many times over. It was India’s war on the Sikh nation. The above documents amount to explosive evidence of British government participation in this mammoth crime against humanity, and confirmation of what we suspected all along.”
Jagdeesh Singh said “2014 is the 30th anniversary of the horrific 1984 genocide, during which 100,000 Sikhs were killed by the Indian state, as part of a two-pronged and two-phased genocidal onslaught in Panjaab and Dheli on the Sikh population. The Indian government launched a direct, vicious war on Panjaab in June 1984. 250,000 troops invaded and occupied Panjaab. Over 1-6th June 1984, they bombarded the Sikh national shrine of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, with tanks and helicopter gunships. 8,000 Sikh men, women and children were viciously killed, their bodies stripped of clothing and belongings and then they were cremated en-mass. The entirety of Panjaab was closed off from the world and turned into a mammoth concentration camp, as Indian soldiers went through its entire 50,000 plus villages – arresting, torturing, killing and raping.”
This article first appeared on Stop Deportations, a blog about Britain's immigration policy.
Get our weekly email