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UK admits 'purely advisory' role in Operation Blue Star

Last updated on: February 04, 2014 19:57 IST

British military's role in the 1984 Operation Blue Star to flush out militants from the Golden Temple was "limited" and "purely advisory", Foreign Secretary William Hague told the British parliament on Tuesday.

Hague said the UK played no role in the actual operation that took place at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

In a statement on the conclusion of an inquiry into alleged British assistance provided by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Hague said, "The report concludes that the nature of the UK's assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian government at an early stage in their planning."

An analysis of nearly 200 files and 23,000 documents has confirmed that a "single British military adviser" travelled to India between February 8 and 19, 1984, to advice Indian intelligence services on contingency plans that they were drawing up for operations against the armed dissidents in the temple complex, including ground reconnaissance of the site.

"The cabinet secretary's report includes an analysis by current military staff of the extent to which the actual operation in June 1984 differed from the approach recommended in February by the UK military adviser. Operation Blue Star was a ground assault, without the element of surprise, and without a helicopter-borne element," Hague said.

"The cabinet secretary's report concludes that the UK military officer's advice had limited impact on Operation Blue Star. This is consistent with the public statement on 15th January this year by the operation commander, Lt Gen Brar, who said that 'no one helped us in our planning or in the execution of the planning'," he said.

Hague said this conclusion is also consistent with an exchange of letters between former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Thatcher on June 14 and 29, 1984, discussing the operation.

While admitting that some military files covering various operations were destroyed in November 2009, as part of a routine process undertaken by the ministry of defence at the 25-year review point, copies of at least some of the documents in the destroyed files were also in other departmental files.

The report by Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood includes the publication of the relevant sections of five extra documents that shed light on this period, but which would not normally have been published, the minister told MPs.

"The adviser had made clear that a military operation should be put into effect only as a last resort when all attempts of negotiation had failed. It recommended the inclusion in any operation an element of surprise and the use of helicopter forces in the interests of reducing casualties and bringing about a swift resolution," Hague said.

"This giving of military advice was not repeated...and the Cabinet Secretary found no evidence of any other assistance such as equipment or training," he added.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had ordered the inquiry after documents released under the 30-year declassification rule here implied British SAS commanders had advised the Indian government as it drew up plans for the removal of Sikh militants from Golden Temple in February 1984.

Sikh groups in the UK have criticised the scope of the inquiry and claim it focuses on a very "narrow period".

Britain's only Sikh MP, Paul Uppal, spoke in the Commons on Tuesday to stress that the report makes clear that the UK played no "malicious" role in Operation Blue Star and called on the government to work with Sikh groups and the Indian High Commission in the UK to work towards a "process of truth and reconciliation so that the community can finally begin to feel a sense of justice".

A few months after Operation Blue Star, then Indian Prime Minister Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in an apparent revenge attack.

The row over how much the British knew and helped in the incidents 30 years ago threatens to derail Conservative party attempts to attract Sikh voters, who could play a major role in marginal seats in London and Leicester in any election.

Hague updated MPs on the extent of Thatcher's involvement in helping plan the operation that left more than 1,000 people dead.

Sikh groups in the UK criticised the scope of the inquiry into Britain's role in the operation.

In a letter to Cameron, Sikh Federation UK chairman Bhai Amrik Singh said: "We are dismayed the terms of the review were only formally made available almost three weeks after the review was announced and only days before an announcement of the results of the review are expected in Parliament.

It appears the review has looked at a narrow period and not covered the period in the latter half of 1984 and may not have addressed some of the concerns raised by UK politicians in the last three weeks, eg threat of sanctions by India against the UK, Germany, Canada and US towards the end of 1984 for sympathising with Sikhs in the Diaspora," Singh said.

Two letters released from the National Archives in London, both marked "top secret and personal", gave details of the advice given to Indian authorities by the elite Special Air Service.

One document, a letter from then Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe's private secretary to his counterpart in the Home Office, warned that the operation could trigger tensions in Britain's Indian community, "particularly if knowledge of the SAS involvement were to become public".

It is unclear whether the plan referred to in the documents was used by the Indian government.

Image: A damaged Akal Takht after the Operation Blue Star

 

Aditi Khanna in London
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