Coming to terms with the past

Print edition : March 21, 2014

The investigation into whether the U.K. helped in the 1984 operation in the Golden Temple (above) was aimed at assuaging the feelings of British Sikhs. Photo: MUNISH SHARMAREUTERS

A recent report of the British Cabinet Secretary is at pains to establish that the Indian government’s handling of Operation Blue Star went against the advice given by a British military adviser.

FOR reasons more than one, the report of Britain’s Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, to Prime Minister David Cameron, on February 3, should make every sensitive Indian feel utterly ashamed at the debased state of India’s democracy. The report, entitled “Allegations of U.K. Involvement in the Indian Operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar, 1984”, called “Operation Blue Star” by the Government of India, exposes pitilessly the utter lack of accountability of the state to the people; worse still, popular indifference, which does not demand accountability on sensitive issues when it should; the utter lack of national pride which drove Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to seek military advice from a foreign government, not against a foreign invasion, but on how to let loose the Army against a section of our own people; and, not least, the true status and credibility of the Cabinet Secretary in a genuine parliamentary democracy.

In Britain, neither the Cabinet Secretary nor a Senior Civil Servant can be transferred out to satisfy the whim of a Cabinet Minister as was done recently to please Ghulam Nabi Azad. (Secretary for Health and Family Welfare Keshav Desiraju was transferred at his instance, arousing strong protests from persons of eminence; The Hindu, February 24.) The Cabinet Secretary enjoys enough credibility and respect by all parties to be asked to probe into matters of consequence.

All that the Government of India could say on February 4, when the report was published, was: “We have noted the report and the statement made” (by Foreign Secretary William Hague). But if the British government could conduct a probe into its own archives—200 files and over 23,000 documents from December 1983 to June 1984 to satisfy its public, especially the Sikh community in the U.K., why should the Government of India not delve into its own archives to satisfy its own citizens? The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) silence was deafening but not surprising. Its sympathy for the Sikhs during their conflict with the Indira Gandhi regime was sparse. Resentful at the Congress’ disgraceful conduct in the whole affair, not least in the Delhi pogrom after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, they plumped for the BJP to share power in Punjab.

On January 15, Cameron spoke on the two documents released—“inadvertently” is the Cabinet Secretary’s coy apology—as part of annual releases under the Public Records Act. He did a thorough job and was certainly helped by British military and intelligence records. We all know that upright and dedicated officer of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) B. Raman by that name. The report, drawing on official records, names him as Bahukumbi Raman. His book The Kaoboys of R&A Wing (Lancer, 2007) records his disquiet at Operation Blue Star. It reads: “Things thereafter started moving inexorably towards an Army raid into the Golden Temple in order to arrest Bhindranwale and all terrorists, who had taken shelter there. There was some unease in the intelligence community over the wisdom of the proposed course of action. One had an impression that Kao felt that it would be better to be patient for some weeks instead of taking any precipitate action, which might prove counterproductive or, if immediate action was considered necessary, to use the police and the C entral para military forces instead of the Army. The Army is trained in a manner different from the police. Once the Army is launched into action, it has to prevail over the adversary. In the case of the police, it tunes its action to suit the circumstances. It does not have to prevail whatever be the circumstances. If it finds that the resistance of the adversary is high and that its attempts to prevail could cause high fatalities, it does not mind withdrawing and awaiting a better opportunity, when it can prevail at much less human cost. I was given to understand that at the request of Kao, two officers of the British Security Ser vice (MI 5) visited the Golden Temple as tourists and gave a similar advice to Indira Gandhi be patient and avoid action or use the p olice” (page 96; emphasis added, throughout). Kao had acted on her orders.

He mentions also, on page 121, RAW’s “liaison with the British Intelligence”. It has a long history. The British were surprised and delighted to discover that Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel accepted British cooperation on intelligence. He freely used the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), not only against Communists but also against a Cabinet colleague, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, and even Mirza Ismail, who was opposed to the Razakars in Hyderabad. Christopher Andrew’s book The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of M15 (Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2009) provides interesting information. The chill in diplomatic relations did not affect the warmth in intelligence cooperation. The I.B.’s chief, B.N. Mullik, repeatedly sought M15’s help in “counter-espionage operations against the Soviet Union” and also to study the I.B.’s “records on the finances of the CPI [Communist Party of India]”. Mullik was personally closer to the outlook of the M15 than to that of his own boss, Jawaharlal Nehru (pages 445-446).

Information on India, gathered by successive British Security Liaison Officers, was passed on to grateful British High Commission officials (“inside information on Indian politics and government policy”).

The barrister Calder Walton’s book, published only recently, contains a wealth of information ( Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire, Harper Press, 2013). M15 found close allies in Patel and Sanjeevi Pillai (the I.B.’s head). It came to extend to training in interrogation techniques (page 191). The book quotes copiously from official files on V.K. Krishna Menon’s murky finances and his sex life.

But, this was a record of cooperation in intelligence. After the 1962 war, India accepted help in military matters but against a foreign power. Indira Gandhi—who thought nothing of sending a secret letter to Yuri Andropov, then Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, through a confidant in the CPI, Yogendra Sharma, on June 21, 1983, to ask him to get the CPI to adopt a pro-Congress line—sought Britain’s help on a military operation against her own people. The gravity of her offence is not lessened by the fact that the help was in the form of advice on strategy and tactics in that military operation.

Jeremy Heywood’s remit was “to establish the facts about U.K. advice to the Indian government on its plans for an operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib”. To meet this remit, he inquired into “(i) why the U.K. government agreed to a request from the Indian authorities to provide military advice on their contingency plans for operations at Sri Harmandir Sahib; (ii) the nature of the U.K. assistance provided; (iii) the impact of that assistance on the actual operation conducted by the Indian Army; and (iv) whether Parliament was misled” (emphasis in this excerpt according to the original).

He holds that there was no more than “the limited military advice provided in mid-February” (1984). He recalls: “Allegations appeared in T he Sunday Times on 10 June 1984 that Indian intelligence officers had made several visits to the U.K. to seek expertise in planning the Indian operation at the temple complex. There were two visits from Indian officials in the February to June time frame, but the files show that they did not relate in any way to that operation.”

The files reveal that “this was a response to an urgent request from the Indian Intelligence Coordinator 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.

“The recommendation to Ministers was explicit that the U.K. 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. There does appear to have been some internal U.K. military consideration, immediately after the U.K. 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 U.K. 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” (emphasis added).

The Cabinet Secretary’s dismissal of the commercial angle may not find universal acceptance. “The files confirm that there were ongoing contacts between U.K. and Indian officials around the time of Operation Blue Star on potential defence-related sales, including the potential sale of Westland helicopters for civilian purposes. However, there is no record linking the provision of U.K. military advice to the discussion of potential defence or helicopter sales; or to any other policy or commercial issue. The scope for such a linkage is not suggested in any submission to, or comment from, a U.K. Minister or official.” An official who records such a linkage on the file would be a certified fool. Britain was then desperately eager to sell those helicopters to India.

After being dragged into this murky affair, “The only U.K. request of the Indian government, made after the visit, was for prior warning of any actual operation so that U.K. authorities could make appropriate security arrangements in London. In the event, the U.K. received no warning from the Indian authorities of the launch of the operation.”

In fairness, what really happened must be quoted in full. “The U.K. military adviser was in India between 8-17 February [1984], 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. I have seen the U.K. 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 Terrorists 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 U.K. 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.

“The U.K. officer’s report back to the U.K. 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 U.K. 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 his approach. The U.K. advice also focussed on command and control arrangements, and night-time coordination of paramilitary with Indian Special Group forces. The overall tone, but not detail, of this report was reflected in the formal FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] report back to the Prime Minister’s office on 23 February (Annex D).

“The U.K. High Commission in Delhi reported in February that the revised plan had been approved by M r s Gandhi. However, it was not clear to contemporary U.K. officials whether this referred to a revised plan drafted by Indian officials that they had edited in the light of the U.K. military officer’s advice, but which U.K. personnel had not seen or whether Mrs Gandhi had been shown the U.K. military adviser’s paper.”

The report is at pains to emphasise that Indira Gandhi did not act on the advice she was given. “A quick analysis by current U.K. military staff confirms that there were significant differences between the actual June operation and the advice from the U.K. 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 FCO files (Annex E) record the Indian Intelligence Co-ordinator telling a U.K. interlocutor, in the same time frame as this public Indian report, that some time after the U.K. military adviser’s visit the Indian Army took over lead responsibility for the operation, the main concept beyond the operation changed, and a frontal assault was attempted, which contributed to the large number of casual ties on both sides. There is some other corroboration in the files of both of a shift in the overall Indian command arrangements and a change in the plan from that discussed with the U.K. military adviser in February: the U.K. 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; however, Mrs Gandhi’s letter to Mrs Thatcher of 14 June 1984 (Annex F), 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.” The U.K.’s advice had limited impact in practice. That Indira Gandhi felt obliged to explain herself to Margaret Thatcher is significant in the context.

In conclusion, Parliament was not misled and all that the U.K. did was to “send one military officer to provide military advice on the Indian contingency plans for an operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib…. There was no other U.K. military assistance, such as training or equipment, to the Indians with Operation Blue Star. The U.K. government did not link the provision of this military advice to defence sales. The military advice from the U.K. officer had limited impact in practice. The actual operation implemented by the Indian Army differed significantly from the approach suggested by the U.K. Military officer. In support of these conclusions, I recommend the public release of the documents in annexes B to F. They include the specific letters referred to in the already released documents. In line with the practice under successive governments we do not release information relating to the intelligence agencies or special forces.”

The report was aimed at assuaging the hurt among the Sikhs in the U.K. and removing doubts on deceit of Parliament. In his statement to Parliament on the report, Foreign Secretary William Hague made two important points. “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 U.K. military adviser. Operation Blue Star was a ground assault, without the element of surprise, and without a helicopter-borne element.” It was conducted against sound advice, not least from R AW. Secondly, “We are also determined to look at the wider issues raised by these events about the management and release of information held by government. Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, 2010, the 30-year rule has been superseded by a 20-year rule so that from 2022 all annual releases will be after 20 years. However, it is not clear at the moment that this change is being approached in a uniform fashion by all departments. The Prime Minister has therefore decided to commission a review to establish the position across government on the annual release of papers and the ability and readiness of departments to meet the requirements of moving from a 30- to 20-year rule, including the process for withholding information. This review will be carried out by the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministerial Standards, Sir Alex Allan.

“Nothing can undo, Mr Speaker, the loss of life and the suffering caused by the tragic events at Sri Harmandir Sahib. It is quite right that the concerns that were raised about U.K. involvement have been investigated. It is a strength of our democracy that we are always prepared to take an unflinching look at the past.” It makes one sad to think that we can make no such claim.

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