UK Military Assisted in Operation Bluestar: Independent Investigation Required
According to recently declassified government records, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent the British Special Air Service (SAS) to advise Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on Indian army plans “for the removal of dissident Sikhs from the Golden Temple.” The documents reveal correspondence between the governments took place months in advance of the June 1984 attack on the Harmandir Sahib complex, commonly known as Operation Bluestar.
These revelations warrant an independent, thorough, and transparent government inquiry into the nature of collusion between the UK and India. In one of the letters, dated 23 February 1984, Brian Fall, private secretary to the then-foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, writes: "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."
Almost thirty years ago, on June 2 1984, the assault, codenamed “Operation Bluestar,” marked the beginning of a policy of gross human rights violations in Punjab that continues to have profound implications for the rule of law in India. The Indian government declared Punjab a “restricted area,” banning travel to Punjab and the Indian Army assumed police functions. On June 3, the government imposed a statewide shoot-on-sight curfew, forbade news coverage of the attack, and cut phone lines across Punjab. Eyewitnesses reported that over 10,000 pilgrims and 1,300 workers had gathered inside the Harmandir Sahib complex by June 3 to join a civil disobedience campaign or to commemorate the martyrdom anniversary of the fifth Sikh Guru, one of the holiest and most popular Sikh religious holidays. The Harmandir Sahib complex—the center of Sikh religious and political life—is located in Amritsar city.
Beginning on June 4, the Indian army launched a full-scale military assault upon on the complex and attacked 41 other Gurdwaras (Sikh house of worship) on the pretext of removing armed militants quartered in these Gurdwaras. During the three-day assault, the military employed cannons, tanks, helicopters, and special forces to target those trapped inside the Gurdwara complex. Inside the complex, the Akal Takht suffered destruction of its first floor; bullets punctured the Harmandir Sahib; and the Army looted and burned down the Sikh Reference Library, housing rare manuscripts and Sikh artifacts.
After the initial military operations ended, military personnel detained and executed civilians and non-combatants captured alive in the Gurdwara complex, including women and children. One eyewitness reported military personnel executing 150 Sikhs at point blank range, after tying their hands behind their backs with their turbans. The Army never released a list of the dead. To destroy the evidence of its crimes, the military secretly cremated en mass the bodies of its victims.
Operation Bluestar was a flashpoint that unleashed a decade of violence in Punjab, in which non-state actors and India’s security forces committed gross crimes and claimed thousands of lives. The shoot-to-kill policies employed by Indian security forces during Operation Bluestar and the subsequent decade of counter-insurgency operations in Punjab are reminiscent of the policies utilized by the SAS in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. It appears the UK government, directed from the highest level, participated in this military, political, and human rights disaster. As a functioning democracy that respects the rule of law, the UK must conduct a public inquiry to determine the effect its actions in Bluestar had, and continues to have, on facilitating war crimes, human rights violations, and impunity in Punjab.
Survivors and victims of Operation Bluestar have the right to truth and justice, which can be vindicated, in part, by the UK government fully disclosing its involvement in Operation Bluestar. The records released thus far are an important step towards clarifying the truth. Releasing additional records presents an opportunity for the UK government and SAS to address its past actions.