Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Operation Blue Star – And The Controversy Continues

There seems to be no end to the controversy surrounding Operation Blue Star. The British government’s twelve page report tabled in the British Parliament clarifying that its role was purely advisory and limited has unfortunately only stoked the fires in India.

The British Foreign Secretary William Hague tabled a twelve page report before the Parliament stating that the British Government’s role in the 1984 Operation Blue Star (or for an operation which was never carried out) was purely advisory and limited.

Ever since the disclosure of the two letters dated 6th February 1984 and 23rd February 1984 (see there has been considerable speculation in India about the extent of the role of the British Special Air Service (SAS) in the Golden Temple Operation. Debates featuring opposition politicians, former intelligence and army officers on Indian television news channels have gone on unabated as if the Indian government had committed a heinous crime in seeking advice from a specialized counter-terror unit of a foreign country on the feasibility of carrying out a flushing out operation. Are politicians in India so naïve that they consider it preposterous for the government of the day, in its wisdom, to have sought “advisory assistance” from a friendly foreign government in planning a military operation? At least, one leading opposition politician thought so.

Questions relating to this controversy may not have convincing answers, and in any case it may be difficult to find completely satisfactory answers. Also the contemporaneous documents may not reveal the full story, for most of the personae behind Operation Blue Star are no longer alive with the exception of Lt. General K S Brar, who was the General Officer Commanding of 9 Infantry Division. The officer in question has in unequivocal terms stated that there was no foreign involvement in the planning and execution of Operation Blue Star.

The single most important question has been ‘why did the Indian Government seek assistance/advice of the British Military or its intelligence agencies?’  Two Indians who could have definitely given an appropriate and satisfactory response to this question are the late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her security advisor late Rameshwar Nath Kao. Two factors that may have led the late Mrs. Gandhi to approach the British for assistance, would have been, one, that the bulk of the support for the secessionist Khalistan movement came from the Sikh community in Britain and prominent leaders espousing the cause of Khalistan were based in Britain. Intelligence sharing between foreign countries being normal, Indian and British agencies, one assumes would have kept tabs on the activities of the leaders of the Khalistan movement and two, the SAS has been one of the best counter-terror units in the world. The legendry spy master would also have considered the role played by the SAS in the 1979 operation to flush out radical Muslims who had occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca inspired by the revolution in Iran. Comparisons have been drawn between the siege in the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the occupation of Golden Temple by militants. In the 1979 Mecca siege, personnel belonging to 22nd SAS Regiment who were working for a British Company at the relevant time in Saudi Arabia were called upon to advice in planning the operation to flush out the armed radicals. Though SAS members did not take part in the actual operation, it is believed that French commandos belonging to the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmeie Nationale (GIGN) took part in the actual raid along with Saudi anti-terror units.

The second question for which no document may provide an easy answer is what happened to the advice given by the British official/s? According to Manoj Joshi, a leading commentator on strategic affairs, the SAS was probably involved in an operation planned much prior to Operation Blue Star which was never carried out.

This operation was planned using the commandos of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), who are army personnel, seconded to the Research & Analysis Wing. Manoj Joshi says that the stories doing the round in the late eighties was that the SFF was ordered to develop a plan for taking out Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple in late 1983. The force came up with a plan where its personnel would disguise themselves as Sikhs, penetrate Bhindranwale's durbar at the Guru Nanak Niwas in the Golden Temple complex and whisk him away. 

At the last stage, the commander of the force was summoned by Mrs. Gandhi and asked to brief her on the plan. Her main question was: What are the chances that people will be killed in the operation? The commander said that there was no guarantee that there would be no casualties and as many as a dozen or more people could be killed. At that Mrs. Gandhi balked.

However, Colonel Mahendra Pratap Choudhary, then Commanding Officer of the SFF Group which was a part of Operation Blue Star, said they had no contact with any foreign Special Forces outfit, including SAS. “The only foreign connection to our conduct were the specially designed Kevlar-plated bullet-proof helmets from Israel which were got on the eve of the Operation.”

Was Operation Blue Star based on the advice given by the SAS official/s? "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 on command and control arrangements, and night-time co-ordination of paramilitary with Indian Special Group forces."

"It is, of course, possible that Indian planning went through several iterations after the UK military adviser’s visit and report. 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 June 13, 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.

According to the British report, “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 Army did not have the helicopter capabilities for a simultaneous assault.” 

Lastly there has been a hue and cry about the visit of either intelligence and/or military officials (who also probably did a recce of the Golden Temple Complex) and whether India’s national security was compromised. Much prior to the disclosure made by the British, the late B. Raman on page 96 of his autobiographical account “The Kaoboys of R&AW Down Memory Lane” published in 2007 states: “I was given to understand that at the request of Kao, two officers of the British Security Service (MI-5) visited the Golden Temple as tourists and gave a similar advice to Indira Gandhi – be patient and avoid action or use the police.”  Whether these officials were part of MI-5 or were in reality members of the SAS will never be known. But the fact remains that the British played an advisory role pre-Blue Star.