Expertise was sought to shape plan which would minimise civilian casualties in Golden Temple, intelligence sources say
Former Research and Analysis Wing chief Girish Saxena initiated a series of meetings with the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, in the build-up to Operation Blue Star, highly-placed intelligence sources have told The Hindu.
The intelligence-sharing meetings, the sources said, were authorised by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and included at least one visit by a mid-ranking officer of the élite Special Air Service commando unit to frame an assault plan which would minimise civilian casualties.
The sources were responding to revelations that India and the U.K. cooperated on Operation Bluestar, which have led to a snowballing controversy in both countries.
Mr. Saxena, who served as chief of RAW from 1983 to 1986, and then as security adviser to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, now lives in retirement in New Delhi. He remained unavailable for comment despite repeated efforts by The Hindu.
However, another RAW chief familiar with the period, Amarjit Singh Dulat, said the consultations may have formed part of regular India-U.K. consultations on Khalistan terrorism.”
“In those days,” said former RAW chief Amarjit Singh Dulat, “there was very close cooperation with the U.K. on the Khalistan issue. Key leads emanated from MI6 monitoring of Khalistan leaders based in the United Kingdom.” “I do not recall any specific cooperation on Bluestar, though — and I think it is probably stretching the evidence to suggest that the United Kingdom had any role to play in the actual execution of the operation itself.”
Earlier this week, declassified United Kingdom government documents, first posted online by the Stop Deportations blog, stopdeportations.wordpress.com, revealed that India had consulted the United Kingdom on its decision to storm the Golden Temple in 1984.
In a February 23, 1984 letter, B.J.P. Fall, private secretary to British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, wrote that “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 [SAS] 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 letter states.
F.E.R. Butler, at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s office, the documents reveal, wrote to the Defence Ministry and Cabinet Office on February 6, 1983, conveying her instructions to the Foreign Secretary to proceed with the SAS adviser’s request.
RAW sources said the consultations were limited to seeking expert opinion on whether revanchist Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale could be removed from the Golden Temple without killing pilgrims thronging the faith’s most venerated institution. Bhindranwale, under pressure from a rival pro-Khalistan group, the Babbar Khalsa, had fled rooms on the periphery of the complex, taking up residence in the Akal Takht, the sanctum sanctorum.
Prime Minister Gandhi had contemplated military action against Bhindranwale since at least April, 1983, when a hit-squad he dispatched killed senior police officer A.S. Atwal. She however held back, fearing large-scale civilian killings. However, violence continued to escalate. K.P.S. Gill, Punjab’s former police chief, has said that Bhindrawale’s hit-squads killed 298 people between January 1, 1984 and June 3, 1984.
The SAS plan, the sources said, was rejected because Mr. Saxena was unconvinced it would work. Prime Minister Gandhi eventually handed charge of the operation to the Indian Army.
“The only plans we had were drawn up on the fly,” said Brigadier Israr Khan, who led the attack under the command of Lieutenant-General Kuldip Singh Brar. “Major Jasbir Singh Raina, one of my officers, infiltrated the temple dressed as a pilgrim, scouting out hardened defences inside the temple on June 2, just one day before operations to clear the complex began.”
Later, Brigadier Khan said, his troops broke open the shutters on stores near the Golden Temple, taking photographs and posters meant for pilgrims in order to develop crude operations maps.