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U.K. Aided India In Raid On Sikh Shrine, Documents Suggest

Thirty years ago, the Indian government was trying to suppress a bloody separatist rebellion by Sikh militants. Then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the army to raid the Golden Temple to remove militants holed up in Sikhism's holiest shrine. The move cost her her life, and its repercussions are still felt in Indian politics.

On Tuesday, there was a fresh development: Official British documents suggested that then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher helped India plan Operation Blue Star, the June 1984 raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar that killed anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people.

The revelation has dismayed British Sikh groups and prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to order an inquiry into the claim. (The documentation can be seen on the blog of Stop Deportations, an advocacy group for immigrants.)

The claim was made by Tom Watson, a member of Parliament from the opposition Labour Party, who told the BBC that he'd seen the recently declassified documents.

"It shows top-secret papers from Mrs. Thatcher authorizing the SAS to collude with the Indian government on the planning, on the raid of the Golden Temple," he said. "This obviously raises huge questions about the role of the British government at the time."

The SAS refers to the Special Air Service, Britain's equivalent of the Special Forces.

Watson referred to two letters. In one, dated Feb. 6, 1984, the British Prime Minister's Office talks about the "Indian request for advice on plans for the removal of dissident Sikhs from the Golden Temple." The other dated Feb. 23, 1984, says, "the foreign secretary decided to respond favourably to the Indian request and, with the prime minister's agreement, an SAD 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."

SAD is believed to be a typo for the SAS.

The Guardian reports on the steps being taken by the British government:

"Amid calls from Sikh groups for an inquiry into the alleged British involvement in planning the operation, the prime minister's spokesman said that the investigation would examine two issues: the British action in 1984 and the decision to release such a sensitive government papers."

And, The Telegraphnotes:

"But for now, the politics of this is quite straightforward: it's very bad for David Cameron and the Tories. Only last year the Prime Minister visited Amritsar, in an apparent effort to reach out to Britain's 800,000 Sikhs, who (as the FT reported) could be decisive in marginal seats in London and Leicester at the next general election. It seemed to be going well. The UK Sikh Federation said that a community that has traditionally favoured Labour was becoming more open to other parties."

A spokesman for the Indian External Affairs Ministry said the government will "seek information" from its U.K. counterparts. But Lt.-Gen. K.S. Brar, who headed the operation in 1984, told India's NDTV: "As far as I am concerned, Operation Bluestar was planned and executed by Indian Army commanders. There was no involvement of anyone from the British government."

The operation had a major impact on the face of Indian politics. Just months later, Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards in apparent retaliation. Her death resulted in a wave of anti-Sikh violence across India that killed thousands.

The Sikh separatist movement raged through the 1980s and '90s. Thousands were killed in attacks by the militants as well as in the Indian government's suppression of the movement.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.