LONDON — Britain has acknowledged advising the Indian government ahead of its 1984 raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, an admission that links the UK — India’s former colonial master — with one of the bloodiest episodes in the subcontinent’s recent history.
Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament on Tuesday that British military advice was “purely advisory” and had only a “limited impact on the operation.
“A single UK military officer provided some advice. But critically, this advice was not followed, and it was a one-off,” Prime Minister David Cameron said in a video message to the Sikh community in Britain.
Still, the acknowledgment of any link to the deadly attack that killed hundreds, if not thousands, at Sikhs’ holy temple will be disturbing to many.
The storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar was one of the most contentious episodes in the Indian government’s battle against Sikh separatists, whose violent campaign for an independent homeland in the Punjab region smoldered into the 1970s and 80s.
“It is awkward,” said Sumit Ganguly, an Indiana University professor and the co-author of a book on Amritsar. “The evidence that the British government might have provided some assistance in terms of the planning of this event is once again going to stoke old memories, memories that had long been buried.”
Hague said the situation and planning changed significantly between the British adviser’s visit in February and the Indian government’s assault on June 5-7.
“The number of dissident forces was considerably larger by that time, and the fortifications inside the site were more extensive,” he said.
Sikh militants had holed up in the temple for months, but the Indian Army botched its attempt to clear them from the holy site, badly underestimating the resistance at first before being drawn into a three-day assault backed by armor and artillery. Hague noted reports that as many as 3,000 people were killed, although the Indian government puts the toll at 575.
The attack outraged Sikhs and led to a catastrophic breakdown in communal relations.
“It’s of enormous significance,” Ganguly said of the attack. “This involved sending in the Indian army into one of the holiest shrines — if not the holiest shrine — of Sikhism. Even Sikhs who were opposed to the insurgency were deeply and profoundly hurt by the use of armed force against their place of worship.”
When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed in a revenge attack a few months later, the country erupted. Mobs overran trains and went house to house across northern India, beating and lynching Sikhs, hacking many to death and burning others alive. Many more died as the country convulsed with violence.
Before the insurgency was stamped out in the late 1980s, the rebellion cost more than 18,000 lives — including 329 people killed in an Air India jetliner explosion over the Atlantic Ocean blamed on Canadian-based Sikhs.
Britain’s government had ordered an investigation into possible UK involvement in the raid after recently declassified documents suggested a UK special forces officer advised the Indians. Tuesday’s report confirmed that Britain’s then-prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, approved the dispatch of an adviser.
Hague said the review “finds that the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited, and provided to the Indian government at an early stage; that it had limited impact on the tragic events that unfolded at the temple three months later.”
The review’s findings were echoed by Brigadier Israr Khan, who was in charge of India’s military operation. He told TimesNow that the British assistance played no role in the assault, and that senior Indian commanders were “totally unaware” of the British advice.
Christine Fair, a professor of South Asian security studies at Georgetown University, defended Thatcher, saying it was a shame the Indian government appears to have ignored her government’s advice. Britain is home to a significant Sikh population and Fair argued the UK would have had a strong interest in trying to shape events.
“If I were Thatcher I would have done the same thing,” Fair said.
The reaction in India was less sympathetic — with some expressing anger that the specific British military advice remained under wraps.
India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin, would not immediately comment on the report, saying Indian officials were still reviewing it.