Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament on Tuesday that British military advice “purely advisory” and had only a “limited impact” on the operation, but the acknowledgement of any kind of a link to the deadly attack may be discomfiting.
“It is awkward,” said Sumit Ganguly, an Indiana University professor and the co-author of a book which covered the attack 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 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.
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 of India smoldered into the 1970s and 80s.
Sikh militants had holed up in the temple for months, but the Indian army botched its attempt to clear them from holy site, at first badly underestimating the resistance 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 though the Indian government put the toll at 575.
The attack outraged Sikhs and led to a catastrophic breakdown in communal relations.
“It’s of enormous significance,” said Ganguly. “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, further feeding the insurgency.
Before it 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 Canada-based Sikhs.
Britain’s government had recently ordered an urgent investigation into possible UK involvement in the raid after recently declassified documents suggested a 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 Brig. Israr Khan, who was in charge of the 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 on the ground.
“If I were Thatcher I would have done the same thing,” Fair said.
The reaction on the ground was less sympathetic—with some expressing anger that the specifics of the military advice remain under wraps.
Manjeet Singh, a leader of Akali Dal, the Sikh governing party in northern Punjab state where the army action took place said that British owed “an unconditional apology” irrespective of their role and urged them to disclose everything.
“Whatever they have revealed is not full information,” he said. “They should come out with all facts.”
India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said the British “have just shared the documentation and conclusions of their inquiry,” saying he could not immediately comment as officials were still reviewing the report.