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A military massacre in India: Secret papers reveal Britain's role in Operation Blue Star

As Britain’s role in the 1984 Operation Blue Star emerges, Rahul Patel looks at how India’s rulers came to ask their old imperial oppressors to help put down Sikh opposition

Issue No. 2387

Letter on Sikh Community dated 23 February 1984

Letter on Sikh Community dated 23 February 1984 (Pic: Phil Miller)

Britain’s SAS helped to plan an army massacre in India—almost 40 years after India’s independence.

Secret papers released by the British Foreign Office under the 30 year rule revealed the plan.

They show that the Indian government “sought British advice over a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar”.

The Foreign Office responded “favourably”—on condition that its role was kept strictly secret.

The papers also suggest that British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was fully aware of the SAS involvement.

The “plan” was Operation Blue Star. 

This was a tank and helicopter-led military offensive on the Sikh religion’s holiest site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in the state of Punjab.

The assault was bloody leaving thousands dead.

Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in the aftermath of the massacre on 

31 October 1984. 

In the next five days nearly 8,000 Sikhs were killed in pogroms initiated with the support of police and Congress party officials.

Some 3,000 were killed in the capital New Delhi alone.

Most people lived in diverse communities. 

So in order to identify Sikhs, Congress party officials provided attackers with voter lists, school registration forms and rations lists. 

They went round at night marking houses with “S”.

Mobs would go in the morning to clear Sikhs out of houses to attack them. 

Sikhs had car tyres thrown over them, petrol poured on them and were then set on fire. 

Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi took over after her death. 

He said of the massacres, “When a big tree falls the earth shakes”.

Indira Gandhi had dominated Indian politics for more than a decade.

In the 1970s she had led the country to conduct a war on what she and the Congress party perceived to be the enemies within.

Indira Gandhi was elected on a landslide in 1971 on the back of her success in that year’s war with Pakistan.

But in 1973 the world oil crisis, combined with the mammoth cost of the war and India’s falling industrial production, created an economic and political crisis.

In 1975 an Indian High Court found electoral malpractices and ruled the 1971 election null and void.

Indira Gandhi and her Congress party declared a State of Emergency, backed by major Indian industrialists such as Tata.

To prosecute the Emergency Indira Gandhi moved against the opposition.

Amnesty International said that nearly 140,000 opposition activists were jailed without trial, including trade unionists jailed for organising strikes and demonstrations.

Some 40,000 were Sikhs, even though Sikhs constitute only 2 percent of India’s population.

Newspapers and the state radio and television were censored. The Indian Express newspaper made a political point to the world’s press by printing blank columns to show how articles were censored by the state.

The Congress party led a campaign of forced sterilisation in parts of the rural population. 

Sanjiv Gandhi, the prime minster’s son, said it was the solution to cutting India’s population and eliminating poverty.

In the period of the Emergency sterilisations went up by 2.7 million from the previous year. Destruction of slum and low income housing in old Delhi, and abuse and torture of detainees and political prisoners, became widespread

There was widescale civil disobedience but this was soon curtailed by mass arrests and intimidation.

Yet opposition from the Sikhs remained strong. In some areas, such as New Delhi, Sikhs were still coming out every month on the day of the new moon and provoking mass arrests.


Sikh organisations connected their struggle against the Emergency to their historic struggles against the Mughal emperors and the British.

But their opposition was also a legacy of the Green Revolution experiment of the 1960s. 

This had increased the amount of food produced by Indian agriculture.

But it had also driven out a large number of small peasant famers to replace them with big capitalist firms.

These firms relied on political corruption and on the multinational companies that built massive fertiliser and chemical plants.

One of these was the pesticide factory of US firm union carbide in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

Six months after Operation Blue Star an accident there was to release toxic gases—killing nearly 8,000 people within just two weeks.

The biggest shifts in the Green Revolution occurred in the main food growing states of Punjab and Haryana, where Sikhs are the majority.

After 21 months the Emergency was lifted. The Congress party expected victory in 1977 when national elections were held. 

But a coalition of opposition forces trounced it. Indira and Sanjiv Gandhi lost their seats.

But the opposition was divided during its rule and Congress returned with the majority in 1980.

Indira Gandhi had not forgotten the damage done to her by the Sikh opposition.

Opposition to her policies in Punjab was strong. An emerging separatist movement started calling for an independent Sikh state of Khalistan. 

In 1982, 600 armed followers of this movement moved into some areas of the Golden Temple complex.

By June 1984 the state decided to smash this opposition by imposing curfews and suspending public travel.

It cut electricity supplies, creating a total blackout, and imposed a total censorship on the media. 

The army sent seven divisions into the villages of Punjab, then started bombing historic buildings and water tanks.

Nearly 50,000 Sikhs gathered 25 kilometres from Amritsar to fight the army, as did 20,000 more elsewhere.

Army helicopters spotted the massive movements, and generals sent in tanks and assault vehicles. 

Thousands of Sikhs were killed. This culminated in the assault on the Golden Temple. 

After this nearly 4,000 Sikh soldiers mutinied in different locations. It is said that there were pitched battles to bring them under control.

The army had to withdraw from the Golden Temple complex by September 1984 under pressure.

Eventually the Congress party was forced to start co-opting Sikhs into its circles. 

Current prime minister Manmohan Singh, who is stepping down to allow Indira’s grandson Rahul Gandhi to fight this year’s election, is a Sikh.

It wasn’t long before the disaffected bigoted thugs of the Congress party and its offshoots moved on to the Muslims of India as its preferred scapgoats.

British methods continued long after independence

The assault on the Golden Temple in June 1984, took place within walking distance of another Amritsar massacre. 

In 1919 British troops with machine guns mowed down hundreds of unarmed civilians in 1919 in order to preserve British rule.

Britain had ruled India using the tactic of dividing communities and enforcing brutal military rule.

It is a myth that India after independence was a peaceful country following the principles of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

The Indian ruling class, led by the Congress Party, did not smash the state and the politics that were created and nurtured by British rule.

Instead it willingly transferred the British apparatus for its own needs.

By the time of the 1984 massacre the British government in turn wanted to sell arms to India, and threw in its support against the Sikh separatists as a sweetener.

The Indian government had already reached out to Britain for credit to solve its financial troubles.

The latest revelations are sure to anger Sikhs in Britain and India, as well as anti-imperialists everywhere.

Read more

  • India: Imperialism, Partition and Resistance by Sam Ashman Article from International Socialism Journal 77,
  • The Nehrus and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty, by Tariq Ali 
  • Helium the acclaimed new novel by Jaspreet Singh looks at the legacy of the anti-Sikh pogroms

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Article information

Tue 21 Jan 2014, 17:01 GMT
Issue No. 2387
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