Thatcher-era papers suggest British role in 1984 Sikh temple assault

Indian Sikh devotees pay their respects in November at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, scene of a bloody clash between Indian troops and Sikh militants in June 1984. Recently declassified British documents suggest Britain's elite SAS security forces were involved in planning the Indian government operation in which at least 400 were killed.
(Narinder Nanu / AFP/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday ordered an inquiry into what role his nation’s special forces might have played in the deadly 1984 Indian assault on the Sikh Golden Temple after recently declassified documents suggested the SAS was involved.

Two letters released from the confidential archives of late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allude to a request to London from Indian authorities for help in wresting the revered shrine in Amritsar from Sikh militants, the BBC reported.

At least 400 people were killed in the Indian government’s assault on Sikhdom’s holiest site, and the clash incited anti-Sikh rioting elsewhere in India that killed thousands.


Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister at the time, was assassinated four months after the government’s Golden Temple raid by two Sikh bodyguards exacting revenge.

The two letters recently declassified under the 30-year rule covering communications by British leaders were made public by the Stop Deportations immigration blog.

One, dated Feb. 6, 1984, from Thatcher’s private secretary refers to a request from the Indian leadership for guidance in the military operation and informs then-Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe that he should “proceed as he proposes.”

The second letter, according to Agence France-Presse, was written Feb. 23 and says that the British government had responded favorably to the Indian request and reported that a Special Air Service officer “has visited India and drawn up a plan which has been approved by Mrs. Gandhi. The foreign secretary [Howe] believes that the Indian government may put the plan into operation shortly.”

The Indian assault on the Golden Temple, codenamed Operation Blue Star, lasted six days in early June 1984 and succeeded in ousting the militant Sikh faction that had seized the shrine in its campaign for an independent Sikh homeland, Khalistan.

Cameron’s office said in a statement that the events of 30 years ago “led to a tragic loss of life and we understand the very legitimate concerns that these papers will raise.”

Neither Cameron nor Foreign Secretary William Hague were aware of the letters before their publication, the Downing Street statement said.

Lawmaker Tom Watson of the opposition Labor Party urged the government to disclose all relevant documents it obtains in the investigation.

“I think British Sikhs and all those concerned about human rights will want to know exactly the extent of Britain’s collusion with this period and this episode and will expect some answers from the foreign secretary,” Watson told BBC Asian Network.

He said trying to hide any British role in the Golden Temple assault would be “a very grave error” and advised a thorough “explanation to the House of Commons and to the country about the role of Britain at that very difficult time for Sikhism and Sikhs.”

Twitter: @cjwilliamslat