SAS in Blue Star

It is not clear what the controversy kicked up by the statutory declassification of a Whitehall document revealing a British Special Forces (SF) — Special Air Service — role in the prosecution of Op Blue Star is all about. True an NRI member of the House of Lords, Indarjit Singh, and a Labour MP Tom Watson, have asked prime minister David Cameron to inquire into this SAS role, but that may be more for domestic political reasons of winning Sikh votes in the next general elections in South Asian enclaves in London, Birmingham, and elsewhere than because they want the SAS role investigated and publicly fleshed out.

Lt Gen (ret) Kuldip Singh Brar, the GOC, 9 Div, who conducted the military operation against the Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale-led terrorists in the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar is clear that there was “no question…we never saw anyone from UK coming in here and telling us how to plan the operation.” He was speaking to a TV news channel. But Brar couldn’t possibly have known of an SAS officer being deputed by Brit PM Margaret Thatcher at the express request of her Indian counterpart, Indira Gandhi, to advise the latter on the best course to follow.

The context for the SAS call-in was that the Vice Chief of the Army Staff and the person slated to become the next army chief, Lt Gen S.K. Sinha, had strongly advised the PM against any army action to forcefully vacate the Har Mandir Sahib of the provocative Khalistani presence. He was rewarded for his counsel, which turned out to be right, by being passed over for promotion and the spineless General Arun Vaidya installed as COAS instead. The more important political context, it must be recalled, was that the menace of the Khalistan Movement was sedulously nursed and fostered by Indira Gandhi to neutralize the growingly unpliable (as she saw it) Chief Minister Zail Singh in Punjab (whom she weaned away from the state with the offer of the President’s post). But by the time she realized the danger posed to the country, Bhindranwale and his cohort of converts to the Khalistan cause had grown into the proverbial uncontrollable Frankensteinian monster whom she had to physically eliminate and destroy.

With Sinha and the army brass wary about involving the Service in any such adventure, Indira looked to London — much as her father Jawaharlal Nehru had done after independence and right up to the Fifties when in a tight corner (such as accepting Mountbatten’s advice to take the Kashmir issue to the UN and about the best ways to spend the accumulated sterling balance in equipping the Indian military). In Thatcher, she discovered another “Iron Lady” and kindred soul who had successfully mounted a war to keep the Falklands Islands in the southern Atlantic as British territory. The Brit PM, in turn, would have instructed the SAS to go to New Delhi and suggest a plan of action to Indira.

The SAS is an SF that distinguished itself in World War II and in subsequent bush wars of the Cold War era by pulling off forceful interventions. Naturally, the designated SAS officer would have advised a commando military operation to flush out the militants from the Amritsar Temple, entirely innocent of the socio-cultural factors and its ramifications on not just the Indian society and state but also the Indian Army which, at that time, had Sikhs constituting as much as 10 percent of the fighting forces. The SAS couldn’t have been expected to be aware of these sensitivities that Sinha obviously was.

But Indira wanted a show of strength and she got it in terms of appropriate advice from the SAS and of two dissimilar commanders — one a flashy showoff Lt Gen K. Sundarji as the Western Army Commander, and the soft-touch, the new COAS Gen Vaidya, asked to plan and implement the operation. Brar, as may be seen, was nowhere in the picture and wasn’t in the loop of the carryings-on in Delhi or as regards the Indira-Thatcher-SAS connection.

Then came the most classical colonial ploy the British had time and again used during the Raj to quell insurgencies and local strife in the subcontinent by essentially distancing themselves from the action and shoving the responsibility for containing such eruptions on to the natives, to Indians of the specific community that had to be actioned against, who were asked to lead the charge. Thus, for instance, the police operation to finish off the Muslim militancy in the Punjab of the 1930s — the so-called “Khaksar rebellion” was headed by an Indian Muslim ICS officer, Badruddin Tyabji, leading a force of exclusively Muslim members of the Punjab Police. When it came to Op Blue Star, a similar template was followed. Sikh officers were at a premium and so carefully chosen (perhaps, with the help of RAW). In any event, Brar was brought in as the Divisional cmdr and head of the actual operation, the chief of staff of the Western Army was Lt Gen Ranjit Singh Dayal, and commanders of four of the six units — 10 Guards, 1 Para, 26 Madras, 9 Kumaon, 12 Bihar, and 9 Garhwal — tasked with the assault, were Sikh officers.

The question arises: Was there a less inflammatory option? What did the VCOAS Sinha actually have in mind? One of the things talked about at the time was cutting off food and water to the Complex and waiting out the militants until they surrendered. Certainly this has the merit of a peacable solution. Except, a call from Bhindranwale apprising the Sikh community of this development would have eventuated in large masses of Sikhs from the countryside congregating at the Temple, all determined to protect their holiest of holies with their lives, and thus defeated any attempt at compelling the militants to surrender.

A more surreptitious operation of infiltrating armed commandos to execute Bhindranwale and takeout the top Khalistan echelon was possibly mooted but given up, considering that among this cohort was Maj Gen (ret) Shahbeg Singh, hero of the Bangladesh War who had fashioned the Muktibahini into a top class guerilla force. He had espied Brar inconspicuously recceing the Complex and insured against any such move by posting eagle-eyed acolytes at the entrance to the Harmandir Sahib.

That brings us to Ground Zero and the extraordinarily cynical politics Indira Gandhi practiced which was the locus genesis. It brought her own end and the country to a dangerous pass with an entirely avoidable military and civil catastrophe.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Bangladesh, civil-military relations, guerilla warfare, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian Army, Indian para-military forces, Indian Politics, Internal Security, Pakistan, society, South Asia, Special Forces, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Terrorism, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to SAS in Blue Star

  1. Aryan Dogra says:

    I’m not surprised that Indira went to seek help from her western counterparts , but SAS, really? Blue Star was an overt operation. SAS is known to be the best in the trade of covert ops .I would understand if the nature of the mission was different . Perhaps if she were to seek advice on how to blow up something on enemy shore and have the men rendezvous with a submarine later – then SAS, SEALs, and other elite SF come into the picture.

  2. Viggo Hendrix says:

    Iam going through your Archives and also latest articles
    one thing i noticed as an analyst you only criticize the admin and only question their actions but you dont have any solution to offer and in cases you have something to offer, it clearly shows your lack of practical knowledge.
    In present context you question doval’s action and his policy at every step and everyone has a right to do so, i dont know if it is think tank rivalry or something else but going through your articles i realized your theories certainly lack the situational need of the present. Where you always try to undermine the official and that shows that you are one of those who only can criticize and have their strong bias and your thinking reflect the cold war era and cant think of future. And one thing more, when you talk about big picture, as future will come without present.
    Bluntly. what it says about you is, you are full of yourself and never seen you praising anybody besides nehru (who have done blunders). May be you should praise people atleast when they have done something right as it will make your article manifest some honesty and make them rich and more readable.
    Iam fully understand your need to present your point of view as you see it. But at present they come as you are sulking.
    just my observation as a critique.

    and hoping you are not offended i want to read your article on hybrid war and your solution as you see it.
    It should be on present and future challenges.

    • My critiques are always accompanied by solutions. When you say these are
      “impractical”, it reminds me of the session the 1st NSAB had with the then Foreign Secretary Raghunath in 1998.
      When I asked him why MEA had not considered tit-for-tatting China and arming states on China’s border with nuclear missiles, he said it was impracticable. When asked why he thought so he had little to say. It is a solution that I have been touting ever since. In fact, this suggestion in an article solicited by the cutting edge defence website in Washington, War on the Rocks, got that piece killed! Now Washington thinktankers are getting round to believing this is the only way militarily to hedge China’s options. So, rethink your notions of practicality. The trouble is the Indian govt, armed forces and the people resist new and innovative thinking.

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