Golden Temple SAS claims overlooked in India

Sikh devotees by the Golden Temple of Amritsar

Sikh devotees by the Golden Temple of Amritsar

Claims that Britain’s Special Air Service regiment may have its fingerprints on the bloody storming of the Sikh Golden Temple 30 years ago have been getting a lot more attention back in the UK than here in India.

For outsiders looking in, that may seem surprising, given the traumatic impact of those events.

A few months after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Operation Blue Star assault on Sikh rebels barricaded inside, leaving at least 400 dead, she was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards.

The wheel of revenge turned again and thousands of Sikhs were butchered in Delhi and elsewhere. It was one of the worst episodes of communal violence since independence – with plentiful evidence that members of Mrs Gandhi’s Congress Party were complicit.

“When a great tree falls, a nation shakes,” was the famously chilling response of her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi.

As the 30th anniversary approaches of what many see as an anti-Sikh pogrom, no-one has yet been brought to justice.

It’s hardly surprising then that today’s ruling Congress party has little interest in opening up this chapter of Indian history for re-inspection, especially with its electoral fate in the balance.

Sikh protesters in New Delhi in May 2013Sikhs protest against the acquittal of politician Sajjan Kumar in May 2013, in a trial linked to the 1984 deaths

The current Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi, was in the same house with her two young children, Rahul and Priyanka, when her mother-in-law was shot in October 1984.

Those events led eventually to her becoming India’s most powerful politician today, after her husband Rajiv was assassinated seven years later.


Although the main opposition party, the BJP, have raised a few critical questions about “SAS-gate”, it doesn’t want to push the issue too hard.

It has its own issues with communal violence – particularly the massacre in Gujarat in 2002 – which the state’s chief minister, and now prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi is widely accused of failing to stop.

Yet despite the lack of accountability for both the Golden Temple assault and the anti-Sikh riots, there’s a general feeling that reconciliation efforts since have been relatively successful.

The Sikh heartland of Punjab – site of the Golden Temple – is now run by a Sikh party in coalition with the Hindu nationalist BJP.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi on 20 August 2013Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi at the memorial of Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi

Though he’s widely dismissed as a leader, India’s Sikh Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, still stands as a symbol of Sikhs and the majority Hindus accepting each other.

There’s now little support for the idea of a separate Sikh homeland or Khalistan.

In fact, so far it’s mostly been pro-separatist Sikhs in the UK and US who are speaking out about Labour MP Tom Watson’s claim to have seen “top secret papers from Mrs Thatcher authorising Special Air Services (SAS) to work with the Indian government”.

Inquiry call

With the majority of Indians under 30 – Sikhs among them – there’s also the simple fact that most people are too young to remember India’s multiple crises in 1984.

“It’s forgotten history for most,” argues Dr JS Sekhon, head of social sciences at Guru Nanak Dev University, in Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple.

Some significant voices disagree though, and say the claims from Britain demand proper investigation.

“The Indian government committed so many human rights violations in the operation against the Golden Temple and afterwards,” says Indian Supreme Court lawyer AS Phoolka, who represented many of the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. “If the British government was involved, it is also guilty.”

He says he welcomes the announcement from UK Prime Minister David Cameron of an inquiry in the UK. “Now we need to have one in India.”

For the moment though, that looks unlikely.

Source: BBC