New Delhi: Months before Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the Indian Army into the Golden Temple in 1984, she considered a covert commando raid to apprehend radical Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Investigations by India Today into the recently declassified Margaret Thatcherer’s documents in the United Kingdom, revealed a raid that was planned by Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to abduct Bhindranwale from a building outside the Golden Temple.
Interviews with retired commandos and RAW officials revealed that the plan was initiated sometime in late 1983 at the behest of Gandhi’s security adviser and RAW founder, R.N. Kao.
An official from Britain’s elite Special Air Services (SAS) visited India in December 1983 and vetted the plan in which 200 commandos of RAW’s military wing, the Special Group (SG), would abduct the separatist militant leader in a combined ground and air assault. SG commandos rehearsed for several months on a mockup of the three-storeyed Guru Nanak Niwas, which they constructed at their base in Sarsawa, UP.
The commandos flew night sorties on specially modified Mi-4 helicopters and even practised heli-drops on buildings near Amritsar. A commando assault unit was to drive in from the ground and drive away with the separatist leader. The commandos did anticipate a firefight with Bhindranwale’s heavily armed followers.
The plan was, however, called off by the Prime Minister in April 1984. One of the reasons for scrapping the plan was that she feared civilian casualties in the firefight. The Indian Army, which was then called in, assured her there would be no collateral damage.
Operation Bluestar, the June 1984 operation where 83 soldiers and 492 civilians died and the Akal Takht, one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines, was shelled by tanks, continues to be the most controversial deployment of the Army in Independent India’s history. It triggered off a cataclysmic domino-like series of events: the October 31, 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, nationwide riots targeting Sikhs and a Punjab problem that simmered for another decade.
Hazy outlines of this secret RAW plan were whispered about even in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar. Mark Tully and Satish Jacob’s 1985 book “Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s last battle” mentions a commando unit rehearsing a raid on a mock-up of the Golden Temple created in Chakrata.
Military analysts, however, believe the plan had only limited chances of success. “The operation would have needed a guarantee of success, which a special forces kidnap cannot provide,” says Colonel Vivek Chadha (retired) of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.
“Bhindranwale’s heavily armed militants would have had a bloody skirmish with the commandos. The isolation of one building would have been a challenge.” Sundown now offers only a tantalising alternate view of whether history might have been any different if it had succeeded