It was a blistering April afternoon in 1984. A white Ambassador car drove into the driveway of a modest Lutyens Delhi bungalow, 1 Safdarjung Road, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s residence. A tall bespectacled man got out. He was known only as DGS or director general security, a key official in the Research and Analysis Wing […]

It was a blistering April afternoon in 1984. A white Ambassador car drove into the driveway of a modest Lutyens Delhi bungalow, 1 Safdarjung Road, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s residence. A tall bespectacled man got out. He was known only as DGS or director general security, a key official in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) who controlled a small air force and two covert paramilitary units, the Special Frontier Force and the Special Services Bureau. Three years earlier, DGS had raised another unit, called the Special Group or sg, for clandestine counter-terrorist missions in Punjab and Assam. For the past two months, SG personnel, all drawn from the Army, had been training in secret at a base near Delhi for a critical mission.

CRPF personnel take position for the siege of the Golden temple

DGS briefed Mrs Gandhi on a surgical mission that fell short of a military strike to evict the rebels. Operation Sundown, he explained, was a ‘snatch and grab’ job: Heliborne commandos would enter the Guru Nanak Niwas guesthouse near the Golden Temple and abduct the militant leader. The operation was so named because it was timed for past midnight when Bhindranwale and his guards would least expect it.

SG operatives had earlier infiltrated the Golden Temple, disguised as pilgrims and journalists, to study its layout. Then, for several weeks, over 200 SG commandos had rehearsed the operation on a wood and Hessian cloth mock-up of the two-storeyed resthouse at their base in Sarsawa in Uttar Pradesh. Commandos would rope down from two Mi-4 transport helicopters onto the guest house and make a beeline for Bhindranwale. Once they captured him, he would be spirited away by a ground assault team which would drive in. There was a possibility of a firefight with the militant leader’s bodyguards and civilians who could rush in to protect him.

Just two months later, Mrs Gandhi ordered the Army to flush militants out of the temple. Eighty-three armymen and 492 civilians died in Operation Bluestar, the single bloodiest confrontation in independent India’s history of civil strife. Machine guns, light artillery, rockets and, eventually, battle tanks were used to overwhelm Bhindranwale and his mini army and the Akal Takht, the highest seat of temporal authority of the Sikhs, was reduced to a smoking ruin. In the maelstrom of Bluestar, Sundown and its extensive preparations got buried in RAW’s secret archives.

Three decades later, Operation Sundown resurfaced in an unexpected location-London. On January 13, the United Kingdom was shocked by declassified letters dating to February 1984 that revealed that Margaret Thatcher’s government had helped India on “a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple”. This plan, according to a top-secret letter from the principal private secretary of then British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe to the then home secretary Leon Brittan, was drawn up by an officer of the Special Air Services (SAS), UK’s elite commando force. The letter, written four months before Bluestar, sparked fears of a backlash from the UK’s Sikh community, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron to order an inquiry into the findings.

Festering Wound

Operation Bluestar still touches a raw nerve in India and abroad. On September 30, 2012, four Sikh youths attempted to murder retired Lt-Gen Kuldip Singh Brar on London’s Oxford Street. Brar, who led Bluestar, and a frequent visitor to London, survived. Two of his attackers were handed down a 14-year sentence in December last year. The new revelations about a possible British role in the build-up to Bluestar have already inflamed passions. “This obviously raises huge questions over the role of the British government at the time,” Labour MP Tom Watson told bbc on January 13. Watson’s constituency, West Bromwich East, has many Sikh constituents. New Delhi has so far not responded to the revelations. Brar calls reports of sas involvement in Bluestar “utter nonsense”.

At the Golden Temple after Bluestar

Though Sundown was aborted, some of the commandos who had trained for it spearheaded a near-suicidal frontal assault on the heavily fortified Akal Takht during Bluestar and stayed till the last militant was flushed out of the temple three days later. This is one reason those officers, long since retired, refuse to be identified. “My anonymity is my only protection,” says one of the officers who lives in a metro.

If Kao was unhappy with Mrs Gandhi’s rejection of Sundown, he didn’t show it. In fact, his thinking was in line with her extreme caution. Weeks earlier, RAW station chiefs in foreign capitals, particularly those with large Sikh expatriate populations, had warned Kao of the adverse fallout of a military operation to flush out the militants. Kao had personally led the parleys with overseas Sikh separatists to persuade Bhindranwale to vacate the Golden Temple. “They promised him a lot,” says a former RAW chief who is close to Kao, “but delivered nothing.” “Another possible reason for the commando operation being called off was the influence of a ‘soft group’ within the Congress headed by Rajiv Gandhi which favoured a negotiated settlement with Bhindranwale,” says Mandeep Singh Bajwa, a Chandigarh-based analyst.

In January 1984, the government had instituted secret talks with Bhindranwale at the behest of Rajiv. But within four months, hardliners on both sides prevailed. In late April 1984, Satish Jacob of bbc’s Delhi bureau saw trucks carrying construction material into the temple. He also saw a slim, fair man of medium height in a white salwar kameez and sporting a flowing beard. Major General Shabeg Singh was a war hero who had trained Mukti Bahini fighters in 1971 but was stripped of his rank and court-martialled on charges of corruption just before he was to retire in 1976. Now, as the military adviser of Bhindranwale, he oversaw conversion of the five-storeyed Akal Takht into a fortress. “We’re doing it for the community,” the soft-spoken former general told Jacob.

Indira Gandhi gives the Go-ahead

By May 1984, Punjab teetered on the brink. The daylight murder of dig A.S. Atwal inside the Golden Temple in April 1983 had paralysed Punjab Police into inaction. And the thousands of paramilitary personnel sent by Delhi after it dismissed the state government in October 1983 had failed to prevent the state’s descent into chaos. On May 11, 1984, Bhindranwale rejected the final settlement offered by Mrs Gandhi’s think tank led by Narasimha Rao to the Akali Dal. Soon after, Army chief General Arun Kumar Vaidya became a frequent visitor to Mrs Gandhi’s office. Her personal secretary and confidant R.K. Dhawan was present at one of those half-hour meetings. “Gen Vaidya assured her there would be no casualties and there would be no damage to the Golden Temple,” Dhawan told India Today. On June 2, talks with the Akalis collapsed.

As Mark Tully and Satish Jacob wrote in their 1985 book Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, “Mrs Gandhi was not a decisive woman, she was very reluctant to act, and she only fought back when she was firmly pinned against the ropes.” The Army was her last resort. She green-lit Operation Bluestar. Dhawan says two “extra-constitutional authorities” in Rajiv Gandhi’s inner circle, who would later become key figures in his Cabinet, were responsible for her change of mind. “They told her the military option was the only solution,” he says. The mantle fell on the Western Army commander, the flamboyant Lt-Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji. He had briefly considered a plan to starve out the defenders but junked it fearing an uprising in the countryside.

Bluestar bloodbath

Shortly after 10.30 p.m. on June 5, 1984, 20 men in black dungarees stealthily entered the Golden Temple. They wore night-vision goggles, M-1 steel helmets, bulletproof vests and carried a mix of MP-5 submachine guns and AK-47 assault rifles. The men of sg’s 56th Commando Company were then the only force in India trained for room intervention, the specialised art of fighting in confined spaces. Each commando was a sharpshooter, diver and parachutist and could do 40-km speed marches. Some of them wore gas masks and carried stubby gas guns meant to launch CX gas canisters, a more potent tear gas. Three months before this night, the commandos had stayed around the temple and rehearsed for Operation Sundown. Some of them still sported the beards they had grown for their undercover work as volunteers in the Golden Temple’s langar. When the plan was called off, they returned to their base in Sarsawa. They had flown into Amritsar the previous day at the request of Lt-Gen Sundarji.

The three battalions that Lt-Gen Brar’s 9th Infantry Division sent into the Golden Temple that night were trained to fight a conventional combat on the plains of Punjab and in the deserts of Rajasthan. They would overwhelm the enemy by sheer force of numbers. The commandos, who spearheaded the assault, made use of stealth, speed and surprise to achieve results. Soon after arriving, one of the sg officers had briefed Lt-Gen Ranjit Singh Dayal, Sundarji’s chief of staff, on a plan to capture the Akal Takht by blowing off its rear wall. General Dayal, a paratrooper who had captured the Haji Pir pass in an unconventional operation in the 1965 war, immediately overruled it. “There must be no damage to the Akal Takht,” he said. The commandos were to capture the sacred building by using gas to flush out the militants, he said.

The Army had clearly underestimated the defences. As soon as they entered the temple, a sniper shot the unit’s radio operator clean through his helmet. The rest took cover in the long gallery of pillars that led to the Akal Takht. Light machine guns and carbines crackled from behind impregnable walls of the temple, their multiple gun flashes blinding the commandos’ night-vision devices, forcing them to take them off. The commandos and infantry soldiers cautiously advanced, sheltering behind rows of pillars. Those who tried to advance towards the Akal Takht were cut down on the marble parikrama. An armoured personnel carrier bringing in troops was immobilised by a rocket-propelled grenade. “Shabeg knew the Army’s Achilles heel,” says an SG colonel. “He knew we couldn’t fight in built-up areas.”

Post-midnight, remnants of the sg unit and the Army’s 1 Para huddled near a fountain at the base of the Akal Takht. The area between the Akal Takht and the Darshani Deori that led to the Golden Temple had turned into a killing zone, covered by Shabeg’s light machine guns. Attempts by the para-commandos to storm the defences were repeatedly beaten back. They lost at least 17 men, their black dungaree-clad bodies lying prone on white marble. Commandos who tried to fire the CX gas canisters discovered that the Akal Takht’s windows had been bricked up. The only openings were horizontal slots out of which machine guns poured deadly fire. The commandos neutralised two of the machine gun nests by dropping grenades into them but the Akal Takht was impregnable. Then, around 7.30 a.m. on June 5, three Vickers-Vijayanta tanks were deployed. They fired 105 mm shells and knocked down the walls of the Akal Takht. Commandos and infantrymen then moved in to mop up the defenders, tossing gas and lobbing grenades inside the building.

The temple premises resembled a medieval battlefield, one sg trooper recalls. Bloodied and blackened bodies lay scattered around the white temple parikrama. In the basement of the blackened, still-smoking ruin of the Akal Takht, the commandos found the body of Shabeg. The Army recovered 51 light machine guns, 31 of which had been concentrated around the Akal Takht. “Normally, an army unit (of around 800 soldiers) would deploy this quantum of firepower to cover an area of about eight km,” Lt-Gen Brar recounted in his book Operation Blue Star: The True Story. Shabeg, he believed, wanted to hold out until daylight in the hope that there would be a popular uprising among the people when they get to know of the army action. The former war hero had extracted a bloody price on an army he felt had wronged him.

‘Oh my God,’ she said

Around 6 a.m. on June 6, 1984, the phone rang in R.K. Dhawan’s Golf Links home. Minister of State for Defence K.P. Singh Deo wanted Dhawan to convey an urgent message to Mrs Gandhi. The operation was a success, he said, but there were heavy casualties-both armymen and civilians. Mrs Gandhi’s first reaction was anguish. “Oh my God,†she told Dhawan. “They told me there would be no casualties.”

It took the Army two more days to clear Bhindranwale’s men from the temple’s labyrinthine corridors. The commanding officer of the sg contingent, a lieutenant-colonel, was seriously wounded by a sniper as he escorted President Zail Singh around the temple on June 8.

Operation Bluestar inflamed Sikh sentiments and triggered a mutiny in certain Indian Army units. It also led to the death of Mrs Gandhi: Her two Sikh bodyguards gunned her down on October 31 that year. The communal holocaust in which over 8,000 Sikhs were murdered by mobs around the country-including 3,000 in Delhi-fanned another decade of insurgency in Punjab. In the aftermath of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, sg commandos, several of whom had seen action at the Golden Temple, were rushed to 7 Race Course Road to guard Rajiv Gandhi and his family round-the-clock for a year. They had plenty of time to wonder if history would have turned out differently had they been given the chance to carry out Operation Sundown.

Follow the writer on Twitter @SandeepUnnithan