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Despite all the talk, we were not aware of any SAS involvement: P.C. Katoch

LiveMint logoLiveMint 01-06-2014 Aman Malik

The lessons learnt from the hastily-planned Operation Blue Star helped in the smoother conduct of later operations against terrorists in Punjab, including Operation Black Thunder I and II, said retired Special Forces officer Lt. Gen. P.C. Katoch. As a young major, Katoch led a unit of Special Forces commandos into Golden Temple. Excerpts from an interview:

Take us briefly through the hours leading up to Operation Blue Star. How were the final stages of the operation planned and at what stage were you, along with your special forces, pressed into service?

Well, I was a Major at that point of time and we got the information only on the morning of 2 June and the same day, a part of my unit along with my CO (commanding officer), we moved to Amritsar. We were given a briefing, but intelligence was practically zero. So, we went around in the evening and eventually on the night of 5-6 June, we went in (into the Golden Temple).

What kind of planning did you have in terms of the number of people that were part of your special forces division. What was the paraphernalia that you had at your disposal in terms of arms and ammunition and in terms of other things that you may have had?

Firstly, it was only a part of the unit which went, not the complete unit. There were a lot of news items of a paradrop and what not, whereas it was practically a ground operation. In the inner parikrama, troops from three sides were pumped in, so we went in from the southern direction and it was practically a ground operation. It was like infantry and it was nothing to do with something special.

What was the final trigger for the beginning of the operation? Were the people inside given final warnings? Were the first shots fired from the inside or did the army fire the first shots?

When we arrived there on the 2nd (2 June) we found that on 1 June, already a clash had occurred with the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) and a number of CRPF people actually had been killed. So, obviously, the trigger was a political trigger. And, I don’t know, as far as we were concerned, we were just told [about the operation] on 2 June. So, what the government wanted to do, I really don’t know. Like, last year, there was a lot of talk of the Brits’ SAS (Special Air Services commandoes) coming and what not, but, I mean, we are not aware of that.

But were any of your seniors briefed by the SAS?

None, none, none, zero. But you see there are other forces which are outside the army. Now that may have happened. Like the special group of the Special Frontier Force etc. If something happened there, the army is not aware, at least nobody from my unit knew about it.

Was the Special Frontier Force part of the operation?

It was the special group, part of which did come on 5th morning (5 June). They were part of people who went in, but I am not aware whether they had any briefing or were in touch with SAS and all, I have no idea.

[British foreign secretary William Hague says Britain sent a British military adviser to India between February 8 and 17, 1984, to advise Indian intelligence services and Special Group on contingency plans for Operation Blue Star.]

There was a complete media blackout before and during the operation, which further fuelled speculation and rumours. Was such secrecy needed?

I personally feel the media should have been taken in, especially, if there were any people who had done some war correspondent course, because after all you don’t want to get the media knocked out there. It was a built-up area which was just about 350 metres by 250 metres, and all doors were shut and (with) just the pillars to take refuge. If you take the media inside, well, that could have got people killed. May be that was the reason (for the blackout).

Some people who were inside the premises of the Golden Temple, claim that had Khalistan been declared by Bhindranwale, Pakistan might have opened a front. Do you believe that was possible?

No. I think that’s highly stupid. It is like somebody saying that in Gilgit-Baltistan people declare independence and India opens up the front against Pakistan. That is pure nonsense. But yes, Pakistan was definitely part of the terrorism, which they are even trying to revive today.

There have been allegations that the army actually shot several people in cold blood. Also, that the official casualty figures were underplayed. How would you react to that?

Let me put it this way, that we went in, they were firing like hell. I mean they meant business. In fact, even on 2nd, 3rd night (the night of 2-3 June) when we went around, with my CO and climbed the buildings and saw, they had sandbagged the area and had proper pickets to fire. And, even the lower marble in the Akal Takht, which is facing the Darshani Deori, had been cut open. So, subsequently what happened, I really don’t know—I was wounded on the first night and I was evacuated— but I don’t think you have an army which will shoot in cold blood.

Several people, including the likes of (former Punjab police chief) K.P.S. Gill, say that although Operation Blue Star was necessary, it was ill-conceived. They compare it with Operation Black Thunder-II and say that had it been better planned, the job would have been done with far fewer casualties. Would you agree?

Well, let me put it this way: Operation Black Thunder-II was done because they had known what happened in Blue Star. And in Black Thunder-II, while K.P.S. Gill may have been given all the credit because of whatever political reasons, the fact is that the special action group of the NSG (National Security Guard), which went in, and they did the job, they were hundred per cent army. So, what happened in Blue Star is, may be, that the planning was done in haste for whatever reason, because, last minute if the army was told that we want this to be cleared soon, well, that could have happened, otherwise, in built-up area, you really don’t go in from all directions knowing what is inside. So, in Black Thunder, they could cut out the electricity and water and starve these people. Whereas, I don’t know what the political direction was in Blue Star because the orders were that you clear them the fastest. What had happened is that the division that had been there for decades —the 15th Division—had been moved out to the border, and, in fact, a division was brought in from Meerut, which was new to the place altogether. So, intelligence was practically zero. But the fact is that on 1 June also, when the firing took place with the CRPF, it was very clear that inside people mean business and they want to fight it out and they are well-armed. Normally, in special operations, you don’t go through the gates, which is known to everybody; you blast your way through. That sort of a damage was not permitted, although we had the explosives.

At the end of the day, is the Punjab issue is qualitatively different from say the northeast or the Naxal issue?

If you have the political will, both at the centre and the state, I think everything is possible. But as far as Punjab is concerned, for example, last year, we had some officers from a friendly country for training with us, and they had been to Pakistan earlier, and they said Pakistan is very clear that we are going to revive the insurgency in Punjab. Whether they succeed or not is a different thing altogether. And, they also said that the induction of drugs in Punjab is part of that plan.

Now, if you don’t know how to manage your youth, it is very easy to start an insurgency.

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