‘Anti-UK feeling’ hampered India’s purchase of Westland choppers

LONDON: A multi-million pound contract for India to purchase 27 ‘Westland 30’ helicopters in 1980s was overshadowed by “anti-British feelings” in the wake of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, according to newly declassified documents.

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London, February 20

A multi-million pound contract for India to purchase 27 ‘Westland 30’ helicopters in 1980s was overshadowed by “anti-British feelings” in the wake of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, according to newly declassified documents.

Documents declassified by the National Archives in London yesterday disclose considerable fear within the Margaret Thatcher Cabinet that India may reverse its purchase plan, which would hit the already struggling UK aircraft firm hard.

“Westland started to manufacture the aircraft. However, there were substantial delays which appeared at least in part to be associated with anti-British feeling in India following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination (in 1984),” notes a document dated January 10, 1986, from the Defence Ministry to the Cabinet Office.

The deal, worth 65 million pounds, has been previously described as the ‘Achilles heel’ in relations between India and the UK following Gandhi’s assassination as her successor, Rajiv Gandhi, had purported to link it with Britain taking tougher action on pro-Khalistani groups based in the UK.

“Mr Gandhi visited the UK on 15/16 October (1985). During this visit, Ministers had encouraging discussions about the prospects of an Indian order for W 30,” a later Cabinet briefing note says.

However, C D Powell, Thatcher’s private secretary, writes in another internal dispatch later that year: “Mr Gandhi said that the ‘technical chaps’ were giving problems. They preferred a French helicopter. The Westland one was too big and consumed more fuel though it was cheaper to operate per seat.”

The dubious Westland deal eventually did go ahead but was to be later described by officials involved as a “catastrophic waste of money”.

India bought 21 Westland 30s and the money came out of Britain’s aid budget and was given to India on condition it bought the helicopters.

The 14-seater Westland 30s proved to be highly unreliable and a commercial disaster and India sold its entire fleet back to Britain for the scrap value of 900,000 pounds after the machines were found to be technically faulty and grounded.  The latest set of documents highlight the considerable chaos caused around the Westland crisis, which led to then UK Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine’s resignation. — PTI

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