As Theresa May Visits India, Serious Questions are Raised in the UK about its involvement in Post-Bluestar Punjab

May’s first visit to India is eclipsed by the shadow of the British government’s alleged involvement, under the aegis of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in Operation Bluestar—an ill-conceived military operation that was conducted at Amritstar’s Golden Temple Complex in June 1984, resulting in the deaths of over 700 people, of whom at least 350 were civilians. Toby Melville/ REUTERS/
08 November, 2016

On 6 November 2016, the British Prime Minister Theresa May flew into India for a three-day visit aimed at strengthening ties between the United Kingdom and India in the areas of trade, investment, defence and security. The significance of May’s visit is underscored by the fact that this is her first bilateral trip outside Europe since taking office in July. Speaking about her decisionat the inauguration of an India-UK Tech summit, May said, “I chose India...because of the special partnership between our countries.” However, an aspect of the historically “special partnership” that the British Prime Minister referred to has now come under scrutiny. May’s first visit to India is eclipsed by the shadow of the British government’s alleged involvement, under the aegis of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in Operation Bluestar—an ill-conceived military operation that was conducted at Amritstar’s Golden Temple Complex in June 1984, resulting in the deaths of over 700 people, of whom at least 350 were civilians.

In Britain, the Labour Party, the opposition in the UK, called on May just before she left for Indiaand asked her to “come clean” about the country’s role in the widely criticised military operation. This is not the first time that this issue has caused a furore. In January 2014, Phil Miller, an independent journalist, discovered declassified documents, which indicated that authorities from the British government had responded “favourably” to a request from India, soliciting their help in Operation Bluestar. Subsequently, David Cameron, who was Britain’s prime minister when Miller made the discovery, asked the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, to conduct an inquiry. Heywood was looking into the allegation that in 1984, Thatcher’s government had sent an officer from the Special Air Service, or SAS—a special forces unit of the British army—to advise the Indian government on its attempts to remove militants from the Golden Temple. According to a statement made by Cameronin February 2014, the investigation—which was initiated as a result of the requests made by many Sikh organisations, and the Labour party’s deputy leader Tom Watson’s decision to raise the issue in the parliament—provided “absolutely no evidence of the UK government involvement in the operation itself.”

William Hague, the foreign secretary of the Cameron government, also told the parliament that “one of the questions raised is whether there could have been British Military involvement in subsequent operation Black Thunder I and II—the paramilitary raids that were conducted on Khalistani separatists at the Golden Temple in 1986 and 1988, respectively.” According to Hague, “From everything that the Cabinet Secretary has seen having examined hundreds of files—200 files—the answer to that is no”.

On 3 November 2016, KRW Law, a law practice based in Ireland, sent a letter to Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary of the UK, on behalf of the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK), a Sikh non-governmental organisation that works with political parties. The four-page letter stated that the conclusions of Heywood’s review in 2014 were “inaccurate and misleading.” It referred, among other things, to fresh evidence that had surfaced in the matter. It claimed that on 3 July 1984, less than a month after the Indian army’s massacre of Sikh pilgrims at the Golden temple, JCJ Ramsden from the South Asia department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had sent a letter to the FCO’s defence department “referring to ‘an Indian request for Military assistance in setting up of a National Guard for internal security duties.’” According to the letter, the UK foreign office then considered “the possibility of an SAS involvement”.

In a press release that was sent by KRW Law on 4 November 2016, Darragh Mackin, an associate at the firm, said that the “discovery of this fresh evidence”  further undermined the “effectiveness of the original Heywood review. “It is against this backdrop,” he continued, “That we have asked that immediate action is taken to ensure that an effective and independent investigation is commissioned without further delay.”

The National Archives received the files containing this correspondence from the FCO on 24 August 2016, 32 years after Operation Bluestar. However, according to representatives from the SFUK, the FCO recalled the documents from the National Archives soon after, an act that they said “might have been prompted” by a letter that the SFUK sent to Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, on 13 September 2016. In its letter, the SFUK stated, “Last week our researcher found another letter that has ‘inadvertently’ just come into public domain following the release of FCO files to the National Archives on 24th August 2016.” The SFUK added that Miller’s discovery was significant enough to prompt an independent inquiry “as it shows what the then Foreign Secretary Rt. Hon. William Hague told the Parliament on 4th February 2014 was not true. It strongly suggests Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood’s review at that time was inadequate as he would have seen the letter.”

The researcher that the SFUK referred to in its letter was Phil Miller, who has been engaged by the organisation to document all findings related to Sikhs from the National Archives. The foreign office has reportedly responded to queriesabout the missing documents by stating that it merely “borrowed” the files from the National Archives. The Labour Party noted, in turn, that the existence of these files raises important questions.

Meanwhile, the rest of the correspondence between officials from Britain and India during and soon after Operation Bluestar is unavailable and the FCO has withheld a 1984 file titled “Indian National Security Guard.” In the press release that was sent out by KRW Law on 4 November, the SFUK stated: “The secret discussion took place in the immediate aftermath of the Operation Blue Star massacre, in which thousands of Sikh pilgrims died, and while the associated Operation Woodrose crack down primarily on Sikh men aged 15-35 in every town and village in Punjab was still under way.  India’s National Security Guard (NSG) was formed in July 1984 and its official website states that ‘The NSG was modeled on the pattern of the SAS.’ The unit went on to lead Operations Black Thunder I and II, which consisted of further assaults on the Sri Harmandir Sahib in 1986 and 1988.”

In the release, Amrik Singh, the chair of the SFUK, said, “Sikhs around the world will be outraged at the cover up by Cameron, Hague and Heywood more than 30 years later.  The abrupt recall of dozens of FCO files about India from 1984 will raise eyebrows and shows that the whitewash continues. The Foreign Office know the Heywood review did not deliver the truth and are nervous with what we have found.”

On 20 September 2016, Alok Sharma, Minister for the Asia and Pacific at the FCO, responded to the SFUK’s letter by saying, “We believe that the Cabinet Secretary’s 2014 investigation into the allegations of UK involvement in Operation Blue Star was transparent and gave as full a picture as possible of any UK involvement in the operation.”  Sharma also suggested that representatives from the SFUK meet Laura Clark, the head of the South Asia Department at the FCO, to discuss the points the organisation had raised in detail.

According to a letter that the SFUK sent to Sharma on 17 October, when its representatives met Clark on 13 October, she accused them of “fishing.” Clark was possibly frustrated since the SFUK had not shared the evidence it had discovered at the National Archives on the advice of its lawyers. In this letter to Sharma, the SFUK also indicated that it would engage lawyers to take the matter up and emphasise the organisation’s concerns.

In the November press release that was sent by KRW, Mackin said, “We have corresponded directly with the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to ensure that urgent action is taken to first address the fact that Parliament was misled, and secondly to provide an effective and independent investigation without further delay.”