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

08 November 2016
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/
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/

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.”

Kamalpreet Kaur is a freelancer who works with print, radio, TV and online. She lives and works in London.

Keywords: Britain Golden Temple Operation Bluestar National Security Guard 1984 Theresa May Margaret Thatcher
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