Release of secret files could strain UK-India relationship

Sikh community infuriated by the non-disclosure of facts about UK's involvement in the 1984 Operation Blue Star

Rupanjana Dutta Tuesday 13th March 2018 11:18 EDT

The Sikh community in the UK, as well as some of the key members of the Labour party have been demanding the release of the classified documents dating back to the period of Operation Blue Star in 1984, disclosing UK's involvement in the event. A lack of a proper closure for the community seems to have fueled much of the anger. But last Thursday's hearing in the UK seeking the declassification of files has now revealed that it could affect international relations with India due to its political sensitivity, infuriating the community further.

Dr Opinderjit Takhar, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University and an expert in Sikh studies, reportedly said: “No Sikh can overlook the events of 1984 and the atrocities that the Sikh community has suffered. Hence, many in the diaspora feel that they must do more towards seeking justice.”

The Counsel for the Cabinet Office said India holds particular sensitivity against the issue of “Sikh separatism” or “pro-Khalistani movement”. The files are meant to contain information on Britain’s involvement in the Indian military operation at Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, under Indira Gandhi's government. The Counsel reportedly added, “Just the passage of time does not diminish the significance of this case.” The UK authorities have also linked the classified information with wider national security concerns and claimed that extracting any portions of it, to make it available for public, will cross the Cabinet Office’s “red lines”.

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), a party in the hearing, questioned the impact on UK-India relations with the release of the documents saying India is a country governed by the rule of law, with a “sophisticated democracy” and there should be no reason to presume that it would not respect the UK’s need to follow the rule of law, the PTI reported.

UK-based freelance journalist Phil Miller’s counsel, arguing in favour of the files being made available to public under Freedom of Information (FOI), emphasised on wider public interest in the case and concluded that it was not simply about seeking a “smoking gun” in terms of UK-India bilateral relations in the 1980s, adding, “The documents may well allay concerns and help reassure the Sikh community. So there could be good news in no bad news.”

Miller had come across the information about Britiain's military advice under Thatcher government to Indian forces prior to Operation Blue Star, during some unrelated research in the UK’s National Archives in 2014. The then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, immediately had ordered for a review, but that led to a statement in Parliament declaring that Britain’s role was purely “advisory” and the Special Air Service (SAS) advice only had “limited impact” on the military operation at the Amritsar temple in June 1984.

The judge at the First Tier Tribunal hearing, Murray Shanks, has reserved judgment in the case, which is expected later this year. Miller's request involves the need to establish if Maragret Thatcher's government did offer arms deals or such assistance to India. He also believes the BJP led government in India would welcome the release of the files for the sake of transparency, since Congress party is no longer in charge.

During his evidence, in open session, Owen Jenkins, former FCO Director for South Asia and Afghanistan, said that there were no consultation with the Indian government on the issue of the release of the classified files in question.

However sources from the Indian High Commission said it was for the British government to decide on the matter and and Indian government did not have a stand for or against the declassification of these files.

But Jenkins emphasised, “This remains a highly sensitive issue and release of the information could have a detrimental effect on our relationship with India,” and gave much of his evidence in closed session due to the apparent “sensitivity” of the material.

A community member, who did not want to publish his name told the Asian Voice, "This approach is wrong. It is not about Khalistan or any separatist movement. I don't support anything against India as a nation. But if UK had any involvement in a mass massacre in the 1980s, the country has to own up to its doings. Many innocent people lost lives because of an erratic operation. It is a matter of humanity, our rights. We deserve to know. We are pinning our hopes in PM Modi."

Jasvir Singh OBE, Chairman of the City Sikhs Network said, "It's very disappointing to hear that the Government is still refusing to disclose all documents relating to the British involvement in Operation Blue Star. There is currently a deficit of trust between the Sikh community and the British government on this issue, and the disclosure of all documents relating to this episode would go some way to help restore that relationship. The Labour Party has made a commitment to this point, and I would hope that other political parties would follow suit."

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