The Thatcher-Gandhi papers: Operation Bluestar’s bitter legacy 30 years on

The findings of Sir Jeremy Heywood’s report into Britain’s involvement in advising India on the “removal of Sikh dissidents” from Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1984 has been met with disquiet and calls for a full independent inquiry. Hardeep Singh looks into some of the reasons why.

Hardeep Singh is a freelance journalist, press secretary for the Network of Sikh Organisations

Amritsar’s Harimander Sahib, colloquially known as the Golden Temple, is the spiritual epicenter of Sikhism. It houses the largest free kitchen in the world, serving tens of thousands of meals daily to pilgrims, Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.

A Muslim divine laid its foundation stone and the complex has four entrances, signifying the importance of equality and openness. In June 1984, this most hallowed of shrines became the backdrop of India’s bloodiest post-partition chapter, with the indiscriminate massacre of “Sikh dissidents” and pilgrims alike.

Embarrassing revelations of Britain’s advisory role in the run up to the military operation codenamed ‘Bluestar’, precipitated the prime minister to launch an immediate Cabinet inquiry, led by Sir Jeremy Heywood.

Concluding earlier this month, it reported Britain had ‘a limited’ involvement in the tumultuous events thirty years ago. The inquiries findings have fallen short of expectations in some quarters with the suggestion Whitehall has simply kicked the issue into the long-grass. There are some important questions remaining.

Lets take the issue of Anglo-Indian military contracts for a start. It’s clear that Britain had (and continues to have) bilateral trade interests with India during the 1980s; that’s not disputed, however key documents, notably a file related to ‘military intelligence relating to India for 1984′, went missing from The National Archives at Kew, soon after the revelations came to the fore.

Back in January, during prime minister’s questions, Tom Watson MP asked:

“On his Amritsar inquiry, instead of ordering the civil servant to investigate, why does the Prime Minister not just ask Lords Geoffrey Howe and Leon Brittan what they agreed with Margaret Thatcher and whether it had anything to do with the Westland helicopter deal at the time”?

The prime minister dismissed the suggestion as a ‘conspiracy theory’.

Lord Singh met Sir Jeremy Heywood prior to the publication of the inquiry. He informed him about a meeting with a cabinet member in November 1984, in which he raised Britain’s silence on the massacre of Sikhs throughout India, only to receive the staggering response:

“Indarjit, we know exactly what is going on, it’s very difficult; we’re walking on a tightrope: we have already lost one important contract.”

The cabinet report states:

“There is no record linking the provision of UK military advice to the discussion of potential defense of helicopter sales.”

Perhaps the missing files may have had the answer, perhaps not, however this raises a big question mark on the issue of transparency.

There have been calls for an independent inquiry by a number of MPs and Sikh groups, many of whom argue the scope of the investigation by Whitehall was ‘too narrow’.

The Heywood inquiry was robust, trawling through 200 files and 23,000 documents between Dec 1983 and June 1984. It has been suggested that files relating to the latter half of 1984, would provide further insights, especially into events following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, which resulted in the Delhi pogroms, where 3,000 Sikhs lost their lives.

Earlier this month, Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi told an Indian television channel “some Congressmen were probably involved in the riots”. According to Human Rights Watch, the Indian government has yet to prosecute those responsible.

Sadly, the world has not made a peep of protest, however there is opportunity to address genuine concerns.

A truth and reconciliation inquiry into events 30 years ago, will give some hope to the surviving victims and their families. If the India High Commission and Parliament support these proposals, it will certainly have some teeth, so that serious questions, which remain, can be answered.

In a year in which Sikhs remember their inordinate contribution to the Great War alongside allied troops, they look to Britain to bring about some closure to this tragic chapter. British Sikhs hope the government will now take guidance from the wise words of St Francis of Assisi, paraphrased by the late Mrs. Thatcher, on the steps of Downing Street in 1979.

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