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It’s a sore that still festers. Now, documents apparently revealing a British role in the 1984 storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian army to flush out Sikh extremists have refocused attention on one of the most turbulent events in India’s recent history.
The UK’s visible and vibrant Sikh community is naturally outraged. “The word ‘betrayal’ has been thrown around, and I think that’s how some of us feel,” Gurinder Singh Josan, of the Sikh Council UK, told Outlook. The papers were discovered by journalist Phil Miller among a tranche of British archives papers declassified after 30 years. Miller has been researching for years British forces’ involvement in Commonwealth countries on his Stop Deportations blog,
The most explosive revelation comes in a 1984 letter from Brian Fall, private secretary to then foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, to Hugh Taylor, his counterpart under home secretary Leon Brittan, describing the visit of an SAS officer and potential fallout among Punjabi communities in the UK (link to the actual letters: www.stopdeportations.wordpress.com).
“What that might mean is British forces were asked for their advice on how to ensure minimal loss of life,” say Gareth Price, South Asia expert at Chatham House. “The SAS are largely identified with clinical extraction operations, where they remove enemies quickly and often secretly, so perhaps their ideas were not actually followed.”
Josan echoes this. “What we are ultimately asking for is the truth. It could be that the SAS advice was not followed or that they saw the Indian army plan and told them that it was a foolish one.”
That Operation Blue Star is deemed a catastrophe could mean British forces are keen to distance themselves from it.
Premier David Cameron was swift to react, calling for an official inquiry into the allegations in the classified papers. A spokesman for 10 Downing Street said: “The important thing is to establish all the facts as quickly as possible. That work is under way.” For Rahul Gandhi, whose surname is an advantage as well as a burden, the claims, if proven true, could damage his party’s chances in the impending polls. After all, it’s a bloodstained reminder of Operation Blue Star and of the fact that the Congress allegedly presided over the ’84 anti-Sikh riots—just before an election too. For Cameron, the damage is limited. He can rightly say it was Margaret Thatcher’s call, that it was a very different Tory regime, and he can make fresh overtures to Sikhs in UK and India with meaningful gestures.
As Josan says, “Don’t forget I was born here, like my generation of British Sikhs, so talking about the ‘British government’ is talking about my government. There are obviously more of our faith here now than 30 years ago but that just reinforces our need for the truth.” Moreover, Op Blue Star was seen as a catastrophe, with innocent pilgrims caught in the crossfire and many army deaths, so British forces are keen to distance themselves further.
Lt Gen K.S. Brar, who led the 1984 assault (and faced a reprisal attack in London in 2012), told The Guardian the allegations were “fictitious” and that “the plans (for Blue Star) were laid and executed by Indian military commanders”. That statement could crumble many ways: if the SAS did provide a plan, was it ignored? If so, why? Was it too gung-ho, or too cautious? Price says: “The fact it turned into a bloodbath means people might not want to be associated with it.”
With protest events planned outside the British parliament here, Sikhs across India and the UK eagerly await further developments. As Bhai Amrik Singh of the Sikh Federation (UK) says: “Why would the UK government at that time advise on the attack on the sacred Darbar Sahib complex and risk alienating the law-abiding British Sikh community?”
By Saptarshi Ray in London