|(Top) David Cameron at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on February 20, 2013. In the condolence book (bottom) at Jallianwala Bagh, he wrote: “This was a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as ‘monstrous’. We must never forget what happened here and in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right to peaceful protest around the world.”
London, Jan. 14: Prime Minister David Cameron has moved quickly to appoint an inquiry into claims that just before Operation Bluestar in 1984 Britain “offered advice” to India.
The UK Prime Minister has asked his ultra cautious cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood to establish the facts and report back to him as soon as possible.
Crucially, Cameron, who has gone out of his way to build cordial links with British Sikhs, received strong support today from influential community leaders.
Rami Ranger, the chairperson of the British Sikh Association, told The Telegraph: “David Cameron can’t be held responsible for the actions of Mrs Thatcher’s government.”
Everyone is aware that suggestions of British “collusion” in the storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984 are inflammatory.
A spokesperson for 10 Downing Street said in a statement released last night: “These events led to a tragic loss of life and we understand the very legitimate concerns that these papers will raise. The Prime Minister has asked the cabinet secretary to look into this case urgently and establish the facts. The PM and the foreign secretary (William Hague) were unaware of these papers prior to publication. Any requests today for advice from foreign governments are always evaluated carefully with full ministerial oversight and appropriate legal advice.”
At the moment, the government is debating whether to publish the private exchanges between George W. Bush and Tony Blair before the US, with the UK as its principal ally, invaded Iraq in 2003. There have been claims that although the US and Britain went through the motions of debating whether military action should be taken, Blair had already signalled privately to Bush that Saddam Hussein should be overthrown.
As cabinet secretary, Heywood is said to be have resisted publication of the private exchanges between the two leaders on grounds of national security but has been forced to agree to the release of some 100 documents — these may prove very damaging for Blair, the former British Prime Minister.
If Heywood acts true to form, the full extent of what advice Britain gave or did not give to India in 1984 may not immediately be disclosed.
What information has emerged is based on the exchange of letters between senior civil servants in Whitehall in the months preceding Bluestar.
There is one letter from Robin Butler, principal private secretary to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, written on February 6, 1984, to Brian Fall, private secretary to the foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe.
Butler (who was private secretary to five Prime Ministers and went on, as Lord Butler, to become Master of University College, Oxford), referred to Fall’s letter of February 3, 1984, in which the latter had written about “the Indian request for advice on plans for the removal of dissident Sikhs from the Golden Temple”.
Butler confirmed that Mrs Thatcher had been briefed: “The Prime Minister is content that the Foreign Secretary should proceed as he proposes. She will look forward to receiving a report on the adviser’s visit and notes that the Home Secretary would be informed if the Indians seemed likely to proceed with their plan.”
Only four copies were made of the letters marked “top secret and personal”.
The more detailed letter was written by Fall to Hugh Taylor, private secretary to the home secretary, Leon Brittan.
These have been released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule.
The circumstances then may explain why Thatcher was quick to agree to Indira Gandhi’s request. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), which would attempt to kill Thatcher and most of her cabinet with the Brighton hotel bomb on October 12, 1984, had already blown up a car containing her closest political ally, Airey Neave, in the House of Commons car park on March 30, 1979.
Thatcher, then Tory leader, summed up her approach to dealing with extremists in her tribute to her murdered colleague: “He was one of freedom’s warriors. No one knew of the great man he was, except those nearest to him. He was staunch, brave, true, strong; but he was very gentle and kind and loyal. It’s a rare combination of qualities. There’s no one else who can quite fill them. I, and so many other people, owe so much to him and now we must carry on for the things he fought for and not let the people who got him triumph.”
As Prime Minister, Thatcher stood firm against IRA hunger strikers in Northern Ireland in 1980 and 1981 although 10 of them, including Bobby Sands, seeking political status, were allowed to starve themselves to death. But Thatcher did not give in.
When it came to the Indian request, there is no ambivalence in Fall’s letter: “The foreign secretary decided to respond favourably to the Indian request and, with the Prime Minister’s agreement, an SAD (typo for SAS — Special Air Services) officer has visited India and drawn up a plan which has been approved by Mrs Gandhi.”
Britain would be in the clear if the SAS plan was simply to surround the Golden Temple and wage a long war of attrition — as is usually the British way of dealing with terrorists. It is highly unlikely that the details of the SAS plan will be revealed.
Today, there have been appeals for restraint by Rami Ranger and others.
“My appeal to fellow Sikhs is not to open old wounds, especially as the government of India has apologised for its actions,” he said. “We must draw a line under 1984 to move forward as by dwelling in the past we cannot build our future. It is worth remembering that the Sikhs were created to defend the basic human rights of every Indian and not to break India up.”
He added: “As it turned out, the attack was ill-judged, ill-thought-out and without due consideration of the feelings of millions. The repercussions of the attack are still being felt. A great lesson for every government around the world is never to use their own armed forces against their own people.”
He also said: “As far as the current (UK) government is concerned, it cannot be held responsible for actions of the past government. We must judge people for their own actions and deeds. The current Prime Minister has shown great respect to the Sikh community. By visiting the Golden Temple Amritsar during his last visit to India, he has demonstrated his respect for the Sikh community.”
Delhi seeks data
India has sought information from the UK on the Bluestar reports. “We have seen these reports in newspapers. We have sought information from the UK government in this regard and without factual information I cannot comment further,” foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told PTI.