Ed Miliband lights the Diwali lamp last November. Picture by Raj D Bakrania
London, Feb. 11: Ed Miliband is sometimes caricatured as “Red Ed” because he was able to beat his elder brother David in the Labour Party leadership contest in September 2010 with the backing of Left wing trade union leaders. But blue might be a more important colour for him in the general election in May 2015.
This is because the Labour Party is making Operation Bluestar, the Indian Army’s assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984, more and more of an issue in British domestic politics.
Countering David Cameron, who visited Jallianwala Bagh and the Golden Temple in February last year and offered a de facto apology for the 1919 massacre, Miliband has expressed a desire to include Amritsar during his visit to India next week when he goes to Delhi and Mumbai.
As Labour Party leader and possibly Britain’s next Prime Minister, he is within his rights to seek talks with not only Manmohan Singh but also Rahul Gandhi. The requested meeting with Narendra Modi has so far not been fixed (the Gujarat chief minister has gone all shy about exposing himself to British politicians and stroppy journalists lest they bring up inconvenient topics).
In theory, either Rahul or Modi could be the Prime Minister of India by the time Miliband, 44, hopes to replace Cameron (still only 47) at 10 Downing Street.
The Labour MP for Leicester East, Keith Vaz, chairman of the powerful Home Affairs Select Committee and generally considered the most influential Asian MP in the country, told The Telegraph: “I am delighted this is Ed’s first major overseas trip. He would have gone to Gujarat if he had more time. He is going to Amritsar at an important time. It is a good opportunity for the Labour Party to put forward what the next step should be.”
Another Labour MP, Virendra Sharma, who represents Ealing Southall, said he understood the pain of the Sikhs: “I was born and brought up in Punjab and educated at Sikh institutes but it is also time to move on and strengthen relations between India and the UK.”
When Gordon Brown stepped down as Labour Prime Minister in 2010, it was widely assumed that his foreign secretary, David Miliband, would take over as party leader. In fact, the latter was rather proud of his friendship with his mobile phone mate Rahul, with whom he apparently exchanged text messages.
But a shock was in store for David who was narrowly beaten by his kid brother — who has had to live down his “Red Ed” nickname, which, to be fair to him, he has done by shifting to the centre ground of British politics.
Cameron is far from vanquished, though. With an improving British economy and personal poll ratings consistently higher than those of Miliband, a Tory win cannot be ruled out. Depending on numbers, the next government could be another coalition — either between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, or, as present, between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. An outright Labour majority is also possible but not a Tory one.
In a closely fought election, there will be quite a battle in the marginal seats, with the Indian-origin vote possibly the deciding factor in between 20 and 40 constituencies in a House of 650. Therefore, when it comes to Bluestar, Miliband and Labour MPs will want to demonstrate to Sikhs that they understand their pain over what happened in the Indian army’s “desecration” of Harminder Sahib rather more than the Tories.
But Cameron has invested much personal capital in the Sikhs. Not only has he been the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Amritsar, he has routinely invited Sikh community elders to functions at Downing Street.
He has also got his team of highly competent Indian origin MPs to back him up — Priti Patel, Alok Sharma, Shailesh Vara and Paul Uppal, himself a Sikh. Cameron has also been to India an unprecedented four times, three of them as Prime Minister.
In India, Miliband will have with him three of his equally personable Indian origin MPs — Seema Malhotra and Virendra Sharma, who are Punjabis, and Keith Vaz, who is a Goan Catholic.
On Bluestar, Miliband has so far made no comment, leaving the issue to his shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, who will be with him in India. Should Miliband become Prime Minister, a future Labour government will probably choose not to publish the very sensitive documents on Bluestar whose release is now being demanded by Her Majesty’s Opposition — but then that is politics.
The question goes back to the advice offered by a lone British “military adviser”, thought to be a member of the elite Special Air Services, on how to remove militants from inside the Golden Temple. According to the report submitted by the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the British advice was to go for a negotiated settlement and use force as a last resort and then use helicopter-borne commandos to maintain surprise and keep casualties to a minimum.
But British advice was of little or no consequence, the report said, implying the UK could not be held responsible for the actions of the Indian Army.
The Labour Party line is that many more of the actual documents on which Heywood based his report should be made public, along with transcripts of interviews he conducted with former key officials and ministers from 30 years ago.
Should Britain offer a formal apology to the Sikhs? Should all the documents be published?
In the Commons debate on the Heywood report on February 4, Alexander set out the Labour Party thinking on the British government’s alleged involvement in Bluestar:
“Serious questions continue to be asked, however, about the involvement, conduct and contribution of the British authorities at the time — going up to the highest level — in the events that surrounded the storming of the Golden Temple and that ultimately cost so many innocent lives. In the light of that, I would like to ask the foreign secretary the following questions:
“First, I regret that the government have so far refused to accept our call that all relevant documentation relating to the incident that can be should now be made public. I welcome the publication of five further documents as part of today’s report, but, given that the report itself cites ‘officials interviewed’ over the course of this investigation, will the foreign secretary now commit to publishing a list of those officials, and will he confirm whether any surviving ministers who served at the time were interviewed as part of the investigation? Will he also confirm whether these testimonies will be made public?
“Secondly, on the terms of this investigation led by the cabinet secretary, I welcome the fact that, following representations by the Sikh community, the cabinet secretary published a letter detailing the scope of the inquiry. Will the foreign secretary explain, however, why there was a more than three-week delay in publishing those terms of reference? Will he further explain whether the terms of the inquiry changed over the course of the inquiry?
“Many have already expressed regret that the investigation seemed to be covering only the first part of 1984, given the significance of events in the weeks and months after June 1984 and their direct link to the storming of the Golden Temple.
“Will the government therefore task the cabinet secretary with setting out whether he believes that there might be grounds for a full inquiry covering a longer period?
“Turning to the substance of the findings, the report states that the UK military adviser in India from 8 to 17 February 1984 advised the Indian government that this type of operation should only be put into effect as a last resort when all other courses of negotiation had failed.
“Based on the documents that he has seen, but for understandable reasons may not be able to publish, will the foreign secretary set out what type of operation was referred to in that case?
“The report also sets out that a ‘quick analysis’ by current UK military staff confirms that there were differences between the June operation and the advice from the UK military officer in February. Will the foreign secretary explain the nature of the quick analysis undertaken on such a central part of the investigation? Does he expect a fuller review of that aspect of the evidence to be conducted?
“The report touches on the allegations that the potential sale of Westland helicopters was linked to the provision of military advice. It claims that no evidence was found to substantiate that allegation, but none of the annexed documentation so far released pertains to that issue. The report cites ongoing contacts between UK and Indian officials around the time of Operation Bluestar on potential defence-related sales.
“Will the foreign secretary commit to publish this correspondence?
“A few moments ago, the foreign secretary spoke about the exchange of correspondence between Prime Minister (Indira) Gandhi and Prime Minister (Margaret) Thatcher, yet only Prime Minister Gandhi’s letter appears to have been published today. Will he undertake to publish the response of Prime Minister Thatcher?
“Everyone in this House is aware of the continuing pain felt by the Sikh community around the world at the events of 1984 — not just at the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the deaths and destruction that followed, but at the anti-Sikh violence that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi, and the emergency period that saw arbitrary arrests, and accusations of torture, rape and disappearances that are still unresolved today.
“Although there are of course differences within the Sikh community on the issue of a separate Sikh state, there is unanimity in their horror at those events. For British Sikhs over recent weeks, there has been the additional burden of worry that their own government may have been involved in those actions. The government therefore have a responsibility — indeed, a duty — to address those very widespread concerns and fears. If they can provide answers to all those concerns and questions, we as the Opposition will support them in that endeavour.”
It remains to be seen what words Miliband chooses when visiting the Golden Temple since he will be bound by them should he become Prime Minister.