November 2, 2017 | By Parmjeet Singh
London: A report exposing the role of British government led by the then Prime Minister of England, Margret Thatcher, in June 1984 attack by Indian forces on Darbar Sahib and other Sikh Gurdwaras was released by a diaspora Sikh group on Wednessday (Nov 1). Prepared by freelance journalist Phil Miller, the report is released by Sikh Federation UK. It calls for an independent public inquiry into the episode, including the 1984 Amritsar massacre in which thousands of Sikh pilgrims were killed.
Executive Summer of the Report Reads As Follows (Find Full Report at below):
In January 2014, top secret UK government files were accidentally released to the National Archives. They revealed that a British special forces officer visited Amritsar in 1984 to advise the Indian army ahead of an attack on the Sikh faith’s holiest site, in which thousands of pilgrims were massacred. Then Prime Minister David Cameron refused calls for a public inquiry, instead hastily commissioning an in-house review which claimed that the British advice was an isolated incident that had limited impact on the subsequent attack.
The Sikh Federation (UK) first raised serious concerns on limitations of the in-house review by leading civil servant Sir Jeremy Heywood before it was published and presented to Parliament in February 2014. There were inherent limitations with the in-house review as it was rushed and deliberately too narrowly focused.
Whilst the UK government claims there is no need to investigate Britain’s role in India’s repression of Sikhs, this report sets out extensive evidence that raises serious concerns about the veracity of the UK’s official narrative. This report is not an attempt to ‘re-write history’, an accusation which has been directed by the British government at truth campaigns in Northern Ireland doing similar archival research. Rather, it is the Conservative government itself, through its ongoing censorship, who seems to be distorting and manipulating history to suit its own ends.
This report is a modest attempt at truth recovery and better understanding the legacy of a bitter conflict. It is the first look at the government’s private account from this period of UK-Indian relations, in so far as the public are allowed access to the records. The conclusions it reaches inevitably diverge from the official narrative, precisely because it takes into account facts that the government wanted to remain hidden at the time, and still do to this day.
Extensive research by the Sikh Federation (UK) has found that British involvement in India’s repression of Sikhs in 1984 went much further than the UK government has ever officially acknowledged, in that:
• Cameron killed off his own transparency revolution – More than half of Foreign Office files on India from 1984 have been censored in whole or in part, with civil servants centrally involved in the events of 1984 now blocking disclosures under the thirty-year rule. Information about the special forces and intelligence agencies is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information and Public Records Acts, meaning that only an independent inquiry is capable of recovering the truth. (See page 9)
• Cabinet Office has withheld vital records examined in the Heywood review – A freedom of information request for these records was first submitted on 30 December 2014. There have been unacceptable delays by the Cabinet Office at each stage of the process. It is the subject of an appeal to the Information Tribunal with a three-day hearing scheduled for March 2018. More than 30 years after the event there remains a reluctance to release relevant information that will expose the UK and Indian governments. (See page 10)
• Despite warnings a year earlier of disastrous consequences and a “blood bath”, Margaret Thatcher sent an SAS officer to advise on attacking Sikhs’ holiest site – In April 1983 the British High Commissioner Sir Robert Wade-Gery warned the UK government of the disastrous consequences of “any attempt by the government to use force to enter the Golden Temple precincts.” Yet within a year of a warning of a “blood bath”, Margaret Thatcher had sent a special forces officer to advise the Indian army on how to attack the holy site and demonstrated Britain’s complete support for a military solution. (See page 17)
• Para-military assistance provided immediately after SAS visit – India requested British training and equipment for its police para-military units immediately after the SAS officer had advised on co-ordinating para-military units for an attack on Amritsar. The Foreign Office wanted to supply India with internal security equipment that it knew could be used to raid Amritsar. For example, on the morning after the SAS advisor left India, the MOD sent a telegram to a company called Belstaff International Ltd, asking if it could supply bullet proof vests to the Indian Border Security Force. (See page 26)
• Peace talks collapsed day SAS left India – Immediately after the SAS officer carried out his reconnaissance of Amritsar with an Indian special forces unit, Sikhs pulled out of peace talks claiming they had seen a commando unit move into the city. The negotiations never recovered, and ultimately lead to the all-out-assault in June 1984. (See page 27)
• SAS advice on attacking the holy site increased terror threat to UK – Although the SAS provided advice for an attack on Amritsar, Whitehall analysts said that such an assault would increase the risk of terrorism in the UK. In 1985-86, MI5’s Director-general put ‘Sikh extremism’ at the top of the list of terrorist threats to mainland Britain, despite the fact Sikhs had never been a terrorist threat to the UK, any officials or the wider public. MI5 admitted in October 1986 that since June 1984 there had only been “relatively minor” incidences. (See page 30)
• Were practices from British counter-insurgency campaigns shared with Indian security forces that led to excesses, including torture? – Britain’s defence attaché in India from 1983 to 1986 was a veteran of colonial counter-insurgency campaigns in Kenya and Malaya, and held a senior position in the Ulster Defence Regiment HQ at the peak of British army collusion with loyalist paramilitaries in the 1970s. This raises concerns that abusive practices from British counter-insurgency campaigns were shared with Indian security forces. (See page 17)
• Indian army chief received confidential briefing in 1984 on counter-insurgency equipment – The FCO files released on 20 July 2017 show in correspondence from March 1985 that the British Army advised the Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army, General Vaidya who planned Operation Blue Star in June 1984. The March 1985 letter shows he received a confidential briefing from the British Army earlier in 1984 about counter-insurgency and internal security equipment to help deal with domestic unrest from Sikhs in Punjab. This was mistakenly or more likely deliberately missed by Heywood in his review. (See page 35)
• Advice from British experts in counter-insurgency – There were very specific British media reports in June 1984 naming Indian intelligence officers – Giresh Chandra ‘Garry’ Saxena and Rameshwar Nath Kao as making trips to the UK to seek expertise. The information that has been carefully pieced together in this report about counter-insurgency support and the timing of the SAS visit brings these media reports into sharp focus. A week after the attack it was reported in the Sunday Times that ‘assault troops were alerted to invade the temple no fewer than five times during the past three months’ i.e. the period immediately after the SAS reconnaissance. (See page 30)
• Whitehall expected raid on Amritsar day before Blue Star – The UK government anticipated a raid on Amritsar the day before Operation Blue Star but did nothing to try to stop it. The UK government did not urge Indira Gandhi to seek a peaceful solution to tensions in the Punjab, and believed that a show of force would boost the Indian leader’s chances of re-election. Nor did the UK government provide any warnings or travel advice to the hundreds of thousands of Sikhs living in the UK. Most Sikhs when they visit Punjab go to Amritsar suggesting the UK government was grossly negligent knowing what we know now. (See page 28)
• Further SAS assistance considered within weeks of Amritsar massacre – Whitehall considered and probably provided further SAS assistance to Indian forces weeks after the Amritsar massacre. One letter, in which British officials discussed possible SAS training for India’s new National Security Guard, was inadvertently released to the UK National Archives in August 2016. This should have been acknowledged by Sir Jeremy Heywood in his 2014 review but was omitted, calling into question the adequacy of that review. The National Security Guard went on to carry out two more raids of the Sri Harmandir Sahib (or ‘Golden Temple’ complex’) in Amritsar in 1986 and 1988, as well as a number of notorious operations in Punjab villages. (See page 32)
• How far did co-operation extend between MI5 and Indian intelligence? – Significant co-operation between UK and Indian intelligence agencies developed after June 1984. According to MI5’s official historian, the Security Service wanted to improve its agent running efforts inside Sikh diaspora groups in 1986. Given that many Sikhs detained by Indian security services were tortured, such co-operation and infiltration raises serious concerns that MI5 received information obtained through torture, or shared intelligence with Indian counter-parts who used torture. (See page 46)
• Sale of military equipment to India in the 1980s was of paramount importance with the UK government turning a blind eye to human rights – India was one of Britain’s top three purchasers of military equipment from 1981-1990, at times buying more British weapons than Saudi Arabia. As with the al-Yamamah deal, Thatcher personally intervened at the highest level to stop France winning key contracts with India. The UK Government was well aware of India’s appalling human rights record and repressive actions by the state police and para military groups, however this was overlooked and ignored in the interests of progressing lucrative arms deals. (see page 16, 18, 19, 22)
• Repressive measures against Sikhs were carried out in the UK to appease Indian government and secure arms deals – The Indian government made astonishing requests of Britain. For example, the Indian government asked Britain, unsuccessfully, to intern leaders of Sikh Gurdwaras in the UK. In a meeting on 8 June 1984 a leading Indian foreign affairs official complained to the British High Commission about the inadequate security Britain was providing to his diplomatic staff in London, and implied British police should shoot dead Sikh protestors. However, other repressive measures were carried out to appease Indian government concerns, such as extensive Special Branch surveillance of peaceful Sikh protests, banning religious marches and demonstrations, measures to disrupt a Sikh Sports Tournament, an extradition treaty and deporting a Sikh activist who went on to be tortured in India. (See page 48)
• British trade with India from 1984 was dependent on the UK taking anti-Sikh measures to win favour with India – Britain increased its intelligence cooperation with India against Sikhs to appease Indian politicians and diplomats. The scope of any proper inquiry must extend until at least Rajiv Gandhi’s death in 1989, given the initial trade embargo when he came to power and Britain then winning major trade deals during his premiership. Heywood’s claim that the decision to send an SAS adviser to Amritsar was not motivated by trade concerns seems fanciful. (See page 18)
• Misuse of the aid budget to subsidise defence sales to India – Trade concerns dominate the British files on India from this period. This report reveals extensive records about efforts to persuade India to sign a contract with Westlands helicopters in exchange for millions of pounds in aid money. Although there was internal debate and division between Whitehall departments about the merits of using aid money to secure this contract, the British High Commissioner in New Delhi and Thatcher were consistently in favour of Westlands winning the contract. The Heywood Review hardly made any reference to the extent of these efforts to secure the Westlands helicopter deal, as well as the other military contracts that were in the pipeline. India was Britain’s highest recipient of aid in 1984, receiving 24% of the aid budget. This was not done out of charity. The files are clear that aid was expected to pay dividends. (See page 20)
• Appeasing the Indian government by applying pressure on the British media to supress Sikh views – This report highlights several incidences of appeasing India. In October 1983, the Foreign Office at a meeting with Thames Television dissuaded one of the programme’s producers from including India in a documentary on abusive regimes. Following coverage of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the BBC Chairman responded to pressure from Thatcher, giving the BBC’s assistant director-general “strict instructions” on “special clearance” needed “from him” on who could broadcast on the BBC. A week after the assassination, on 8 November, the BBC Director-General wrote a letter to the Indian High Commissioner, apologising for broadcasting an interview signalling that the free expression of Sikhs in the UK had been curtailed. (See page 37)
• Serious conflicts of interest have increased censorship – In this report we have pointed out several serious conflicts of interest involving key personnel with a vested interest in censoring the truth:
◦ Bruce Cleghorn CMG was one of the ‘sensitivity reviewers’ in 2015 tasked with the censoring of documents, but he was a diplomat at the British High Commission in Delhi in 1983 and the South Asia Department in London in 1984. A week before the Amritsar massacre, Cleghorn wrote: “it would be dangerous” for the UK Government “to be identified” with “any attempt to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar.” He was also named in the correspondence about possible SAS assistance to India immediately after the Amritsar massacre. (See page 10)
◦ Sir John Ramsden is a member of the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives, a panel that adjudicates on government censorship applications. Sir John was a key member of the FCO’s South Asia Department in 1984. He not only wrote the letter considering further SAS assistance for India immediately after the Amritsar massacre, but he also argued in favour of equipping Indian para-military forces, including rubber bullets. (See page 11)
Although some Sikhs probably changed their view on Britain in January 2014 when Britain’s role emerged, the community’s response has been entirely peaceful. Despite numerous hurdles, the response from the Sikh community led by the Sikh Federation (UK) has been level-headed and sought to establish the truth of the full extent of the UK role in the 1980s in assisting India at home and abroad. The campaign over the last three and half years has had both a legal and political focus with the objective to create sufficient public pressure on the UK government.
Despite much information being withheld, this report proves the in-house review was at best inadequate and at worst a cover up. The period intentionally selected for the Heywood review of December 1983 to June 1984 allowed it to overlook a considerable amount of context which clearly demonstrates the paramount importance of arms sales to Anglo-Indian relations in the build up to Operation Blue Star.
In February 2014, Heywood downplayed the situation and concluded that the “military advice was a one-off”, a position repeated by Number 10. This has now been shown to be untrue as the in-house review was not as rigorous or thorough as claimed, and Parliament and the wider public have been misled. The in-house review also stated no other form of UK military assistance, such as equipment or training, was given to the Indian authorities in relation to Operation Blue Star. This was repeated several times by the Foreign Secretary in Parliament. This has also been proved not to be true.
This report raises serious doubts about the adequacy and integrity of the Heywood report and shows Parliament was disturbingly misled in February 2014 as to the motivations and full extent of UK involvement. It is now all the more important for the current Prime Minister and Home Secretary to announce an independent public inquiry to get to the truth, however painful and damaging, of what happened in the 1980s. The inquiry will send a positive signal to the law abiding British Sikh community, the wider public and Parliamentarians so all can learn from it and ensure it never happens again.
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