For a long time, the British government has kept files related to Operation Blue Star secret. But now they could be out in the open, having serious ramifications for India-UK relations and the British Sikh community. The military operation to flush out militants from Golden Temple in 1984 has once again hit the headlines with a British court ordering declassification of the controversial files.
What is the latest? A judge, who presided over a three-day hearing of an information rights tribunal in London in March, ruled yesterday that a majority of the files relating to the period must be made public. He rejected the UK government’s argument that declassifying the Downing Street papers would damage diplomatic ties with India. A Freedom of Information appeal was filed by freelance journalist Phil Miller. The UK Cabinet Office has been given time until July 11 to appeal against the decision or it must make the relevant documents available to Miller for his research by July 12
How it all started Miller has been investigating the then Margaret Thatcher-led government’s assistance to the Indian Army operation. In 2014 he had spotted declassified letters that showed the UK had sent an SAS officer to help Indian Army plan Operation Blue Star. The UK government had declassified these documents under a 30-year rule to make such material public.
Another controversial declassified document was Thatcher’s letter to then indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in which she gave Gandhi full support after Operation Blue Star and said Britain supported India’s unity in the face of demands for a separate Sikh homeland. Then British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a review into this discovery, named as the Heywood Review, which led to a statement in Parliament declaring that the UK government did send one military officer to provide military advice but it was a one-off. It said there was no other UK military assistance, such as training or equipment, for Operation Blue Star. According to the statement, the military advice from the UK officer had limited impact in practice and the actual operation implemented by the Indian Army differed significantly from the approach suggested by the UK military.
A quid pro quo between India and UK? A report, ‘Sacrificing Sikhs’, written by Miller and published by the Sikh Federation UK last year, termed the Heywood Review a “whitewash”. According to Miller’s report, the UK helped India with Operation Blue Star because it wanted to sell defence equipment to India. The Heywood Review had, however, ruled out any quid pro quo between the two governments.
What do the secret files contain? The files that must now be released in full include papers on UK-India relations from 1983 to 1985 — covering a meeting between Thatcher and Indira Gandhi’s advisor, L.K. Jha, the situation in Punjab, Sikh activities and the assassination of Gandhi in October 1984.
Why are they so sensitive? The UK has a sizable Sikh population and a large number of them would not like the fact that the UK government had helped Indian Army prepare for Operation Bluestar. The declassification of files can even lead to demands for an apology from the UK government. The issue coming to centrestage would mobilise Khalistanis in the western countries against India. The details of communications involving Indira Gandhi can embarrass the Congress party.