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British Tribunal’s decision may reveal UK’s role in Operation Bluestar

An ongoing Tribunal in the UK will decide whether to make public classified files that detail British military support given to the Indira Gandhi government and the Indian Army during the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple.

 

We may soon know new facts about the lead up to Operation Bluestar.

A UK tribunal will decide whether or not to release classified files that detail British military support given to the Indira Gandhi government and the Indian Army during the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple.

The decision will come within six weeks’ time, after a three-day long session of the tribunal which heard arguments from both the UK Government and independent British journalist Phil Miller, concluded on 8th March.

Miller’s research into declassified government files in the National Archives in 2014 revealed the involvement of the Special Air Service (SAS), a special forces unit of the British Army, in the 1984 operation.

Miller first came across the files in 2014, after government files were released to the public under the UK’s 30-year rule, which mandates that documents that were deemed to not be sensitive in terms of national security must be made available to the public after a period of 30 years.

The findings prompted the then Prime Minister David Cameron to call for a formal inquiry to be led by his Cabinet Office Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood.

The Heywood Inquiry subsequently concluded that the UK’s role during the events of 1984 was “purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian government at an early stage in their planning,” and that it had a “limited impact”.

Some Sikh groups within the UK, however, such as the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK), believed that the conclusions reached by the 2014 inquiry were insufficient, and, following the UK Information Commissioner’s decision to not launch a separate inquiry in 2015, have formally started the procedure for a public inquiry last week.

“The timing of us submitting the formal request for a public inquiry and the tribunal being held was purely coincidental, and down to a delay on the part of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO),” Dabinderjit Singh, an advisor to the SFUK, told The Lede.

“We believe that the Heywood Inquiry’s frames of reference were limited, and deliberately chosen to look at a specific time period in the months running up to Operation Bluestar, to present an official sanitised view of what role the UK government played,” he said.

“Phil Miller has subsequently found additional documents in the National archives that show the Indian authorities requesting British support in setting up the National Security Guard, which states on its website that it was modelled in part on the SAS,” Singh added. “The fact that Britain was prepared to provide additional support then and is trying to restrict information now is highly suspicious.”

Miller’s appeal that the tribunal was hearing is hinged upon two sets of documents – Prime Ministerial (PREM) files dating from July 1983 to May 1985, and Cabinet Office (CAB) files dating from 1979 and August 1985. While a significant number of PREM files have been released, no CAB files have followed.

Whilst Miller, Singh, and the Irish law firm that represents them, KRW Law, argued of the pressing need for the British public to be made aware of what role their government might have played in the events of 1984, representatives of the British government argued during the three-day tribunal, which switched between open and closed door hearings, saying that the withheld files relate to matters of “national security”.

Senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office civil servant Owen Jenkins, the former director for South Asia and Afghanistan, argued on Wednesday that the material being withheld could damage international relations with India as they contained “highly sensitive” issues, pointing at material already disclosed that contained blunt assessments of Rajiv Gandhi’s political skills following the assassination of his mother, and official correspondence which appeared to suggest Britain was prepared to adopt a tougher stance on Sikhs living in the UK and deemed to be a concern to India as a result of bilateral trade agreements.

While Jenkins declined to comment further on the ongoing case, a representative of the FCO told The Lede that “…all relevant documents were examined for the Cabinet Secretary’s review in 2014,” and that the Cabinet Office will “…continue to argue its case to safeguard the nation’s interests in compliance with the law.”

“We don’t know what was said within the closed sessions, and the problem with arguing ‘national security’ is that nobody knows what that means as it hasn’t been defined,” says Christopher Stanley, the KRW counsel.

Dismissing the arguments made by the government relating to international relations, Stanley told The Lede that “I doubt very much if either the Congress party or the BJP would be affected by whatever information is being held.”

“The Freedom of Information request should be granted because there is overwhelming public interest in understanding the extent of UK involvement in the tragic events of 1984. Disclosing documents from three decades ago will not harm diplomatic relations – politicians in the UK and India have embraced right to information laws and recognise the importance of public access to national archives,” Miller told PTI.

“The question is, what is the British government afraid of?” asks Singh. “What did they suggest or offer back then that they are prepared to go to such lengths to avoid disclosing it – and, by doing so, adding to the speculation surrounding 1984?”

We may soon have those answers.

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