A tribunal in London last week heard arguments over whether Britain should release classified documents relating to the United Kingdom’s involvement in Operation Blue Star in India 34 years ago. At the hearing, British government officials insisted that the release of the documents would have an adverse effect on India, but the counsel for the petitioner opposed this argument, saying that the Indian government was open to the documents being made public. A lawyer for the petitioner later said that the UK’s reluctance to release the secret documents was possibly due to the potential they had to embarrass the UK government. The judgment is expected in six weeks.
The case seeking the declassification of the documents was brought by journalist Phil Miller whose request to release the papers was turned down first by the Cabinet Office, and then by the Information Commissioner in 2016. In January 2014, Miller discovered two letters at the National Archives that revealed that the United Kingdom sent a Special Air Service officer to Punjab a few months before Operation Blue Star, which was launched in June 1984. Additional documents related to this event, which took place when Margaret Thatcher was the British prime minister, have been kept under wraps.
Miller’s case eventually reached the First-Tier Tribunal, where proceedings held between March 6-8 alternated between closed and open sessions during which a senior British government officer and a diplomat testified.
As part of Operation Blue Star, which lasted several days, the Indian Army stormed the complex of the Harmandir Sahib, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar, to evict a group of militants led by separatist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The military action on the shrine – in which several people, including Bhindranwale were killed, and which damaged the complex – distressed Sikhs around the world. It led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards four months later.
Perception versus reality
The Cabinet Office has opposed the release of the documents, claiming exemptions related to security matters and the protection and promotion of the UK’s international interests and relations under sections of the Freedom of Information Act, 2000.
Owen Jenkins, a senior civil servant, who was formerly the director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for South Asia and Afghanistan, told the tribunal that the release of documents would have “real implications for their [India] country today”. “There is a risk they [India] would see this [release of more documents] as an interference in their internal matters,” Jenkins said. But he also admitted that there seems to be hardly any noticeable unease from New Delhi on the subject.
A large part of Jenkins’ evidence that was made public focussed on how the suppression of the secret files would not only be in Britain’s interest, but also protect India from possible violent strife.
Jenkins cited the attack on General KS Brar in London in 2012 by a Sikh gang as evidence that the passage of time need not necessarily diminish the sensitivity of the 1984 operations. Brar, who survived the attack, had led Operation Blue Star.
“Cabinet office allows release of documents that can be considered historical but not description of particular events that is sensitive,” argued Jenkins.
The court also heard from Julianne Kerr Morrison, Miller’s barrister, how several government papers that could be considered very sensitive and damaging have been released previously from the National Archives. These include a stark analysis of Rajiv Gandhi’s suitability as a replacement for Indira Gandhi after her assassination, requests from India for the UK to stop citizenship and asylum applications from Sikhs, and a discussion between Thatcher and LK Jha, Indira Gandhi’s emissary, which relate to India’s nuclear programme and Pakistan. Morrison also pointed out that the United Kingdom’s current assessment of terror threats in India does not mention Punjab or Sikh bodies but instead focus on Naxalites and Islamist terrorism.
Shortly after Miller went public in 2014 with the papers that established Britain’s involvement in what was an internal matter of India, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an inquiry headed by Jeremy Heywood, then the cabinet secretary. In his report, Heywood admitted that the two letters discovered by Miller were “released inadvertently” and that India had anyway not taken the advice given by Britain at that time, and that the advice was not motivated by the sale of arms.
In a statement on the matter before Parliament in 2014, Foreign Secretary William Hague, said: “The Cabinet Secretary’s [Heywood] report therefore concludes that the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian government at an early stage in their planning.”
Activists and the UK Sikh Foundation criticised the Heywood report as misleading, saying it had a limited scope and was effectively a cover-up.
Jenkins told the tribunal that India had “passing concerns” on the Heywood review but there was no “lasting damage”. When asked specifically about India’s reaction to Miller’s 2014 discovery, Jenkins told the tribunal he did not “recall these two documents were discussed or brought out by India”.
Miller is being represented by KRW, a law firm based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Christopher Stanley of KRW, acting pro bono for Miller, indicated that the British government was trying to stymie the release of additional Operation Blue Star papers because of the embarassment it could bring the government. Said Stanley: “It is perhaps more probable that disclosure would embarrass the UK government in its provision of advice and assistance, which led to the Amritsar massacre and the human rights violations that followed, in order to secure trade links and stability in the region.”
In 1984, Robert Wade-Gery, the UK High Commissioner to India between 1982 and 1987, wrote to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stressing upon the need to not leak the news of the visit of the Special Air Service officer to India. “If there were [leaks], it would be extremely embarrassing for both sides, and if the leak sprang from us, the Indians would never forgive us,” wrote Wade-Gery, who died in 2015.
One of the seniormost officers to testify at the tribunal was Philip Barton, director general, consular and security at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Barton, who, like Jenkins, gave evidence in closed and open sessions insisted that the files relating to Operation Blue Star should not be released. In his cross-examination, Barton spoke about the process of the Joint Intelligence Committee reports and how inputs from security agencies are incorporated.
In recent years there has been increasing concern over Britain hoarding historic files in secret and misplacing government papers after withdrawing them from the National Archives. Not surprisingly some of these files relate to some of the most controversial aspects of its colonial and post-colonial history.