Tribunal asks British govt to declassify documents linked to Operation Blue Star

Vidya Ram London | Updated on June 12, 2018

Sikh women walk beside a wall at the Golden Temple which was hit by bullets during Operation Blue Star in 1984   -  MUNISH SHARMA

The British government has a month to appeal a decision by a UK information tribunal, which asked it to declassify a number of documents relating to British involvement in the run-up to India’s ‘Operation Blue Star’ of 1984.’

Campaigners in Britain said they hoped the judgment would strengthen calls from UK’s Sikh community for a public inquiry into the country’s role in the operation, which involved flushing out militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

The judgment upheld an appeal by a freedom of information campaigner relating to three of four files which the UK government has resisted declassifying, requiring these to be published by July 12. The Cabinet Office was obliged under Section 1 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2000 to disclose certain parts of the files, rejecting the government’s use of exemptions relating to national security, international relations and personal information.

Judge Murray Shanks acknowledged the ongoing “sensitivities” on the issue of Operation Blue Star, and how the activities of Sikh separatists continue to represent a “potential existential threat to the State of India” as well as the “continuing reverence with which the Gandhi family are seen by many”. He also acknowledged the “importance of India in the world and of our relationship with it.”

‘No strain on ties with India’

However, he noted how documents that were released in error in 2014 had not triggered an adverse reaction from India, rejecting the British government’s contention that the release of information would damage bilateral relations. He also rejected the argument of a UK government witness that releasing the documents would damage bilateral ties by showing the UK government did not regard the activities of Sikh extremists with sufficient concern and was “soft on them”.

“We do not give much weight to this point…anyone concerned would be well aware of the perceived UK failures,” wrote the judge, adding that in reality the documents showed how these issues were taken seriously at senior levels.

During hearings held earlier this year — some behind closed doors because of the sensitive nature of what was being disclosed — counsel for the Cabinet Office sought to argue against the documents being made public on the ground that they related to discussions involving intelligence services and that issues around separatism continued to be viewed as a “threat to the existence of the Indian State” and of the “highest sensitivity”.

However, counsel leading the appeal for the publication of the documents argued that “serious human rights abuses were committed against the Sikh community in India” and that the disclosures were necessary to fully understanding the wider factors influencing the relationship and the context of what was done.

The judge accepted the public interest argument in “transparency and accountability” pointing to the strength of feeling of the Sikh community in the UK and beyond on the issue.

Erroneously leaked

In 2014, journalist Phil Miller came across the documents — apparently released in error — that showed a British special forces officer had been sent to India in early 1984 to advise on plans for the removal of Sikhs from the Golden Temple with the approach of then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Two enquiries followed — including one widely known as the Heywood Inquiry — that looked into the assistance provided. It concluded that the assistance provided had been limited to the visit of the individual officer, and had had little impact on the operation itself. However, the ruling this week raised concerns around the “limitations’ of the Heywood Inquiry, including the speed with which it was conducted and the limited time period of the files it looked at.

The three PREM — Prime Ministers’ Office — files to be released cover documents covering the period between July 1983 and May 1985. The CAB office file that covered the period of May 1979 to August 1985 included files of the Secretariat of the Joint Intelligence Committee and would not be released because the information was “obviously” supplied by or about security bodies.

Miller, the journalist who brought the case, supported by the Sikh Federation (UK), welcomed the judgment. He said the decision not to require the release of the fourth file highlighted the limitations of Britain’s Freedom of Information rules and strengthened calls from the UK Sikh community for a public inquiry. “We know from the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War just how revealing Joint Intelligence Committee papers can be.”

Sikh MP hails ruling

Preet Kaur Gill, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and Britain’s first woman Sikh MP, welcomed the judgment, and its critique of the Heywood Inquiry. “Many of us in Parliament have been critical of the Heywood Inquiry, viewing it as a whitewash. The government needs to take heed of this judgement and urgently make a statement on whether it’s going to undertake a further independent inquiry of the then government’s role in operation Blue Star,” she told BusinessLine.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We are carefully considering today’s decision made by the Information Tribunal, and will respond in due course.”

Published on June 12, 2018

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