British Cabinet documents relating to UK-India relations in 1984-1985 released by the National Archives here throw light on how the British establishment viewed developments in India – through the lens of both diplomacy and economic interests – in the turbulent years that saw the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the early phase of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister.
British foreign policy in-the-making is revealed in deep background briefing notes, talking points, telegrams, advisories, news clippings and personality assessments (of Indian politicians and bureaucrats) prepared for then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Advice to Thatcher on how to respond to urgent demands by the Indian government to crackdown on Sikh extremism in the UK following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the close relations between Thatcher and Gandhi are laid bare in the papers.
Among other significant points to emerge include fears of an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army on Thatcher when she attends the funeral, how to push forward the Westland helicopter deal, and the political strife that overcame Indo-Sri Lankan relations from the early Rajiv Gandhi years.
It is surely a departure from standard text when in a speech in India on November 3, the day of Indira Gandhi’s funeral, Thatcher muses on the “paradox” that as women leaders both she and Indira Gandhi shared – namely “that one can be warm, human, loving, knowing all the little things of life, and at the same time being firm, determined and decisive. We understood the loneliness…”
Amidst fears expressed by her advisors that the Indian government may impose a trade boycott, including cancellation of existing defence deals unless the UK took measures to contain the activities of the self-styled leader of “Khalistan” Jagjit Singh Chauhan, Thatcher neatly deflects the issue in her interactions in India by stating Chauhan will be prosecuted if it is found that he has broken current British law, which the British police claim he has not. She deplores the “gloating” over Indira Gandhi’s death by a section of British Sikhs, and Chauhan’s statement to BBC in which he says: “It is her due, she deserved it…Mr. Gandhi is definitely a target and he should be careful, I tell you.” The statements are “disgraceful and irresponsible but not necessarily illegal,” Thatcher says at a press conference. She later writes to the head of BBC admonishing him for the timing and content of the interview, which has caused an upset in Britain’s relationship with India. “I don’t want to interfere with your independence, but with independence comes responsibility.”
A confidential internal assessment sent to Thatcher before her departure for New Delhi to attend the funeral says the Indian government machinery is “robust by third world standards” and is quite capable, with the armed forces, of containing “large scale civil disorder”. In the context of the forthcoming elections in India, the note underlines the “real threat that Rajiv Gandhi will be assassinated”, adding – portentously, as it turned out – “He cannot campaign in the democratic environment of an Indian election without constantly exposing himself.”