The British Sikh community have been shocked at revelations this week that the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and the Foreign Office may have secretly colluded with the Indian Government’s plans to attack the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984. Independent researcher and journalist, Phil Miller, stumbled across the papers marked ‘Top secret and personal’ dating from February 1984 at the National Archives in Kew and posted them on his blog. Further documents received by Labour MP, Tom Watson reveal India’s desire to purchase military equipment from the British, dating from November 1983. It may transpire that defense equipment procurement to India could have been tied in with the British offer of help in planning the assault on the Golden Temple. Recently, India cancelled a $800 million deal with British defense company, AugustaWestland to buy helicopters, which may have led to the recent leaks.
The cat is out of the bag for the Indians. Contrary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s statements at the time that she ordered the assault to flush out militants as a last resort when talks had broken down in May 1984 with the regional Sikh Akali Dal party.
In the same year that PM Thatcher was to confront the miners head-on in a bitter strike, a helping hand was given to her Indian ally, who was working hard to deal with her own ‘enemy within’.
As some would recall, the attack coincided with one of the busiest days at the shrine, which was overflowing with pilgrims. Many witnessed ‘nazi-style’ executions after the temple was secured. Former Indian Supreme Court Judge, V.M. Tarkunde described the event as ‘a massacre mostly of innocents’. PM Gandhi, with an eye on the upcoming elections, needed her own ‘Falklands War’ and rejected calls by high-ranking officers like Lt. General, S.K. Sinha that the army should stay out and there were other options open to avoid heavy causalities.
Most commentators of the events in India agree these were Mrs Gandhi’s own making. By promoting extremists from both camps in her quest to divide the ruling Akali Dal party, she unwittingly drove a wedge between Hindus and Sikhs in the Punjab. Once in power, she deliberately projected the Akali Dal demands for more autonomy as secessionist and as a consequence, Sikhs in general as traitors. The chilling Indian army publication, Baat Cheet (Serial No. 153) blatantly labelled all practicing Sikhs as terrorists and ordered people to report them to the authorities.
The situation was further exacerbated when Hindus were taken off buses and shot in cold blood, giving the impression the Sikh movement was out of control and drastic measures were needed. The late Indian human rights activist, Ram Narayan Kumar has long argued many of these killings, repeatedly condemned by all Sikh leaders at the time, were carried out by state agencies posing as Sikh militants in order to paint Sikhs as communal and pave way for repression. Someone in the Indian intelligence apparatus will one day open this can of worms as well.
But British Sikhs should not be disheartened by these recent revelations if they turn out true. This was Thatcher’s secret she kept away from the British people for 30 years. David Cameron has been quick to set up an inquiry into the affair but must also start taking a tougher line on Indian claims that the events were all to do with terrorism and start listening to the victims and their stories. A proud and patriot minority community was, quite frankly, set up and set upon. Untold human right abuses were exacted upon them for a whole decade after, including a state-wide pogrom in November 1984, from which my family in Delhi narrowly escaped. The ruling Congress Party continues, to this day to shield hundreds, within its ranks, named by even official government probes as instigators of the violence. The elevation of a Sikh to the office of Prime Minister in 2004 has not made much difference in terms of bringing justice and closure to the thousands of victims.