UK House of Lords Sikh Community Debate

House of Lords Sikh Community Debate - 3 March 2014
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Sikh Community

Question for Short Debate

9.10 pm
Asked by Lord Singh of Wimbledon
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further steps they will take to improve relations with the Sikh community arising from the publication of government documents regarding British involvement in planning the attack on the Golden Temple.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con): My Lords, the debate is time-limited to 90 minutes. All Back-Bench contributions will be limited to 10 minutes each.
Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB): My Lords, the first week of June will mark the 30th anniversary of the Indian Government’s attack on the Golden Temple—the Vatican of the Sikhs. The attack was deliberately timed to coincide with the martyrdom anniversary of the temple’s founder Guru Arjan, when the huge complex would be full to overflowing with pilgrims. Tanks and armoured vehicles were used. On conservative estimates, well over 2,000 pilgrims were killed. Eye-witnesses told of how some who surrendered were tied up in their own turbans and shot. Other eye-witnesses outside the temple complex, including my own in-laws, described with horror how they saw groups of pilgrims being herded together and then dispatched with hand grenades. Many of the atrocities were reported in the British and world press. The President of India at the time, Zail Singh, a Sikh, who was the nominal head of India’s armed services, was not even consulted.
Every June Sikhs remember the huge loss of life and the mindless damage to the Golden Temple, the historic centre of the Sikh faith. The question arises: why did Indira Gandhi resort to such brute force against the Sikhs? The Indian government version, unquestioningly accepted by our Government—and I speak as a British Sikh—was that there were 17 wanted separatists “holed-up”—to use the Indian Government’s jargon—in the Golden Temple. They were a threat to a country of 1 billion people. The absurdity is obvious. In addition, this version does not explain why 40 other historic gurdwaras in Punjab were attacked at the same time. Sikh gurdwaras are open to all. Why were the so-called separatists not simply arrested by the hundreds of soldiers and police who daily entered the gurdwara for the traditional free food?
What Sikhs were demanding at the time was a fair share of Punjab’s river waters to irrigate their fields—and, more importantly, fair treatment for all India’s minorities against growing evidence of majority bigotry. Earlier in the same year hundreds of Muslims in Mumbai were massacred, with the mob carrying barriers proclaiming: “Majorities have their rights”.
The true reason for Mrs Gandhi’s vindictive attitude to Sikhs stemmed from her prison conviction for electoral fraud in the election of 1975 and her seizing power and imposing dictatorial rule. Her son Sanjay had married a Sikh and she turned to Sikhs for support. Sikhs, although less than 2% of the population, were at the forefront of the opposition to dictatorial rule, in which the poor—particularly Muslims—were forcibly sterilised and others dumped in the wilderness to make Delhi a tidier place for the Asian Games. Maneka Gandhi, Sanjay’s wife, true to Sikh democratic traditions, openly opposed the dictatorships.
Sikhs were never forgiven by Mrs Gandhi. When she returned to office, she cynically decided to play to majority religious bigotry, first against the Muslims and then even more vindictively against Sikhs. The June 1984 carnage in the Golden Temple far exceeded in numbers and barbarity the 1919 massacre led by General Dyer at the nearby Jallianwala Bagh. Even worse was to come.
The widespread killing of thousands of Sikhs following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination was blamed on spontaneous mob violence. All the evidence is that it was pre-planned for the anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birthday and was simply brought forward, with the government-controlled All India Radio constantly inciting the killers with the words “Khoon ka badla khoon”, meaning “Take blood for blood”. The army was confined to barracks for three full days to allow free rein to organised gangs carrying Sikh voter lists, armed with identical steel rods and an unusually plentiful supply of kerosene, to go around the capital in municipal buses beating and burning male Sikhs and gang-raping women and young girls. Prominent Hindus and Sikhs begged the new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, to order troops to restore order. His chilling response was: “When a big tree falls, the ground is bound to shake”. The same scenes were enacted throughout the country. We know all about the disappearances and killings in General Pinochet’s Chile, but a WikiLeaks document carrying a signed report from the American embassy in India shows that more Sikhs were brutally murdered in just three days in 1984 than those killed in Pinochet’s 17-year rule.
I turn to our Government’s involvement, as revealed in documents that have now come to light. In their initial reaction, the present Government said that support for Mrs Gandhi was “minimal”. I beg them to think again in the light of the evidence of persecution of Sikhs that was freely known at the time. A Government committed to human rights must question the morality of “minimal” involvement in the persecution of minorities. The released documents praise Mrs Gandhi and cast aspersions on UK Sikhs, with not one word of concern over the murder of thousands of Sikhs.
I was not in the least surprised to read of SAS involvement; I wrote about it at the time in the summer 1984 issue of the Sikh Messenger. Nor was I surprised by evidence linking British support for Mrs Gandhi to a £5 billion arms contract and the need to “keep Mrs Gandhi happy”. In November 1984 I went to see a senior Cabinet Minister to seek government support to end the pogrom against Sikhs. I received the reply: “Indarjit, we know exactly what is going on but we’re walking on a tightrope; we’ve already lost one important contract”.
At the time I was a member of the UNA, where we discussed the killings. The director, Malcolm Harper, formally raised evidence-based concerns with the Government, asking them to support a UN inquiry into the killings. I made a presentation to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, then chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The APPG decided to send two parliamentarians to investigate but the High Commission refused them visas. They appealed, saying that the visit would help to improve Hindu/Sikh relations. They were again refused.
Sikhs accept that today’s Government are in no way responsible for the mistakes of the past. However, they can and must help to heal wounds. I was in Westminster Abbey this morning and heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu quote the words:
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come”.
This is true for the wounds in the Sikh community, opened further by the new revelations.
I take this opportunity to thank many in the Hindu community who hid and sheltered Sikhs at the time of the killings. Others risked their lives carefully documenting the names of Congress Party leaders inciting mobs to kill. Sikhs owe them a great debt.
Two of the three main political parties in India have declared their support for an open inquiry. Even Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party, has admitted that some Congress officials were involved in the killings.
Speaking in the Indian Parliament in 2005 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the revealing comment:
“Twenty-one years have passed … and yet the feeling persists that somehow the truth has not come out”.
I urge the Government to add their support for an open, independent inquiry into the massacre or genocide of Sikhs in 1984 in the same way that they are backing a UN-led inquiry into the killing of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Against this, all offers of government assistance and offers to talk to Sikhs pale into an unnecessary distraction.
Eighty-three thousand Sikhs gave their lives supporting Britain in the two world wars. In comparison, giving public support for an open, UN inquiry is a small ask. Not to do so will give a clear message to Britain’s half a million Sikhs and others concerned with human rights that the UK Government are ambivalent and selective on issues of human rights. As director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, the oldest and largest grouping of Sikhs in the UK, and of the more recently formed Sikh Council UK, I offer my full and unconditional support to the Government to help end the 30-year nightmare suffered by Sikhs. We are confident that our Government will not let us down.
9.21 pm
Lord Sheikh (Con): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, for initiating this debate. I am close to the Sikh community, and I enjoy good relations with it. In fact, I am patron of two Sikh organisations. Sikhs have played a vital part in the life and history of the United Kingdom. The first Sikhs settled here 160 years ago, in 1854. Since that time, waves of Sikh migrants have come here and successfully integrated into British society. We owe them an immense debt of gratitude for fighting shoulder to shoulder with us in both World Wars. They also played a key role during the post-war expansion of the British economy. They filled many jobs when Britain was experiencing a labour shortage. There are now more than 500,000 Sikhs living in the United Kingdom. The British Sikh Report 2013 found that 95% of British Sikhs are proud to be born or living in the United Kingdom. They have been successful in every walk of life, including business, the professions, sport, academia and politics. Indeed, we are pleased to see a turbaned Sikh in your Lordships’ House today.
The Sikhs have a reputation for a strong work ethic and are second only to Jews in how financially productive they are as a religious group. At a reception last year to mark the harvest festival of Vaisakhi, the Prime Minister referred to Sikhs as a model community. Their values of hard work, loyalty and service to the community resonate strongly with me as a Muslim. The writings of a Muslim, Sheikh Farid, are in the Sikh holy book, which is called the Guru Granth Sahib.
We have a proud tradition in the UK of accepting and welcoming those from other cultures and of other religions. Nowhere has this been truer than with the Sikh community. The academic Dr Jasjit Singh has noted that British Sikhs are more comfortable wearing turbans than those in other countries. I find that more Sikhs are now wearing turbans, which they did not do before.
Although the Sikhs are well settled and happily integrated into the British community, there is unease within the community relating to Operation Blue Star. The events of June 1984 should never, and will never, be forgotten. The bloodshed and loss of life was, as the Foreign Secretary himself said, an utter tragedy. Estimates of the number of deaths range from the hundreds to the thousands, including innocent pilgrims caught in the crossfire. It will for ever be remembered as a horrific point in history, which caused long-lasting suffering and desecrated Sikhism’s holiest place of worship. It was therefore only right that it was revisited when the disclosed documents were published under the 30-year rule.
I acknowledge the swift and proactive way in which our Government dealt with these revelations. The Prime Minister immediately instructed the Cabinet Secretary to carry out an investigation, and I commend him for doing so. The Foreign Secretary has assured us that the investigation was both rigorous and thorough, and I have no reason to doubt this. The report was clear that the UK’s assistance was purely advisory in context and very limited in volume. When the actual military operation took place several months later, it diverged vastly from the original plans. We can therefore be confident that there was little, if any, connection between the British advice and the disastrous events that eventually unfolded. However, the resonance of this investigation with today’s Sikh community cannot be underestimated.
Continued suspicion and a desire for disclosure were inevitable. We must sympathise and deal with this appropriately. As the Prime Minister himself has said, the scars in the Sikh community still run deep. I know from my connection with the community that there are Sikhs asking for further action, namely the holding of an independent inquiry. Under the circumstances, it is of paramount importance that the Government are seen to be reaching out to, and working with, the Sikh community. The role of Sikhs in our country is generally well acknowledged and respected. David Cameron was the first British Prime Minister to visit the Golden Temple. I am aware that the leader of the Opposition is visiting this week, as have a number of other parliamentarians. I have personally visited the Golden Temple on three occasions, where I was received with a great deal of courtesy and respect. It must be borne in mind that the foundation stone of the Golden Temple was in fact laid by a Muslim, whose name was Mian Mir.
The Sikhs of course believe that no-one should interfere with their wearing of turbans, and I am pleased that this Government ended the manual searches of turbans at airports. I know that this move was very welcome.
Our commitment to the Sikh community goes hand in hand with our commitment to uncovering the truth. I ask my noble friend the Minister if she can address the holding of an independent inquiry. As I have said, there are Sikhs in the United Kingdom who are asking for one to take place. In any event, all proceedings must be conducted with the utmost transparency and accountability at their heart.
9.29 pm
Lord Hussain (LD): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for securing this debate. I was aware of the almost unanimous outcry of the Sikh community all over the world on the invasion of the Golden Temple by the Indian armed forces in 1984. This was a tragic event that resulted in the loss of thousands of innocent lives that could have been avoided.
The recent release of the report by the UK Government regarding the attack on the Sri Harmandir Sahib—Golden Temple—complex has raised more questions on the British involvement in this operation. I have had long discussions with Sikh leaders, including my friend and colleague, Parmjit Singh Gill, a former Member of the other House and one of only five Sikhs ever elected to it. He has worked robustly on the issue, both before the release of the report and after. I believe that, along with other Sikh leaders, he has met some of the most senior people in the Government, including the Cabinet Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi.
On behalf of the British Sikh community, I wish to raise the following points. First, the Cabinet Secretary had reported that a key file on the provision of military advice to the Indian authorities on their plans for the attack in June 1984 was destroyed by the Ministry of Defence in November 2009. It remains unclear why such an important file was destroyed, and this lessens the credibility of the internal inquiry. Given the incredible importance of the 1984 attack to the Sikh faith, who took the decision to destroy the files and how was that decision taken? Was it taken at the ministerial level?
Secondly, Parliament appeared to have been misled at the time, following a Question on 30 July 1984 by the then MP for Slough, John Watts, who asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what discussions Her Majesty’s Government had had with the Government of India about the incident—the attack on the Sri Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple. Ray Whitney, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary, replied:
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has received petitions and numerous letters from the Sikh community in the UK about recent events in Punjab. As this is an internal Indian matter, we have not sought to discuss it with the Indian Government”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/7/84; col. 111W.]
Is this not contrary to the fact now established that they were in discussions and had provided military advice?
Thirdly, the media had reported in January 2014 that the then Prime Minister had ordered an inquiry to be carried out by the Cabinet Secretary which would cover the events of 1984. However, the inquiry covered only the period up to the start of the attack and no other events, which included the genocide of Sikhs that followed later that year. Clearly, the parameters of the review were too narrow, and it has been alleged that the terms of reference, which have not been published, changed during the inquiry. Would it not have made sense, if the inquiry was to carry the confidence of the Sikh community, to review and release all documentation covering the 1984 events, and over a much broader period of time, including the genocide of Sikhs in 1984? Despite the review and report, why have the details of the specific advice that was given not been revealed, nor the reason that the UK Government agreed to advise the Indian Government on how to attack the Sikhs’ holiest shrine?
Fourthly, when the Foreign Secretary delivered his Statement in the other place on 4 February 2014, Members raised questions suggesting that defence-related commercial interests had been advanced on the basis of providing advice to India and that measures had been taken by the UK Government to stop Sikhs in the UK exercising their democratic right to hold peaceful gatherings. Will the Minister comment on that?
Fifthly, what sanctions, if any, did the Government of India threaten the UK with in order to secure its silence when a genocide of Sikhs was taking place in India in 1984?
Finally, given the gravity of the decision by the UK Government of 30 years ago to provide military advice to the Indian authorities, which led to the series of events resulting in thousands of innocent Sikhs losing their lives, the very least that the estimated half a million Sikhs in the UK are entitled to from this Government is a full, independent, judge-led public inquiry so that the truth can finally come out. Will my noble friend promise a full, independent, judge-led public inquiry to establish the facts about the extent of British involvement in the Golden Temple invasion, to satisfy the British Sikh community?
9.35 pm
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Singh, has spoken eloquently of the terrible events that took place 30 years ago.
For some seven years in the 1990s, I was privileged to live in Walsall in the West Midlands, in a very multicultural area where I was then working and ministering. I not only counted among my friends a Sikh family living next door to me, but I also paid many visits to the local Guru Nanak temple and received wonderful hospitality there. Even then, some 10 years after the events of Operation Blue Star, Operation Sundown and Operation Woodrose, I was aware of how large these tragedies loomed not just in the imaginations but in the families of my neighbours.
These were not simply events that had taken place in a remote area; they were events that deeply affected people who lived around me. This was compounded because some of the worst atrocities took place at the holiest site for Sikhs. I am acutely aware of the pain, anguish and consternation that many of my Sikh friends feel. I want to identify with that. I am aware of just how difficult this is for them and of what they are feeling at the moment, as British citizens who have learnt that their own Government provided military advice not long before Operation Blue Star. I am not surprised that they are asking a lot of questions as they reflect on what happened.
During that period in the 1990s when I lived on the edge of the Black Country, I undertook some empirical research into the Sikh community as part of a degree that I was doing. It was fascinating. That research revealed that young Sikhs at that time in the West Midlands were a group with some of the highest levels of motivation and ambition compared with their peers. They were achieving excellent academic results in their exams. Not only were these young people making a real and tangible contribution to our society and our economy, but their families were making a huge contribution to their wider families back in their country of origin.
We know from other ethnic minority and minority religious groups in this country that sometimes events can be so significant—or, to use a rather overused word, so iconic—that they become catalysts for the radicalisation of a minority of their followers. Fortunately, there are few signs that this is happening in the Sikh community at the moment. However, there is a real danger that it could happen. As has already been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Singh, it is significant that the latest revelations have emerged in the 30th anniversary year, which adds great poignancy to our deliberations this evening.
I want to acknowledge the role that the Foreign Secretary has played in this matter: his clear commitment to transparency, the investigation that has taken place, his Statement and his commitment to the ongoing dialogue. It is important that that continues. Nevertheless, in this case there are reasons why we need some sort of wider inquiry into what went on. We need to ensure that if there are any other areas in which there was complicity, not least between our Government and the Indian Government, they should be acknowledged.
If we are going to claim the moral high ground of believing in open government, and if we want our Sikh brothers and sisters to know that they are fully part of our nation and their contribution is still valued, we need to take a further look at this issue and have some sort of wider inquiry. If we fail to do so and to do everything we can to address the serious concerns being expressed by all sections of the Sikh community—and they are widespread concerns—there is a real danger of long-term damage to our excellent and outstanding community relations that have been built up over such a long time. I hope that we can find some way forward to give deeper reassurance to our Sikh brothers and sisters.
9.40 pm
Baroness Berridge (Con): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for securing the debate and I want to state that I have very much enjoyed getting to know the noble Lord. He is a fellow officer in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief. He brings a significant voice from the Sikh community to our plural public debate. However, I have to say that when he began to tell me about the implications of the documents that have been released I was surprised that there could have been any connection. That may reflect the fact that I was not perhaps old enough to be conscious of the seriousness of the events at the time. However, I was surprised to learn that there had been this type of involvement.
In many ways, the title of this debate saddens me as the hundreds of thousands of British people in the Sikh community have been a good example of integration, with many successful businesses, and involvement in politics—with Paul Uppal MP in the House of Commons. The England cricket team is of course in need of another Monty Panesar to rescue our performance. Members of the Sikh community are also an exemplar of how reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs can be achieved in UK law. Section 11 of the Employment Act 1989 exempts turban-wearing Sikhs from any requirements to wear safety helmets on construction sites or to wear crash helmets. The Kirpan ceremonial knife is exempted under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 if carried for religious reasons.
However, the news coverage of this matter reveals that the relationship between the UK Government and the Sikh community is strained and reconciliation is needed. Despite the attempts by the first inquiry, it seems that we are not where we would like to be. Any relationship needs the parties to trust each other and that in this scenario depends on openness. After reading various reports, it is clear that the disclosure of the documents in January of this year was inadvertent. This was disclosure of information that the UK Government had decided would always remain secret. It is important that Her Majesty’s Government have been clear about this as it is a starting point for considering matters and restoring the relationship. In this scenario, it seems that the Ministry of Defence made a mistake in that it did not destroy all the files that it should have done and that at the 25-year point copies were left. Although the Cabinet Secretary’s report has pieced together the material from copies left in other government files, it has inevitably left a lingering and damaging suspicion that not all the documents needed were in fact available to the inquiry. It is partly to ensure that this does not happen again that Her Majesty’s Government have instituted an inquiry into the disclosure under the 30-year, or soon to be 20-year, rule. As a matter of practicality, at 25 years, should the files be destroyed? Would it not be sensible to wait until 30 years have passed to make sure that we are not in future inadvertently placed in this position again and that the files remain to be considered if needed. These documents were never intended to be disclosed as the decision was made that they would reveal information relating to intelligence or special forces. This situation would have meant that the destruction of all the files in 2009 was appropriate and all the copies in the other files should have been destroyed.
As I said, I am pleased that there is a commission looking into the annual release of papers and the process for withholding information. But as this was an inadvertent disclosure, we have a rare window into the decisions that are made on the basis of the military and special forces destruction of information. Will the commission have any remit to receive views from the public and interested bodies, particularly the Sikh community, on whether this kind of information should have been available for disclosure after 30 years? Is there not an advantage from such an inadvertent disclosure to have public debate on whether the line of non-disclosure is being drawn in the right place?
I note at this point that there has been no cry from the Government in terms of an Edward Snowden-type situation where we have all kinds of security implications because we know about what happened 30 years ago. But if it is not going to be part of the commission’s work, could Her Majesty’s Government advise whether the Intelligence and Security Committee could have a remit to consider this issue? The relational problems are perhaps being exacerbated by the fact that the Cabinet Secretary, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, is investigating the previous behaviour of Her Majesty’s Government. Would not the ISC, which is a parliamentary committee, be more neutrally placed to look into this matter to allay the fears of additional documentation being available that such an inadvertent disclosure has created?
I am afraid that I am not currently persuaded of the need for a full inquiry, but I completely understand the feelings of the Sikh community in lacking trust in their Government in this regard. It seems that they were never intended to know this information, which leads to legitimate concerns for the community of what else the Government know and questions about why the community should not have known this information after 30 years. As I am sure Her Majesty’s Government realise, it is one thing to express your apologies for the death of community members at the hands of a foreign government. Quite another type of apology and restoration is needed if you have involvement, albeit limited and perhaps ineffective involvement, but involvement none the less, in the actions of a foreign government in these types of matters. Undoing this relational damage will be difficult, but I struggle to see how this relationship can be fully restored unless the question is answered of why after 30 years the community could not in any event have known this information.
Finally, I note that the Indian Government are looking into this matter again. Can my noble friend the Minister indicate whether the UN is looking at holding some form of inquiry into the matter? I strongly support an international inquiry. If Her Majesty’s Government could support that, it would do something to improve relationships. I sympathise with Her Majesty’s Government over this inadvertent disclosure as restoring the relationship with the Sikh community will not be straightforward. I hope that they are able to do this, whether in the manner that I have outlined with the ISC or through another vehicle. Otherwise the views of political parties—I wait to hear with interest the views of those on the Benches opposite—on a full public inquiry could well become in May 2015 what political strategists call a wedge issue for voters.
9.48 pm
Lord Triesman (Lab): My Lords, I join everyone in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Singh, not just for securing the debate, but for the moving, careful and thoughtful way in which he introduced it. I appreciated that greatly, as I did the valuable history of the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and its full recognition of the contribution of the Sikh community, which was again very moving. Like him, I have visited the Golden Temple. It is an inspiring and deeply religious place, where you feel the depth of belief.
People sometimes say that dreadful events occurred at a different time in our history when different understandings of what normality was held sway. This is not such a case. No such argument, in my view, is available. A massacre is a massacre. It came in the midst of many other outrages against the Sikh people. People are entitled to know with as much certainty as possible what happened and why, who was involved and with what level of culpability.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned Operation Sundown and other events, all of which contribute to the knowledge we need. Her Majesty’s Government must today understand this feeling among the Sikh community, not for any reasons to do with 2015 but because it is needed and right, and the community has a plain entitlement to know what happened and why. The nature of the terrible events at Amritsar in 1984 affects not only the Sikh community but all of us. It affects our country and our sense of decency—the values that we hold for ourselves, as well those held in that community.
The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, is of great importance. This was an inadvertent disclosure; it was always intended to be a permanent secret, whatever the pain that would cause—pain that could have been alleviated but which it was intended should not be because of secrecy. It has been said that the Indian Government at the time turned to the United Kingdom because, through the experience of Balcombe Street and other sieges, we had relevant experience. Be that as it may, Balcombe Street and Amritsar look to me to be very different, and their consequences hugely different.
The study by the Cabinet Secretary published recently states that he studied 23,000 documents in 200 files. He reports that key documents were destroyed as,
“part of a routine process”,
at the 25-year review point. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, has also made the point about why some documents were destroyed. I share that view with him. The Cabinet Secretary concluded that we did nothing more in respect of Operation Blue Star than provide limited military advice. I am surprised that such a conclusion can be reached given the documents that are missing because they would have added great clarity. If he is so confident of these facts, it seems to me that he should not be. There is an information gap, which requires further investigation.
Sir Jeremy Heywood notes the high level of the request for assistance that was received. Mrs Ghandi, it is said, would not have understood a failure to help. However, he concludes that the assistance—the advice—was not subsequently taken. Indeed, he concludes that everyone thought our advice and assistance was insufficient and insignificant. In paragraph 19 of his report, he notes that Mrs Ghandi’s letter to Mrs Thatcher of 14 June 1984 made no reference to UK assistance at all. In paragraph 20, he notes that the military commander at Amritsar, Lieutenant-General Brar, said that no one had helped in planning or execution. This is seen by Sir Jeremy as compelling evidence of the United Kingdom’s minimal role. I find this nothing like as compelling as he appears to. At the least, it is untested by the kind of full inquiry that is plainly needed on this occasion and in the remarkable absence of Mrs Thatcher’s letter to Mrs Ghandi. Where is that letter and what does it say?
Sir Jeremy may be right. However, it is just as probable that the documents—the historical trail—were intended on this occasion to show how small the United Kingdom’s involvement was because it was thought that that was the best way of describing our approach. It is just as probable that a proud nation such as India, with a proud military commander, wanted to confirm the strength of its sovereign role and capability without making reference to anybody else. Such possibilities are commonplace in the relations between nations at this level. It is not fanciful, on the evidence that Sir Jeremy himself looked at, that other conclusions might be drawn. Sir Jeremy’s final assertion is, I fear, rather too shallow to remain unchallenged.
All of this flows to his main conclusions in paragraph 23. He is an exceptional civil servant, and I will always say so, but the conclusions are far from beyond challenge. An inquiry is the right place for a challenging examination, and nothing less will commend itself to the Sikh community, or indeed to the rest of us. Missing documents, insecure conclusions and a failure to grasp the context do not inspire confidence. However, the documents that are available provide some context. In those documents many express concern about the denigration of anyone who had anything to say about the matter as extremists. Her Majesty’s Government did that at the time. The view of Sikhs and other supporters of Mrs Thatcher’s Government would, I believe, regard what was said then as intolerable if it was said today. It should have been intolerable when it was said at the time.
This was and still is a remarkable community. Its offence was to object to a sequence of events and finally to the massacre of a large number of its members. It was perfectly entitled to object in those terms. What is more, researchers at Kew have found documents that were believed to be missing—some are still missing—which bear on the gaps I have tried to describe, as have other noble Lords in the debate. It is regrettable that our call for all the relevant documents to be placed in the public domain and for a list of those who were interviewed by Sir Jeremy is as yet not forthcoming. I regret the narrowness and limited timeframe of Sir Jeremy’s terms of reference. Again the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, made that point very forcefully. So tonight is, in my view, something of a watershed. This is not a small debate at the end of a busy day. Her Majesty’s Government cannot sidestep the issues tonight. An independent public inquiry is needed: they should agree to it tonight and do so with good grace. It will be forced on the Government either legally or by the outrage of the community so, rather than that, they should do it because it is right and it is inevitable, and take credit for doing the right thing.
Will the Minister give us a positive answer tonight? Will she agree to sufficiently wide terms of reference and an appropriate period to allow this matter to be investigated properly? When will the Prime Minister respond to these matters, and to the letter of 2 February from the Sikh Federation UK? When will its letter of 12 February setting out the fault lines in the Cabinet Secretary’s report receive a reply? When will the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary meet representatives of the federation in order to ensure that progress can be made? Does the Minister accept that answers to whether Parliament was misled on 30 July 1984 have been misleading, having been based on what I can describe only as a somewhat deceitful piece of sophistry? Will she simply acknowledge that error? Will the United Kingdom’s military adviser’s report, provided to the Indian Government on 13 February 1984, be shared with Parliament so that it can assess whether the United Kingdom’s advice was taken or not? If it is thought that it is too sensitive, will it be provided through the Intelligence and Security Committee, as has also been discussed tonight?
I think all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate believe that there should be some form of inquiry, although in the case of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, by an international body rather than a UK one—generally, I think we have all considered one undertaken by the UK—and I hope the Government will respond to that positively. That is because, finally, the Government will have to apologise, and should apologise, to the Sikh community. They can then explore with that community a positive act of reconciliation. It is time that this was resolved.
9.58 pm
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for securing this debate and for his patience in waiting until the end of the evening for it to be held. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, that this is not a debate which should simply be seen as something that happens at the end of the day. It should reflect the tragedy of what happened in Amritsar 30 years ago, which led to a great loss of life. That must never be forgotten. I understand the pain and suffering that these events inflicted on the Sikh community. It is still deeply felt in the United Kingdom and around the world. It was in deference to that strength of feeling that when, on 13 January, two documents published by the National Archives appeared to indicate that the then British Government had sent a military adviser to the Indian Government in the early stages of the crisis, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister ordered an immediate inquiry.
The investigation was treated with the utmost urgency and seriousness. The process has been made as transparent as possible and its findings have been made public. As I made clear to the House on 4 February, and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made equally clear in the other place, following his exhaustive review of over 23,000 documents, the Cabinet Secretary concluded that the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, was limited in both timescale and scope, was provided at an early stage and, consequently, had limited impact on events. No further information has emerged to suggest possible UK involvement in any other military operations in India in 1984.
On the same day that the Cabinet Secretary’s report was published, my right honourable friend the Minister of State for India and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government met Sikh representatives to discuss the findings of the report and to listen to their concerns. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Singh, was at that meeting. The meeting coincided with the Statement in your Lordships’ House, and I was thus not present. However, in my dual role at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and at the DCLG I met the noble Lord and other Sikh representatives last week to listen to the views of community members, who have now had three weeks to examine the Cabinet Secretary’s report.
At that meeting a number of issues were discussed and issues raised including those that have been raised in your Lordships’ House today. I shall address each in turn. My noble friend Lord Hussain asked a number of specific questions and I hope that I am addressing those too in dealing with these issues. First, on the focus of the investigation and whether it changed, from the outset the investigation looked at the circumstantial evidence that came to light on specific allegations of UK involvement in Operation Blue Star. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in the House on 4 February,
“the Cabinet Secretary has not turned up in producing the report, other circumstantial evidence that we think requires such investigation. Of course, we do not know what evidence will ever be turned up in future, so we cannot rule out all investigations for the future”.—[
Official Report
, Commons, 4/2/14; col. 149.]
My noble friend Lord Hussain asked specifically why the investigation did not look at events other than those in 1984. The search did not extend to any other timeframe such as 1986 or 1988 when, for example, Operation Black Thunder was undertaken. However, there was no indication from the files searched that there was any UK role in these.
On the allegation that the decision to provide advice may have been linked to UK commercial interests, the report found “no evidence to substantiate” this allegation. My right honourable friend stated:
“The investigation did not find any evidence in the files or from officials of the provision of UK military advice being linked to potential defence or helicopter sales, or to any other policy or commercial issue. There is no evidence that the UK, at any level, attempted to use the fact that military advice had been given on request to advance any commercial objective”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/2/14; col. 141.]
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans mentioned other operations. Operation Sundown was one to which I think he referred. The report states:
“Recent Indian media reports suggest the operational plan developed by the Indian interlocutors of the UK military adviser was called ‘Sundown’, and focused on detaining Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the Sikh dissidents occupying Sri Harmandir Sahib. There is no mention of ‘Operation Sundown’ in UK files. Nor do those interviewed recall that name. Nor was the UK military adviser’s report of February focused on a ‘snatch’ operation. The plan it focused on was designed to re-establish control over the temple complex. It is, of course, possible that Indian planning went through several iterations after the UK military adviser’s visit and report”.
My noble friend Lord Hussain asked whether we would publish the UK military officer’s advice. It would not be in the interests of national security to release the tactical details of specialist military advice and under successive Governments it is not something that has been done. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, and my noble friend Lord Sheikh called for an international inquiry. On such calls, I say that the purpose of the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation was to establish the extent of UK government involvement in the Indian Government’s plans for military operations, not to look into the operation itself or the actions of the Indian Government. That is a matter for the Indian authorities.
The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, gave a number of hypothetical interpretations of what the documents could have been trying to suggest. However, the report focused on what the documents actually said and was written on that basis.
My noble friend Lord Hussain asked whether Parliament was misled at the time of Operation Blue Star, given the comments of the then PUS in a Written Answer in July 1984 that the UK had “not sought to discuss” the operation with the Indian Government. The Cabinet Secretary says in his report to the Prime Minister:
“My view is that the Parliamentary Question and Mr Whitney’s reply were almost certainly directed at the question of UK-Indian discussions post the storming of the temple complex”—
Sri Harmandir Sahib—
“and therefore in this context Mr Whitney did not mislead Parliament. This is reinforced by the fact that neither Mr Whitney nor his office were copied any of the relevant papers on the UK military officer’s earlier visit in February, which was treated as Top Secret. Mr Whitney is now deceased”.
My noble friends Lord Hussain and Lady Berridge asked why some relevant documents were destroyed. Some military files on various operations were destroyed in November 2009, including one on the provision of military advice to the Indian authorities on their contingency plans for Sri Harmandir Sahib. I understand that this was part of a routine process undertaken by the MoD at the 25-year review point. The decision to destroy files is made on a case-by-case basis and by assessing relevance to ongoing operations and the broader historic significance. In this instance, it was not felt necessary to preserve that file.
I assure my noble friend Lady Berridge that we are determined to look at the wider issues raised by these events about the management and release of information held by government. Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the 30-year rule has been superseded by the 20-year rule that my noble friend referred to, so that, as from 2022, all annual releases will be after 20 years. However, it is not clear at the moment that this change is being approached in a uniform fashion by all departments. The Prime Minister has therefore decided to commission a review to establish the position across government on the annual release of papers and the ability and readiness of departments to meet the requirements of moving to the 20-year rule, including the processes for withholding information. That review is being carried out by the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, Sir Alex Allan.
As part of the Cabinet Secretary’s review, relevant departments have also searched their files for papers covering the handling of events at Amritsar from December 1983 through to the end of 1984. Some files extended to 1985. However, it is important to remember that, under established processes set out in long-standing legislation, it is not the date of each document that determines the release date but the date of the last document on a file. There will inevitably be other documents on India from 1984 in subsequent tranches of releases, but we are confident that we have secured all papers to do with UK advice on the tragic events in Amritsar in 1984. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, referred specifically to the Lady Thatcher-Mrs Gandhi letter. That was released as part of a public release by the National Archives and is in the public domain.
In the wider context of the issues of concern to the Sikh community, the community meeting that I had, at which the noble Lord, Lord Singh, was present, discussed broader issues, including the way in which the British Sikh community is perceived now and was perceived at the time of the events in 1984. I stressed to him at the time that I believed that the working relationship between the Government and the Sikh community on domestic issues has been a good one. The Department for Communities and Local Government has engaged on a number of issues and, indeed, after being advised by the community, there have been some great successes. One is the wearing of turbans through airports, for example, and the use of swabs as opposed to the way in which it is done in some other European Union countries. I know that the Ministry of Justice is engaged on a whole series of issues with the British Sikh community, as is the Government Equalities Office around legislation on equalities and human rights.
However, I understand that whatever the relationship is with the British Sikh community, the issue remains one that raises huge concern. That is why I said to the noble Lord and to the community representatives at the time that if specific questions remain—some have been raised today—it is for officials to see what we can do to respond to them. I laid out a series of action points at the end of that meeting and I will certainly be writing to the Sikh Council, which appointed itself as the convenor of that meeting, as a way of communicating back to the community. I will make sure that copies of that correspondence are sent back to the noble Lord, Lord Singh, and that the conversation between the Government and the British Sikh community continues.
In conclusion, the families of those who were killed at Sri Harmandir Sahib have had to live with the hurt of that day for three decades, and the pain of their loss is clearly still keenly felt. The suggestion that the British Government may have had a hand in the tragedy will have understandably shaken the Sikh community, a group that makes such a valuable and positive contribution to our society. However, this Government, perhaps more than any other, have recognised the need for honesty and transparency when it comes to the darker moments of our past. That is why, when concerns were raised, we took instant action. All the evidence has been properly and thoroughly examined.
The Cabinet Secretary’s investigation and the published report have made clear a number of things. The UK’s assistance was limited; it was purely advisory. It had limited impact on the tragic events that unfolded at the temple three months later and the advice was not given in exchange for any commercial gain. There is no record of the British Government receiving advance notice of the operation.
I know that the events of 30 years ago will continue to be deeply distressing for all those whose lives they touched, but I hope that this investigation and the open manner in which it has been conducted will provide some reassurance to the Sikh community, to this House and to the public. I am once again grateful to the noble Lord for providing the opportunity for us to discuss the matter today.

House adjourned at 10.11 pm.


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