The House will recall that on
In June 1984, a three-day military operation by Indian forces, known as Operation Blue Star, took place. Official Indian government figures estimate that 575 people died. Other reports suggest that as many as 3,000 people were killed, including pilgrims caught in the crossfire. This loss of life was an utter tragedy. Understandably, members of the Sikh community around the world still feel the pain and suffering caused by these events.
Given this, we fully understand the concerns raised by the two documents. They indicated that in February 1984, in the early stages of the crisis, the then British Government sent a military officer to give advice to the Indian Government about their contingency planning. Many in this House and the whole country rightly wished to know what connection, if any, there had been between this giving of advice and the tragic events at Amritsar over three months later.
Within hours of the documents coming to light, the Prime Minister instructed the Cabinet Secretary to carry out an urgent investigation in four critical areas: why advice was provided to the Indian authorities, what the nature of that advice was, what impact it had on Operation Blue Star, and whether Parliament was misled. The Cabinet Secretary was not asked to investigate Operation Blue Star itself, or the actions of the Indian Government, or other events relating to the Sikh community in India. While the Cabinet Secretary has investigated these specific matters, I can make clear that during his investigation no circumstantial evidence has been offered, or has surfaced, of UK involvement in any subsequent military operations in the Punjab.
This investigation has been rigorous and thorough. The Cabinet Secretary and officials have met Sikh organisations to ensure that their concerns informed the investigation. They have spoken to individuals associated with the two documents, although some officials are now deceased, they have examined Hansard records from 1984 to the present day, and they have carried out an extensive and thorough search of the files held by all relevant departments and agencies from December 1983 to June1984. Their search through some 200 files and some 23,000 documents found a very limited number of documents relating to Operation Blue Star.
The report notes that some military files covering various operations were destroyed in November 2009 as part of a routine process undertaken by the Ministry of Defence at the 25-year review point. This included one file on the provision of military advice to the Indian authorities on their contingency plans for Sri Harmandir Sahib. However, copies of at least some of the documents in the destroyed files were also in other departmental files and, taken together, these files provide a consistent picture of what happened.
The Cabinet Secretary’s investigation is now complete. Copies of the report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, and it is now being published on the government website. The report includes the publication of the relevant sections of five extra documents that shed light on this period, but which would not normally have been published. We have taken this step because the whole investigation has been based on a commitment to the maximum possible transparency. We want to be as open as possible with the British public, in so far as that does not undermine the principle upheld by successive British Governments of not revealing any information relating to intelligence or Special Forces.
The main findings of the Cabinet Secretary’s report are as follows. First, on why the UK provided advice to the Indian Government, the Cabinet Secretary has established that in early February 1984, the then Government received an urgent request to provide operational advice on Indian contingency plans for action to regain control of the temple complex. The British high commission in India recommended that the Government respond positively to the request for bilateral assistance from a country with which we had an important relationship. This advice was accepted by the then Government.
Secondly, the Cabinet Secretary then examined the nature of the advice that was provided to India following that decision. He has established that a single British military adviser travelled to India between 8 and
This giving of military advice was not repeated. The documents show that the decision to provide advice was based on an explicit recommendation to Ministers that the Government should not contemplate assistance beyond the visit of the military adviser, and this was reflected in his instructions. The Cabinet Secretary found no evidence in the files or from discussion with officials involved that any other form of UK military assistance—such as equipment or training—was given to the Indian authorities. The Cabinet Secretary’s 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.
Thirdly, the report examines what actual impact UK advice had on the Indian operation, which took place between 5 and
The Cabinet Secretary’s report includes an analysis by current military staff of the extent to which the actual operation in June 1984 differed from the approach recommended in February by the UK military adviser. Operation Blue Star was a ground assault, without the element of surprise, and without a helicopter-borne element. The Cabinet Secretary’s report therefore concludes that the UK military officer’s advice had limited impact on Operation Blue Star. This is consistent with the public statement on
“no one helped us in our planning or in the execution of the planning”.
It is also consistent with an exchange of letters between Mrs Gandhi and Mrs Thatcher on 14 and
The Cabinet Secretary has also examined two other concerns raised in this House and by the Sikh community; namely, that Parliament may have been misled, or that the decision to provide advice may have been linked to UK commercial interests. The report finds no evidence to substantiate either of these allegations. 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. The only UK request of the Indian Government, made following the visit, was for prior warning of any actual operation, so that UK authorities could make appropriate security arrangements in London. In the event, the UK received no warning from the Indian authorities before the operation was launched.
The Cabinet Secretary also concludes that there is no evidence of Parliament being misled. There is no record of a specific question to Ministers about practical British support for Operation Blue Star, and he concludes that the one instance of a Written Question to Ministers related to discussions with the Indian Government on behalf of the Sikh community after the operation.
In sum, the Cabinet Secretary’s report finds the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian Government at an early stage; that it had limited impact on the tragic events that unfolded at the temple months later; that there was no link between the provision of this advice and defence sales; and that there is no record of the Government receiving advance notice of the operation. Nonetheless, we are keen to discuss concerns raised by the Sikh community. The Minister responsible for relations with India, my right honourable friend the Member for East Devon, will discuss this with Sikh organisations when he meets them later today. This reflects the strong, positive relationship this Government have with the British Sikh community, which plays such a positive role in so many areas of our national life.
We are also 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 a 20-year rule, so that 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 from a 30 to a 20-year rule, including the processes for withholding information. This review will be carried out by the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministerial Standards, Sir Alex Allan.
Nothing can undo the loss of life and the suffering caused by the tragic events at Sri Harmandir Sahib. It is quite right that the concerns that were raised about UK involvement have been investigated. It is a strength of our democracy that we are always prepared to take an unflinching look at the past. But I hope this investigation and the open manner in which it has been conducted will provide reassurance to the Sikh community, to this House, and to the public, and in that spirit I present it to the House”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by her right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. It is clearly a matter of considerable interest to this House—one can see that by just looking around on all sides—and there will be noble Lords here who were involved at the time, either in opposition, in government or in some other way. It is a matter of considerable interest to this House and we are grateful to the noble Baroness.
The raid in 1984 on the Golden Temple complex, called Operation Blue Star, resulted, as the noble Baroness has already told us, in hundreds of deaths, devastating damage to the temple and rising levels of sectarian violence. It also, ultimately, saw the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, later that same year. We welcome what light the report sheds on the British Government’s alleged involvement with these events. We also welcome the fact that some of the key documents relating to this event and the British Government’s alleged involvement have now been published.
There are still some serious questions to be asked about the involvement, conduct and contribution of the British authorities—perhaps at the highest level—in the events that surrounded the storming of the Golden Temple, which cost so many innocent lives. I therefore wish to ask the Minister a few questions around that topic.
Have the Government made public all the documents they intend to make public about this incident? We are grateful, of course, for the documentation in the annexe to the Cabinet Secretary’s report, but if there are other relevant documents, why have they not been published, and is there any intention to publish them in the future? Given that the report cites officials interviewed over the course of the investigation, will the Government commit to publishing a list of those officials, and if not, why not? We know from exchanges in another place that Ministers at the time have been interviewed and spoken to about this matter by the Cabinet Secretary in compiling his report. Can the Minister confirm that that is the position and whether their testimony might be made public?
I move on to the terms of the investigation led by the Cabinet Secretary. We welcome the fact that, following representations by the Sikh community, the Cabinet Secretary published a letter which detailed the scope of his inquiry. Can the Minister explain to this House why there was over a three-week delay in publishing the terms of reference? Can she further clarify whether the terms of the inquiry changed while it was taking place? The terms of reference as published in a letter from the Cabinet Office on
Many—both inside and outside Parliament—have expressed regret that the investigation seems to cover only the first part of 1984, given the enormous significance of events in the weeks and then the months after June 1984 and their direct link to the storming of the Golden Temple. Will the Government ask the Cabinet Secretary to set out whether he believes there could be some grounds for a fuller inquiry covering a longer period?
I turn briefly to the substance of the findings in the report. There is, and I quote directly from the Cabinet Secretary’s review,
“no record of any assistance to the June 1984 operation (called ‘Blue Star’ by the Indian Government) other than the limited military advice provided in mid-February”.
Can the Minister set out whether the nature of that “limited military advice” provided earlier that year ruled out conclusively the possibility that the British Government offered support for Operation Blue Star in the form that it was eventually undertaken? I refer in particular to one document of those presented today, dated
“With his own experience and study of this kind of problem, he was able to advise the Indians of a realistic and workable plan which Mrs Gandhi approved on her return from Moscow on
I wonder if the Minister can comment on that point.
The report sets out that there has been a quick analysis in recent weeks by current UK military staff, which confirms that there were differences between the June operation and the advice from the UK military officer in February. Indeed, in repeating the Statement, the Minister mentioned some of those differences. Why was this analysis as quick as it was? Is there any point in perhaps having a rather longer analysis to see what the position is?
Noble Lords are of course aware of the continuing pain felt by the Sikh community around the world—not least in this country—at those events and the deaths and destruction that they caused, but also at the anti-Sikh violence following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the emergency period that followed which saw arbitrary arrests and accusations of torture, rape and disappearances, some still unresolved today. While of course there are differences within the Sikh community over the issue of a separate Sikh state, there is unanimity in their horror at these events. For British Sikhs particularly perhaps over recent years, there has been the added burden that their own Government may—may—have been involved in these actions. We believe that the Government have a continuing responsibility to address the widespread concerns and fears that still exist. Do they agree? If they are able to provide answers to those concerns and questions, then we as Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition will of course support them in that effort.
My Lords, I start by thanking those noble Lords who have discussed this matter with me over the past few weeks, and indeed the Opposition for making sure that they have played a part in the discussions that took place to make sure that all the concerns of the British Sikh community and the wider community were brought to bear when the report was being prepared. I urge noble Lords to read the report and the documentation attached to it because it goes into great detail. The Statement is in no way as good as the actual report and documentation, which I think sheds greater light on what happened at the time.
I hope that I have assured noble Lords on the basic questions that were asked as the report was being prepared about the UK’s involvement, the extent of the advice that was given and how material that advice was. I hope that noble Lords are assured by the amount of documentation which has been considered for the report. I can also confirm that all the documentation which we intend to make public has been made public, but of course we can never guarantee what documentation may come to light in future years as part of disclosure. I have, however, informed the House of the extent of the documentation that was considered in the preparation of this report.
During the course of the investigation the Cabinet Secretary and officials spoke to individuals who were associated with the two documents. However, as some of those officials are now deceased we have had to consider the documentation only. I am sure that noble Lords will accept that it is right to protect the anonymity of the officials at this stage, which is in line with standard government procedure. We do not intend to name the officials who were interviewed and nor do we intend to disclose the transcripts.
The noble Lord asked me about the terms of reference which applied to the investigation. The terms of reference were set out by the Prime Minister in the other place during PMQs on
On the point about a longer analysis, I think it is right to go back to what it is that the Cabinet Secretary was asked to look at—and that was in relation to the UK’s involvement. I have no doubt about the strength of feeling within the British Sikh community and indeed in the Sikh community across the wider world. These events are still raw and form part of a discussion among young Sikhs who were not even born at the time the tragedy occurred. Of course, as we approach the 30th anniversary, it is becoming even more of an issue. But it is not for the British Government to be involved in matters which I am sure noble Lords will accept were sovereign matters for the Indian state. This report was never about reopening Operation Blue Star, it was about looking at UK involvement. I hope that I have been able to assure noble Lords about our role in that.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement, and I ask her to extend those thanks to the Cabinet Secretary for the open and transparent way in which he has carried out the investigation. No matter where we stood at the time of the attack on Sri Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, it is clear that the revelations have been a shock to almost all the Sikh community, not only here but around the world.
The Golden Temple, the holiest temple, which many of us have visited, is a place of tranquillity and peace. It is of the deepest significance to the Sikh community, and as has rightly been pointed out, this matter is being discussed all over the world. The Prime Minister has visited the Golden Temple at Amritsar, and he then also visited the site of the Jallianwala Bagh where, as colleagues will recollect, the massacre of a large number of Indians was committed on the orders of General Dyer. The Prime Minister was good enough to offer an apology at that stage. Even at this late stage, should we not extend some regret about our involvement in this episode at that time?
My second point is that, even at this late stage and with the broad Statement before us, will the Minister undertake to discuss it in her meeting with colleagues from the Sikh community and make sure that it goes to every gurdwara in this country, so that they are aware of the depth to which this episode has been investigated and precisely what happened at that time in relation to the British Government’s involvement?
I hear clearly what my noble friend says. I had the privilege of being the first Minister in this Government to visit Sri Harmandir Sahib and also Jallianwala Bagh, where the tragedy of 1919 is still of significance, certainly for someone like me with origins in those lands. Those visits were incredibly poignant and emotional moments.
However, I take us back to the subject of discussion here. The reason for what the Prime Minister said and did in relation to Jallianwala Bagh was, of course, that there was a terrible, tragic massacre in which the United Kingdom was completely involved. We are talking now about a situation which involved Indian forces. The question that I had to address at the Dispatch Box was the nature of the UK’s involvement. I hope that, through the Statement and the documentation that has been published, I have made clear the UK’s involvement. Apologies go with responsibility but in this particular case the responsibility does not lie with the British Government. I completely understand the sentiment in the British Sikh community, and indeed in the wider community, but I do not feel that, so far as the United Kingdom is concerned, this is the kind of case that could be compared to Jallianwala Bagh.
On the noble Lord’s wider point about engagement with the British Sikh community, I enjoy a good relationship with that community as a Minister both in the Foreign Office and in the Department for Communities and Local Government. We meet regularly, both through Sikh communities coming to the department and through visits. Only a few months ago I was at the Nishkam Centre in Birmingham. We place huge value on our relationship with the Sikh community. We also note the huge contribution that Sikh communities make in the economic and professional fields and also in volunteering, something that I hold very dear and is so apparent when visiting places like the Nishkam Centre and other temples.
The Minister with responsibility for India, my right honourable friend Hugo Swire, is meeting the Sikh community as we speak, I think. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, is probably not in his seat because he is at that meeting. I was hoping that this Statement would be taken at 5 pm so that I could also be present at that meeting, as I intended. However, I will certainly follow it up with a further meeting with the community.
Indeed, my Lords, my noble friend Lord Singh has asked me to express his regrets to the Minister and to the House that he cannot be in his place, given that he has followed this issue with assiduousness and determination over a very long period, but he is at the meeting to which the Minister has just alluded.
The Minister will have seen the statement made by Bhai Amrik Singh, the chairman of the Sikh Federation, that he was “hugely disappointed” with the inquiry’s “narrow terms” and that his meeting with the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood had failed to assuage his concerns. Given that the Minister has done so much to build good relationships with the Sikh community, will she assure the House that she is willing to meet Mr Singh to discuss whether there are outstanding issues that could still be examined? Will she also comment briefly on the remarks she made about Britain’s commercial interests when she repeated the Foreign Secretary’s Statement earlier and said they had played no part at all in any of these events? Would she be willing to publish a list of any arms deals that were made during the period prior to and immediately after these events in 1984?
The noble Lord makes an important point. I think Amrik Singh is part of the delegation of individual organisations and individuals who are meeting with Minister Swire, but if that is not the case and he is not part of that meeting, I will certainly see whether appropriate contact could be made. As I said, I will be making contact myself with members of the Sikh community in the coming weeks and months. There is a wide range of opinion. I had the opportunity to discuss the matter at some length with the noble Lord, Lord Singh, and my honourable friend Paul Uppal, who is the only Member of Parliament of Sikh origin in the House of Commons. Quite a breadth of opinion has come back from the Sikh community about how far the British Government are expected to go to satisfy certain elements of that community. I completely take on board how raw this issue is—and how raw Operation Blue Star is—and to what extent certain elements of the community wish there to be a truth and reconciliation process. However, going back to what I said at the beginning, that is a separate issue to the one that we are dealing with, which is what the UK’s involvement was.
I assure the noble Lord that the advice that was given was not linked in any way to commercial interests or to a particular defence contract or negotiation. That is certainly what the documentation shows. I am not sure how much further it would take the matter to start publishing any discussions that were happening in relation to any sort of commercial activity with the state over whatever period of time. I know from my own dealings with countries that we are engaged with through UKTI that these matters can sometimes take months and sometimes years. How far would that net have to be cast? I would like to be assured, and to reassure the House, on whether there was, in this particular case, a commercial connection to the decision. I can assure noble Lords that there was not.
My Lords, my noble friend the Minister outlined that the processes regarding the non-disclosure of information are going to be the subject of a further inquiry. Looking at the Statement from the Government, it appears that it was fortuitous that certain documents were copied into other departmental files, as the whole file was destroyed at the Ministry of Defence’s 25-year review. We are grateful for what appears to be that fortuitous copying of documents, but is the correct inference that, without it, a comprehensive file would not have been retained for this inquiry to base its conclusions on? How is that going to be part of the ongoing inquiry when that review, presumably, will be done now by the Ministry of Defence at 15 years for a 20-year release of information? Could that be part of the ongoing process?
I am sure that these matters will be looked at. My noble friend will be aware that this Government are hugely committed to the issue of transparency, which is why we brought in the 20-year rule, bringing the period down from 30 years. It is important that documentation—subject of course to national intelligence issues and national security interests— is put into the public domain. The documentation that was destroyed was part of a 25-year review. As my noble friend says, it was fortuitous that elements of that documentation were present in other departments. I am sure that lessons will be learnt from this incident.
My Lords, the noble Baroness was quite correct in saying that Operation Blue Star was the responsibility of the Indian Government. However, there have been reports in the press that the advice given by the military adviser to the Government in India was to not undertake Operation Blue Star but to wait out the people who were in the temple and settle the issue much less violently than was the case. Has any evidence been unearthed to confirm that? If so, would it not be to the advantage of all concerned to make it public?
The noble Lord may have heard in my Statement that the advice given was that entering the temple should be seen as a last resort and that a negotiated settlement was the right and the first way to proceed in these matters. In any event, it is clear what advice was given by the British officer and it is also clear that that advice was not followed. That is also an important element of the Cabinet Secretary’s report.
My Lords, I was the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary at the time of these events. One of the documents published today is the letter from the Foreign Secretary’s office seeking the Prime Minister’s assent on
That certainly appears to be the case and, of course, if the noble Lord’s reading and recollection is of that being the case, certainly I would take his word on that.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, made the point that using force to resolve a situation is nearly always counterproductive and has results that you do not anticipate. Are there two additional lessons from this? First, the speed with which this report has been produced is commendable. I think of the Chilcot inquiry that we are still waiting for. This has been done in a few weeks and it seems to me to be a lesson for other situations in which a bit more speed can help the reconciliation process. Secondly, is one of the lessons that understanding religious sensitivities is something the modern world can find hard to do? One thinks of Ariel Sharon going to the Temple Mount and starting the second intifada, with all the consequences that have flowed from that. Is that a lesson that we should draw from these events?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for his warm words in relation to the way in which this inquiry was conducted quickly. It was certainly part of the clear remit set by the Prime Minister at the outset.
The right reverend Prelate makes an important point. To understand the sentiment within the British Sikh community it is important to understand the significance of Sri Harmandir Sahib; the significance of the timing of Operation Blue Star; the implications in relation to the damage that was done to Sri Harmandir Sahib; and the basis of some of the concerns that were being raised by the dissidents. It is an important point. This is the challenge that I have in a sometimes aggressively secular world; some of these sensitivities are not properly explored and understood.
My Lords, does the Minister consider that the destruction of some of the principal documents in this matter, and the fortuitous recovery of the contents of some of the documents by reason of the fact that copies were made, indicates that a review should be conducted on the rules for the destruction of documents? These matters could have been lost to posterity if it had not been for the copies that were made.
I alluded to that in my repeating of the Statement. I said that we were determined to look at the wider issues presented by these events about the management and release of information by government, and, of course, the management of how documentation is held and how it is destroyed. I will certainly make sure that the views of my noble friend are fed into that.
Will the noble Baroness help me? Has the advice given by the British military to the Indian Government been unearthed? Is that one of the documents that has been discovered fortuitously? If so, has it been published? Presumably the Indian Government might still have a copy of that advice. It might have been copied inside Whitehall to heaven knows how many departments. If the document exists, does she not think that perhaps it would be a good idea to publish it?
As the noble Lord was speaking, I was going through the documentation that had been published. There was a note of the advice that was given. I am not sure whether that is part of the documentation that is published. I will certainly check that again. I suggest the noble Lord goes back, reads the report and looks at the documentation. It may well be that the information is in there. I have seen so much documentation in relation to this matter over the past three weeks that I am starting to lose track of exactly which bits of it I have seen where.
My Lords, both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, referred to the Amritsar massacre of 1919. Does the Minister accept that this House is very intimately and embarrassingly connected with that massacre, in that after it took place a resolution was passed in this House—I believe unanimously—congratulating Brigadier- General Dyer on his distinguished conduct? Of course,
I appreciate the apology made very properly by the Prime Minister some time ago, but has the time not now come when that blot on the escutcheon of this noble and honourable House should be removed?
My Lords, I think that particular discussion would go beyond the remit of the Statement today. I go back to what I said before; I had an opportunity to visit Jallianwala Bagh. In many ways, this is much more personal to me than it may be to other noble Lords in the House as I am deeply connected to it in terms of my own family connections back to the Punjab. What the Prime Minister did in both visiting Jallianwala Bagh and saying what he said meant a lot to people—and certainly to my grandmother, who is still alive. History always judges matters in a different way but the Prime Minister has certainly tried to put the record straight.