The Times UK – The Golden Temple’s long-buried secrets

Whitehall’s drift towards keeping files classified fuels conjecture about our role in the Amritsar massacre

Ben Macintyre

London, 5 August 2017. Thirty-three years ago Margaret Thatcher sent an SAS officer to advise the Indian government on its efforts to expel Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Four months later, in June 1984, the Indian army launched Operation Blue Star, an all-out assault on Sikhism’s holiest place, in which hundreds died.

The name of the SAS officer has not been released. The extent of British involvement remains a matter of conjecture and wild conspiracy theory. Despite Sikh demands for clarity many of the key files remain sealed.

It has now emerged that the Foreign Office is withholding almost a third of its files on India from 1985, part of a deeply disturbing trend towards historical concealment.

Official secrecy ebbs and flows in a way that is unique to Britain, with its long-running ambivalence over what should, or should not, be made public.

A generation ago secrecy had seeped into the very soul of government. Partly as a result of wartime discretion officials felt little obligation to release records. What happened in Whitehall stayed in Whitehall. Merely to report the colour of the carpets inside MI6 was to risk prosecution under the Official Secrets Act.

For a brief time that culture appeared to be over. The Freedom of Information Act in 2000 reversed the presumption of secrecy in favour of disclosure wherever possible.

Now the tide is flowing back in the opposite direction. Last year government departments applied to keep nearly 1,000 files secret, more than twice the number for 2013.

Many of the withheld files relate to defence sales to India and Saudi Arabia. Under existing legislation all government documents should be routinely passed to the National Archives after 30 years (new rules will reduce this to 20) unless government departments apply to have them withheld.

Officials are doing this more often, on flimsier grounds but with greater success. The Advisory Council on National Records and Archives, which adjudicates on such cases, found that a significantly larger proportion of applications to censor material were invalid, reflex requests for secrecy to which officials “had not given enough thought”.

Increasingly, not as matter of policy but through a reactionary instinct, your government is becoming more secretive. The impact of this is twofold: it makes officials feel less accountable but at the same time gives rise to conspiracy theories that are frequently baseless.

Nothing illustrates that more clearly than the continuing battle over the 1984 assault on the Golden Temple, a pivotal moment in Sikh history and the source of continuing anger in the Sikh community.

Among the Foreign Office files that remain sealed is one labelled “UK/Indian relations: situation in Punjab; activities of Sikh extremists”. An investigation ordered by David Cameron stated that although a British military officer had provided advice there was “no evidence of UK government involvement in the operation itself”.

That bland conclusion did nothing to damp down the belief of many Sikhs that the level of co-operation between Britain and India over Operation Blue Star was much greater than has been admitted, and was covered up.

The secrecy has merely added fuel to a conspiracy theory that is almost certainly wrong. Rather than backing the military assault on the temple Britain was under pressure from India to provide other help, notably furnishing intelligence on Sikh militancy in the Punjab and Britain.

The royal family faces an analogous situation with its Windsor archives. By refusing to release files relating to links between the royals and the Nazi regime successive royal archivists have successfully fostered the legend that those contacts were far more extensive and significant than they really were.

Allowing historians access to the Golden Temple files is the only way to lance the boil of conspiracy that claims Britain played a central role in the operation, just as releasing the royal archives would finally put paid to the myth that every Windsor was an enthusiastic fascist.

Avoiding embarrassment, protecting privacy, easing international relations and covering up cock-ups are not sufficient justifications for hiding the past.

After 20 years all aspects of government behaviour should become transparent, with the exception of those with a direct impact on national security. These are rare. MI6 cannot function without confidentiality but even in intelligence the need for secrecy erodes with passing time.

Some civil servants argue that their freedom of action is curtailed by knowing whatever they say and do will be subject to public scrutiny in their lifetimes. On the contrary, most civil servants (except spies) will do their jobs far better knowing that within 20 years they may have to justify their actions.

After three decades the files relating to the Golden Temple assault cannot have any impact on national security.
Britain should release all its files and so should India. This would be a symbolic demonstration of openness and understanding to mark the 70th anniversary of Indian independence. Because the more you hide as a government, the more the public assumes you have something to hide.

Posted to Sikh News Discussion by:
“Sikh Federation (UK) federation” <sikhfederationuk@yahoo.co.uk>

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