Journalist Phil Miller, who unearthed evidence of Britain sending an officer to India to advise Indira Gandhi on Operation Blue Star in 1984, soon enough found the declassified file being recalled by the government. After approaching the information tribunal and the courts under the Freedom of Information Act to make those and other relevant documents public, the court last month ordered certain files to be made public following which 18 documents were released by the UK Cabinet Office – mostly files from the Prime Minister’s Office, while the more detailed Cabinet Office files are still classified.
Only 40 pages have been released, mostly internal memos pertaining to foreign aid, trade and security concerns. There is, however, no mention of the UK’s involvement in what happened in Amritsar.
“The majority of the sensitive papers I wanted to access are still being kept under lock and key. I think many people will be disappointed by the small scale of disclosure in this case after years of legal proceedings,” Miller said.
However, the documents do depict the stark contrast in how the British believed India thought about them and how they themselves viewed India. It also shows the effort put in by the British government during the mid-1980s to secure trade deals.
In early 1984, the British were concerned by how slowly India was moving to sign trade deals. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was looking at how they could convince India, with whom they had a “special relationship”.
In an internal memo to William Harding (deputy under-secretary of state for the Americas and Asia), dated February 28, 1984, R.J. O’Neill (assistant under secretary, FCO) tried to explain to his colleagues that Indian politicians did not consider this relationship as important and while British officers felt that India benefitted from colonialisation and so take the credit for India’s post-Independence success, Indians firmly believe “they owe Britain nothing” and were not obliged to sign trade deals that they did not see as beneficial to them.
The memo highlights how India was a proud country and was convinced that it was “a natural leader of the non-aligned movement” with a very good “nose for a bargain”. O’Neill was worried that India looked down on Britain as a “European country in decline” and could easily favour another country and strike similar deals.
O’Neill warns FCO that Britain tends “to expect from India things we are simply not going to get” but must pursue its agenda “with good humour and not much sensitivity” (turn a blind eye to India’s internal issues).
This sets the tone of the Indo-British relationship just prior to Operation Blue Star where FCO feels India has an upper hand in trade negotiations and Britain, at a disadvantage, must offer India more concessions. Miller and the UK Sikh Federation suspect that the concessions came in the form of military advice (and possibly training and resources) during the time the Golden Temple was seized but this cannot be corroborated as no documents around that period have been released.
The importance of Westland deal with India is evident during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to the UK in August 1985. Britain was worried that India would sign a similar deal with French and American competitors as Gandhi had recently visited the two countries and got “an unusually high-level protocol treatment” there.
P.F. Rickett, the private secretary of FCO, wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office with concerns that they would have to perhaps go the extra mile to appease Gandhi. As Gandhi had addressed a joint session of Congress in the US (a very high honour), the British were worried that they would be unable to afford him the same as during that time, the UK parliament was in recess.
More so, since the French President had accorded Gandhi five sessions during his five-day visit, the FCO believed that it was imperative that the British prime minister should at least table two sessions with him during his two days in the UK (October 14-15) and other ministers should be available to meet with him and his delegation at short notice.
While UK was also concerned with Rajiv Gandhi’s security, what was interesting is that they were worried how they could outdo the French who “went out of their way to ensure that their security arrangements were not only effective but highly visible”. It was very important to the British that they “should not appear to do less than the French” and hence it was important to keep Sikh protestors in check so that they did not give the impression that the “British police had been indulgent towards Sikh extremists”.
In another letter, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe wanted police to ban Sikh activists from protesting. His private secretary Leonard Appleyard wrote to the Metropolitan police that this will “also further intensify the Indian government’s resentment against the UK…contracts which would be potentially at risk from a trade boycott amount to some £5 billion”. Post Gandhi’s visit, the deal for 21 Westland 30s was signed for £65 million as against Britain’s aid budget.
From the cache of documents released, it is clear that Britain was pursuing India for several trade and arms deals amounting to billions of pounds and believed that the hesitation of the Indian government to close the deal would be difficult without more concessions. What remains unclear is whether these concessions were simply limited to more visible diplomacy and a subtle “crackdown” on Sikh extremists in the UK or did it also extend as an invisible hand in the military operations in Amritsar? Unless more files are declassified, the answer to this we may never know.