Revelations that Britain may have assisted the Indian Army in its deadly 1984 raid on Sikhism's most sacred temple in Amritsar are straining the British government's relations with its Sikh community. Though the assault happened 30 years ago, Sikh experts say the incident, which left hundreds dead, remains a "very raw issue" that could cost the government the support of Britain's large Sikh community.
Recently released official documents suggest Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a British special forces officer to help the Indians as they drew up plans to remove dissident Sikhs from the Golden Temple in early June 1984. Hundreds died in the following assault, spurring the assassination of Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister at the time, by two Sikh bodyguards four months later. The assassination in turn triggered a cycle of inter-communal violence that resulted in thousands of mainly Sikh deaths in India.
Prime Minister David Cameron has asked Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to investigate the case, but tried to play down Britain’s involvement during parliamentary questions today.
But Britain's Sikh leaders warn that despite being three decades old, the Amritsar assault is still an open wound for the country's half-million-strong Sikh community, and that the government needs to be very careful in how it proceeds.
“It is still a very raw issue 30 years on with the attack on our holy shrine and the pogroms afterwards in Delhi which left thousands dead and for which there has been no justice,” says Gurmukh Singh from the Sikh Council UK. “There is a lot of anger and emotions within the Sikh community. If this turns out to be true, we will feel very let down and betrayed."
Mr. Singh says the government must address whether the documents were authentic and if the British advice was used by the Indian military. "We are a respectful and law-abiding community," he says, "but we will make the government accountable if they did offer military help for the attack on the Golden Temple."
Gurharpal Singh of the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies at the University of London says that if the documentation and offer of help are true, they could damage the close links between the Sikh community and senior politicians and the royal family. But he notes that there was a logic to helping the Indian government at the time.
“This was a critical and tragic event in the Sikh community both here and in India," Professor Singh says. "But you have to put what went on in context. Back in 1984 the government was dealing with a number of terrorist issues – the Libyan Embassy siege, IRA – so there was a broader terrorist issue which involved collaboration."
He adds that Britain had both political and economic reasons to woo India at the time. Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan were “trying to approach India which was receiving help from the Soviet Union." And in Britain, "there was an economic downturn, and the government was keen to get arm sales to India such as Westland helicopters and British Aerospace and trainer jets.”
Professor Singh says that the government needs to be open and honest in its investigation if it is to build renewed trust with the Sikh community.
Dr. Jasjit Singh at Leeds University agrees, pointing out that it could hurt Conservatives at the ballot box. “David Cameron has to treat this carefully because with an election coming up, he may well need Sikh votes in marginal constituencies. He needs to be sensitive and fully explain the operations that happened.”
The records became public under Britain's "30-year rule" that automatically releases most classified documents to the National Archive after three decades. But Dr. Singh is surprised the documents, which found their way onto a blog called Stop Deportations, were released at all, given how incendiary they are to Sikhs.
“Did [the government] not realize the significance of this if it turns out to be true?" he asks. "We will need to know if true, whether the advice was taken; but it’s unbelievable that it’s come out."