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Why a British court order on Operation Bluestar could bring out a few inconvenient truths

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 19 June 2018, 23:23 IST
(Arya Sharma)

The recent orders of a British court on declassification of documents related to Operation Bluestar has opened a Pandora's box for the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India. Various political organisations including the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) which is a BJP ally and the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) have started urging the Indian government to follow suit.

The politics on the issue within the Sikh domain has also started heating up. Operation Bluestar was carried out by the Indian forces between 3 and 8 June in 1984 to flush out militants and their leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and take control of the Harmandir Sahib Complex (Golden Temple) in Amritsar.

The issue has once again brought the issue of number of people killed in the military operation into the limelight along with the decades old debate on what other options the then prime minister Indira Gandhi have to get the Golden Temple premises vacated from the militants under Bhindranwale who had holed up there.

It was on June 11 that a judge in a British court ordered the declassification of documents expected to shed further light on Britain's involvement in Operation Bluestar in 1984. The court put aside the British government's argument that the the declassification of documents has the potential to damage diplomatic ties with India.

According to reports Judge Murray Shanks, who had heard the case over three days in March this years at the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) in London, ruled on last Monday that a majority of the files relating to the period must be made public. The judge reportedly did accept that one file marked 'India: Political', from the United Kingdom's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) could contain information that relates to British spy agencies MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) and therefore the Cabinet Office was entitled to rely on a technicality that exempts such material from the Freedom of Information (FOI) request appeal.

"We recognise that the period we are concerned with was a highly sensitive one in India's recent history and the strength of feeling it continues to evoke it should also be remembered that the fact that 30 years has gone by is bound to have reduced any prejudice that may have resulted from release of the withheld material," the judgment reportedly states.

The FOI appeal was on behalf of a freelance journalist Phil Miller who has been investigating the exact nature of the then Margaret Thatcher-led government's assistance to the operation.

In 2014, the British government documents declassified had reportedly revealed that British military advice was given to Indian forces prior to Operation Bluestar.

The then British Prime Minister David Cameron had ordered a review into this discovery named 'Heywood Review' that had led to a statement in the Parliament saying that Britain's role had been purely 'advisory' that had 'limited impact in practice'.

According to reports the United Kingdom Cabinet Office has been asked to appeal by July 11 against the First Tier Tribunal's decision failing which the relevant documents would be made available to Miller for his research by 12 July.

On Monday evening the SAD leadership discussed the mater at a meeting and decided that a delegation led by the party president Sukhbir Singh Badal will call on the Union home minister Rajnath Singh to ask the central government to release the secret documents pertaining to the 'tragic army assault on Sachkhand Sri Harmandir Sahib' and other sacred Sikh shrines in June 1984. It would also ask the home minister to secure documents from the British government regarding the role of the government of that country in this tragedy.

The delegation would further seek the release of all Sikh prisoners languishing in jails after the expiry of their sentence in addition to urging the Union government to immediately restore and release the compensation to the Jodhpur detainees who have been fighting a pitched legal battle for their arrest from the Golden Temple complex during Operation Bluestar.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had registered cases against them under Explosives Act and Arms Act. All the 375 detainees were released in three phases between 1989 and 1991. Of them, 224 appealed for compensation alleging 'wrongful detention and torture'. But the CBI contested the case and won it in the lower court in 2011. While many of them died and others refused to pursue the case further, 40 detainees appealed against the order before the Amritsar sessions court and were awarded Rs 4 lakh each as compensation with six per cent interest in a judgement last year.

According to reports while the Punjab government has agreed to pay its share of the paltry Rs 4.5 crore, the Centre has moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court against the order.

Meanwhile, in a related development the United Sikh Movement (USM) that claims to represent Sikhs outside the ambit of SAD has submitted a memorandum to the resident co-ordinator of the United Nations (UN) in India on the issue of Sikhs still languishing in jails even after having been behind bars for three decades. The move came after the United Nations released a report on the human rights excesses in Jammu and Kashmir last week.

“We have knocked every door of the Indian administration, but no one has entertained our appeal for justice,” the memorandum says.

Referring to the 40 Sikhs still languishing in jails, it further reads, “ They have completed their sentences but have not been released. It is only because they are Sikhs and Sikhs are a minority like Muslims. In the present governmental dispensation he minorities have been on discount. It is majoritarian nationalism of the ruling party that takes pride in steamrolling the minorities. UN seems to be the only saviour of the leftovers like Sikhs suffering in the jails. As UN has highlighted the pathetic conditions of the Kashmiri Muslims, it will take the case of suffering Sikhs in the right earnestness.”

A USM member said the copies of the memorandum have also been sent to the heads of the states with considerable Sikh population. The organisation has also sought an appointment with the Union home minister to raise the issue.

Coming back to the fallout of Operation Bluestar, veteran political analyst Jagtar Singh has pointed in a column that appeared in The Tribune, “ Notably, the Akali Dal-BJP alliance in its common minimum programme (CMP) for the 1997 election had promised: 'We will set up a special commission of inquiry, headed by a retired judge, to expose the Congress hand behind the violence in Punjab.' Badal backtracked after coming into power, saying it would reopen old wounds. But the wounds still need closure. Going by the CMP, it was the Congress that instigated violence and the symbol of that militant struggle was Bhindranwale. It was Badal as the Akali Dal patriarch who gave the green signal to the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee to raise a memorial in the Golden Temple complex to commemorate Bhindranwale and his associates who died in that battle.”

He has further pointed, “The number of deaths, both civilian and military, continues to be a part of the speculative domain. The estimates vary from a few hundred (493) as mentioned in the White Paper issued by the centre in July 1984 to a few thousand. This is a huge gap. The facts must come out.”

First published: 19 June 2018, 23:23 IST