Three decades after the Indian government’s attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the unexpected release of government papers pointing to the complicity of the British state in the months leading up to Operation Blue Star in June 1984, has exacerbated a long festering wound inflicted on the Sikh psyche.
According to British law, 30 years is the length of time that secret government documents can be legally withheld from public. In his post on the website Stop Deportations, Phil Miller (the journalist who originally discovered the documents while searching for SAS involvement in Sri Lanka at the same time) reveals what many of us had suspected at the time – that Indira Gandhi’s attack could not have been accomplished, at the very least, without the tacit support of other world leaders. What the documents suggest is that British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, not only aided Indira Gandhi’s Congress government in framing the Sikhs as a rogue community in the international media, but also lent British state resources (primarily in the form of military intelligence and training) to help plan the Indian army’s attack on the holiest Sikh shrine. As Miller states:
“Thatcher sent the SAS to advise Indira Gandhi on Indian army plans “for the removal of dissident Sikhs from the Golden Temple” months before the disastrous raid on Amritsar……..
When Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the army to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984, it was a decision that would lead to her assassination. The assault on the Sikh holy site to evict separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, involving tanks and helicopters, incurred heavy civilian casualties. Outraged Sikhs in Britain responded ”
However, the fact that the SAS visited the Golden Temple complex before the Indian army attack is nothing new. The Sunday Times newspaper reported in June 1984 that the SAS was deployed not only to provide tactical advice to the Indian army, but also to train Indian commandos to launch and carry out the attack. What these documents bring to attention is the complex manner in which Indira Gandhi gained legitimacy for the attack and how foreign government(s) were persuaded to gather intelligence on the Sikhs outside India. Secondly, these governments were encouraged to view and portray the Sikhs, with their long list of grievances against the Indian State, as terrorists. Consequently, despite efforts of many credible Sikh organizations, the attack itself and the subsequent anti-Sikh riots (pogroms) have not been viewed by the international community as a genocide.
The collusion between the Indian State and the British government extended to other aspects of the public sphere, especially the media. The British and Indian media at the time steadily built a picture of the Sikhs as troublesome community of fanatics that posed a clear and present danger to the Indian state. And this media imagery, which was prevalent many months before Operation Blue Star, was legitimized by scholars and academics who basically took an uncritical stance towards state. In many ways this nexus of State, Media and Academia exerted an influence that was difficult for minorities such as the Sikhs to resist. This influence refers to a hegemony exerted by the state which extends to the sphere of academic scholarship and media, with the danger that these two sectors can easily become functionaries of state policy even in supposedly stable liberal democracies. As shown in recent publications such as Religion and the Specter of the West, this nexus works by repeating “past imperialisms”. Despite the fact that tens of thousands of Sikhs fought and died for the British during the two World Wars, what many people forget is that Sikhs were simply pawns of the British. They were used when it suited the British. And this is exactly what happened in 1984 and in the decades since the attacks. It was more in British interests to work with the Indian State in order to draw commercial benefits from that relationship. Within the relationship between India and the UK, Sikhs were seen as expendable even though states like Britain kept up the subterfuge of neutrality.
That is why it is so important to understand how colonial infrastructures did not simply become extinct after Indian independence, but continue to affect stateless minorities such as the Sikhs even today. Colonialism is not something that happened a hundred years ago and then stopped. For minorities whose sovereignty is at stake it will continue to happen if those minorities stop being vigilant about its often invisible workings.
It’s also why Sikhs need to scrutinize more carefully the nature of their own agency and how that agency can so easily be co-opted by vastly more powerful forces. Agency refers at the same time to how Sikhs act and speak in response to circumstances, what motivates them to act and speak in a particular way.
The typical Sikh reaction to these documents has been to either beseech or demand that the British government provides a full inquiry in the hope that the events preceding the 1984 attack and the Sikh pogroms, that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi, will (i) become internationally recognized and acknowledged and (ii) that the perpetrators be brought to justice. In Parliament, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has promised an inquiry. But given the fate of other recent inquiries (e.g the inquiry into the Iraq war) the Sikh community can realistically expect little more than a dilution of the facts that are already known. Debates on this issue, mostly within Sikh-sponsored TV channels, have so far produced little more than polarized rhetoric by Labour and Conservative politicians, with both parties vying for the Sikh vote. In reality, however, Labour were equally complicit in the 1984. At the time, Neil Kinnock, the Labour opposition leader, did little other than tow the Thatcher/Gandhi line and join the chorus of voices blaming Sikhs in Punjab for the rise of communalism and as a threat to the Indian nation state.
Thirty years on, what is needed is a proper international inquiry into the nature of the Indian Government’s attack on Golden Temple. If anything, the release of the letters contradict the Indian State’s assertion that that the army’s attack was a spontaneous response by Indira Gandhi to a deteriorating security situation in Punjab. Rather the letters reveal a carefully planned and internationally coordinated operation.
The real reason for the attack was to undermine the Akalis (Punjab’s political party) who had increased pressure on the Indian government to implement the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. This is a document outlining greater economic, political, social and religious regional autonomy for Punjab. In their campaign for the implementation of this resolution the Akalis together with supposed ‘separatists’ resolved to withhold the sale of grain to the State, thus curtailing the export of wheat from Punjab to other parts of India; a move which would have crippled the Indian economy and brought Indira Gandhi’s government to its knees.
Having already drained Punjab of its natural resources, since the partition in 1947, the Indian government had begun to treat the region with contempt when calls for greater autonomy had led to protests and demonstrations against the way in which Indira Gandhi (prime minister of Indian) conducted her affairs. The question that this raises, is why countries like Britain turned a blind eye to peaceful resolutions to the Punjab crisis?