Tribunal on 1984’s Operation Blue Star focuses on Indian sensitivities

Golden Temple at Amritsar, Punjab.   | Photo Credit: Kamal Narang

A tribunal on whether further details of British involvement in the run-up to the 1984 Operation Blue Star should be made public was set to conclude later on Thursday, as the issue of Indian sensitivities around Sikh separatism both past and present and its potential impact on U.K.-India bilateral relations took centre stage.

Counsel for the Cabinet Office sought to argue against further Cabinet Office and Prime Ministerial documents to be made public on the ground that they related to discussions involving intelligence services and that issues around separatism continued to be viewed as a “threat to the existence of the Indian state” and of the “highest sensitivity.”

However, counsel leading the appeal for the publication of the documents argued that “serious human rights abuses were committed against the Sikh community in India” and that the disclosures were necessary to fully understanding the wider factors influencing the relationship and the context of what was done.

“From our point of view, we see a very compelling public interest in anything that helps us join the dots,” the counsel for the appellant, freelance journalist Phil Miller, told the tribunal.

Political issue

She argued that there had been little sign in the evidence presented to the court that the issue remained a highly sensitive political issue in India, with the potential to damage bilateral relations, pointing to the failure of Britain to consult India on the 2014 disclosures.

The appellant, Irish law firm KRW, is acting on behalf of Mr. Millerwho is seeking four files relating to the Operation Blue Star to be made public. Details of Britain’s involvement in the operation first emerged in 2014 when Mr. Miller, researching cabinet office papers published under the U.K.’s 30-year-rule, came across the mention of the U.K.’s involvement in the 1984 operation.

Advisory role

Following the revelations, then Prime Minister David Cameron ordered his Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Haywood to review the findings.

The review concluded the U.K.’s role in June 1984 was “purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian government at an early stage in their planning,” and also had “limited impact”.

Mr. Miller is challenging a 2015 decision by Britain’s Information Commissioner that supported the Cabinet Office decision not to release the additional Cabinet Office and Prime Ministerial files on the operation.

While open parts of Wednesday’s hearing focussed on what constituted “historical” information, and what would have “real implications” for bilateral relations today (a distinction that the Cabinet Office legal team sought to make), much of Thursday’s hearing focussed on issues around the Joint Intelligence Committee, and whether freedom of expression exemptions applied to briefing documents for the committee. Under section 23 Britain’s Freedom of Information Act 2000, information held by a public authority is exempt from disclosure requirements if it relates to bodies including the security services, secret services, and special forces and other bodies.

The Cabinet Office legal team has sought to maintain that the information in the suppressed files had to be substantially different and pose a threat to bilateral relations, irrespective of which political party was in power in India, compared to what had already been divulged. “There is a good deal of institutional continuity on India around territorial integrity…violent extremism,” Owen Jenkins, a senior civil servant, formerly the head of South Asia and Afghanistan at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told the tribunal during Thursday’s hearing. The tribunal has switched between open and closed evidence sessions, which excluded appellant counsel.

In the concluding session on Thursday, the Cabinet Office’s counsel focused on the Section 23 exemptions, as well as exemptions relating to Section 27 of the same Act relating to impact on a diplomatic partner. Summing up the conclusions of the FCO witnesses he said that the expectations of the Indian government would be that Britain would apply “particular importance to questions of confidentiality” and that there remained “particularly sensitivities” around the issue of Sikh separatism. “The Indian government regards such separatist movements as a threat to the existence of the India state…with the highest order of sensitivity….the passage of time does not diminish the significance of this information in this case.”

However, the appellant’s position that there was little evidence to support the Cabinet Office position regarding current Indian sensitivities about further disclosures, was also supported by the Counsel for the Office of Information Commissioner.

Sources have suggested India holds a neutral position on the issue, viewing the decision on whether to release further information on the case as a purely domestic matter for Britain.

The tribunal is expected to rule by July, with the potential for further appeals.

The case coincides with the launch of the legal process for a judge-led public inquiry on British involvement in Operation Blue Star earlier this week, by the Sikh Federation (UK), represented by KRW. Dabinderjit Singh, an advisor to the Sikh Federation (UK) said they believed that whatever the result of the ongoing tribunal it would help build their case for a public inquiry.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 5:05:13 PM |

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