Efforts for further details of Britain’s involvement in the 1984 Operation Blue Star to be made public stepped up the pace, as a U.K. Sikh group launched the formal process for a public inquiry to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), while the second day of a tribunal pushing for the release of U.K. Cabinet Office and Prime Minister’s files related to Britain’s involvement in the 1984 operation continued on Wednesday.
The application, commenced in the form of a letter before action on Monday, from Irish law firm KRW Law on behalf of the Sikh Federation U.K. challenges the refusal of the FCO to hold a public inquiry in 2015. It argues that the Heywood Review, held in 2014 following the disclosure of British SAS involvement in the operation, which came out in files made public under the 30-year-rule, was inadequate. “If there was direct involvement in the form of advice or assistance, then the British public should be made aware of this,” said the KRW counsel.
Details of Britain’s involvement in Operation Blue Star first emerged in 2014 when Phil Miller, an independent journalist researching cabinet office papers published under the U.K.’s 30-year-rule, came across the mention of U.K. involvement in the 1984 operation.
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”.
This week’s letter to the FCO, sent on Monday and seen by The Hindu , argued that the initial inquiry viewed military assistance in isolation rather than in the wider context, and highlighted an inquiry unable to address the “public interest in accountability and transparency on this matter.”
The application comes as a separate three-day hearing at the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) in central London continued, as KRW Law, also representing Mr. Miller, sought to appeal the 2015 decision of the U.K.’s Information Commissioner not to require the files to be disclosed. The tribunal was to take place last year, but has been delayed to date. This, the appellants believe, reflects the eagerness of the government to avoid addressing potentially sensitive revelations. “They are embarrassed about security advice that led to obscene human rights violations,” said Mr. Miller.
Mr. Miller’s appeal on the Information Commissioner’s ruling focuses on two sets of documents- Prime Ministerial “PREM” files from between July 1983 and May 1985, and Cabinet Office “CAB” files from between 1979 and mid August 1985. While a large section of the former have been released none of the latter have been released. The government side argues that 92% of the files have been released, though the appellant says hat this figure only relates to the PREM files.
Because of the sensitivity of the issue, the hearing has so far switched between open and closed hearings. Cabinet Office and Information Commissioner witnesses have included senior FCO civil servants Owen Jenkins, the former director for South Asia and Afghanistan, and Philip Barton, director general for consular and security, while Miller and Dabinderjit Singh of the UK Sikh Federation gave evidence for the appellant.
In an open hearing on Wednesday morning the barrister for the appellant sought to challenge the government position that further disclosures would result in “highly sensitive’ issues being raised that would have consequences for today’s India. They pointed to numerous instances in the material already disclosed that could be deemed sensitive, including blunt initial assessments of the political clout of Rajiv Gandhi, following his mother’s assassination, and to sections of UK correspondence which appeared to suggest Britain was willing to take a tougher line on Sikhs based in the UK of concern to India, based on concerns for UK-India trade.
Taking the stand on Tuesday, the FCO’s Jenkins, sought to distinguish between information that was “historical” and that which had “real implications” for India today, and pointed to its “long record of resistance to external interference.” Disclosure of the latter kind could have a “detrimental impact” on international relations, he said. “It would have to be [different] enough to pose a risk to international relations,” he told the tribunal, when asked by the appellant about what distinguished the information so far disclosed from that which remained out of the public domain. He also referred to “national security” considerations.
Speaking outside the hearing, the KRW counsel argued against the British government’s distinction and said that by their understanding neither then BJP nor the Congress would object to the disclosure of the details which related to “historic” events. He described the secret nature of sections of the hearing as “Kafkaesque”. “The UK government’s position is untenable and we will make this argument strongly in our submissions but granted the unjust advantage given to the government who holds the information with closed justice procedures excluding us form the proceedings we rely upon the independent Tribunal to push the government to justify its untenable position.”
It is hoped that should the appeal be successful, and the information released, it would feed into the public inquiry being called for. The tribunal’s ruling can be appealed further, including to the Upper Tribunal, the High Court and potentially Supreme Court.