The British government has a month to appeal a decision by a U.K. information tribunal requiring it to declassify a number of documents relating to British involvement in the run-up to the 1984 Operation Blue Star . Campaigners in Britain said they hoped the judgment would strengthen calls from the U.K. Sikh community for a public inquiry into the U.K.’s role in the operation.
The judgment upheld an appeal by a freedom of information campaigner relating to three of four files which the U.K. government has resisted declassifying, requiring these to be published by July 12, 2018. The Cabinet Office was obliged under Section 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to disclose certain parts of the files, the judgment said, rejecting the government’s use of exemptions relating to national security, international relations and personal information.
Judge Murray Shanks acknowledged the ongoing “sensitivities” on the issue of Operation Blue Star, and how the activities of Sikh separatists continue to represent a “potential existential threat to the State of India” as well as the “continuing reverence with which the Gandhi family are seen by many”.
He also acknowledged the “importance of India in the world and of our relationship with it”.
However, he noted how documents that were released in error in 2014 had not triggered an adverse reaction from India, rejecting the British government’s contention that the release of information would damage bilateral relations.
He also rejected the argument by one of the U.K. government witnesses that releasing the documents would damage bilateral relations by showing that the U.K. government did not regard the activities of Sikh extremists with sufficient concern and was “soft on them”.
“We do not give much weight to this point… anyone concerned would be well aware of the perceived U.K. failures,” wrote the judge, adding that in reality the documents showed how these issues were taken seriously at senior levels.
During hearings held earlier this year, counsel for the Cabinet Office sought to argue against the documents being 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.”
The 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 understand the wider factors.
The judge accepted the public interest argument in “transparency and accountability”, pointing to the feeling among the people from the Sikh community in the U.K. and beyond on the issue.
In 2014 journalist, Phil Miller came across the documents — apparently released in error — that showed that a British special forces officer had been sent to India in early 1984 to advise on plans for the removal of Sikhs from the Golden Temple. Two enquiries followed — including one widely known as the Heywood inquiry — that looked into the assistance provided. The Heywood inquiry concluded that the assistance provided had been limited to the visit of the individual officer, and had had little impact on the operation itself. However, the ruling this week raised concerns around the “limitations’ of the Heywood Inquiry, including the speed with which it was conducted and the limited time period of the files it looked at.
The three files to be released are documents covering the period between July 1983 and May 1985. The office file that covered the period of May 1979 to August 1985 included files of the secretariat of the Joint Intelligence Committee and wouldn’t be released because the information was “obviously” supplied by or about security bodies.
Mr. Miller, who brought the case, supported by the Sikh Federation, welcomed the judgement. He said the decision not to require the release of the fourth file highlighted the limitations of Britain’s Freedom of Information rules. “We know from the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War just how revealing Joint Intelligence Committee papers can be.”
Preet Kaur Gill, Britain’s first woman Sikh MP, welcomed the judgment, and its critique of the Heywood Inquiry. “Many of us in Parliament have been critical of the Heywood Inquiry, viewing it as a whitewash. The government needs to take heed of this judgement and urgently make a statement on whether it’s going to undertake a further independent inquiry of the then government’s role in operation Blue Star,” she told The Hindu .
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We are carefully considering today's decision made by the Information Tribunal, and will respond in due course.”