With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Cabinet Secretary’s report on the Indian operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib—also called the Golden Temple—in Amritsar in June 1984.
The House will recall that on 13 January concerns were raised regarding two documents released to the public in the National Archives. The documents relate to the painful events that followed the occupation of the temple site by Sikh dissidents in December 1983, which led to a six-month stand-off with the Indian authorities. In June 1984, a three-day military operation by Indian forces known as Operation Blue Star took place. Official Indian Government figures estimate that 575 people died. Other reports suggest that as many as 3,000 were killed, including pilgrims caught in the crossfire.
That loss of life was an utter tragedy. Understandably, members of the Sikh community around the world still feel the pain and suffering caused by those events. Given that, we fully understand the concerns raised by the two documents. They indicate that in February 1984, in the early stages of the crisis, the then British Government sent a military officer to give advice to the Indian Government on their contingency planning. Many in this House and across the whole country rightly wished to know what connection, if any, there had been between that giving of advice and the tragic events at Amritsar over three months later.
Within hours of the documents coming to light, the Prime Minister instructed the Cabinet Secretary to carry out an urgent investigation in four critical areas: why advice was provided to the Indian authorities; what the nature of that advice was; what impact it had on Operation Blue Star; and whether Parliament was misled. The Cabinet Secretary was not asked to investigate Operation Blue Star itself, or the actions of the Indian Government, or other events relating to the Sikh community in India. Although he has investigated those specific matters, I can make it clear that during his investigation no circumstantial evidence has been offered, or has surfaced, of UK involvement in any subsequent military operations in the Punjab.
The investigation has been rigorous and thorough. The Cabinet Secretary and officials have met Sikh organisations to ensure that their concerns informed the investigation. They have spoken with individuals associated with the two documents, although some officials are now deceased. They have examined Hansard records from 1984 to the present day. They have carried out an extensive and thorough search of the files held by all relevant Departments and agencies from December 1983 to June 1984. Their search through some 200 files and over 23,000 documents found a very limited number of documents relating to Operation Blue Star.
The report notes that some military files covering various operations were destroyed in November 2009, as part of a routine process undertaken by the Ministry of Defence at the 25-year review point. They included one file on the provision of military advice to the Indian authorities on their contingency plans for Sri Harmandir Sahib. However, copies of at least some of the documents in the destroyed files were also in other departmental files. Taken together, those files provide a consistent picture of what happened.
The Cabinet Secretary’s investigation is now complete. Copies of the report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, and it is now being published on the Government website. The report includes the publication of the relevant sections of five extra documents that shed light on the period but would not normally have been published. We have taken that step because the whole investigation has been based on a commitment to the maximum possible transparency. We want to be as open as possible with the British public, in so far as that does not undermine the principle, upheld by successive British Governments, of not revealing any information relating to intelligence or special forces.
The main findings of the report are as follows. First, on why the UK provided advice to the Indian Government, the Cabinet Secretary has established that in early February 1984 the then Government received an urgent request to provide operational advice on Indian contingency plans for action to regain control of the temple complex. The British high commission in India recommended that the Government respond positively to the request for bilateral assistance from a country with which we had an important relationship. That advice was accepted by the then Government.
Secondly, the Cabinet Secretary then examined the nature of the advice that was provided to India following that decision. He has established that a single British military adviser travelled to India between 8 and 17 February 1984 to advise the Indian intelligence services and special group on contingency plans that they were drawing up for operations against armed dissidents in the temple complex, including ground reconnaissance of the site. The adviser’s assessment made it clear that a military operation should be put into effect only as a last resort when all attempts at negotiation had failed. It recommended including in any operation an element of surprise and the use of helicopter-borne forces in the interests of reducing casualties and bringing about a swift resolution.
This giving of military advice was not repeated. The documents show that the decision to provide advice was based on an explicit recommendation to Ministers that the Government should not contemplate assistance beyond the visit of the military adviser, and this was reflected in his instructions. The Cabinet Secretary found no evidence in the files or from discussions with officials involved that any other form of UK military assistance, such as equipment or training, was given to the Indian authorities. The Cabinet Secretary’s report therefore concludes that the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited, and provided to the Indian Government at an early stage in their planning.
Thirdly, the report examines what actual impact UK advice had on the Indian operation, which took place between 5 and 7 June 1984, over three months later. The report establishes that during that time the planning by the Indian authorities had changed significantly. The number of dissident forces was considerably larger by that time, and the fortifications inside the site were more extensive. The documents also record information provided by the Indian intelligence co-ordinator stating that after the UK military adviser’s visit in February, the Indian army took over lead responsibility for the operation, and the main concept behind the operation changed. The Cabinet Secretary’s report includes an analysis by current military staff of the extent to which the actual operation in June 1984 differed from the approach recommended in February by the UK military adviser. Operation Blue Star was a ground assault without the element of surprise and without a helicopter-borne element. The Cabinet Secretary’s report therefore concludes that the UK military officer’s advice had limited impact on Operation Blue Star.
This is consistent with the public statement on 15 January 2014 by the operation commander, Lieutenant-General Brar, who said that
“no one helped us in our planning or in the execution of the planning”.
It is also consistent with an exchange of letters between Mrs Gandhi and Mrs Thatcher on 14 and 29 June 1984 discussing the operation, which made no reference to any UK assistance. The parts of the letter relevant to Operation Blue Star are published with the Cabinet Secretary’s report today.
The Cabinet Secretary has also examined two other concerns raised in this House and by the Sikh community—namely, that Parliament may have been misled or that the decision to provide advice may have been linked to UK commercial interests. The report finds no evidence to substantiate either of these allegations. The investigation did not find any evidence in the files or from officials of the provision of UK military advice being linked to potential defence or helicopter sales, or to any other policy or commercial issue. There is no evidence that the UK, at any level, attempted to use the fact that military advice had been given on request to advance any commercial objective. The only UK request of the Indian Government made following the visit was for prior warning of any actual operation so that UK authorities could make appropriate security arrangements in London. In the event, the UK received no warning from the Indian authorities before the operation was launched.
The Cabinet Secretary also concludes that there is no evidence of Parliament being misled. There is no record of a specific question to Ministers about practical UK support for Operation Blue Star, and he concludes that the one instance of a written question to Ministers related to discussions with the Indian Government on behalf of the Sikh community after the operation.
In sum, the Cabinet Secretary’s report finds that the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian Government at an early stage; that it had limited impact on the tragic events that unfolded at the temple three months later; that there was no link between the provision of that advice and defence sales; and that there is no record of the Government receiving advance notice of the operation.
None the less, we are keen to discuss concerns raised by the Sikh community. The Minister responsible for relations with India, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), and my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, the Minister for faiths and communities, will discuss them with Sikh organisations when they meet them later today. This reflects the strong, positive relationship the Government have—and all British Governments have had—with the British Sikh community, which plays such a positive role in so many areas of our national life.
We are also determined to look at the wider issues raised by these events with regard to the management and release of information held by Government. Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the 30-year rule has been superseded by a 20-year rule, so that from 2022 all annual releases will be after 20 years. However, it is not clear at the moment that this change is being approached in a uniform fashion by all Departments. The Prime Minister has therefore decided to commission a review to establish the position across Government on the annual release of papers and the ability and readiness of Departments to meet the requirements of moving from a 30 to 20-year rule, including the processes for withholding information. This review will be carried out by the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, Sir Alex Allan.
Nothing can undo the loss of life and suffering caused by the tragic events at Sri Harmandir Sahib. It is quite right that the concerns that were raised about UK involvement have been investigated. It is a strength of our democracy that we are always prepared to take an unflinching look at the past. I hope, however, that this investigation and the open manner in which it has been conducted will provide reassurance to the Sikh community, this House and the public and, in that spirit, I present it to the House.
May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it this morning?
May I also take this opportunity to thank colleagues who have campaigned to help uncover the truth about the tragic events of 1984? I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and for Warley (Mr Spellar) and my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). They have done important work on behalf of many of their constituents, and it is only right that this House offers them its collective thanks for their determined efforts.
As the Foreign Secretary has made clear, the 1984 raid on the Golden Temple complex—code-named Operation Blue Star—resulted in hundreds of deaths, devastating damage to the temple itself and rising levels of sectarian violence, which ultimately saw the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi later that year.
I welcome what light the report sheds on the British Government’s alleged involvement in those events and the fact that some of the key documents relating to the event in question, and the British Government’s alleged involvement, have now been published.
Serious questions continue to be asked, however, about the involvement, conduct and contribution of the British authorities at the time—going up to the highest level—in the events that surrounded the storming of the Golden Temple and that ultimately cost so many innocent lives. In the light of that, I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary the following questions.
First, I regret that the Government have so far refused to accept our call that all relevant documentation relating to the incident that can be should now be made public. I welcome the publication of five further documents as part of today’s report, but, given that the report itself cites “officials interviewed” over the course of this investigation, will the Foreign Secretary now commit to publishing a list of those officials, and will he confirm whether any surviving Ministers who served at the time were interviewed as part of the investigation? Will he also confirm whether these testimonies will be made public?
Secondly, on the terms of this investigation led by the Cabinet Secretary, I welcome the fact that, following representations by the Sikh community, the Cabinet Secretary published a letter detailing the scope of the inquiry. Will the Foreign Secretary explain, however, why there was a more than three-week delay in publishing those terms of reference? Will he further explain whether the terms of the inquiry changed over the course of the inquiry?
The terms of reference, as published in a letter from the Cabinet Secretary on 1 February, did not include specific reference to the time period covered by the investigation, yet the final report sets out a time frame of December 1983 to June 1984. Will the Foreign Secretary explain why that time frame was not made public at an earlier stage?
Many have already expressed regret that the investigation seemed to be covering only the first part of 1984, given the significance of events in the weeks and months after June 1984 and their direct link to the storming of the Golden Temple.
Will the Government therefore task the Cabinet Secretary with setting out whether he believes that there might be grounds for a full inquiry covering a longer period?
Turning to the substance of the findings, the report states that the UK military adviser in India from 8 to 17 February 1984 advised the Indian Government that
“this type of operation should only be put into effect as a last resort when all other courses of negotiation had failed”.
Based on the documents that he has seen, but for understandable reasons may not be able to publish, will the Foreign Secretary set out what type of operation was referred to in that case?
The report also sets out that a “quick analysis” by current UK military staff confirms that there were differences between the June operation and the advice from the UK military officer in February. Will the Foreign Secretary explain the nature of the quick analysis undertaken on such a central part of the investigation? Does he expect a fuller review of that aspect of the evidence to be conducted?
The report touches on the allegations that the potential sale of Westland helicopters was linked to the provision of military advice. It claims that no evidence was found to substantiate that allegation, but none of the annexed documentation so far released pertains to that issue. The report cites
“ongoing contacts between UK and Indian officials around the time of Operation Blue Star on potential defence related sales”.
Will the Foreign Secretary commit to publish this correspondence?
A few moments ago, the Foreign Secretary spoke about the exchange of correspondence between Prime Minister Gandhi and Prime Minister Thatcher, yet only Prime Minister Gandhi’s letter appears to have been published today. Will he undertake to publish the response of Prime Minister Thatcher?
Everyone in this House is aware of the continuing pain felt by the Sikh community around the world at the events of 1984—not just at the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the deaths and destruction that followed, but at the anti-Sikh violence that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi, and the emergency period that saw arbitrary arrests, and accusations of torture, rape and disappearances that are still unresolved today.
Although there are of course differences within the Sikh community on the issue of a separate Sikh state, there is unanimity in their horror at those events. For British Sikhs over recent weeks, there has been the additional burden of worry that their own Government may have been involved in those actions. The Government therefore have a responsibility—indeed, a duty—to address those very widespread concerns and fears. If they can provide answers to all those concerns and questions, we as the Opposition will support them in that endeavour.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. He is right to draw attention to the efforts of several of our colleagues, on these and other issues, always to find out the truth about events in the past as well as in our own times. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) is another example.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to refer to the anxiety about these events that many people have expressed during recent weeks. That is why we should do everything we possibly can to set out the truth of the matter, in so far as that can be discovered from documents and from discussions with officials. Taking what I said earlier as a whole, I think that the story is a reassuring one for the House, the public and the Sikh community.
The right hon. Gentleman asked certain specific questions about the process. He asked whether we would publish a list of officials. No, I do not think that that would be appropriate. It is important to protect the anonymity of some of the officials and military personnel involved. He asked whether Ministers have been spoken to. Yes, the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation included discussions with the senior Ministers of the time. He asked whether the terms of the inquiry changed. No, they did not change, except that the Cabinet Secretary’s work was expanded to cover some additional concerns that were raised during the past few weeks—we may come to some of them later during questions—but the terms of the inquiry remained the same.
There is no mystery about the dates. At the beginning, the Prime Minister asked the Cabinet Secretary to investigate the specific events—whether there had been UK involvement in the specific events leading up to and during Operation Blue Star in June 1984—and the time frame was therefore from the start of what happened at the location in question in December 1983 to the Indian operation in June 1984. As the right hon. Gentleman will have gathered from my statement, the Cabinet Secretary was able to go beyond that to say that in the 23,000 documents he has seen no circumstantial evidence of British involvement in any subsequent military operation in the Punjab. One of the questions raised is whether there could have been British military involvement in subsequent Operations Black Thunder I and II. From everything that the Cabinet Secretary has seen, having examined hundreds of files—200 files—the answer to that is no.
The relevant documents—those that can be published while, as I have said, upholding the publication principles that all British Governments have always observed—that relate specifically to Operation Blue Star have been published. There will of course be publication over the coming years of many more documents concerning British relations with India at the time. I certainly do not want to suggest that no more documents will be published that can shed light on relations between Britain and India through the 1980s. As I understand it, the 30-year rule—it will become the 20-year rule—is implemented on the basis of 30 years from files coming to an end, but such files contain documents from earlier years. Therefore, other documents will of course be published about this period. However, the relevant files have all been searched, and these are the documents that shed light on Blue Star.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the quick analysis by the military. I do not think that the word “quick” should be used in a pejorative sense. The report has been quite quick, given that concerns arose only a few weeks ago, and military experts have provided an analysis, but it is clear even to a layman that the military operation mounted was very different from any that was discussed in the documents. As I mentioned earlier, it was entirely different: it did not have the element of surprise; there were no helicopter-borne forces; and it was conducted by the Indian army, not by the paramilitary forces present when the UK military adviser was there in February. Even to the non-expert on such matters, the military operation mounted in June was clearly fundamentally different from any discussed in February 1984.
Overall, I therefore think that this report has the right degree—a strong degree—of transparency, and is a thorough and good job by the Cabinet Secretary, and we should be prepared to support it as such.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his swiftness in making a statement in the House. Most importantly, it is right to recognise that British involvement was not in any shape or form malicious, and particularly to recognise the line that the military option was going to be used only as a last resort.
None of us can change what happened yesterday, but we can change today and tomorrow. If documents cannot be released to the general public, will my right hon. Friend take the unusual step of making sure that they are released to the widest possible audience, but within a proper environment? In addition, will he work with fellow parliamentarians, Sikh organisations and the Indian high commission to start a process of truth and reconciliation so that, after 30 years, victims and families can finally start to feel a sense of justice?
I fully accept my hon. Friend’s points. It is important, in doing everything we can to establish the truth when controversies such as this arise, to help in the process of being able to move on from these terrible events and to encourage people to live and work together successfully.
I will certainly look at my hon. Friend’s point about the release of documents. That is one of the issues that the review on the release of documents can cover, because questions arise over when documents should be withheld and how the 30-year rule, which is to become the 20-year rule, is implemented. Those are fair questions that can be looked at in Sir Alex Allan’s review. We all want to ensure that the same reassuring transparency evident in the Cabinet Secretary’s report continues as further documents are released in future years.
I must take issue with the Foreign Secretary’s conclusions. In 1984, the Commons was told that a march to commemorate the thousands of massacred Sikhs was cancelled on public order grounds, but newly revealed Cabinet minutes show the real reason. They state:
“In view of the importance of the British political and commercial interests at stake, it would be necessary to explore every possibility of preventing the march from taking place. Export contracts worth £5 billion could be at stake.”
In the year in which we will commemorate the loss of 80,000 Sikhs in the 1914-18 war, is it not the least we can do to apologise to the Sikhs who were misled in 1984?
I can only explain the facts as they have been presented by the Cabinet Secretary. The evidence from the 23,000 documents is that there was no such link. The Cabinet Secretary is not saying that such matters were not of importance in wider relations or other matters of policy between India and the UK. He is saying that on this issue, that is what the documents show. We all have to work from what the documents show.
Given the distress that is felt by the Sikh community and its desire for clarity on the events at Sri Harmandir Sahib, it is obviously very regrettable that a key file was destroyed in 2009. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House at what level oversight would have been exercised or permission given for the destruction of that file? Do we need to review the procedures to ensure that such sensitive and important material is not destroyed in future?
That is an important point and the review by Sir Alex Allan that I have just announced will be able to cover it. Such decisions are made at official level and go on all the time under all Governments. They are not made on any political basis or conducted by Ministers. The implementation of the 30-year rule and, as in this case, the reviewing of documents by the Ministry of Defence at the 25-year point are continuous official processes. Judgments have to be made all the time about what is released and, as in this case, what is destroyed. We can all question that particular judgment in retrospect. The review that has been established must consider such issues so that we can all be satisfied that important files will not be destroyed in future.
This issue has caused great sadness to the Sikh community in Scotland, across the UK and across the world. That community enriches our economy, our culture and our society, and the very least that it deserves from this process is closure. It will never overcome the sadness or get those lives back. Sadly, I do not think that today’s report gives it the closure that it needs. I urge the Foreign Secretary to have a further investigation that looks into the full communications that took place between the UK Government and the Indian Government in the lead-up to the storming of the temple and during the events that followed.
I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman the extent and thoroughness of what the Cabinet Secretary has done. Twenty-three thousand documents is not a small number, even by Government standards, and 200 files is not a small number. The investigation has been conducted by the Cabinet Secretary, not by me or any other Minister. Having read the report, I have no reason to think that it is not a very thorough piece of work. I think that it helps all of us, including people in the Sikh community, whom the hon. Gentleman was quite right to speak about in the terms that he did, to understand the events and to see them in their true light. As I said earlier, I hope that it will be of some reassurance to the Sikh community, the House and the wider public.
Given the strong and deep links between the Sikh community in my constituency and India, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the reaction of Sikhs in Britain on the publication of the documents not so long ago was entirely understandable? He mentioned the possibility that further documents that reflect back on the period in question will come to light in due course. Will he use his best efforts to ensure that similar surprises are eliminated or at least mitigated to prevent such an understandable reaction happening unnecessarily in future?
I absolutely agree with my hon. and learned Friend that people were right to feel very concerned and anxious when they heard about this matter last month. I do not think that we can avoid all surprises on all issues when Government documents are published. We want such documents to be published. In fact, we want them to be published faster. This Government have brought in the 20-year rule. There will be surprises on other issues, no matter which Government or party was in power. We cannot screen them out. When issues are raised that cause great concern and when there is a legitimate demand for past events to be investigated, we should investigate them in exactly the way that we have on this occasion.
The Foreign Secretary is right to describe the loss of life in 1984 as an utter tragedy. My constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members have raised their concerns and shared their personal stories of family members who were affected. Understandably, this will not be the end of the matter. My constituents will want to have time to study the report, to be able to raise questions and to reach what other Members have described as closure on this terribly tragic matter. Will the Foreign Secretary commit to ongoing dialogue and meetings with representatives of the Sikh community so that people feel that their needs and questions have been heard?
The hon. Lady is quite right. She is right to say that people will want to read the report. It was only published to the public as I began my statement. I hope that it is widely read and discussed. She is also right to say that the process of dialogue and understanding should go on. That will happen this afternoon as the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), holds meetings. We are all happy to carry on that process in the Foreign Office, as are those in other Departments. My noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who is the Minister for faith and communities, will be involved in such meetings. That process of discussion, which may help to bring closure, will certainly go on.
My hon. Friend has managed to ask an interesting question, even though he was not expecting to. It is not obvious from the documents why we were consulted. We can all guess why it was. In facing this situation, India wanted expertise from the rest of the world. British expertise in tackling difficult security situations was renowned at that time, as it is today. British advice was therefore asked for. I think that that is the simple explanation.
As a Punjabi, having been born and brought up there and having studied in institutions run by the Sikh community back in Punjab, I fully understand the feelings and sentiments that exist. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) asked, will the Foreign Secretary commit to investigating further the points that he raised in his statement?
The hon. Gentleman understands well that the statement and the Cabinet Secretary’s report are about specific events. There are many other aspects of relations between the UK and India—many positive ones, and sometimes controversial ones. Whenever there is something that we feel should be investigated we must be prepared to do so, but I have not seen, and the Cabinet Secretary has not turned up in producing the report, other circumstantial evidence that we think requires such investigation. Of course, we do not know what evidence will ever be turned up in future, so we cannot rule out all investigations for the future.
It is important to put issues such as this in context. The incident was in 1984, just three years after the Iranian embassy siege, which the UK’s security forces dealt with successfully. Does the Foreign Secretary agree—this may answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)—that given the expertise in handling such situations that had been developed at the time, a request for help in the circumstances was completely understandable?
My right hon. Friend has answered the spontaneous question that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) asked. I am glad that this discussion is going on in the House without the need for me to intervene in it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) is right. The Iranian embassy siege had taken place a few years earlier, and it was known across the world that British forces were skilled in conducting operations with minimal loss of life. That is always the spirit in which they give advice, and from everything we can see, that was the spirit on that occasion, although it is not for us to defend or promote the decisions made 30 years ago. He is almost certainly correct.
The Foreign Secretary said that there was no evidence of Parliament being misled. As he is aware, my predecessor as MP for Slough was told by a Foreign Office Minister on 30 July 1984:
“As this is an internal Indian matter, we have not sought to discuss it with the Indian Government.” —[Official Report, 30 July 1984; Vol. 65, c. 111W.]
The rest of the paragraph answering my predecessor’s question was simply a description of the nature of that question. The Foreign Secretary has informed us that the Cabinet Secretary did not examine papers from after 5 June, so it would seem impossible to know from his inquiry whether there had been discussions with the Indian Government by 30 July. Will the Foreign Secretary agree to examine whether there were discussions with the Indian Government after 6 June, at a time when killings were continuing?
There are several parts to the answer to that question. First, the Cabinet Secretary has said that there is no evidence in the documents, even after that point, of any British involvement in subsequent military operations in the Punjab. That goes beyond June 1984. It is also clear in the letter from Mrs Gandhi that there is no reference, for instance, to thanking the UK for any participation, support or advice. From everything that we have seen, and having read the report, I do not think there would be much to add to what the Cabinet Secretary has already said.
May I add to the answer to the spontaneous question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)? It is difficult for the present generation to realise how close our relationships with India still were at that time. My father and grandfather were both born in India, and I knew Indira Gandhi very well. I visited her a fortnight before she was assassinated at her home, after the Golden Temple disaster, and asked her whether she was wise to be surrounded by the Sikh bodyguard, who looked magnificent in their uniforms. She said that they were absolutely loyal to her, that some of them had served her father, and that if she were to get rid of them it would be regarded throughout India as an insult to the other Sikhs. There was nothing sinister at all about Britain, and many Brits at various levels, being asked for advice during that terrible period.
There was a remarkable prescience in my right hon. Friend’s questions to Mrs Gandhi at that time. As always, we are not in the least bit surprised to find that he knew her, and indeed knew several generations of the Gandhi family. He is right to put the matter in that historical context. The requests for British advice, however they were then responded to, should be seen in that light.
The Foreign Secretary spoke of reassurance. I do not believe that members of the Sikh community in my area will be reassured by the fact that a UK Government were willing to provide any military support to desecrate the most holy place on this earth, or by the fact that there was no semblance of an apology today. Nor do I believe they will be reassured by files going missing, or by the fact that this was an internal inquiry. May I urge him to move swiftly for a full public and independent inquiry?
No, and I think the facts have been set out clearly by the Cabinet Secretary, a respected official and the most senior civil servant in the country, who has served Governments of all parties in a non-partisan way. These are sensitive matters, and everyone should be careful about how they phrase things. To say that the UK gave military support to desecrate the temple is obviously a wild distortion of events, and the hon. Gentleman should regret that.
Unlike the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), may I thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his statement and welcome the reassurance that it gives the UK Sikh community about these events? However, many Sikhs in my constituency not only have questions about Operation Blue Star but have wider questions about what happened in India in 1984. Most of the answers will lie in India, but will he commit to a full disclosure of any information that the Government hold about the custody, interrogation, torture, disappearance and murder of thousands of Sikhs during that period?
My hon. Friend draws attention to wider events, which others have also referred to, which caused enormous distress to the Sikh community and in which many people suffered. It is entirely understandable that people should raise those events, although they were predominantly within India and we are not able to inquire into the Indian Government’s actions. The investigation is about any question of UK involvement in one particular set of events. As I mentioned earlier, over the next few years more Government documents will be released. The Cabinet Secretary has examined the ones relating to the specific events in question, but other documents about relations between the UK and India will be released, and we will of course ensure that they are released promptly and transparently.
The Sikh community in Leicester has expressed to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who unfortunately cannot be here today, its deep concerns about the attack on the Golden Temple and the wider events of 1984. Is the Foreign Secretary confident that all the documents have been properly investigated and that the Government are publishing as many of them as possible? In this day and age, when trust in politicians and institutions is so low, I believe people want to judge for themselves.
That is a very good point and a fair question. This investigation is not by Ministers but has been presented by the Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister, and we should have confidence in that. It has involved going through a huge number of documents, and the publication of additional documents that would not normally be released, and those things should be helpful in providing the necessary assurances to people. On top of that, as I announced in my statement, there will be a review of how we release documents, to ensure that all Departments are living up to their responsibilities and doing so in a uniform way, and that includes looking at the processes for withholding information. I hope that all that, and the fact that we are moving from a 30-year rule to a 20-year rule, will fortify or produce some public confidence in the transparency of the processes.
The events of 1984 were tragic and still impact on the lives of many Sikh families in my constituency. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it would be a disservice to the victims and their families if some Members of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition made this a party political issue, rather than a pursuit of truth, transparency and closure for those families?
Of course I agree with that, but I am not accusing anybody in the House of doing anything other than seeking the truth about these matters, and it is important we do that across parties. Procedures for the release of documents have been established across parties and different Governments over a long period of time, and I hope that if we improve and change those procedures, that will also command cross-party consensus. Let us hope that Members across the House will always approach the issue in that spirit.
The core fact exposed by the release of documents a few weeks ago and in the Foreign Secretary’s statement today is that advice was given by this country in the run-up to an attack on the holiest place in Sikhism. Given that fact, and given the tremendous pain and grief over the broader events of 1984 in India, does the Foreign Secretary understand that there will be calls in the community for an apology or gesture of reconciliation from the Government, and will he give the House his response to those calls? What can the Government do internationally to get to the full truth of this matter, because the British Sikh community feels that that full truth has never been told?
There are several parts to the right hon. Gentleman’s question. I think the report should be acknowledged, even by those who criticise it, as a big step in establishing the truth about many matters. It is clear and covers many documents, and is a thorough piece of work by the Cabinet Secretary. It is important for us to support all processes of reconciliation, and to do so through the dialogue with the Sikh community which I am sure the Government will continue, as, I hope, will all political parties in this country. When it comes to judging these past events for ourselves, if I or any of us thought that this country had at any time materially contributed to unnecessary loss of life, it would be something that we should say was a mistake, for which the country should apologise. That case cannot be made for these documents, however, and we must respect what they say.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. It is a wounding time for many of my constituents, who have contacted me, and I appreciate the candour that he has displayed at the Dispatch Box today. Together, I am sure, with many other hon. Members, I would like to gather these now public documents and get them back to our constituents so that they may see for themselves. I congratulate the whole team on putting this package together. It will help calm matters down.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and as I said earlier, I hope people will read the report and documents, and see for themselves that the Government are being as transparent as possible about this matter and that there is information for people to read and digest.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. While accepting that nothing we can say or do can undo the tragic loss of life and hurt felt within the Sikh community—we in Northern Ireland know about such things over 30 years—is the Foreign Secretary certain that the Cabinet Secretary’s report and examination of all issues surrounding the Indian operation has been thorough, rigorous and factually correct, and that there has not been, nor will there be, any cover up of the facts?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that nothing any of us can do or say makes up for what so many people experienced during those events, and we must understand that. It is important that we set out what happened as we understand it as clearly and transparently as possible, and I can give a clear yes to the whole of his question.
As a former Army officer who represents a constituency with a large number of Sikhs, I thank the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister for the serious and rigorous way they have approached this issue. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that had the distinguished SAS Major’s advice been taken, there would have been a much lower level of violence? Indeed, if that advice had been taken in full, there would have been no violence at all, rather than the—to my mind—appalling behaviour of the Indian Government in the assault in Operation Metal, and the weeks and months that followed. We must remember that, for the victims of that, justice remains in very short supply.
Of course, we can never know for sure what would have happened under different circumstances or a different plan. It is clear from the Cabinet Secretary’s report that the UK military adviser gave advice about using negotiations and using force only as a last resort, and the military advice he gave was partly based on the desire to reduce casualties all round. It is important that those points are fully brought out and understood, as my hon. Friend suggests.
As chair of the all-party group for British Sikhs, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) for bringing this matter to light in the first place. I also thank the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for their swift and transparent report. Does the Foreign Secretary agree, however, that the knowledge of even one military adviser going over in February 1984 will cause anger and hurt to the British Sikh community? Will he consider the possibility of a further report into the consequences of the attack on the Sri Harmandir Sahib?
I understand how any of the matters that we are discussing can cause worry, speculation and suspicion, and we must be as transparent as possible about such things. The hon. Gentleman asks about a further report, but it is important to remember that we can only investigate and inquire into what we or our predecessors were responsible for. The Cabinet Secretary’s report makes clear that there is no evidence in the documents of any subsequent British military involvement in any military operations in the Punjab. There are many other wider issues and controversies that understandably cause people great distress to this day, but they are predominantly matters under Indian sovereignty, and part of the Indian people’s responsibility for their own affairs. There is a limit to how much the United Kingdom can inquire into those things.
In his question, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) rightly placed these issues in the context, for many British Sikhs, of a search for justice and truth about the atrocities in 1984. In the consultation his colleagues will undertake with Sikh organisations and others, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will listen to the wider issues and that he will go beyond the national organisations to listen to local organisations, too?
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that Coventry has a relatively large and very successful Sikh community. He will also probably know that for the past 30 years, since the incident happened, I have been lobbied in this House repeatedly by the Sikh community. We had hoped that his statement today would bring closure, but I fear it will not. One of the problems is the military files that have been destroyed and much of what I have received from the Sikh community recently has been on that point. His statement today said that that “included one file on the provision of military advice to the Indian authorities on their contingency plans”. Only some of those other destroyed military documents have been found in other files—only some. Can he reassure the House that the bulk of the destroyed files did not relate to the critical period of February and June, and then immediately after June?
As set out in my statement, there was the destruction by the Ministry of Defence of one file in 2009, but it has turned out that some of the documents that would have been in it are in other files around the rest of Government. The reassuring thing, I think, is that all of the documents show a consistent picture. There is not, in the Cabinet Secretary’s analysis of these documents, something that remains unexplained. It is a consistent picture: of the one visit in February 1984 by one military adviser; of no decision by the British Government to give any further assistance beyond that, either in nature or in time; and of the actual operation in June 1984 being very different from the advice given by that one UK military adviser. All the documents are consistent with that in every Department across the whole of Government in all 200 files. So, when we think about it in that way, it is a consistent picture and it should be reassuring.
May I commend my right hon. Friend on a very frank statement? I am afraid that I must press him on one point. During the statement, he said that “the adviser’s assessment made it clear that a military operation should be put into effect only as a last resort when all attempts at negotiation had failed.” It is therefore clear that there was an assessment in February 1984 of the potential military operation. One thing that causes such hurt to the Sikh community across the world was the use of artillery, both at one of the holiest sites in Sikhism and in the wider region. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that no British adviser, either this one or anyone else, ever gave advice that artillery should be used, and that, insofar as any advice was given, it was that a military solution was not the right way forward?
I think I can be reassuring on that point. The advice was that military solutions—I think British military advisers would give this advice anywhere in the world—are only for when all negotiations have failed. It also referred specifically to the importance of speed and surprise, and to the use of helicopter-borne troops to achieve that and minimise casualties. That would not be consistent with the use of artillery, with all the consequent collateral damage and destruction caused by the use of heavy weapons.
Those of us who have had the honour to visit the Golden Temple know that it is a place of peace and tranquillity, and that its symbolism is very significant. When the Prime Minister went to India, he visited Amritsar. He also went to Jallianwala Bagh and signed a message of condolence relating to an atrocity carried out by the British military in 1919. Would it not be appropriate for us to say something about apologising for the fact that there was minor, limited complicity in giving military advice to the Indian authorities, because otherwise it will be misinterpreted? The Prime Minister did the right thing when he went to India. Can we do something now for the Sikh community?
As the hon. Gentleman says, the Prime Minister did the right thing in making that statement on other tragic events near Amritsar decades before and in expressing this country’s regret for that. That was absolutely the right thing and I think across the whole House we support that. He did that because of Britain’s responsibility for those events. Apologies go with responsibility and imply a responsibility. As I said earlier, if any of us thought that any British assistance had contributed to unnecessary loss of life and to suffering in this case, or in any other case, we would all want to say that that was a mistake and for the country to make an apology. But that is not what is established by the Cabinet Secretary’s report. The picture is very different from that, and we all have to base our opinions, in the end, on the facts.
My constituency is also home to a large Sikh community, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the huge contribution they make to local and national life. I am pleased that the Government have investigated these issues so promptly. However, may I ask the Foreign Secretary what further steps he will take to reassure our Sikh community that this investigation has indeed been fully transparent and comprehensive?
It is important to explain the investigation, and that is what I am doing today. I am sure that my hon. Friend will encourage his constituents to read the report. It is not a report just for Parliament to read; it is a report for the public to read. It is published on the Government’s website and it is easy for Members of Parliament to make copies available. People will be able to make judgments for themselves on its transparency and on how much reassurance to take from it. I hope they will be reassured that in this country we do look into such documents and respond to demands for investigations. We asked the highest ranking civil servant in the country to lead those investigations. We ensured that officials from 30 years ago were interviewed and that tens of thousands of documents were examined. There are not many countries in the world that have that level of transparency relating to events in the past, let alone in the present. We should say that those are good attributes of our country, and that they are good examples of how we face up to issues from the past.
May I take the Foreign Secretary back to the answer he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson)? On page 2 of his report, he rather glibly says that under a 25-year procedure a lot of Ministry of Defence files were destroyed. This issue is not new and concerns have been expressed ever since 1984. Therefore, what was going through the minds of people in the MOD when they destroyed those files? Only some of them have been discovered in parallel files kept in other Departments. Why, at no stage in 1984, did any Minister feel fit to tell the House of Commons that a British military adviser had been sent to India? I was a Member of the House at that time and no such reference was ever made, so it was unlikely that any question would have been raised.
It is hard to judge—1984 was a few years before I was a Member of this House—why questions were not asked and statements not given. I do not think that we can go back and judge that now. The hon. Gentleman said that I had said glibly in the report that the file was destroyed, but it is the Cabinet Secretary’s report, not my report. The Cabinet Secretary is reporting the fact, which is that the MOD destroyed that file in 2009. It is not for me to explain that. That happened under the previous Administration and was carried out by an official; it was not a political or ministerial decision. It raises a sufficient question such that, in the review I announced today, we have to look at such rules and how these things are carried out. That is part of what Sir Alex Allan will examine.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), will the Foreign Secretary do all he can to continue building links with the Punjab, both politically and economically, and encourage his colleagues across Government to recognise the enormous contribution that the British Sikh population make economically and socially?
As our discussion today reminds us, the importance of that contribution is understood across all parties in the House. Sikhs in Britain make an enormous contribution to this country, as is widely recognised in our national life, and it is something we want to continue and see flourish in the future. In our minds in this House, none of these controversies detracts from the importance of that contribution, and nor should they ever.
There is real concern, distress and grief among the Sikh community in my constituency over the horrific events in June 1984. The correspondence released last month indicated that the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe, agreed to advise the Indian Government, and the Foreign Secretary has confirmed that today. While my Sikh constituents were shocked that that advice was given, they are also seeking further clarity about the contact between the British and Indian Governments at the time. With that in mind, will the Foreign Secretary commit to disclose the full transcript of the Cabinet Secretary’s interview with Lord Howe?
The Cabinet Secretary decided what to disclose in his report, and that included additional documents that would not normally be disclosed and which gave additional details confirming the picture set out in his report and my statement. While preparing the report, he and his officials had discussions with officials and senior Ministers, and it was for him to set out to the Prime Minister, as he did in his report, what he recommended for publication. I think that that provides a full, transparent picture, and that he made the right judgment in what he said.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Sikhs in the community I have the honour to represent still feel that the scars and wounds left by the events of 1984 run deep and remain open, so the need for transparency is patently clear. On the nature of the advice given, was this a unique set of circumstances with regard to India, or are there examples of other countries seeking military advice of the type sought in this case?
It seems to have been unique in the context of operations in the Punjab—this is the only such occurrence the Cabinet Secretary has discovered—but globally there will, of course, have been many other occasions in the 1980s when Governments of other countries asked the United Kingdom for military advice, and occasionally Ministers have to deal with that today, so it is not unusual for a foreign country with friendly relations with the UK to ask for military advice.
According to the Heywood report, the recommendation and decision to agree to the request were based on advice from the British high commission that it would be good for the bilateral relationship, whereas refusal would not be understood by the Indian Prime Minister. However, the report does not tell us—perhaps the Foreign Secretary can—whether the high commission’s recommendation gave consideration to the special sensitivity and sacredness of the Golden Temple site or whether the British Government’s decision to accept the advice gave consideration to the special status of the site?
Further documents, which the hon. Gentleman can study, have been published and attached to the report, and that is the information we have on the motivations and decisions of Ministers and diplomats at the time. Everyone can read the documents for themselves. It is evident from the UK military adviser’s report that he advised that military action in this—and presumably in any other—context should be taken only if negotiations failed. I imagine people would have been conscious of the great significance of the site and the delicacy of the situation, but we can only go for sure on the documents that are there and what they say, and he can read them like the rest of us.
I commend the Foreign Secretary and Cabinet Secretary for a job—and a neutral job—well done. Like the Father of House, my father was born in India. In the constituency I have the honour to represent, there is a large Sikh community. I have visited the gurdwaras, and I have spoken to members of the community and answered their questions where I can. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that UK bilateral relations with India and many other countries around the world mean that, as in the past, we are regularly asked for assistance and bilateral advice by other countries, especially those dealing with difficult situations, and that we afford such assistance where we can?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I just said to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), over the decades we have been asked for military assistance and advice. It is not always possible to discuss specific instances on the Floor of the House, but when we receive such requests and decide to give assistance, this being the 21st century, we apply high standards of human rights considerations and of course always try to minimise loss of life, but it is not uncommon for us to receive such requests.
When these documents came to light, there was a palpable sense of betrayal, anger and incredulity within the Sikh community in my constituency. It is clear from today that many questions remain unanswered, and the Foreign Secretary has conceded that some documents were destroyed. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), he ruled out an independent inquiry, but would he not at least accept that an independent, judge-led inquiry would allay any suspicions of a cover-up, allow former Ministers to give evidence in full and enable us to determine whether a full apology would be appropriate?
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read the report, because I do not think it is possible to read it and conclude that a cover-up has taken place. It is the very opposite of that: the most senior civil servant in the country has considered the matter in a dispassionate and non-partisan way; he has been as open as possible with documents; and he has shown that all the evidence and documents paint a consistent picture. In those circumstances, it is not possible to justify additional inquiries piled on top of inquiries. People might be interested in other, related issues beyond the scope of the investigation—it is wholly legitimate for them to pursue them—but on the nature of British involvement in the events leading up to June 1984, I think the Cabinet Secretary’s report gives a clear answer.
I think that most Members would thank the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary for the speed of the inquiry and the latter for making such a full statement. I am surprised to learn, however, that Government files are routinely destroyed after 25 years—five years before they would otherwise be released under the 30-year rule. Was the Foreign Secretary as surprised as me by that? Furthermore, if we move to a 20-year rule, will the 25-year rule remain in place, meaning that all files will be available for publication?
The interaction between the move from a 30-year rule to a 20-year rule and the way Departments treat their files after 25 years raise interesting questions, as it would make the 25-year rule rather a moot point. That is why there is value in the further review I have announced today to ensure consistency across all Departments and to ensure that lessons that need to be learned from when documents have been withheld or published can be learned collectively across the whole of Government. I encourage my hon. Friend to await the outcome of that review for a definitive answer to his question.
The Foreign Secretary has been at pains to stress that the advice given by the British military adviser was not, in fact, followed and that it would therefore be inappropriate to take responsibility for Operation Blue Star and to issue an apology for it. None the less, it was countenanced to give advice; indeed, advice was given about how to storm the holiest site in Sikhism. Is that not something that the Foreign Secretary should apologise for?
I go back to my earlier answers. I think it is fair to put it this way. If any of us, in any part of the House, thought that Britain had contributed to serious or unnecessary loss of life elsewhere in the world, it would be right to acknowledge a mistake and to say that the country apologises for that, but when the country clearly does not have responsibility for it, that is a different context. We have to go on the facts, and I think the facts are clear. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is really asking us to judge to a finer degree the decisions of Ministers at the time, which I feel, 30 years later and in a different Government, is very hard to do and could be unfair. I therefore stick to what I said earlier on this.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, which I am confident will be very reassuring to the long-established and highly respected Sikh community in Kettering. None of us should ever forget that 83,000 Sikhs gave their lives in both world wars for His Majesty’s armed forces.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is important not to put two and two together and make five? Will he confirm the rank of the military adviser? Does he also agree that the Iranian hostage siege operation and the raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar were completely different exercises? The Iranian hostage siege operation was a precise, surgical military engagement involving a small number of armed soldiers and a small number of hostages, and was remarkably successful. The raid on the Golden Temple involved artillery, main battle tanks, helicopter gunships and the execution of prisoners. It is completely inconceivable that Her Majesty’s Government would send any military adviser to another Government to recommend an assault of that kind.
There is a great deal in what my hon. Friend says. It has been the culture of the British armed forces for a long time to avoid, wherever possible, civilian loss of life and to minimise casualties in any operations, or anything similar to them, such as those to which he referred. There is therefore a very big distinction between those two operations; he is absolutely right about that. I will not give any information that identifies the officer concerned. My hon. Friend is quite right to refer to the huge contribution of Sikhs—indeed, of Indians, Sikh and non-Sikh—in the world wars. We owe a great deal to them, and we must remember that on many occasions over the coming years, on the centenaries of the main events of the first world war.
Given the contribution that the Sikh community has made—not only in Coventry, but nationally and internationally, and, more importantly, economically to this country and in two world wars—at the very least we owe those in that community an inquiry. This investigation is a step in the right direction, but we should have an inquiry. More importantly, will the Foreign Secretary say what the Cabinet knew? Did the Cabinet take the decision to send the adviser? Who consulted the Cabinet?
It is clear from the documents that are published that this was a decision of the Foreign and Defence Secretaries at the time, in consultation with the Prime Minister. That was how the decision was taken. On the subject of inquiries, these are the documents and the facts, as set out in the Cabinet Secretary’s report. There is nothing in that report or in those documents to suggest that some form of inquiry would find any different information or come to any different conclusion.
Many Sikhs in my constituency are concerned not just about the detail and nature of the advice given, but about the principle that the British Government were prepared to advise another Government on an attack upon a holy shrine. If we are to get reconciliation, would the Foreign Secretary not be prepared to concede, first, that at least it was an error of judgment by the then Government and that an apology is justified, and, secondly, that there must be procedures in place to prevent any such repetition in future?
Thankfully there are no parallel situations that we are dealing with in the world today. We do receive requests—now, in the 21st century—for military advice or co-operation. As I mentioned earlier, in responding to those we are extremely conscious of all considerations of human rights and avoiding loss of life. These are paramount factors in how the British Government, as we practise our policies today, evaluate requests for assistance from other countries, whether through their militaries or any other agencies. These policies have taken shape over the years, and it is very hard to speculate about exactly what considerations were in the minds of Ministers 30 years ago.
On the question of 30 years ago, all we can do is be as open and transparent as possible and let people evaluate the facts for themselves. It would not be unusual or unknown, as I said, for foreign Governments to ask for military advice. What is clear from this case is that the military advice that was given was designed to minimise casualties and to stress that military action should take place only if all negotiations had failed.