Margaret Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe and Leon Brittan held Britain’s three great offices of State thirty years ago.
The idea that they could have allowed the SAS to get involved in the Indian government’s attempt to retake the Golden Temple in Amritsar by force would have seemed fanciful just hours ago. But the fact that they did (it’s just the extent of the SAS involvement we’re unaware of at this stage) isn’t just a matter that should concern those of us from a Sikh background. It has implications for everyone.
The correspondence between the private secretaries for the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary of 1984 is shocking in its frankness. One of the letters states:
“An operation by the Indian authorities at the Golden Temple could, in the first instance, exacerbate the communal violence in the Punjab.
“It might also, therefore increase tension in the Indian community here, particularly if knowledge of the SAS involvement were to become public. We have impressed upon the Indians the need for security; and knowledge of the SAS officer’s visit and of his plan has been tightly held both in India and in London. The Foreign Secretary would be grateful if the contents of this letter could be strictly limited to those who need to consider the possible domestic implications.”
I was only thirteen at the time but can recall the tensions and concerns within the Sikh community. Looking back on it now, I wonder if Howe, Brittan and Thatcher were emboldened by the thirty year rule. Would they have made this decision if nearly a million British Sikhs had been aware of it back then?
But let’s take Amritsar and this particular event out of the equation for a moment. In the modern world, is it really acceptable to hide behind the 30 year rule to keep military operations and who knows what else covert? Politicians need to have a long hard think about this.
Making decisions in the knowledge that you’ll be dead when the world can hold you to account for them, or at least very elderly, is no way for holders of major offices of state to behave.
I hasten to add we need to wait and see the details of this particular case, but the secrecy is damaging enough.
There have been constitutional changes to the 30 year rule on recent years, including FOI act. But none of these changes prevented thirty years from elapsing in the case of one of the holiest shrines in the world, and the deaths of hundreds (some say over a thousand) people.