Coming clean on Amritsar 2 June 2014

The siege of the Golden Temple in 1984 still casts a long shadow. Ishmael Cohen argues the British government must come clean on its involvement.

On Tisha B’Av, Jewish communities globally fast to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was destroyed twice: first by the Babylonians in the centuries before Jesus Christ, and then once again by the Romans in 70 CE.

The memory of the destruction of the Temple, the desecration in the most literal form of the word, is incredibly potent. It echoes through thousands of years and is still evocative, still powerful. There is no Empire of Babylon and the Romans are now a vague memory of Europe, but the trauma of the event is not so easily forgotten.

It is much the same for any religious believer and their holy-of-holies. For the Sikh, it is the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Also known as the Harmandir Sahib, it is the most beloved and important gurdwara in all of India and beyond to Sikh devotees.

Golden Temple in Amritsar

The Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple, is the holiest gurdwara in Sikhism

In the early 1980s, a series of events took place that culminated in what is sometimes called the Golden Temple Massacre. The Indian government, responding to threats (real, perceived or otherwise) from a Sikh group that had established itself in the Golden Temple approved a military operation in June 1984.

The operation targeted gurdwaras across the country, including the Golden Temple, on one of the most important pilgrimage dates in the year. The resulting death toll was in the thousands, though never determined with accuracy. Thousands of Sikh devotees were killed, in and around the most holy temple in the Sikh tradition, on a day of pilgrimage – few things can be as sacrilegious.

The operation was so abhorrent to Sikhs that Sikh members of the Indian Army mutinied and left their positions, unable to stomach the actions of their state. Two Sikhs in the service of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, assassinated her in retaliation. This had its own ramifications: Hindu supporters of Indira Gandhi took to the streets in a wave of anti-Sikh violence which saw thousands more Sikhs lose their lives.

The episode is a bloody and dark patch in India’s history and is one of the most deadly incidents of communal violence and bloodshed. Only now, nearly three decades on, is India beginning the long path to healing. Slowly, those responsible for the operation and the subsequent anti-Sikh riots are beginning to be held to justice. Yet much like the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the incident will burn in the memory of Sikhs for generations to come.

It is troubling then, deeply so, that there are potential links between the British government of the era (led by Thatcher) and the operation, known as Operation Blue Star. Records of cabinet meetings are released after thirty years, and in early 2014, minutes from the governmental meetings of 1984 were available in the National Archive. The government usually withholds anything considered to be too secretive to release but it saw little controversy in some minutes related to a single SAS officer sent to India to advise on Operation Blue Star.

The very suggestion that Britain was involved in the operation was enough for British Sikhs to demand further investigation. A rushed and less than thorough Whitehall report was then issued, absolving the Thatcher government of any blame and anything but a distant and passing connection to the massacre. This provided little satiation to Sikhs, and many responded that this was not enough. Other organisations and MPs supported calls for an in-depth and fuller investigation.

The British government must take its involvement in the massacre seriously. It must recognise the enormity and scale of the incident. Britain’s response must take full weight of the incident, and even the most distant relationship to the event has to be explored.

It may turn out that Britain did in fact have a negligible role in the planning and execution of Operation Blue Star. This being the case, a fully exhaustive and in-depth investigation needs to demonstrate it.

If Britain did have a greater role, it must be acknowledged. Anything short of this is an injustice to all those who lost their lives in the massacre, and it is an injustice to the Sikh citizens of Britain.

This article is from Issue 7 of On Religion – a quarterly magazine that provides informed commentary and coverage of religion in the UK. To get more articles like this and support our work, please subscribe to our print magazine:

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About Ishmael Cohen

Ishmael Cohen is currently completing an MA in Cultural Studies. He is interested in how religion, faith, and politics interact with media and popular culture.

all, Britain, Opinion, Sikhism