This year, the commemorations of the centenary of World War I will recognise the contribution of the approximately 130,000 Sikh soldiers who fought for the British Army in the Great War. These martial links, alongside the historical connections between the Sikhs and the British monarchy (dating back to the close bond between Maharajah Duleep Singh and Queen Victoria), have meant that among minority groups in the UK, the British have often regarded Sikhs as a “favoured community”.
This favouritism has served British Sikhs well over the years, for instance allowing for the successful negotiation of opt-out clauses relating to wearing the turban instead of motorcycle helmets, as many policy makers in the 1970s and 80s retained a collective memory of turbaned Sikh soldiers fighting for the British army.
Indeed, following the events of Operation Blue Star in 1984, in which the Golden Temple and surrounding historical Sikh Gurdwaras were stormed and severely damaged, many in the Sikh diaspora began to disassociate themselves from the Indian state, being unable to understand why their homeland’s government had felt that there had been no other option but to storm their holiest shrine.
But thirty years on from Operation Blue Star, letters disclosed under the 30 year rule and detailed by the Stop Deportations website on 13 January 2014 have sent shockwaves through Sikh circles. A key paragraph in one of the letters indicates that a British SAS officer had assisted in the planning of the raid with the agreement of the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher:
The Indian authorities recently sought British advice over a plan to remove Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Foreign Secretary decided to respond favourably to the Indian request and, with the Prime Minister’s agreement, an SAD [sic] officer has visited India and drawn up a plan which has been approved by Mrs Gandhi.
Although it is not yet known if the plan drawn up by the SAS officer was implemented, or if multiple visits were made, the tone of the letter also highlights that the British authorities were well aware of the sensitivities of becoming involved in the operation:
An operation by the Indian authorities at the Golden Temple … [might also] 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.
Finally, the decision to instigate Operation Blue Star has often been described as a last resort, with the general who led the assault on the temple, Lieutenant General KS Brar stating: “It was a last-minute operation because the prime minister was negotiating with the Sikh leaders to arrive at an amicable solution. As a last resort, she ordered the operation.” The fact that the letters disclosed are dated February 1984 indicates that the operation may in fact have been planned well in advance, a notion which has been presented for some time in various Sikh circles.
Why would the British government become involved in an operation which they knew would impact directly on the British Sikh community? In the days following last week’s disclosures, the alleged assistance provided to the Indian government has been linked by some to Indo-British arms deals which were taking place at the time, in particular the Westlands helicopter deal. If these allegations are true, it would suggest that in the case of Operation Blue Star, economic concerns outweighed those of the British (Sikh) people.
Recent surveys of British Sikhs have found a large majority are proud of being British and of living in Britain. My own survey of religious transmission practices among 18-30 year old British Sikhs found that more than 75% of respondents identified as British. Similarly, the British Sikh Report 2013 found that 95% of their respondents were proud of being born or living in Britain. It will be interesting to monitor how these feelings are affected by these revelations.
Immediate reactions to the disclosures on social media from British Sikhs highlighted feelings of betrayal, with young British-born Sikhs in particular stating that they were now reassessing their British-ness. Many mentioned the contribution their grandfathers and great grandfathers had made to World War I and World War II, and expressed shock that these contributions could mean so little. Having rejected their Indian identity as a consequence of the events of 1984, many stated that they now did not feel totally British either.
This highlights that an individual’s identification with a nation state depends primarily on how that state protects their interests. British Sikhs identify as British because their relationship with the UK has so far been mutually beneficial, with Sikhs contributing fully to British society and Britain providing Sikhs with opportunities to do so. If the disclosures from the 1980s are true, it means that in 1984 the British state did not protect the interests of its Sikh citizens; as a result, these citizens may now turn to identities which appear more secure and stable, in particular religious identities.
If the disclosures about Britain’s role in operation Blue Star are true, it may drive a new emotional distance between British-born Sikhs and the country with which they have so far identified – and it will take an immense effort on the part of the British government to rebuild their long-standing trust.