Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary tried to ban protests by British Sikhs to protect a £5bn trade deal with India, according to recently declassified documents.
The top secret government memos were released this week after a four-year freedom of information battle by British Sikh campaigners.
They reveal how Sir Geoffrey Howe wanted to stop British Sikh activists, who were agitating for an independent homeland in India, from demonstrating in London.
When faced with opposition to the ban from the Metropolitan Police and the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan, Howe threatened to change the law on public protests, the documents reveal.
The papers relate to secret discussions that happened in November 1984, just weeks after Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
Her murder was a reaction to the Indian army’s assault earlier that year on the Sikh holy shrine known as the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which was occupied by armed disaffected Sikhs.
Sikh activists say hundreds of innocent pilgrims, some from the UK, died in the army assault called Operation Bluestar and that thousands more Sikhs were later killed by Hindu mobs across India in retaliation for Gandhi’s assassination.
Last night a Sikh MP from Birmingham described Bluestar and the ensuing Sikh killings as the “Srebenica of the Sikh nation” and called for a public inquiry into the UK government’s role.
Preet Gill, Labour MP for Edgbaston, said: “I’m shocked and angry that a British minister tried to use their position to dictate policy on peaceful public protests in this country.
“More worryingly it appears this effort to appease India is still an issue.
“Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police chief, recently expressed concerns about an annual Sikh gathering in Hyde Park, saying she’d been in contact with the Indian Embassy in London who were opposed to it.”
The documents show how Thatcher’s Cabinet had a “clear preference for a ban on Sikh marches” despite such action being in breach of the Public Order Act 1936, which allows a ban on freedom of assembly only if there is a risk of violence.
One 1984 government internal memo penned by Sir Geoffrey Howe’s private secretary Leonard Appleyard says: “Such a march would also undoubtedly have serious repercussions in India and could help to inflame inter-communal feeling there.
“Contracts which would be potentially at risk from a trade boycott amount to some £5bn.”
The Foreign Office further noted: “If the terms of the Public Order Act 1936 do not permit the Home Secretary to implement the clear preference of Cabinet for a ban on Sikh marches, Sir Geoffrey Howe considers that there is a strong case for including within the review of the Public Order Act a serious look at this problem.
“At first sight, it would seem to be possible to justify to Parliament a discretionary power for the Home Secretary in this area on the grounds of the real dangers that marches can, in certain circumstances, pose for British interests abroad, as well as law and order here.”
The UK is home to more than 400,000 Sikhs and the West Midlands region is seen as the international nerve centre for Sikh separatists calling for an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan.
A Scottish-born Sikh, Jagtar Johal, is currently in Punjab police custody, accused of financing the killing of Hindu leaders in 2017 by alleged Sikh militants in Punjab.
Shamsher Singh, of the National Sikh Youth Federation in Birmingham, said: “Many Sikhs in the UK don’t trust the UK government to ever fully reveal the true extent of its involvement in Bluestar.
“A lot of the papers have been redacted and we have no faith in a public inquiry which many Sikhs fear will be a whitewash. We have to build our own institutions to get justice.”