Government documents from 1984 released after a tribunal ruling show that the then UK Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe wanted to ban Sikh demonstrations to protect Britain’s trade and relations with India.
The move by Howe was made despite the assessment by the Metropolitan Police that there was little risk of violence at them. These revelations cast doubt on British government’s argument for keeping the files classified; that releasing these files would damage Britain’s relations with India. Instead, the revelations could be hugely damaging to the reputation of the Thatcher government, especially in the eyes of British Sikhs.
The documents were released by the Cabinet Office to investigative journalist Phil Miller who has written about their contents here: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/ev84ke/thatchers-foreign-secretary-wanted-to-ban-protests-that-endangered-arms-deals
Key points emerging from the documents include:
- Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet had a ‘clear preference’ for a ban on Sikh marches
- Sir Geoffrey Howe knew that this was against the law (Public Order Act 1936 bans freedom of assembly only if there is a risk of violence)
- He tried to get the law changed, exploring the idea of a discretionary power for the Home Secretary to ban marches that threatened ‘British interests abroad’
- The Foreign Office explicitly warned that £5 billion (over £16 billion today) of British trade contracts with India ‘would be potentially at risk’
- The Home Secretary Leon Brittan was against this, saying it was not an ‘acceptable approach’ to ban a march ‘because of potential damage to our overseas interests’
- This carried on into 1985 when the Environment Secretary conceded that it would be beyond his power to ban a Sikh demonstration in Hyde Park ‘solely on the grounds that the Indian government takes a poor view of Sikh demonstrations in this country’
- The present government has spent at least £13,000 even before the tribunal to keep these papers hidden, and is still keeping some intelligence-related papers secret
There seems to be little, if anything, that is significant enough to threaten Indo-British diplomatic relations more than 30 years on that can be found in these files based on this new information. However, they do show that members of the Thatcher government were willing to deny British citizens a fundamental right for the sake of maintaining relations with a government that had massacred thousands of Sikhs at their holiest shrine in India.
For more information, interview opportunities or Sikh community reaction to this news, email media@SikhPA.com.