Friday, January 17, 2014

UK involvement with deadly attack at Golden Temple in 1984? Why the thought is troubling within Cultural Heritage

This week the world was shocked by news that the United Kingdom (UK) might have had involvement in the in the 1984 attack of the Golden Temple located in the Punjab region of India.


The Golden Temple (formal name Hari Mandir) is located in Amritsar in the Punjab state.  Originally it was a lake where the Buddha came to meditate, and 2 millennia later, the founder of the Sikh religion Guru Nanak (1469-1539) came to the lake to pray, and his disciples frequented the site after his death (Sacred Sites 2014).

The fifth Sikh built the temple in the 17th Century, attracting pilgrims throughout the ages.

Operation Blue Star

On June 1st 1984, thousands of pilgrims gathered at Amritsar to celebrate the martyrdom of Guru Arjan on June 3rd.
Police snipers fire the Sikh head of Damdami Taksal, Sant Jarnail Singh Bindranwale (who they thought as of a radical) and missed.  The government ordered a curfew of Amritsar that night, trapping thousands of pilgrims in the Golden Temple complex.
Aftermath of Operation Blue Star
On June 4, 1984, the army began firing on the complex, beginning a 5 hour long gun battle.
June 5, 1984, the army invaded the complex, initiating Operation Blue Star.  Over the next day, tanks invaded the complex, the army shelled parts of the complex and about 400 people were killed, some of them pilgrims.

Current Controversy

Now with news that the UK might have signed off on the operation, people are outraged, and the Prime Minister has ordered an investigation to determine if there is evidence to prove involvement.  The criticism comes after a Member of Parliament (MP) Tom Watson cited two letters tying Margaret Thatcher's government to the operation.  According to sources, Mr. Watson said he saw two recently declassified letters signed by Margaret Thatcher that authorized Special Air Services (SAS) to assist the Indian government at the time (BBC 2014), and that they gave military advice to the government on how to take over the Sikhs (Times of India 2014).

The Prime Minister David Cameron, ordered an investigation into the claims (BBC 2014; Times of India 2014).

Why is this possible news troubling?

First, not only are British Sikhs concerned, but others are also concerned that the UK was involved in an incident where human rights were violated, which led to a massive loss of life of innocent pilgrims.

Second, related to the first point of concern, during times of conflict, it is frowned upon to target historical, cultural, and/or religious sites, hence the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (UNESCO 1954).  The opening text of the Hague states the following:

The High Contracting Parties,
Recognizing that cultural property has suffered grave damage during recent armed conflicts and that, by reason of the developments in the technique of warfare, it is in increasing danger of destruction;
Being convinced that damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world;
Considering that the preservation of the cultural heritage is of great importance for all peoples of the world and that it is important that this heritage should receive international protection;
Guided by the principles concerning the protection of cultural property during armed conflict, as established in the Conventions of The Hague of 1899 and of 1907 and in the Washington Pact of 15 April, 1935;
Being of the opinion that such protection cannot be effective unless both national and international measures have been taken to organize it in time of peace;
Being determined to take all possible steps to protect cultural property
In order to ensure the safety of cultural sites, countries should place an emblem, a blue shield, at these sites, giving these sites immunity to attack.

Some problems of this convention include:
  • Both parties need to ratify the convention
  • Parties need to agree what sites should have immunity
  • An agreement does not necessarily protect these sites if, let's say, your enemy begins using a site for strategic purposes and your allies become targets
In the case of India, the Hindu ruling party and the Sikhs were not individual state parties and would not fall under any understanding under the Hague, but since India ratified the Convention in 1958, they were aware that targeting cultural sites militarily would cause great damage both to human life and cultural heritage.

The UK on the other hand, up to this day, has not ratified the connection, probably in recognition of some of the problems I outlined above.  This also suggests, however, that the UK does not concern itself with the safeguard of cultural sites, but that could be a stretch.  Using this theory that the UK did not sign on to the convention, and therefore does not worry over the significance of cultural sites, it would not be surprising that they might be involved in Operation Blue Star, because they would have nothing to lose in doing so.

Sources (To be formatted later)