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Operation Bluestar: AgustaWestland at centre of controversy again

Thursday, 16 January 2014 - 7:20pm IST | Place: London | Agency: PTI

It may be a case of history repeating itself as the defence company at the heart of parliamentary queries over Britain's involvement in Operation Bluestar is none other than AgustaWestland, which recently lost out on a lucrative contract to supply helicopters to India over allegations of corruption.

Britain's Opposition Labour MP Tom Watson, responsible for publicising recently declassified documents that imply British collusion in planning Operation Bluestar 30 years ago, asked British Prime Minister David Cameron to directly question the ministers in charge at the time under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher if help was offered to India in order to secure a helicopter deal for the firm.

"On his Amritsar inquiry, instead of ordering the civil servant to investigate, why does the Prime Minister not just ask Lords Geoffrey Howe and Leon Brittan what they agreed with Margaret Thatcher and whether it had anything to do with the Westland helicopter deal at the time," Watson said in the House of Commons yesterday.

Cameron, who has instructed his Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood to inquire into Britain's role, if any, in the 1984 operation, dismissed any link with defence deals as a "conspiracy theory".

"I fear that the honourable gentleman might have gone a conspiracy theory too fast on this one. Look, it is very important that we get to the bottom of what happened, and that is why I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to lead this review," Cameron said in the House of Commons.

"He will establish this urgently and establish the facts. The process is underway. I want it to be fast; I want it to find out the truth; and the findings will be made public," he said.

"I remember and will never forget my visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It is one of the most beautiful and serene places anywhere on this planet, and what happened at Amritsar 30 years ago led to a tragic loss of life," Cameron said, reminiscing his last year's India visit.

"It remains a source of deep pain to Sikhs everywhere. Prime Minister Singh, in my view, was absolutely right to apologise for what has happened, and I completely understand the concerns that these papers raise, so let us wait for the outcome of the review by Jeremy Heywood," he said.

Cameron yesterday appeared to downplay the likelihood of an inquiry finding evidence that Britain was to blame for the operation.

"I do not want to prejudge the outcome, but I would note that, so far, it has not found any evidence to contradict the insistence by senior Indian army commanders responsible at the time that, on the responsibility for this, it was planned and carried out solely by the Indian army. It is important to put that, but we do need an inquiry, so that we can get to the bottom of this," he said. 

Besides letters dating back to February 1984 that indicate Britain's Special Air Service (SAS) commanders may have been involved in training Indian officials for Operation Bluestar, the recently released documents by the National Archives have a series of correspondence linked to the lucrative sale of defence equipment to India.

A background briefing document describes India as "a large and growing market for both commercial and defence sales. British exports in 1983 exceeded 800 million pounds and since 1975 India has bought British defence equipment worth over 1.25 billion pounds."

Some of the letters exchanged between Thatcher and her trade and industry minister Norman Tebbit shed light on the role the British government had played in securing a deal for the Indian government to acquire 21 AgustaWestland helicopters using 50 million pounds of British aid money.

These aircraft were intended for the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) at the time and included a promise to acquire more later for VIP use, similar to the deal recently cancelled by the Indian government.

"The Minister of Overseas Development points out that there is a weak developmental case for the proposal; he is sceptical of the commercial case; but he notes that there are some important political considerations which have to be taken into account," reads a confidential note addressed to Thatcher. 


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