Within hours of Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher chastised the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for providing a platform to Sikh extremists in Britain, amidst fears that the coverage could lead to India cancelling existing defence contracts.
Documents declassified and released by the National Archives on Thursday indicate the scale of alarm in British circles over the tensions caused in India by the late pro-Khalistan leader Jagjit Singh Chauhan’s remarks on BBC before Gandhi’s assassination.
The documents related to the assassination and preparations for Thatcher’s visit to New Delhi for the cremation include profiles of leading figures in the then Indian government and assessments of India’s internal situation.
Thatcher wrote to BBC chairman Stuart Young on November 2, 1984: “The Home Office has already had occasion to draw your attention to the government’s concern about the platform which the BBC has provided for a very small minority of Sikh extremists in this country.”
“We now have specific advice from our High Commissioner that this is not only damaging our relations with India, but endangering the security of British citizens in India.”
Thatcher added: “I do not question the BBC’s editorial independence, but I would be failing in my duty if I did not remind you of the responsibility that goes with that independence.”
Young replied the same day that Chauhan had been banned from appearing on BBC.
After Rajiv Gandhi took over as PM after the assassination, the then British high commissioner to India, Robert Wade-Grey, reported the growing anger in New Delhi over Chauhan’s remarks, and called for immediate diplomatic and political action.
He wrote to London: “I have learnt on good authority that feeling in very senior Indian government circles (including the new Prime Minister) is running very high against Britain in the light of reports of Chouhan’s appearances on the BBC and of Sikh rejoicing in London. There is even talk of a trade boycott, including the cancellation of existing defence contracts.”
According to a transcript of a press conference in New Delhi on November 3, 1984, Thatcher said she was ‘shocked’ at the comments made by Chauhan, but prosecuting him was a matter for the police and director of prosecutions, who had decided that they could not pursue legal action against him.