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Three questions Modi must ask Theresa May during her forthcoming India visit

columns Updated: Oct 29, 2016 08:48 IST
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The British PM is more concerned with showing Britons they will do fine without the EU than a trade deal with India. India is being used as a prop to cover up the problems the Conservatives are facing after the Brexit vote(AFP)

If the British Prime Minister is so eager to work more closely with India, why does her government treat Indians so badly? This is the question Indian politicians and journalists should be asking Theresa May as she comes to Delhi next week to meet Narendra Modi.

This is her first visit since she assumed power a few months ago, which has raised expectations.

But May’s real aim this week is not to forge a new deal with India, but reassure voters back home. You see, the UK can’t legally make any trade deals with India until it is officially out of the European Union - by 2019 at the earliest.

The British PM is more concerned with showing Britons they will do fine without the EU than a trade deal with India. India is being used as a prop to cover up the problems the Conservatives are facing after the Brexit vote. For that reason some loud but empty announcements would suit them nicely. They can tell Britons the trip shows the UK can stand tall after Brexit, even if the announcements mean little in reality. This trip is a show for their own benefit, not India’s.

Read: J&K a matter for India and Pakistan to sort out: Theresa May

Theresa May isn’t even being accompanied by big companies eager to invest in India. Her team tried to spin this by saying they were more interested in promoting smaller businesses, but this is nothing more than poor excuse for a more worrying truth. Big British businesses aren’t arriving with the PM because they are uncertain about their future after the Brexit vote. They are unlikely to make big international investments until they know of Britain’s own trading status within the EU.

This gives Narendra Modi and Indian journalists the upper hand. But while it may suit Indian politicians to proffer some niceties about the British-Indo relationship and move on, this is not enough.

Indians travelling to the UK are treated appallingly by the British government and its time the Modi asked why this is the case. These are some questions they should ask.

Read: Kashmir a bilateral issue between India, Pakistan: UK PM Theresa May

First: Why is it being made harder for Indian students to study in Britain and look for jobs, while Chinese students get the opposite treatment?

Since 2010, when May became home secretary, the number of Indian students studying at UK universities has declined enormously: From approx. 40,000 a year to 25,000 students in 2016. The number of Chinese students has risen from approx. 55,000 to 90,000 a year over the same period.

This is partly because May has made it much harder for students to look for jobs after they finish. They are treated with suspicion by the immigration system and pushed to leave as soon as possible.

Last week the UK government even lost a court case in which they had (wrongly) accused thousands of foreign students - many of them Indian - of doing fraudulent English language tests. These youngsters had followed the rules but had been threatened with deportation and losing money and qualifications anyway. Will the PM speak up for Indian students?

Read: Theresa May is bad news for Indians looking towards Britain

Second: Why is it being made harder for Indian companies in the UK to hire skilled workers from outside? India is the third-largest investor in Britain and Indian companies are its largest manufacturing employer.

But every year the rules to hire foreign workers are being made harder. This means that Indian companies that invest in the UK are finding it more difficult to bring over their own skilled staff. Even the restaurant industry, which is in dire need of more Indian chefs, is pleading with the government to relax the rules. They have been ignored.

Now the Conservative government even wants to go as far as ‘naming and shaming’ companies that employ too many foreign workers. This could create a toxic environment where foreigners face even more hostility and discrimination than they do already.

Third: Why is it being made harder for Indians to unite with their families in the UK? May’s pledge to cut immigration has broken up families and made it much more expensive and bureaucratic for Indians to join their families in the UK.

In 2012, the UK government brought in a rule that a husband or wife must earn over £18,600 a year if they wanted to bring over their partner from abroad. That has resulted in hundreds of extended separations for low income households.

Meanwhile, the cost of a visa to the UK from India - whether for visiting or working - has been rising exponentially and is set to increase further. It will be tempting for Modi to let May pull the wool over Indian eyes, but it’s not enough. It’s time India behaved like a major power and asked why its citizens are treated so badly by the UK.

Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London

The views expressed are personal

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