From calling it “a near pointless jolly to India” to feeling “truly ashamed”, Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent visit to India has provoked much comment in Britain, with experts noting that talks reflected a nuanced hardening of posture by New Delhi.
As the visa issue hung over the visit, commerce minister Nirmala Seetharaman said difficulties faced by Indian professionals and students “sounds like non-tariff barriers in the services sector”, and noted that “we are not being treated as old friends any longer”.
“It’s a tight professional engagement, while we are also looking at India’s strengths and demanding our due place in the trade deal…Hope there will be necessary course correction during formal talks on a trade deal after Britain leaves the EU,” she told BBC.
Indian diplomats insist that the visa issue was not the most important item on the visit’s agenda, but at least two top university officials in May’s team to India returned with some dismay that it dominated most discussions during the visit.
Experts saw the visit sending the message that Britain was solely interested in business and high net worth Indian business travellers, while New Delhi was keen to see improvements in the human dimension of the relationship.
The students visa issue led to much hand-wringing. “I feel truly ashamed”, Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and a member of May’s team, wrote in Times Higher Education, reflecting on the visit.
“I must be hearing different voices from those that Theresa May is hearing. Indians who studied in the UK say we don’t act as if we are good friends any more. They say we want their money and business but are not willing to teach their children, even if they pay full whack”.
“They hear that our universities are allowed to teach and take the money only if Indian students are rich enough not to need a job, or can graduate to a job that pays over the odds in some parts of the UK. The Indians I have met say this is not really friendly at all”, he wrote.
Another member of May’s team, Paul Curran, president of City University, added: “It was a fascinating experience and I was able to visit some world class academic facilities… However, given the political backdrop many conversations moved into a discussion of visas”.
Officials believe improvements for India in the UK visa system were likely during the newly-launched secretary level talks between the Home Office and India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. Concerns include the return of Indians staying in Britain illegally.
“For all the banal grandstanding about Britain’s and India’s love for each other’s cricket and music and a ‘shared history’…, the long-established racially discriminatory disgrace that is Britain’s visa regime for citizens of its former colonies is set to continue”, wrote Priyamvada Gopal in The Guardian.
However, Andrew Wyatt, an academic at the University of Bristol with research expertise on India-UK relations, believes the visit has to be viewed positively from the long-term perspective.
He told HT: “The ineptitude and coercive style of the erstwhile colonial regime could have estranged the two powers long ago. Yet, India and the UK have evolved pragmatic, business-like relations, which reflect the changed fortunes of both states.”
“The headline message on the visa regime seemed designed for a domestic UK audience. I anticipate some movement by the UK on visa issues but only once negotiations over trade are well underway,” he added.