India-UK: The evolution of a post-colonial relationship

Updated on Aug 15, 2021 05:30 PM IST

British PM, Boris Johnson, seems to have learnt the lesson from this sorry story: Don’t push too hard, don’t ride roughshod over Indian sensitivities if you want to negotiate successfully, as he does

In an embarrassing compromise as far as Gujral was concerned, it was agreed the Queen would visit Jallianwala Bagh and lay a wreath, but she would not apologise (HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
In an embarrassing compromise as far as Gujral was concerned, it was agreed the Queen would visit Jallianwala Bagh and lay a wreath, but she would not apologise (HT PHOTO)
ByMark Tully

As India enters the 75th year of its Independence, my mind goes back 25 years, to its 50th anniversary and Queen Elizabeth’s visit. Inviting her to celebrate India’s Independence was a generous gesture considering Britain’s past imperial role. It also demonstrated Britain’s hope that the past could stay in the past, and a future partnership of two great democracies be established.

The visit ran into rough weather. To woo the British-Sikh vote, a significant factor in several constituencies, the British high commissioner was instructed to negotiate a visit to Amritsar and the Golden Temple. IK Gujral, the then prime minister (PM), made it clear that he didn’t want the Queen to go to Amritsar unless she was willing to apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Eventually, in an embarrassing compromise as far as Gujral was concerned, it was agreed the Queen would visit Jallianwala Bagh and lay a wreath, but she would not apologise. During the visit, the Duke of Edinburgh didn’t make things any easier by questioning the official figures of the number of people killed in the massacre when General Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to open fire on a peaceful crowd trapped in the garden. The Queen’s husband was reported as saying that General Dyer’s son had told him that the figure was much lower — hardly a reliable source.

Before coming to India, the Queen visited Pakistan. This did not please the external affairs ministry. During the visit, the British foreign minister, Robin Cook, offered to mediate between India and Pakistan. With the unhappiness over Amritsar and the anger over Cook’s blunder, the press coverage of the tour became extremely negative, so much so that the Palace issued a statement saying that the Queen thought the visit was going very well.

British PM, Boris Johnson, seems to have learnt the lesson from this sorry story: Don’t push too hard, don’t ride roughshod over Indian sensitivities if you want to negotiate successfully, as he does. He desperately wants a Free Trade Agreement to justify his promise that Brexit will leave Britain free to negotiate far more beneficial trade agreements than those it was tied to by its membership in the European Union.

Johnson is taking it step by step. He met Narendra Modi virtually two months ago, and they agreed on an enhanced trade partnership. Modi described this as a “roadmap to a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement”. He also spoke of an ambitious roadmap to elevate India-United Kingdom (UK) relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. That sounds something like the alliance of two great democracies Britain hoped that the Queen’s visit would symbolise.

India is a constitutional democracy. According to its first president Rajendra Prasad, its democracy has historic links with Britain. He said, “We have all derived from the British Parliament and we still continue to derive inspiration from its proceedings, from its history....(and) from its traditions.” Furthermore, at the recent G7 summit hosted by Johnson in June, Modi, although only a guest, signed the open societies statement, the joint commitment to strengthen democracy globally.

There are now questions being asked about how democratic India is. The United States government-funded non-governmental organisation Freedom House’s 2021 report has demoted India from “free” to “partly free”, alleging discriminatory policies, rising violence and a crackdown on freedom of expression. India has also dropped two places in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. It alleges a crackdown on civil liberties in India.

These allegations have been furiously denied, but the truth is that India’s democracy does have an international image problem, which if it remains, will stand in the way of establishing a comprehensive partnership with Britain. It also makes India’s commitment to the world’s richest nations campaign for democracy appear implausible.

The views expressed are personal

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