Time to send a strong message to Britain
Britain’s hope after Brexit — to be a Global Britain, Global Broker, as outlined in a Chatham House report — reflects both its diminished status and its imperial nostalgia. Britain is assuming that its membership of the European Union (EU) constrained its global role, which it now can play, and that Britain has enough weight and credibility in the international system to mediate differences among countries and assist in finding solutions to vexed contemporary issues.
No doubt Britain is still a major power, but global economic and political power have steadily shifted towards Asia. Britain has limited political, economic or military weight in this area that is dominated by China, Japan, South Korea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and, increasingly, India. On regional security issues that are now primary strategic concerns of the United States (US), whether in the South and East China Seas, North Korea, Taiwan, Indo-Pacific or Quad, Britain is a minor or absent player. China’s Hong Kong grab has also exposed the limits of Britain’s power.
Being a “Global Broker” goes beyond commissions for financial brokerages. Britain has to be seen as politically unbiased. In our region, it still bats for Pakistan because of an unshed historical attachment to that country. Its claimed superior understanding of Afghanistan from its imperial past has contributed to a befuddled US Afghan policy. Britain has always favoured accommodating the Taliban. All this has been at India’s expense, including its position on the Kashmir issue.
This reality goes beyond government and is reflected in its parliament, media and think-tanks. It allows demonstrations against our high commission in London by a combination of Sikh separatists and Kashmiri elements with the connivance of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Britain’s intelligence agencies are well aware of the background of the agitators but, despite our repeated official representations, these “peaceful protests” are permitted time and again for vote-bank politics and to maintain some heat on India on its internal affairs.
The recent debate in the British parliament on the farm protest shows why Britain’s status as “broker” will be suspect in India. Out of the 27 petitions presented for debate, many were more pressing but this petition was given priority. Human rights was chosen to justify the parliamentary discussion on the specious ground that this universal issue did not amount to foreign interference in India’s internal affairs. The statements of the Members of Parliament (MPs), barring one honourable exception, with large Sikh and Pakistanis in their constituencies, contain glaring factual distortions in which Jeremy Corbyn, a former Labour Party chief, excelled.
If individual parliamentarians need to nourish their constituencies even at the cost of their credibility beyond that circle, the British government, through its Minister of State for Asia, Nigel Adams, needed to act more responsibly in the interest of ties between India and the United Kingdom (UK). Instead, he welcomed the petition, endorsed the propaganda against the Indian government and did not correct the obvious distortions. He praised the offensive interventions of some MPs, failed to snub a Pakistani-origin MP who made outrageous remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and instead of roundly dismissing it, gave an equivocal response to an MP who spoke about evoking sanctions against India for human rights abuses. He patronisingly lectured India on abiding by its Constitution and international agreements, and spoke of serious and specific concerns that Britain will raise during Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit.
While paying lip service to the farm protests as Indian’s internal affair, Adam’s intervention attempted to carve out space for Britain as a “friend” to intrude into our internal matters. This is incongruous with British efforts to establish a new framework of ties with India post-Brexit.
The British high commissioner in Delhi was rightly summoned to lodge a protest but that may not be enough to close the matter. Some conclusions have to be drawn about the British mindset towards India that assumes that its provocations can be cost-free. Britain has become a safe haven for fugitives from Indian justice. Of the 23 requests for extraditions made over 26 years, only one individual wanted in one of 2002 Gujarat riot cases has been extradited, with others have sunk into the dark hole of Britain’s legal system.
Post-Brexit, Global Britain has to get its Asia policy right. For that, it has to get its India policy right. For it to be a credible Global Broker, honesty is a prerequisite. The parliamentary debate was an unwise move in the background of plans to launch a 10-year road map for expanded India-UK ties during Johnson’s visit to India. Raising the human rights issue with India is a double-edged sword given Britain’s own past and present record.
Johnson himself is regarded positively in India as one genuinely committed to expanded India-UK ties in mutual interest. Let us see what he can do to get rid of the debris that still clings to India-UK ties from Britain’s colonial past.
Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary
The views expressed are personal