Mallya to caste: When London became a theatre of Indian politics in 2018
The Vijay Mallya extradition saga rolled on throughout the year, while the cut-and-thrust of domestic politics was reflected in two high-profile visits: the April visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the Commonwealth Summit, and the August visit of Congress president Rahul Gandhi.Updated: Dec 22, 2018 20:18 IST
History has forever entwined India and the United Kingdom at various levels, but rarely have Indian events and issues figured so prominently in London as in 2018.
The Vijay Mallya extradition saga rolled on throughout the year, while the cut-and-thrust of domestic politics was reflected in two high-profile visits: the April visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the Commonwealth Summit, and the August visit of Congress president Rahul Gandhi to interact with policymakers, MPs, scholars as well as Indian journalists and students.
Strengths and challenges of Indian law, banking, prisons, politics and the media were closely examined during the Mallya extradition hearings, as the flamboyant businessman used the media contingent waiting outside the court to try and change the narrative that he stole money from India.
The Westminster magistrates court recommended Mallya’s extradition, but many hoops remain before this can happen. He, however, remains enmeshed in several other legal cases, including those seeking to possess his houses and assets.
On the diplomatic front, there was a change of guard in India House, when Y K Sinha retired and Ruchi Ghanshyam took over as only the second woman high commissioner since 1947 (Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the first).
One Indian issue that has long endured in the UK is the row over ‘Khalistan’, which figured during Modi’s visit when the Indian flag was torn by a Khalistan supporter; a rally in Trafalgar Square in August seeking a so-called ‘referendum’ for the independence of Punjab ; and a senior Indian official prevented from entering the Shepherd’s Bush gurdwara in November.
In July, the Theresa May government brought the curtain down on the sensitive issue of enacting a law to bar caste-based discrimination. After years of debate, it decided not to legislate but to rely on emerging case-law courts.
The 1.5 million-strong Indian community has been deeply divided on the issue, with influential Hindu, Sikh and Jain lobbies denying that caste-based discrimination exists in Britain and contending that enacting such a law would entrench ideas of caste where none exist, while several individuals, Dalit and other groups insist it exists.
During most of 2018, there were four Indian-origin ministers in the May government: Alok Sharma, Shhailesh Vara, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman (nee Fernandes), but Brexit-related concerns prompted Vara and Braverman to resign in November. Preet Kaur Gill was appointed shadow minister for international development.
Members of the Indian community continued to figure prominently in royal honours lists. Also for the first time, a Sikh soldier of the Coldstream Guards – Charanpreet Singh Lall – figured in the in traditional Trooping the Colour ceremony at Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth’s birthday in June.
Meanwhile, Neil Basu was appointed head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terror operations, while Imtiyaz Shaikh, who hails from Vasco da Gama, became the first councillor of Goan origin to be elected to the council in Swindon.
On Independence Day, Scotland Yard returned to the Indian high commission a 12th century Buddha statue that was stolen from the Archaeological Survey of India’s museum in Nalanda, Bihar, in August 1961, and recovered in the UK.
The year also saw a school in England launch a unique course on ‘Hinglish’, the popular portmanteau of English and Hindi used in Indian films, newspaper headlines, television and everyday discourse. Teachers in the school are surprised at the interest in the course.
The India-UK links also extended to the difficult world of stammering. A delighted Matthew Richardson, returning after conducting the first McGuire Programme in New Delhi in December for 30 people, said, “They arrived as people unable to speak effectively and left as proud public speakers. Helping people in India to break the stigma of stammering is something I am very proud of”.
And finally, ‘Bihar Diwas’, on March 22, was celebrated in a unique location: Patna, in Scotland, a village in East Ayrshire founded in the early nineteenth century by a Briton, who was born in Patna, Bihar but returned to Scotland, to house mine workers. The chief guest was also appropriate: the Patna-born Y K Sinha, the former high commissioner.