In February, an article in The Economist on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to India features a picture showing him bowing before his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who are holding court, dressed in royal robes. The picture stands in stark contrast to scenes from 1911, when Indian maharajahs and noblemen paid obeisance before the visiting British royals, King George V and Queen Mary at the Delhi Durbar.
The shift is a strategic one as much as it is historical. In 1911, India was an impoverished British colony with almost no industry. Fast-forward to 2013 and India is one of the main engines of global economic growth – a powerful incentive for Britain to boost its partnership with New Delhi in a bid to revive its own sluggish economy.
No wonder then that the Conservative-led coalition government under Prime Minister Cameron pledged to build a “special relationship” with India as one of its key foreign policy priorities.
As a result, reports of a British government proposal that would require Indians to cough up 3000 pounds ($4,600) as a security bond to secure a six-month UK visitor visa aroused severe bouts of indignation in India. The scheme, to be piloted from this November, is aimed at deterring nationals from six countries – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ghana and Nigeria – who are deemed to be at “high risk” of overstaying their visas.
The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), which represents the country’s largest businesses, described the move as “very unfortunate” and said it risked further undermining UK-India ties, which are already under strain following changes to the UK visa regime for students.
Given that the reported scheme curiously covers only non-white Commonwealth nations, it has also attracted accusations of being “discriminatory” by the Indian media.
A particularly scathing commentary in First Post that also came with dollops of sarcasm suggested that the scheme could “liberate” Indians of something that even independence could not – their colonial hangover.
“And all those British icons we read about in books – the robin, the snowdrop, the Queen – are in reality quite small, plain and unremarkable. Certainly not worth a 3000 pound bond,” it added.
As a sovereign country, Britain has the right to frame policies that it deems will curb illegal immigration, yet it may be pertinent to look into why reports of such a scheme have caused so much anger in India. Indeed, this isn’t the first time a British policy proposal has caused deep resentment on the subcontinent.
In 2012, when India chose French-made Rafale fighter planes over British-supported Eurofighter Typhoon jets, the British media and MPs lamented India’s “ingratitude” in the face of generous UK developmental aid. That prompted then Finance Minister (now President) Pranab Mukherjee to comment that the aid was “peanuts” in the context of India’s overall development budget. Following subsequent negotiations between New Delhi and London, it was mutually decided to wind down Britain’s development aid to India by 2015 and focus instead on boosting bilateral trade.
Still, despite these hiccups, few can begrudge the transformation of the UK-India partnership in recent years, which besides regular conversations on bilateral ties have included discussions on various regional and multilateral issues, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and East Asia. Moreover, the UK is now the third largest investor in India while New Delhi is now the fifth largest investor in the UK. That the two countries have vastly upgraded the relationship on political, economic and cultural levels is no doubt welcome and indeed laudable. However, there may be limits as to how far the partnership can go until the ambivalence surrounding their shared history is cleared.
The truth is that “shared history” can come with a lot of historical baggage, and both countries view their shared past differently. For many Indians, the “shared history” is one of subjugation and humiliation not only characterized by the arrests of Indian political leaders or massacres such as the one at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar in 1919, but to a large degree, the Anglicisation of the local culture and ethos.
While present-day British leaders cannot be blamed for Britain’s colonial past, nor would it be practical to expect London to comply with Indian demands for returning several historical artifacts from the days of the Raj, a frank conversation between the UK and India could go a long way toward healing the scars of the past and pave the way for a better relationship in the future. Prime Minister Cameron’s expression of regret during a visit to Amritsar in February when he described the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre as a “deeply shameful event” may have fallen short of an apology but it is a good start.
However, schemes such as the security bond for Indians could undo the progress made thus far and undermine the “special relationship”. Far from boosting greater people-to-people contacts, the scheme will fuel sentiments of alienation and humiliation that many Indians feel, effectively removing the basis for stronger political ties between London and New Delhi.