PM Modi has made it clear that it cannot be business as usual. The UK would need to carefully consider whether its pre-1947 agenda of promoting an autonomous Muslim state at the intersection of South and Central Asia is a desirable objective for the West, wrties Ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee (retd) for South Asia Monitor
India and its diaspora celebrated on 5 August 2019, the long-awaited revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, a measure ducked by successive governments since its invocation in 1956. For the first time since independence, India was united under one flag and one constitution. The Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, an economically and socially backward territory, would now be able to fully benefit from the burgeoning $2.7 trillion Indian economy. Pakistan ranted and raved with a view to internationalising the issue and calling for a formal meeting of the UN Security Council. It came as no surprise that their efforts came to naught. The ‘informal, closed door’ meeting of the Security Council on 16 August 2019 did not issue any statement.
The Indian elite, traditionally pro-British, was taken aback and aggrieved by UK’s partisan conduct during this tense diplomatic standoff between Pakistan (egged on by China) and India. Historically, as India’s colonial power and at that time involved in the ‘Great Game’ against Russia, the UK had eyed Kashmir and the then NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan) a future friendly buffer state for British interests in post-independent India. The genesis of the Kashmir problem was created at that time. Jammu and Kashmir acceded to the Union of India in 1947. The Instrument of Accession was ratified by the British Parliament. Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, persuaded first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to agree to a plebiscite in J&K on certain conditions and to take the Kashmir issue to the Security Council to complain about Pakistan’s aggression. In doing so, the UK became a self-appointed umpire on Kashmir, converting a Pakistani invasion through tribal traders into an international issue, which became a sword of Damocles for India.
UK and India have the closest bilateral relations and an important strategic partnership. Annual summits between prime ministers of the two countries have become a tradition. Successive UK prime ministers have publicly supported India’s candidature for permanent membership to the Security Council (SC). The Indian government has been neutral throughout the ongoing tortuous negotiations on Brexit underlining that it is a sovereign matter. The beleaguered British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who used to boast of his Indian connections, has underlined the importance of an invigorated trade relationship post-Brexit.
It is not clear why the UK establishment decided to tilt towards Pakistan on this issue. It cannot be only due to the influence of the Pakistani origin community in UK since India too has a much bigger and prosperous diaspora in the UK which is fully integrated. The so-called British Kashmiri diaspora is actually the Mirpuris from ‘Pakistan Occupied Kashmir’. The tilt took a new dimension on 15 August 2019 when Pakistani-supported protesters attacked members of the Indian community outside the gates of the Indian High Commission in London. The heavily outnumbered London Metropolitan Police did not call for reinforcements. Their inaction enabled the mob to attack the Indian diaspora with bottles and eggs. This incident has damaged the special relationship.
Of greater concern was UK’s overt support to China and Pakistan to internationalise Kashmir during the closed-door, informal consultation in the SC. At the meeting, the UK reportedly spoke of India’s human rights violations in J&K and also referred to India’s "international obligations" in the context of revocation of Article 370. The British are aware that Article 370 was approved by the Indian Parliament as a temporary measure in 1953. Its adoption and its revocation is a strictly internal affair of India. The UK also supported a presidential statement or an outcome statement after the meeting but was surprised by the absence of support from all other 13 members of the Council.
The diplomatic fallout was immediate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a telephone call with Johnson on 20 August, regretted that vested interests were pursuing their agenda and using violence. The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson noted that in the call: “PM Modi referred to the violence and vandalism perpetrated by a large mob against the High Commission of India in London on 15 August 2019.” In response “Prime Minister Johnson regretted the incident.”
The myopic approach of the Indian ruling elite in ignoring UK’s colonial excesses, including the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 13 April 1919, and not insisting either on an apology or for the return of its national heritage like the Kohinoor diamond has often bemused many EU ambassadors. They privately note that such an approach is short-sighted. Ignoring India’s immediate past which led to partition of undivided India gives wrong political signals.
PM Modi has made it clear that it cannot be business as usual. The UK would need to carefully consider whether its pre-1947 agenda of promoting an autonomous Muslim state at the intersection of South and Central Asia is a desirable objective for the West. The UK needs to take sharp corrective action in its approach to Kashmir and to its Pakistani diaspora. What is at risk is a carefully nurtured strategic partnership, an example to the rest of the world on how to turn the colonial page and move on. Inaction will result in the long shadow of the colonial past to linger and poison a robust post-colonial future relationship.
(The author is a former Indian ambassador who dealt extensively with Europe)