UK-India ties suffer from a deep, structural malaise – Sreemoy Talukdar

Rishi Sunak & Narendra Modi

Sreemoy TalukdarBritain wants to be perceived as India’s ‘friend’, but its society is afflicted with a deep, structural, anti-India malaise that is at cross purposes with that objective. A lot is dictated by demography, Britain’s role as a former colonizer and the cancer of political correctness. – Sreemoy Talukdar

If post-Brexit Britain intends to be a country of any consequence, aside of its status as America’s peon, it needs to stitch a meaningful partnership with India—its former colony that has upstaged “global Britain” to emerge as the world’s fifth largest economy. India is on the move, and its rise is inevitable. For its own sake Britain should, therefore, hold its nose and fall in line.

But from Britain’s perspective, worryingly, things are moving in the opposite direction. The free trade deal—a campaign promise of Brexiteers and a crucial component of post-Brexit United Kingdom’s economic health—is nowhere close to being finalised. Ties instead have recently taken a nosedive forcing 10, Downing Street to make urgent placatory noises.

Britain wants to be perceived as India’s “friend”, but its society is afflicted with a deep, structural, anti-India malaise that is at cross purposes with that objective. A lot is dictated by demography, Britain’s role as a former colonizer and the cancer of political correctness.

The British government this week published a review of its counter-terrorism strategy carried out by Commissioner for Public Appointments William Shawcross. The review, according to a report in The Tribune, cautions the British government against the proliferation of “pro-Khalistan extremism” among Sikh communities, and rhetoric from Pakistan “inflaming anti-India sentiment, particularly around the subject of Kashmir” among the Muslim communities in the UK.

The Shawcross review, as quoted in the report, reads: “I have seen evidence of UK extremist groups, as well as a Pakistani cleric with a UK following, calling for the use of violence in Kashmir. I have also seen evidence demonstrating that flashpoints related to Kashmir lead to a significant surge in interest from UK Islamists.”

This anti-India rhetoric eventually finds its way into Britain’s political discourse fuelled by the country’s shifting demographic realities. A 2021 census reveals that the UK is seeing a rapid growth in Muslim population owing to a confluence of factors ranging from higher birth rates, immigration and conversions.

A record number of British Pakistanis moving to mainstream politics by becoming MPs, or representing have made a career out of baiting India.

And then there’s the BBC, the state-sponsored broadcaster that still functions as an imperial relic of the Raj. It recently came up with a hitjob against Prime Minister Narendra Modi involving the 2002 Gujarat riots and found him “directly responsible”, even though an independent inquiry commission formulated by India’s top court had dismissed all charges and an appeal against that decision has also been recently dismissed. Not only does the so-called documentary cherry pick facts to stitch a blinkered narrative, but it also shows little regard for India’s institutions. It banks on a previously unknown British government report from 2002 commissioned by former British foreign secretary Jack Straw.

Leaving aside questions on the credulity and validity of a covert investigation carried out by a “friendly” foreign power within India’s soil, that the “investigation” hinges on Straw’s testament is telling. A lot has been written about Straw’s integrity and credibility (or lack thereof), including by this columnist so there’s little point in repetition. Suffice to say that the fake news documentary deserved to be banned.

The BBC’s stated intention of leveraging minorityism against India is evident yet again from its recent report where, incredulously, it is found supporting child abuse and paedophilia because the Indian state of Assam is cracking down on illegal child marriage. The BBC seems to have done away with even a semblance of objectivity in peddling its divisive agenda.

The UK, of course, is protesting innocence. Foreign secretary James Cleverly recently met the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Vikram Doraiswami, and claimed that “the BBC is independent in its output”, and that the “UK regards India as an incredibly important international partner and we will be investing heavily in that relationship in the coming decades.”

That sounds all very nice and warm. Let’s put to scrutiny.

Is the BBC truly impartial and independent?

Straight off the bat, an internal review of the BBC’s coverage—the findings of which were revealed last month—found that the corporation’s impartiality “is at risk” when it comes to basic economic coverage and on occasions, the reviewers found that BBC journalists present data in the “most alarming way possible”.

British media watchdog, Ofcom, in its 2021 annual report stated that audiences “consistently rate the BBC less favourably” for impartiality. Complaints about BBC content have more than trebled since 2017-2018, jumping from 1,673 four years ago to 5,429 this year.

Scholar Tom Mills, a lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University who has extensively researched the British taxpayer-funded corporation and its politics, told Open Democracy in an interview in 2017 that the BBC “isn’t independent from governments, let alone from the broader Establishment” and it “has always been formally accountable to ministers for its operations.” Mills said that BBC’s relationship with the government and British elite is “much more complex than is generally recognized.”

Apart from anecdotal experiences of journalists who have been vocal about BBC’s inherent anti-India bias, a much more serious allegation was brought by American journalist Max Blumenthal, editor of Grayzone.

Relying on a cache of leaked documents ostensibly belonging to a shadowy arm of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Blumenthal claimed in 2021 that Reuters and BBC “solicited multimillion-dollar contracts to advance the British state’s interventionist aims, promising to cultivate Russian journalists through FCO-funded tours and training sessions, establish influence networks in and around Russia, and promote pro-NATO narratives in Russian-speaking regions.” The report provides detailed evidence and cites even murkier details that put a question mark against BBC’s claims of being “impartial and independent”.

A former MP of Britain’s Labour Party, Chris Williamson, attempted to publicly obtain information under a “freedom of information” request about the UK FCO’s secretive arm called the Counter Disinformation & Media Development (CDMD) that employed furtive services of British news agencies. His attempts were stonewalled by the British government which blocked all queries regarding CDMD’s budget and agenda citing “national security”.

Ban is good for me but not for thee

The Modi government has come under flak for banning the BBC documentary that indulges in data fudging and fakery. The BBC’s liberal brethren have jumped to its defence and raised question marks against India’s “press freedom” and “democracy”.

It is interesting to note that in December 2020, an Indian news channel was fined £20,000 for airing a segment on its UK service about Pakistan that was deemed as “hate speech” by British media watchdog Ofcom. According to a report in The Guardian, the primetime show “Poochta Hai Bharat” by Republic Bharat that aired on 6 September 2019 was banned from being aired in the UK.

The larger point is this: if ban on media organisations or reportage is a metric of “democratic backsliding”, then the first question must be raised again Britain, Canada, America and the European Union for banning Russian media (see here and here). It is specious to argue that West’s ban on media is “fortification” of democracy while a similar step by the Indian state is “weakening” of democracy.

Incidentally, Tory peer Rami Ranger, a member of the UK’s House of Lords, called BBC’s Gujarat riots documentary “sinister” and in a letter to the broadcaster termed it as an internal attempt to derail India-UK FTA at a time India has assumed the presidency of G20 and the UK has an Indian-origin prime minister, according to a report in Hindustan Times.

In his letter, Lord Rangers called the documentary “insensitive” and one-sided, accusing the BBC of having “opened old wounds by creating hatred between British Hindus and Muslims”. For his travails, the Tory peer was attacked as “racist” and forced to apologise.

Strong India, weak Pakistan and imperial delusion

Another ailment that plagues UK-India ties is a peculiar condition which forces Britain to act as the self-appointed interlocutor of Kashmir and a guardian of Pakistan. The condition is best described by former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal in Firstpost. “The British midwifed Pakistan and possibly see it as their moral duty to protect it politically, which is why they frequently push for an India-Pakistan dialogue, project the Pakistan leadership at various junctures as willing to reach out to India and encouraging India to test their intentions.”

The UK frequently tries to come to Pakistan’s aid at the United Nations and in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370, sided with Pakistan and China at the UNSC in calling for the issuing of a public statement on India’s decision and expressing “concern” over human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir. The statement didn’t come to pass due to India’s diplomatic parleys and support from other UNSC permanent members, but it brought into sharp relief UK’s unreliability as India’s “strategic partner”.

Britain was up to its old tricks again last week when it held the 5th joint UK-Pak “stabilization conference” at Wilton Park—an executive arm of the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—where Pakistan army chief general Asim Munir, at the invitation of his British counterpart General Sanders, discussed among other things the “Kashmir dispute”, reveals a report in Hindustan Times. As if both countries are legitimate stakeholders in matters related to India’s internal affairs.

There are two factors at work here. A capable, united India, economically strong, geopolitically relevant and a key democratic player in the emergent global order—led by a strong-willed leader who is bridging the global north-south divide and advancing India’s interests based on pragmatic navigation of geopolitical currents—redraws the regional balance of power in its favour. This is coinciding with the unravelling of Pakistan.

Be it presidency of G20 or its stellar role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) during the devastating Syria-Turkey earthquakes, New Delhi is asserting itself and assuming leadership in a multi-polar world. A bankrupt Pakistan, meanwhile, is collapsing in a heap. The Kashmir question, one area where Islamabad enjoyed some leverage over New Delhi, has been settled for good with a long overdue internal adjustment.

India’s rise has coincided with America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, drying up Pakistan’s crucial source of funds and stripping it of strategic relevance. These geopolitical shifts, sudden and significant, have strengthened New Delhi’s hands. Domestically, the NGO-civil-society-advocacy-group network—a shadowy playground for external meddling that fed a parallel administrative grid and threw a challenge at the state’s sovereignty—has been brought under the rule of law.

Overall, India’s increase in strength and Pakistan’s simultaneous weakness has created an anomaly in balance of power that the British deep state—the media, bureaucracy, intelligence communities, think tanks, civil society activists and other unauthorized networks of power—finds unacceptable, not the least because Pakistan’s role as a balancer is over.

Imperial delusion is the second factor that sways British attitude, more so when it comes to its former colonies. Former war reporter Aris Roussinos writes in Unherd, quoting former Labour MP David Marquand, “The British state was the child as well as the parent of empire. Its iconography, its operational codes, the instinctive reflexes of its rulers and managers were stamped through and through with the presuppositions of empire.” Roussinos adds, “even as the empire fell away, its ghosts still haunt Westminster, in inverted form, as a needy internationalism and an aesthetic distaste for the homely and familiar.”

This catches the irony at the heart of “global Britain”. Stripped of its empire and reduced to the status of an American vassal, Brexit was Britain’s defiant call for global relevance and an attempt to punch above weight. The little islands being too small and inconsequential a theatre for the British ruling class’s liking, imperial delusion leads it to constantly interfere into the internal affairs of its erstwhile colonies. The colonial memory is a bad hangover that refuses to let go of Britain.

Otherisation of Hindus

As Lord Rami Rangers pointed out before he was bullied into silence, The Beeb’s attack on Modi came at a time when Britain had its first Hindu prime minister. This is likely not a coincidence. A curious churn is under way in British society, led by ethnic minorities where class war is replacing racial inequality and white people, the erstwhile colonisers, are grappling with a loss of purpose and reimagining their emancipatory roles.

To understand this churn and how this affects larger UK-India ties, we need to take a look at the performance of ethnic minorities in Britain. Among the most successful ones are British Hindus who top Sunday Times rich lists, occupy top positions in businesses and academia, and are thriving in political and administrative roles. As an ethnic group, they are smart, well-educated, possess strong family values, a tremendous work ethic and generally stay out of trouble. For example, in 2021, “only 0.4 per cent of prisoners in the UK identified as Hindu, the lowest of any religious cohort.” Not surprisingly, they are among the highest-earning migrant communities, as data from a Sunday Times report points out.

For the “burdened” white liberals, the success of British Hindus (almost exclusively of Indian origin) is a vexing reality. Samir Shah, former BBC head of politics, writes in The Spectator: “For a certain sort of politician, the success of the British Hindu community is a slap in the face. How dare they? It drives a coach and horses through the idea of an ethnic minority pact, yoking disparate groups together in an embrace that has become a feature of modern Britain. It threatens the idea that “BAME”—black, Asian and minority ethnic—is a one-stop shop of victimhood whose plight provides a feel-good emancipatory role for the liberal left.”

The contrast with the UK’s Muslim cohort, dominated by the British-Pakistani community, couldn’t be greater. A 2022 House of Commons report pointed out that at 4 per cent of UK’s population, Muslims make up 18 per cent of prison inmates. According to the report, “the proportion of Muslim prisoners has increased from 8 per cent in 2002 to 18 per cent in 2021.” Muslims are also among, if not the lowest-earning ethnic group.

This presents a particularly annoying problem for the British liberal elite. As the self-appointed arbitrators of social and racial justice, reconciling the fact that one community may be more successful than others due to its enterprise, work ethic and values while another group languishes at the bottom of all social metrics is tough, because the reality militates against all progressive theories of race and identity politics.

The “burdened white” must restore the racial and social order or else get roasted in the slow fire of moral indignation, therefore the British Indians have been consistently getting the rough end of the stick while the Muslims in Britain are beneficiaries of perpetual victimhood. That’s why The Guardian can get away with portraying former home secretary Priti Patel as a “fat cow” and shake off all charges of racism but British media must jump through flaming hoops to portray Muslims as “victims” of Leicester violence even though the truth is quite the opposite.

As Brendan O’Neill, writing on Leicester violence and its inversion of truth in British media, points out, “Britain’s Muslim community is viewed as the ultimate victim community, and thus it must be forcefielded from critical commentary, while Britain’s Indian-Hindu community has been lumped in with whites and Jews as part of the “privileged”, and thus problematic.”

It may well be a “geopolitical necessity” for the UK to improve its ties with India, as a British minister claimed at the Uttar Pradesh Global Investors Summit in Lucknow on Sunday that reality won’t come to pass unless Britain turns the gaze inward and takes a long, hard look at itself. – Firstpost, 14 February 2023

› Sreemoy Talukdar is an executive editor at Firstpost in Kolkata.