Image credit: India-UK News. - Photo: 2019

The Fate of Indo-British Relations in The Aftermath of BREXIT

Viewpoint by Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. and Jainendra Karn *

NEW DELHI (IDN) – Will Uncle Christmas fulfill Nicola Sturgeon’s wish this year?  In the aftermath of the British elections that painted England blue, Nicola presented her formal request for a fresh referendum on Scottish independence and has called for the Scottish parliament to be given permanent powers to hold subsequent referendums on independence from the UK.

A man of his words, Boris Johnson as the incumbent prime minister plans to redeem his pledge on BREXIT when Britain shall leave the European Union (EU) on January 31, 2020, and the Department for Exiting the European Union will be wound up.

So it seems that the period 2020 onward will be full of surprises. On the one hand there are unclear contours of Britain’s future relationship with the EU while on the other, there is a very high probability that Britain and the EU might undergo metamorphosis beyond recognition in an extremely complex and rapidly evolving international environment. What if in the near future there is no Britain and the EU as we know it?

The Conservative voices are quite hopeful that Boris Johnson will deliver BREXIT successfully and take the country to the next level but one exactly does not know what kind of BREXIT Boris wants. So at this juncture the stakes are very high as it concerns the economic and social repercussions of the decision.

BREXIT presents both opportunities and challenges to the Indo-British relationship. Though connected in the past through the history of British colonization, India’s trade has significantly shifted to the east where China is now India’s biggest trading partner. In Europe, Germany is India’s leading trading partner, and even a country like Belgium is much ahead of Britain in its trade with India.

India and Britain have close financial ties, but trade between them is poorly. Why is Indo-British relationship losing its share of one’s mind and trade, and is in such a lamentable state? Are historical and institutional factors to blame?

Shashi Tharoor in his 2017 work “Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India” elaborates the monstrous atrocities committed by the British during the Raj. Noted economist Dr. Subramanian Swamy has calculated that if India were to claim reparation from Britain, the amount shall be USD 71 trillion.

During the end phase of the Second World War, the Americans exerted pressure on the British to quit India but there was a British consensus on balkanising India to safeguard the strategic interests of the British Empire in India and the Indian Ocean. The main reasons of India’s strategic importance to Britain were: British forces located in India could be deployed in the Indian Ocean area, Middle East and Far East; India was a transit point for air and sea communications; India had a large reserve of manpower of good fighting quality; and Northwest India was suitable for deploying air power against Russia.

Hence Britain started supporting Muslim League’s demand for a separate nation for Muslims, Pakistan, which was to be carved out from India. It is very interesting to note that while Churchill is primarily blamed for the infamous Bengal Famine, the role of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy who was heading the Ministry of Civil Supply of Bengal during the famine is not explored in detail. The Indian press, notably the Hindu press, had become very critical of Suhrawardy’s role and the Bengali Hindus held him directly responsible for the famine. In 1947, Britain under the Labour Government of Clement Attlee partitioned India and created Pakistan, and Suhrawardy was soon to be its prime minister.

The Indo-British relationship could not reach high watermark post-independence primarily because of British highhandedness. Powerful nations have always made hypocrisy a primary tool in their diplomatic arsenal, and continue to do so in contemporary international politics. In December 2019, while Belgium convicted a Rwandan officer over his role in 1994 genocide, the country has an order of honour in the name of one of history’s most brutal rulers, the 19th century Belgian King Leopold II, who was responsible for the deaths of 10 to 15 million Africans in Congo.

British hypocrisy was at its highest when just five years after invading Egypt to seize the Suez Canal; the British were the first to criticize India for liberating Goa from the Portuguese in 1961. On December 18, the Commonwealth Relations Secretary Duncan Sandys told the House of Commons: “Her Majesty’s government deeply deplores the decision of the Government of India to use military force to attain its political objectives.” In addition he said, “We are particularly concerned about the wider repercussions which the action taken by the Indian Government may have upon other problems that face the world to-day.” Goa was colonized by the Portuguese in 1510.

In 1971, in the aftermath of Bangladesh genocide when India intervened to liberate Bangladesh from Pakistan, Britain dispatched HMS Eagle to help the Pakistani army. Bangladeshi authorities claim that as many as 3 million people were killed by the Pakistani army in 1971. Bangladesh on December 15, 2019 published a list of 10,789 Razakars (volunteers) who collaborated with the Pakistani forces during the country’s Liberation War in 1971.

After 9/11, unlike the U.S. which took firm action against individuals and organizations who were inimical to India’s interest, Britain always dilly dallied in its approach to address India’s concerns. While the FBI arrested Kashmiri Ghulam Ahmed Fai in the U.S. in 2011 for concealing the transfer of USD 3.5 million from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to fund his lobbying efforts and influence the U.S. government, in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the attitude of Britain was found lackadaisical. Not much seems to have changed in Britain since 1984 when Ravindra Mhatre, a 48-year old Indian diplomat was kidnapped and later murdered in Birmingham by British Kashmiri militants. In September 2019, Indian High Commission in London was vandalized by the British Kashmiri groups though UK banned protests by Pakistan-backed Kashmiri groups near the Indian High Commission on Diwali.

Britain needs to do much more to safeguard India’s interest. It can learn from the U.S. which along with India, at the conclusion of the Second India-U.S. 2+2 Dialogue on December 19, 2019 has called on Pakistan to take “immediate and irreversible action” to ensure that no territory under its control is used for terrorism. The Trump administration has said it wants Islamabad to take immediate, sustained and irreversible action on reining in terror groups and to ensure that its soil is not used for terrorism.

Though Britain backed China’s move to issue statement over Kashmir at the UN Security Council (UNSC) in August 2019, it helped India by nixing China’s proposal to discuss Kashmir at the Security Council in December 2019. The U.S., France and Russia backed by Germany and Indonesia in the UNSC also helped India. So it seems Britain is willing to change its track on India unless this move was deliberate, and an exception rather than a norm.

But what the two countries have to offer each other is an important area to explore as both India and Britain are facing significant challenges. According to a Wall Street Journal report, 20 per cent of the UK’s population lives in poverty. The combination of soaring living costs, welfare cuts, and charges for previously free services  have put Britons under immense, and in some cases, almost intolerable pressure.

A third of charities are likely to shut down, leaving the poor without a cushion. In Britain today, there are 70 applicants for every vacancy and intergenerational poverty, rare in most countries, has become a factor in a notable British subculture. The Office of Budget Responsibility, Britain’s treasury watchdog, says austerity measures will have to continue for the next 50 years to avoid a financial time bomb.

India is facing its own set of challenges. Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic adviser of the Government of India and Josh Felman, former IMF resident representative to India, feel that the slowdown that India is going through is no ordinary slowdown but is India’s Great Slowdown. It stems from a balance sheet crisis that arrived in two waves.

The first wave arrived after the global financial crisis, when the world economy slowed and infrastructure projects started during India’s investment boom of the mid-2000s, began to go sour. The second wave came from the collapse of a credit boom, led by NBFCs, and centered on the real estate sector. This resulted in the economy confronting a Four Balance Sheet (FBS) problem — the original two sectors, plus NBFCs and real estate companies.

The global economy is undergoing great turbulence. Boris Johnson’s leadership of Britain could provide a unique opportunity to develop a real strategic partnership with India and develop synergies to address the evolving challenges. Development of India specific strategy by Britain on the lines on EU Strategy For India which was adopted in December 2018 could be a way out. Bilateral trade, Investment, Diaspora and security relationships could be the focus areas.

Que Sera Sera. Though the UN expects trade growth in Asia-Pacific in 2020 despite decline in 2019, only time will tell how things will unfold in the future or whether Uncle Christmas shall heed to Nicola Sturgeon’s wish this time.

* Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. is an ex- diplomat and Jainendra Karn is a senior Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) leader. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 December 2019]

Image credit: India-UK News.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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