Britain and India


Fifty years on from Indian independence, tensions between that country and Britain, its former colonial master, have been exposed during Queen Elizabeth's current visit. After a series of unfortunate incidents over Kashmir and Amritsar, the Indian media has gone into something of a frenzy, fed by politicians anxious to mark the anniversary with a new evaluation of the relationship. Irrespective of the precise rights and wrongs of the matter, this looks like a defining moment, at least from the Indian point of view.

Indian ministers and officials were irritated by remarks attributed to the British Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, in which he was said to have offered Britain's services as a mediator in the conflict over Kashmir. This came after Queen Elizabeth suggested that India and Pakistan should settle their differences over the disputed territory, which remained with India after partition. As one Indian commentator, from the Hindu community, put it, "we don't advise them on Northern Ireland and we don't see why they should advise us on Kashmir". India alone reserves the right to deal with the matter. The Indian prime minister, Mr Inder Kumar Gurjal, normally a mild-mannered man, was then reported to have said that "a third-rate power has presumed to say they have a historical responsibility to solve the Kashmir issue". Both Mr Cook and Mr Gurjal subsequently denied the attributed remarks, but only after they had made their mark.

They were subsequently reinforced when Queen Elizabeth visited Amritsar, the site of the 1919 massacre of Indians by British troops under the command of General Reginald Dyer. She did not respond to demands for an apology but simply signed a book of condolences without public comment. But her husband, Prince Philip, told an Indian official that a plaque at the site saying that 2,000 people had died was wrong, explaining that he had been in the British navy with Dyer's son. Since Amritsar is as holy a shrine for Indian nationalism as the General Post Office is for Irish nationalism, it is perhaps not surprising that this should have caused a further outcry.

Continuing arguments and bickering over procedure and protocol have reinforced the image of deteriorating relations between India and Britain. This is, of course, an exaggeration. Relations are good and in many respects improving. But there is in all post-colonial relationships potential for such sensitivities to erupt into the open. However trivial they appear, they must be taken seriously as markers and signals of changing perceptions and interests. The British monarchy should be particularly aware of this, given its symbolic role, especially after the outpouring of emotion that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Already that has significantly altered the Australian debate on a republic, as traditionally conservative voters moved towards a republican position in a mood of disenchantment with the royal family.

The Commonwealth meeting in Edinburgh next week will provide an opportunity to reduce some of these tensions, at least informally. From the Irish perspective, Britain's relations with its former colonial territories remains of interest as the Northern Ireland talks proceed.