China on their minds

By Pascale Palmer
July 29, 2010

This week I can almost smell the fear of China wafting from the corridors of Whitehall.

It’s not anything China has done today or even this year - it is the nation’s relentless, unceasing, unstoppable march towards accepted and undeniable super-power status. So the Tories have been plugging the idea of a new special relationship with the other super-power-in-waiting, India.

I have to admit that it was with some glee that I listened to an ex-Indian prime ministerial advisor on BBC Radio 4 being quizzed on some of the good things about the UK. It had a whiff of the future Wimbledon champion being pressed to praise Tim Henman’s backhand. To be fair, Rahul Roy-Chaudhury from the International Institute for Strategic Studies was pretty positive about the potential for a relationship between the old colonial bully and the ex-colony.

But the beautiful drop volley came when Mr Roy-Chaudhury explained that India has 23 strategic partnerships with other countries and that now that the US relationship is well-set, they can look towards increasing the UK entente cordiale. As he ended this phrase, he slipped in quietly - and if he smirked I couldn’t hear it in his voice - “Clearly the US is the most important”.

Earlier in the day, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme had taken a package from its correspondent in Bangalore. He was asking passers-by to name the people in two photographs. Everyone could name footballer David Beckham, but PM David Cameron went unrecognised.

I lived in India for three years, most of that working for the British Council in New Delhi. I remember once being brought up a little short when a student in my class did a presentation on why India would be the world super-power within 50 years. His speech was met with blanket agreement from his peer audience, who without any doubt saw their country on an economic path to rival the US. At the time I thought this very ambitious. I’ve done a volte face since.

What I had already learned, however, was that amongst the Indian middle classes the UK was no longer thought of as important enough to be either friend or foe. And even the most enthusiastic arguer allowed only for the acknowledgment of the railway network and government bureaucracy as positive legacies of the “shared history” that has been bandied around this week. One friend used to tell me off severely for looking at the Indo-British relationship through such deeply rose-coloured spectacles that I “couldn’t see the blood of Indians on British hands”.

Prime Minister Cameron is quite right to be visiting India with the ‘spirit of humility’. The Indian Independence Act of 1947 brought to an end the British Indian Empire. Although the Partition Plan tabled by Viceroy Mountbatten was perhaps the best compromise while still in the dark about Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s terminal cancer, the execution of the plan saw up to 1 million people die and approximately 12.5 million people displaced. And that’s before you look at direct British violence against Indians during colonial rule - such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 or the Qissa Khwani bazaar massacre in 1930.

I once showed a class in Kochi, Kerala a Peters Projection map of the world indicating land area. One student made the observation of how very tiny Britain is in comparison to India. Another suggested that if Indians had known this at the time they would have thrown us out way before 1947.

I can’t help thinking that even 63 years of independence later, the Indian Government must be relishing Cameron’s visit, knowing that they are now firmly in the economic driving seat.


(c) Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's Advocacy Media Officer.

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