Print edition : November 01, 1997

Labour's increasingly controversial policy on India-related affairs set the tone for Queen Elizabeth's visit to India in the 50th anniversary of India's independence.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN in Chennai

"Britain must accept its responsibility as the former imperial power in a dispute that dates from the arrangements for (Indian and Pakistani) independence. Britain is under an obligation to seek a solution based on our commitment to peace, democracy, human rights and mutual tolerance".

- Labour Party resolution on Kashmir, September 1995.

ELIZABETH Regina arrived for the third time in India on October 12, 1997, her presence intended to proclaim Britain's rediscovery of its own greatness and imperial heritage. Five days later, as a departing Queen Elizabeth nervously watched the last of the many altercations during the tour, between her Press Secretary, Geoffrey Crawford, and senior Tamil Nadu police officials at the Meenambakkam airport in Chennai, the look on her face suggested that she was glad to be leaving. The regal journey that British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and his foreign policy establishment had expected would be suffused in syrupy Raj nostalgia, instead led to the realisation that most of the world feels less benign about colonial oppression. There is, however, at least some reason to believe that this painful engagement with reality will be of little abiding consequence for British foreign policy.

Upon arrival at Rashtrapati Bhavan where she inspected a ceremonial guard of honour, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with President K.R. Narayanan and Prime Minister I.K. Gujral.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The origins of the Queen's bitter journey through India lay in an invitation extended to her by the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government, while the Conservative Party Government was still in power in London. Had John Major been re-elected Prime Minister, it is possible that the royal visit may have been less controversial, for Tory policy was focussed on core concerns of trade. From 1995, however, Labour, in a process of reinventing itself as a plausible contender for power, adopted an increasingly controversial policy on India-related affairs, particularly on Kashmir. Rhetoric about the responsibilities of being a former imperial power may seem absurd in India. But New Labour needed to mediate between the facts that if years of Conservative rule had reduced one in four British residents to poverty, the party had for several reasons long abandoned its working class commitments. The nationalism articulated in Britain's Kashmir policy was one outcome of an imaginary nationhood, one that held out the promise of a plural, just society without actually making a commitment to real change.

Cook's post-election "mission statement", promising an ethical foreign policy that would "secure the respect of other nations for Britain's contribution to keep the peace of the world," was little noticed here. Most experts suggested that Labour support for the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir and its human rights concerns were simply concessions to domestic backers such as Pakistani and pro-Khalistan Sikh voters.

Vociferous Labour opponents of India's Kashmir policy such as Cook, Derek Fatchett, Clare Short and Gerald Kaufman, do not in fact represent marginal constituencies. Something bigger was clearly at stake, and Prime Minister I.K. Gujral responded to plans for the Queen to visit Jallianwala Bagh with remarks to London's The Observer suggesting that there was no need for her to visit Amritsar at all. Given the bitter memories such a visit was bound to raise, particularly in the context of a highly interventionist British foreign policy, heeding Gujral's remarks would have in fact saved Elizabeth and her nation considerable embarrassment. Robin Cook, like others, chose not to listen.

At Chennai's Film City, on the sets of the film Marudanayagam, its director-actor Kamal Haasan explaining a point to the Queen. Also seen are (from right): Om Puri, Naaser, costume designer and Kamal Haasan's wife Sarika and art director Sabu Cyril.-N. BALAJI

From here on, events followed a predictable pattern. First, Queen Elizabeth, reading out an officially prepared speech in Pakistan, told India and Pakistan to stop "squabbling", and end their "historic disagreements". Then, Cook discussed Labour's policy with several journalists, and at least one newspaper proceeded to report his remarks. "I would take up the issue of Kashmir with India," the Urdu-language Jang quoted the Foreign Secretary as saying, "as we realise it is our responsibility to resolve this dispute in view of its historical perspective." Cook added: "The Labour Party wishes to solve this problem according to the aspirations of the people of Kashmir, and, therefore, the two parties should accept her role in this regard."

If there was nothing new in this position, it was calculated to outrage a wide spectrum of Indian opinion. The Queen's state visits have traditionally avoided discussion of political issues and the violation of this convention warranted a firm response. Gujral, normally mild-mannered, told a gathering of intellectuals in Cairo that Britain was "a third-rate power," and suggested that it would do well to concern itself with its own business.

A patch-up had to be engineered. Cook denied that he had ever said anything about Kashmir, and Gujral denied that he described Britain as a "third-rate power". Both were prevaricating, and since all concerned knew it, the peace was paper thin. By lunch time on April 13, minor incidents, such as a fracas over positioning between the British and Indian press at Hyderabad House, acquired more significance than they would have in any normal context. Cancellations of some excess invitations issued to British High Commission officials, and the fact that the Royal Marines band due to play 'God Save The Queen' was replaced for protocol reasons by an Indian military band, were vested with a ridiculous level of importance by visiting observers.

Clearly, everyone was waiting for the lid to blow off, and that happened on the morning of October 14. Prince Philip's bizarre remarks about casualties at Jallianwala Bagh became public, provoking charges of racism and a neo-colonial attitude. The remarks were first made public to correspondents from Frontline and The Indian Express by a police officer furious with the domineering attitude of his British counterparts.

Back in Delhi, the Queen woke up on October 15 to hostile newspaper headlines and public fury. The cancellation of her address at an official banquet hosted by Tamil Nadu Governor M. Fathima Beevi in Chennai was widely interpreted by the British press as retaliation for the previous day's slight. This was in fact nonsense: at no previous state visit has such an address ever been made outside New Delhi and there was no compelling reason to breach protocol on this occasion. Nonetheless, the inadvertent error in planning added to the tension.

The first incident was during the Duke of Edinburgh's separate journey to the Western Naval Command at Mumbai, where he was to visit the training ship INS Delhi before attending a business seminar and commercial reception on the HMS Westminster. Naval officials on INS Delhi had strongly protested after two senior functionaries deputed to pay a courtesy call to HMS Westminster were subjected to gratuitous insults. The furious protests almost led to the abandonment of Prince Philip's visit to INS Delhi. Such a crisis after the Jallianwala Bagh affair would have deeply embarrassed the Duke of Edinburgh, who had previously made history by making racist remarks on a state visit to Beijing.

For royal-watchers, who had been hoping for a quiet time in Chennai, the rest of the Queen's southern sojourn was not without irony. During their 1961 visit, Elizabeth and Prince Philip recieved a rapturous welcome in southern India, with State governments declaring holidays in Chennai and Bangalore. "Hundreds of thousands of people," The Hindu of February 20, 1961 reported, "lined the nineteen mile route from the Meenambakkam airport to the heart of Madras, to give an unprecedented welcome to Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh." This time, however, there was no popular response at all to the Queen's journey, though some Hindus in Britain may have seen her time at the Ekambaranathar temple in Kancheepuram as an endorsement of their emigre existance. One high point of her time in the south was a visit to Chennai's M.G.R. Film City, where she watched the muharat of Kamal Hassan's film, Marudanayagam. What Elizabeth's sentiments were on witnessing a valorisation of one of the first struggles against colonial rule may never be known, but the choice was emblematic of public concerns in this 50th year of Independence.

This succession of crisis was in part blamed in Britain on Cook. "Never in recent British history," Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Howard said, "has a Foreign Secretary upset so many people in such a short time." "Sad to say," Howard continued, parodying Labour's "mission statement," "but a period of silence from Mr. Cook would do much for Britain's standing in the world."

If some newspapers were principally concerned with any possible embarrassment to their monarch, others like The Sunday Times made some effort to explain the issues at stake to their readers. "Critics in India," the newspaper said, likened the mediation offer "to their foreign secretary offering to mediate over Northern Ireland." "Only superpowers get away with that sort of behaviour, and even President Bill Clinton was chastened over British reaction when he first invited Gerry Adams to the White House."

On other issues, however, the British media responded boorishly. The fight at Chennai airport, provoked by a photographer of The Daily Telegraph who evidently believed white people, unlike "natives", do not need security permits, was unfairly blamed on the Chennai police. Restrictions placed on Indian journalists, which contrasted with the easy access accorded to visiting British reporters, were hardly reported.

How serious is the impact of such criticism likely to be on Whitehall? South Block at last seems to understand that the discourse of "imperial responsibilities" outlined in Cook's "mission statement" is not simply polemical but the articulation of a set of core ideological beliefs. South Block is increasingly concerned that Cook's continued agenda of engineering a British role in what should be bilateral South Asian affairs, an enterprise labelled misleadingly as a concern for "human rights", may be supported by the U.S. organisations such as the London-based Amnesty International may endorse such intervention, providing it with popular legitimacy in the West. Despite an apparent softening of the U.S. stance on Kashmir, the personal rapport between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton is well known, and some officials believe that Blair is merely playing Mr. Menace to Clinton's Mr. Nice Guy. "Both Blair and Clinton are lapsed liberals politicised in the 1960s," one South Block observer suggests, "on an issue like Kashmir, both their secret convictions and brutal strategic interests can happily coexist."

If the royal visit has held out unpleasant lessons for Britain, it has prompted at least some introspection about the basis of India's relationship with that country. It has not passed unnoticed that Queen Elizabeth's bizarre round of temple and film-set hopping would have been inconceivable even three decades ago. Her visit to India in 1961 was wholly different in ambience and emphasis. Elizabeth visited the Durgapur Steel plant, the Integral Coach Factory near Chennai, and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

At the Atomic Energy Commission, Queen Elizabeth met the father of India's nuclear programme, Homi Bhaba, and made enquiries about India's progress in harnessing the the atom for development. This schedule illustrated the confidence and sense of purpose that defined free India's relationship with Britain at that point. Babble about "imperial responsibilities" would have been impossible then, for it might have been met with the suggestion that other responsibilities, such as reparations for the crimes committed during colonialism, be first honoured.

The real reason why the Labour Government felt able to offend India was years of incompetent and unfocussed foreign policy. If the gains of the royal visit are not built upon, worse could in time follow.

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