The Independent

Britain and her former colony still feel the need to tiptoe around each other nervously

The state visit tomorrow of Pratibha Patil, India’s President, is being billed as an important landmark in the relationship between the two countries. It is the first state visit in 19 years and only the third since India became independent. We will hear many honeyed words and much talk of economic collaboration between Britain and an emerging Asian giant. Yet none of this can mask the fragile nature of this relationship, in which Britain and her former colony still feel the need to tiptoe round each other.

I was made aware of this when I found myself at Buckingham Palace a couple of weeks ago along with some 300 other Indians living in this country. You could not have drawn a better picture of Indian success here: any number of rich Indian businessmen, members of the House of Lords of Indian origin, and well-known entertainers all sipping champagne and eating tikka masala. British businessmen were also dotted around, hoping no doubt to tap into the Indian market.

India, after all, is the second biggest investor in the UK, after the US. And while Shilpa Shetty did not make it, Bollywood did. Just before we were presented to the Queen and Prince Philip there was a Bollywood dance performance in the Palace ballroom. I was told this was the first time such a spectacle had been seen there.

I could not have imagined such a scene when I arrived here 40 years ago. Back then Spike Milligan blacked-up to play an Indian waiter in a sitcom, Indian food was merely blotting paper for those who had spent far too long in the pub, and India was always pictured with a begging bowl seeking Western aid. The presence of Meera Syal and her husband, Sanjeev Bhaskar, underlined how things had changed. Their brilliant sitcom Goodness Gracious Me, the title borrowed from the lines Milligan always parroted to his customers, showed the confidence of a community that can now laugh at itself.

Yet the evening also revealed the awkwardness that lurks not far beneath the surface. Many of the guests kept asking each other why they had been invited. Even remarks meant innocently provoked intense suspicion.

One man in front of me in the queue to be presented to the Royals, a Mr Patel, was told by the Duke: “There are a lot of your relations here tonight.” I am sure the Duke meant well but it so puzzled Mr Patel that he kept asking me: “Did he mean that there are a lot of Patels here or”, and he dropped his voice at this point, “did he mean that there are a lot of wogs here?”

The evening also featured an exhibition in the Picture gallery of the Padshahnama, the illustrations commissioned by the 16th century Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal. A leaflet we were given explained that 200 years later as the British conquered India, these were presented to George III. They are now one of the greatest treasures in the Royal Collection.

The exhibition was no doubt intended to make the Indians feel at home but one Indian turned to me and asked: “Presented? Surely it should say stolen?” A look at his face told me he was not joking.

The evening made me realise that people may jest about Britain and America being divided by a common language, but Britain and India remain two countries divided by their interpretation of their common history. This makes it impossible for the two countries to attain the sort of relaxed relationship Britain has with its first great colony, America.

As it happens, Britain made up for the loss of America by acquiring India. Lord Cornwallis, who surrendered to George Washington in Yorktown, went on to become Governor General in India. True, there are many factors contributing to Britain’s special relationship with America – America’s status as the world’s superpower and the many family ties that bind the two nations together – but one of the key factors is that both countries have come to terms with their common past.

So much so that Tony Blair could go to the US House of Congress, apologise for the British burning down the White House in 1812 and merely provoke laughter. A similar apology by a British Prime Minister for the 1919 Amritsar massacre, even in jest, would be unthinkable. The British and the Indians cannot even agree how to describe what happened in 1857. The British description of it as a mutiny rails Indians, for whom it is the first war of independence and, when an Indian film-maker made a movie of it not long ago, British historians filled the airwaves questioning the film’s authenticity.

Historians of the Raj endlessly debate how and why the British left the subcontinent in 1947. Many portray it as a scuttle and are forever seeking scapegoats for what is seen as a huge policy failure. Yet the more relevant question that is rarely asked is why, in the 1930s, the British failed to give India the sort of dominion status it had given its white colonies, a decision that could have both preserved the Empire and avoided the bloodbath of 1947.

And for all the anguish about the horrors of the one million who died during partition, few Raj historians dwell on the Bengal famine of 1943, when three million Indians died in one of the worst famines of the 20th century, an unforgivable blot on British rule in India.

Indians are even more schizophrenic about how they acquired their freedom. Unlike the Americans, not having fought a pitched battle against the British, the Indians do not have a Yorktown as their final conclusive moment when they secured freedom.

This makes them exaggerate the anti-British campaigns during the Second World War. Then, most Indian politicians opposed the Raj, arguing that it was hypocritical of Britain to fight for world freedom while denying India hers. Yet more than two million Indians fought for the British during the war, the largest voluntary force ever raised. And, as the military historian AJ Barker put it: “Indian freedom was probably assured by the events of 1942, when Japan destroyed the mystique of white supremacy in the Far East.”

For a people to accept that gaining their freedom was not their doing, or that many of their countrymen fought to support their colonial masters, is hard. This is worsened by a certain Indian prudery. The land of the Kama Sutra has always found it difficult to be open about sex, more so when it comes to subjects like the affair between Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, and Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of the last Viceroy. The Indian government put so many restrictions on a recent attempt to film the affair that it was abandoned.

There are signs that some Indians, 62 years after Britain returned the jewel in its crown, are beginning to look at their history with more objective eyes. Even then, politicians who have praised Mohammed Ali Jinnah have found that trying to be fair to the man who created Pakistan, and is demonised in India for that, can be politically very damaging.

Until Britain and India begin to take a more grown-up view of their past, this week’s bonhomie will not obscure the need for the two countries to circle each other warily. Their association may go back 400 years, but the fear remains that one wrong step could ignite the old India v England hostilities.


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