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Time for an India-Britain reset?

By Colonel ANIL A ATHALE (retd)
March 17, 2021 10:24 IST
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In the changed circumstances and attitudes in Britain, we must let bygones be bygones, argues Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

*IMAGE: Then Britain's foreign secretary Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson receives Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi at Heathrow airport in London, April 18, 2018. Photograph: MEAIndia/Flickr/span>

It was way back in 1985 that I, a young major on sabbatical, was a PhD student at the University of Pune.

I recall meetings with two British scholars, Colonel Jonathan Alford, then the deputy director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, and a young researcher named John Chipman.

To both of them I had posed a question as to why there was such sparse presence of the British in the economy of post-independence India?

Giving the example of Pune itself; while there were German, American and Swedish companies, but hardly any British ones in the thriving industrial city of Pune.

It is nearly forty years since then and there is very little change in that aspect of India-British relations.

The 1980s was a wrong time to pose that question, as I realised later.

In the 1980s, the Cold War with the USSR had entered a decisive phase. As collateral damage, the British were fully involved in a joint Anglo-American project to dismember India.

The Afghan Jihad 1.0 (the 'Good One' for the Anglo-Saxons) was in full swing.

Pakistan's military dictator Zia-ul Haq was christened the 'Defender of the Free World' and Khalistani extremists were being trained, harboured and funded in the West.

On a longer term horizon, this was the logical culmination of the British policy of quit but split that was implemented in 1947.

This was indeed the high noon of the British policy of using Pakistan as a proxy in the Indian subcontinent.

Much water has flowed through the Ganga and Thames since then.

The jihadis nurtured in the 1980s have come to haunt the West.

India weathered the storms of the 1980s and has emerged stronger in all aspects of power.

Be it 9/11 in the US or the London train bombings of 2005, there is now a better understanding of jihadism and Pakistan's role in worldwide terror threats.

A reset of global relations has become even greater necessity for the post Brexit United Kingdom.

The overall situation is indeed favourable in both countries.

Despite the machinations of the British establishment against India, there is a great amount of goodwill amongst the people of both countries.

There are ties of English language and, of course, cricket.

Most thoughtful Indians acknowledge that the British rule of India indeed did have some redeeming points.

British liberals right from Edmund Burke (who denounced the British empire in India way back in 1776 in his speech in the House of Commons) were greatly admired in India.

Indians were also appreciative of the British quality of sense of justice and fair play.

In England one can seldom find any individuals/families who do not have an India connection!

With time that generation is fading away, but it is fair to say that India evokes positive feelings in average British citizen.

Like Germany, the strength of UK is in its SMEs (small and medium enterprises).

These mostly family-owned companies continue to churn technology and are nimble footed enough to keep up with changing world.

India would benefit immensely from an economic tie-up between these enterprises and their Indian counterparts.

What is needed is for other sections of the Indian economy to follow this lead and foster greater India-Britain collaboration.

The armed forces and defence sectors are of particular importance in this endeavour.

Our past experience has not been a happy one in this respect as the British scuttled the HF-24 Marut project by denying the Rolls-Royce engine.

The grounding of an entire fleet of Sea King helicopters may still rankle with the Indian Navy.

But in the changed circumstances and attitudes in Britain, we must let bygones be bygones.

The success of quickly manufacturing the Astra Zenca Oxford vaccine in India is a shining example of India-Britain co-operation.

With two of the most important positions in the British cabinet being held by persons of Indian origin (Chancellor the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Priti Patel), Indians of the Diaspora have indeed come of age.

It is time we build on these positives for a win-win for both countries.

Military historian Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a former Chhatrapati Shivaji Chair Fellow at the United Services Institute of India.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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