Is India getting a good deal with Cameron?

Last Updated: Thu, Feb 21, 2013 13:02 hrs

“This was a deeply shameful act in British history. We must never forget what happened here.”

That was what British Prime Minister David Cameron had to say about the horrific massacre of April 13, 1919, one of the ugliest events in three centuries riddled with ugly events to demonstrate British dominance over the subjects of a land they had taken over, by cunning and force.

And he refused to apologise.

Now, an apology would mean nothing. This is not the British government that was in place at the time, and the British government that was in place at the time was more forthcoming about the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre than Cameron.

Winston Churchill, Secretary of War at the time, called it an “outrage”. Churchill was the sort of colonial who said, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

He was the sort of racist who said: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

He was the sort of Prime Minister whose draconian policies led to the terrible Bengal Famine of 1943, for which he refused relief.

And yet he called it “An extraordinary event, a monstrous event, which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”

David Cameron has brushed off the demand for an apology, speaking of India and England’s “shared history” and “economic ties”.

He finds it easy to forget that this history was not one that this country wanted to share. And that it crippled us, and robbed us of riches that are stowed away in museums in England.

On Cameron’s last visit, he was, in fact, asked about the Koh-i-Noor. He refused to return it, saying it would lead to a demand from other countries for England to return the jewels stolen from their lands too, which would leave their museums “empty” – essentially admitting British museums were storehouses of loot.

This time, too, he reiterated the refusal, saying he doesn’t believe in “returnism” and doesn’t think it sensible.

In Kuldip Nayar’s book Beyond the Lines, he speaks of how as envoy, he raised a demand for the diamond to be returned, and as MP in Rajya Sabha, he collected signatures of other MPs to ask for its return from England.

In an interview I did with Mr Nayar, he quoted the then-External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh saying, “Don’t press for this. This will spoil the relations between India and Britain.”  Mr Nayar added, “To hell with it, what do you care if relations are spoilt? We should get the Koh-i-noor back. But nobody now is doing anything about it. You know, when we went to the Tower of London, they were very much on the defensive. They said, ‘This is yours, really, sir.’ But I was High Commissioner then, maybe that was the reason. And there was a very pertinent remark by my servant on that trip. He said, “Babuji, jab jaayen toh is ko le jaayen. [When we go back, let’s go back taking this with us.]”

David Cameron also appears to forget that it was economic ties with England that enslaved this country in the first place.

And in today’s world, the benefits of “economic ties” with England remain as one-sided. For a long time now, there has been speculation about British universities’ plans to set up branches here, which will charge the same fee to give Indian students degrees in India, on foreign paper.

Meanwhile, the rules on visas and work permits for Indian students in the UK are getting stricter. Cameron’s message is clear, and not very different from that of Britons three centuries ago: We want your money. We don’t want you taking our jobs.

During his visit to India to discuss trade and commerce, it appears we’re skirting the real issues. Students are being invited to British universities constantly, but there are no jobs available once they finish their studies.

I’ve seen for myself how the immigration and work laws have tightened since I studied in England, in 2005-06. At the time, we students were allowed a one-year extension on our visas, to look for work. Once a job was secured, it was far easier to arrange for work permits than it is now. I chose to come back to India, but I needn’t have. Today, students rarely have that choice.

Last year, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith plainly asked businesses based in the UK to “give a chance” to unemployed Britons, rather than to foreign workers. He also said “a realistic promise” or work formed part of the “government’s contract with its people”.

If we are discussing economic ties, it has to work both ways. And if Cameron intends to make a token gesture of friendship to India, an apology shouldn’t suffice. India must press for the jewels plundered by its colonisers to be returned. And as one of the fastest growing economic powers in the world, and one in which people don’t necessarily have to leave the country to make money, India has more bargaining power in this case. Whether our leaders will actually talk about the things that do matter remains to be seen. And if they aren’t, we’re really getting nothing out of Cameron’s visits.

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at

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