How Modi can make use of a colonial relic

Nehru accepted subservient status by recognising the UK monarch as head of the Commonwealth. What can India do at next week’s summit?

Published: 14th April 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th April 2018 05:48 AM   |  A+A-

In 1949, PM Jawaharlal Nehru faced a dilemma. Should newly independent India continue to remain in the British Commonwealth? Indian nationalists had through the 1930s and 1940s fought against India’s future association with a body headed by an imperial power.

Nehru himself declared that India would have nothing to do with the last vestige of British imperialism. “Under no circumstances,” Nehru wrote, “is India going to remain in the British Commonwealth.” In 1949, circumstances changed and so did Nehru’s mind. The British, impoverished by World War II and in heavy debt to the US and India over war funding, were desperate to cling to a semblance of global power. The British government hastily renamed the ‘British Commonwealth’ the ‘Commonwealth of Nations’. Republics—as India was shortly to be—could remain as members. Previously only British dominions could.

The move was widely criticised in India. Nehru’s capitulation, as it was termed, allowed Britain to extend the myth of its imperial power. Nehru agreed to sign the London Declaration on 28 April 1949 which in part stated: “The government of India has … declared and affirmed India’s desire to continue her full membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and her acceptance of the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as the Head of the Commonwealth.”
In one fell blow, Nehru had accepted subservient status to an ejected colonial power by acknowledging the British monarch in perpetuity as head of an organisation of which India was one of dozens of past and present British colonies.

None of these thoughts will weigh on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mind next week when he attends the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) in London. King George was British monarch when Nehru signed the London Declaration 69 years ago to keep India in the British Commonwealth. Circumstances have again changed.

In 2018, India’s GDP ($2.80 trillion) will overtake Britain’s for the first time. Britain needs India far more today than India needs Britain. The UK government is struggling with grim post-Brexit calculations. When it officially leaves the European Union (EU) on 31 March 2019, Britain will rely heavily on countries like India, China and Japan for bilateral trade deals. British PM Theresa May has called for the emergence of ‘global Britain’—free of the EU’s stifling bureaucracy, laws and free borders.
At their meeting in London, Modi and May will talk about trade, terror, immigration and much else.

As home secretary from 2010 to 2016, May cut immigration targets with a surgical knife. As PM, she continues to oppose immigration from both continental Europe and countries like India. She though needs Modi’s cooperation on striking a bilateral post-Brexit trade deal. Modi should hold firm. Britain has a vibrant Indian diaspora. Before CHOGM gets underway next Thursday, he will address events for Indians in Britain that promise to bring back memories of Madison Square Garden in New York. Modi’s popularity may have waned in India but he remains a crowd-puller with Indians abroad.

It is on terror though that Modi must press May most. Britain is a safe haven for pro-Pakistani jihadis and Khalistani separatists who use UK laws to avoid deportation, spew venom against India and serve as recruiters for Islamists and other separatists with links to terror modules in India. For Britain, Modi’s decision to attend CHOGM is a relief.

He skipped the last meet in 2015 and his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh did not bother to attend two previous CHOGMs either. The plain truth is that without India the Commonwealth is a motley collection of white settlements (Australia, New Zealand, Canada), former British African colonies (Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa) and islands scattered across the Pacific and the Caribbean. India forms 55 per cent of the Commonwealth’s population. Along with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, South Asia accounts for nearly 75 per cent of the Commonwealth.

Britain, soon to be shorn of Europe’s trading markets, is marketing itself to India. It wanted to set up a permanent Commonwealth Trade and Investment Centre in New Delhi to envelop India in an ever-tighter Commonwealth embrace. The Ministry of External Affairs was keen; the Commerce Ministry rightly shot down the proposal.

Far more useful is for India to use the Commonwealth proactively to advance its national interests. It can use the forum to corner Pakistan over its use of terrorism as state policy. Britain was one of the countries (along with France and Germany) that backed the US motion to greylist Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting in Paris.

Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth in 1999 following General Pervez Musharraf’s military coup. It was readmitted in 2004 but again suspended in 2007 when Musharraf declared a state of Emergency. Following the restoration of what passes as democracy in Pakistan, the country was readmitted in 2008.

India has not effectively used the Commonwealth forum to hold Pakistan to account for using terror as state policy. To rescue next week’s summit in London from a meaningless talk-fest, Modi should put terror—especially Pakistan-sponsored terror—on the menu.

This could well be 91-year-old Queen Elizabeth II’s last summit as head of the Commonwealth. The 1949 Declaration mandates the British monarch will always head the Commonwealth. That should no longer be so, once the Queen’s reign is over. Future heads should be chosen democratically—a quality the Commonwealth prizes but, in this respect, flouts.

Minhaz Merchant

The author is an editor and publisher

Tweets @MinhazMerchant


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