For far too long Britain has acted with a deeply naive attitude towards India. Labour’s conduct towards the emerging super-power has not only done much to damage our relations at a governmental level – I.K. Gujral, Indian Prime minster from 1997 to 1998, once described Britain as ‘a third-rate power’ – but has also been detrimental to the image that the average Indian holds of us. I had ample chance for debate with Indian students whilst being shown round Mumbai University. Political students, with an insightful understanding of diplomacy between Britain and India, often told me that the former was often perceived as subordinating the latter, through some complacent arrogance that had somehow imbedded itself in the policies of successive governments after 1947.
The British ruled in India for over 200 years, the images of English gentlemen riding elephants and the stories of Kipling are a deep-set part of our culture, and to older generations India will always be that jewel in the British empire. However, we are deeply mistaken if we assume that this shared history gives us any prestige in the eyes of Indians. To Indians, this is little more than a period of history best forgotten.
Right from the outset mistakes were made by Labour about the ‘shared history’ that Britain and India were, quite wrongly, assumed to posses. During the Queen’s 1997 visit, a Band of Royal Marines was forbidden from playing due to its ‘imperial connotations’ and the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, put his foot in it by offering to mediate between India and Pakistan.
In its final years, Labour was far too occupied in its snuggling-up to China to turn its attentions to the quietly flourishing India and recognise its increasing importance as both a military and trading ally. Once again, embarrassing mistakes were made; notably, David Miliband lecturing Indian Ministers on human rights issues whilst addressing them by their first names. All of which has only served to push Britain to the peripheries of India’s political consciousness.
Thankfully, It seems that Cameron’s delegation of cabinet ministers and business leaders – the largest British delegation to visit the country since independence – can be taken as a direct contrast to labour’s prior indifference, and putting in its place an appreciation and reverence for a state that could do just as well without our support.
That is not to say that this new ‘special relationship’ is completely without benefits for India. The £700m deal between BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Hindustan Aeronautics will provide a multitude of jobs to the masses of unemployed within India (a problem that is currently being remedied by assigning three of four workers to do the job of one).
Furthermore, though we cannot rely on a shared sense of history and nostalgia to support relations between our two countries, we can appeal to the deep personal ties that are not hard to find. Britain has a 1.5 million Indian diaspora and there are 34,000 Indian nationals studying in Britain, and despite the growing allure of America as a place to study, Britain is still held as the highest in terms of repute (in all the Indian cities I visited, I saw billboards advertising agencies that would – perhaps misleadingly- ‘guarantee’ you a student visa to Britain). All of which instantly brings Britain and India closer together.
Let’s hope that David Cameron’s pledges to place a cap on non-EU migration and restrictions on student visas doesn’t end up being irrevocably detrimental towards these personal ties.
All Day I Hear the Noise of Waters
We travelled from the station to the hotel in a roofed pick-up truck. The passengers sit alongside the back of the truck on two benches, running along either side is an open window and the only way in is through an opening at the back. For Thailand, the new year is a big thing, it’s a three day festival of water fights, processions, dancing, singing, and face painting; however, I was not prepared for just how seriously the water-fighting was taken. As I sat looking out of the taxi, admiring the surrounding cityscape, I noticed a convoy of pick-up trucks behind us. And in the back of each one was a large bucket of water with a block of ice for added effect. Around this tub sat a number of people with water pistols and receptacles for dispensing the icy cold water over those unfortunate enough to come within their sights and range. We stopped at a traffic light and a one of these pick-up trucks pulled up beside us. They began chucking water over us. My God it was good. There’s a quick scramble to waterproof valuables, i.e. money, passport, phone (but, this really can be avoided with a little prudence), but really, you enjoy the feeling. When it’s so hot, to be splashed with ice cold water is refreshing, you know that as soon as you step out the taxi your clothes will dry in the sun, and there’s a certain connection you feel with the locals in the fact that they have chosen to include you (though perhaps ‘sacrifice’ would be a better word) in their traditions. They soak you a few times and it’s funny. But then you realise the traffic lights still haven’t changed and the soaking you are getting begins to looses all its humour, fun, effect, or in fact, reason (why sprays someone who is already wet?) because of the repetitiveness of it. Eventually the taxi pulls away from the lights and it dawns on you that a precedent has been set.
A two part account of one hapless, young man’s journey to the Songkran festival in Chiang Mai.
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Waiting at the Bangkok train station is quite a pleasant experience. The great hall is arranged as though into a theatre, though the only show is one of red lights and incandescent, scurrying words; the timetable, that is. There’s also, as is expected in any public building in Thailand, a huge picture of the King, stood rather grandly next to his dressing table.
You, dear reader, find me just as I am about to embark from Bangkok by train on a journey 700km North to Chiang Mai, the epicentre of activity and celebration during Thailand’s Songkran festival of the Thai new year. The most widely known celebration of Songkran is the throwing of water; however, this was not always the main activity of the festival. Songkran was traditionally a time to visit and pay respects to elders, including family members, friends and neighbours. Besides the throwing of water, people celebrating Songkran may also go to a Buddhist monastery to pray and give food to monks. They may also cleanse Buddha images from household shrines as well as Buddha images at monasteries by gently pouring water mixed with a Thai fragrance over them (I happened to be caught up in this particular ritual and carried a sweet scent with me throughout the rest of the day). It is believed that doing this will bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year. In many cities, including Chiang Mai, the Buddha images from all of the city’s important monasteries are paraded through the streets so that people can toss water at them, ritually ‘bathing’ the images, as they pass by on ornately decorated floats. In northern Thailand, people may carry handfuls of sand to their local monastery in order to recompense the dirt that they have carried away on their feet during the rest of the year. The sand is then sculpted into and decorated with flags.
However, not being a Buddhist myself, my primary reason for visiting Chiang Mai was to experience the prodigious water fight that takes part in Chaing Mai throughout Songkran (13th-15 April); and what and experience it was!