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Start of new diplomatic era: Will Modi and Starmer erase past India-labour tensions?

According to a statement, they agreed to push for speedy completion of a beneficial India-UK free-trade agreement—which is essentially a deal between countries to remove, or reduce, taxes and restrictions on goods and services traded.

Start of new diplomatic era: Will Modi, Starmer erase past India-labour tensions? AJR
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First Published Jul 7, 2024, 9:16 AM IST

On Saturday (July 6), Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Britain’s newly elected Prime Minister Keir Starmer. In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Modi congratulated Starmer on his new role and the impressive victory of his Labour Party in the UK elections.

According to a statement, they agreed to push for speedy completion of a beneficial India-UK free-trade agreement—which is essentially a deal between countries to remove, or reduce, taxes and restrictions on goods and services traded. This makes it easier and cheaper for businesses to sell across borders, boosting trade and economic growth and offering consumers more options and lower prices.

The statement mentioned that both leaders remembered the long-standing ties between India and the UK. They also confirmed their commitment to strengthening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries. This deep and broad relationship aims to strengthen mutual ties, enhance economic growth and address global challenges together, reflecting a high level of trust and commitment. This partnership includes cooperation in trade, defence, technology, education, culture, environment and health.

They also praised the Indian community for its positive contribution to UK society, economy and politics, and committed to strengthening the relationship between their people. Modi also invited Starmer to visit India soon, even as both leaders agreed to stay in contact.

Labour’s Kashmir Controversies

Indians have traditionally liked the Labour Party because, during Prime Minister Clement Atlee’s time in office, India had gained Independence in 1947. During the time Atlee was Prime Minister, from 1945 to 1951, however, the UN Security Council passed some of its first resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir, which favoured Pakistan over India, reports The Mint.

Recently, India’s has had a cocktail chemistry with the Labour Party. In 1997, Queen Elizabeth II visited India and Pakistan to celebrate their 50 years of Independence. However, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s comments suggesting mediation on the Kashmir issue cast a shadow on the visit. New Delhi, which maintains that the Kashmir issue should be resolved directly between India and Pakistan, was understandably upset with these comments.

In 2008, Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband upset India by urging New Delhi to resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan to prevent terrorist attacks such as the one in Mumbai from November 26-29, 2008. Miliband avoided directly blaming Pakistan for the attack, although he did identify the Pakistan-based group, Lashkar-e-Toiba, as being responsible. India’s reaction was that the Mumbai attacks were not connected to the J&K issue and were part of ‘global terrorism’.

Kashmir Shadow on India-UK Ties

The relationship between India’s Modi government and the new Starmer government in the UK will depend on how Labour addresses India’s security concerns. Historically, New Delhi has been cautious of the Labour Party’s inclination towards Pakistan and its stance on the Kashmir issue.

This caution stems from the significant Pakistani diaspora in the UK, particularly from Mirpur in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). This community has traditionally supported Labour, while British citizens of Indian origin have split their votes between the Conservative and Labour parties. The Mirpuri vote is influential and can affect the outcome in around 30-40 of the 650 seats in the UK Parliament.

Against this backdrop, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn criticized India’s decision to revoke Article 370 of its Constitution in 2019, which had granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. In September that same year, under Corbyn’s leadership, the Brighton Labour conference passed a resolution backing “international intervention in Kashmir” and sought a UN-led referendum. India had strongly criticized this decision.

Interestingly, 2024 marks 40 years since Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre, who was the assistant commissioner at India’s consulate in Birmingham, was kidnapped and killed by terrorists who wanted Kashmir to secede from India. Mhatre’s kidnappers wanted the release of terrorist Maqbool Butt and nine of his accomplices, besides a one-million-pound ransom. The murder was reportedly ordered by Amanullah Khan, who was leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) at the time.

Khalistani Separatism Concerns

Another security concern for India is the increased activity of Sikh separatists who are demanding a separate state called Khalistan from India’s Punjab. Recently, these protests have gathered momentum. In March 2023, a group of about 50 people attacked the Indian High Commission in London, entered its lawns and took down the National Flag. The Indian government strongly protested to the UK authorities and news reports said the UK police arrested one person.

India & UK’s Economic Power Shift

Much has changed since then. In 2022, India became the world’s fifth-largest economy surpassing Britain. Analysts estimate that the Indian community in the UK now numbers 1.6 million. The community is considered educated, affluent and politically active. India is also the second-largest investor in the UK, with around 900 Indian-owned companies employing approximately 110,000 people. The UK views India as a key market, especially after it left the European Union.

‘Hinduphobia’ Attacks Condemned

Last week, Labour leader and human rights lawyer Starmer visited the Swaminarayan Temple in north London. He spoke about eliminating ‘Hinduphobia’ from the UK and expressed support for the British Hindu community following recent vandalism attacks.

A Strong Foundation for Growth

Analyst C Raja Mohan, in an article in The Indian Express this week, had stated that the outgoing Conservative party government had established a strong foundation for India-UK relations, allowing Starmer to focus on strengthening these ties further. They had moved away from such issues as Kashmir and framed them in the context of the Indo-Pacific.

But Student Visa Policies Uncertain

Many Indian students who go to the UK for their studies also hope to work there for a while to help pay off their student loans. However, the British government has occasionally threatened to revoke this privilege. In 2012, when Theresa May was Home Secretary, she introduced a rule that made it mandatory for international students to leave the UK within four months after finishing their degrees. The Boris Johnson government rescinded this rule in 2019.

Given that issues of mobility and migration are often controversial in the UK—such as the Conservative plans to send illegal migrants to Rwanda—India should be prepared for some tough negotiations regarding this matter.

India-UK Strategic Collaborations

Despite all these issues, there is a lot that India and the UK can collaborate on. One key area is defence, where India aims to become a major exporter of military hardware.

Analysts believe that partnerships between Indian and UK companies could be to the advantage of both economies. The pharmaceutical industry is a great example, as seen with the Serum Institute of India Pvt. Ltd teaming up with the UK’s AstraZeneca to produce the Covishield vaccine in 2021, according to reports from The Mint. However, for these collaborations to succeed, both countries need to carefully handle the sensitive areas of their relationship. This will require understanding and skilled diplomacy.

(The author of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach him at: girishlinganna@gmail.com)

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