Indian Tour: Ghosts of the Raj that doomed a royal visit

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The Royal visit to India did not go well. That is partly because Britain, to its surprise, is not universally liked or respected in India. Our correspondent isn't surprised.

My day spent on the royal flight in the company of the Duke of Edinburgh was economical (free, in fact) and comfortable (warm scones, clotted cream and jam, Fortnum and Mason's Earl Grey), but yielded none of the nuggets which, down the years, has turned Prince Philip into a sort of cargo cult among journalists.

During the whole day he lobbed only one remark in my direction. It was after our visit to a large Hindu temple in Gujarat where children dressed as peacocks danced for him and the reedy notes of a shehanai warbled. "Have you seen the one in Neasden?" he called back into our compartment of the plane. "It's exactly the same, only bigger."

The Queen, her consort and her secretary of state have had a horrid week in India. Diplomatically it has achieved nothing. The newspapers have overflowed with joyful chippiness. The atonement at Amritsar was torpedoed by the inevitable Philip gaffe. The Indian prime minister chose to greet the royal party with the observation that Britain was a "third-rate power". The Queen's first speech went down so well that the second one was apparently banned by the Indian government at the last minute. On his way home (the local papers were glad to report), Mr Cook was seen off by the humblest available officials, to make sure he got the message.

Mr Cook dismisses it all now as a "storm in a teacup" but at a reception on Monday he was not taking it so well: as he lambasted a young woman journalist for not checking her facts before reporting his indiscretions, he was clearly incandescent with frustration. The large, vague hope that he might be able to work some New Labour, Ulster-style magic over Kashmir has blown up in his face: in the run-up to the Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh, Britain's relations with the biggest member of that organisation are suddenly worse than at any time since Thatcher.

The trouble is, the British are not really much liked in these parts, particularly when we behave as if independence changed nothing. Yes, there is an extraordinary intimacy between our countries: English culture has penetrated so deeply into the mentality of educated Indians, become so woven into the fabric of their literature and psychology and cities and politics, that disentangling it is out of the question. England is in their blood. And we in Britain are sentimental about that fact, cloyingly nostalgic about the role we played in the building of the Indian nation, as if it were something disinterested, like the rearing of a child, instead of a bloody and long-drawn-out struggle for freedom.

So the intimacy is like that between a violent husband and his wife, where the wife has escaped and regained her self- respect. It cannot be presumed upon. The degree of closeness makes the relationship not easier but more difficult, for there are many things that cannot be said, and if you raise your voice or your fist it's a disaster. And the pompous ritual of a royal tour, so redolent of the old relationship and the old enactments of domination, makes it all worse.

The visit to Amritsar epitomised the problems. Superficially it was the high point of the trip, for the streets were lined with people (the great majority schoolchildren who had no choice in the matter). But it showed how hard it is for the royals to get things right. Their trip to Jallianwala Bagh, the park in the city where hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were killed by British gunfire in April 1919, was insultingly perfunctory. Then while walking round the park, the Duke remarked to the local dignitary escorting him that he had served in the Royal Navy with the son of Brigadier- General Dyer, the commanding officer responsible for the massacre, who believed the figure of 2,000 deaths engraved on the wall of the park was "vastly exaggerated". Most historians would probably agree. But there could hardly be a more inappropriate time and place in which to pass on this information.

At the Golden Temple, the Sikh religion's holy of holies, their reception was ecstatic, and it was not too hard to work out why: they were being used as pawns in the long-running, bitter and bloody game between the Sikh "nation" and the central government. Of all India's disaffected minorities, the militant Sikhs have been the most violent, desperate and threatening to the integrity of the state. In 1973, Sikhs adopted a resolution declaring that their position within the Indian Union "denudes the Sikhs of their political identity ... thus liquidating the Sikhs politically and exposing them to spiritual death and cultural decay". These discontents grew into a movement to fight for an independent state, Khalistan; the resulting conflict with the armed forces led to the bombardment of the Golden Temple in 1984, the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, the lynching of thousands of innocent Sikhs in Delhi, and the brutal suppression of the secessionists in Punjab.

It was into these waters that Elizabeth waded, becoming the first head of state to visit the Golden Temple, where she and the Duke were loaded with expensive gifts. If it was done merely to please the Sikhs of Birmingham and Southall, it was unbelievably parochial. But it certainly infuriated the Indian government, who had tried to get the Queen to cancel this trip.

What have such ceremonial visits got to do with Robin Cook's attempts to put leverage on the Indian government over human rights abuses in Kashmir? The Indian instinct is to see in both of them the old British urge to divide and rule. India's divisions were always the key to British success in India, from the first deal cut by the East India Company onwards. For centuries we didn't need to divide and rule: India was divided, therefore we ruled. But as the nationalist movement gained strength, the imperialists argued that India's divisions were ineradicable, that India could never be a real nation.

It was Gandhi's triumph to prove them wrong. But partition almost proved them right again, and fairly or not, Britain is still blamed for it. Today the Union remains a very fragile entity. So when Britain is perceived to offer succour to secessionists, whether in Kashmir or in "Khalistan", very old wounds are opened.

A British monarch in India is in an impossible position. Either she must go around the country on her knees, apologising for everything; or she must ceremonially open cupboard after cupboard and watch the skeletons clatter out. If Tony Blair imagined that recruiting the monarchy to his policy goals was going to be easy, the Indian tour will have provided a useful reality check.

Watching this week's sorry proceedings unfold, it became clear that the only British head of state who could hope to get a genuinely warm reception in India would be a democratically elected one.

l Seven in 10 Britons believe the Queen should retire and hand over to a younger royal, according to a poll in the Daily Mail today.