Royal visit hits India's raw nerve

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The Independent Online
The Queen's plan today to visit to Amritsar, scene of the 1919 massacre of Indian nationalists, is embroiled in controversy. Demands for an apology are mounting, while Britain's stand on Kashmir is under attack. Peter Popham, in New Delhi, finds the royal visit is turning into a jamboree of grievances.

KR Narayanan, the journalist-turned-diplomat who is now President of India, came up with a resonant phrase. The exhibition of British Museum treasures entitled "The Enduring Image" which he and the Queen had just opened was, he said, "a refutation of the idea that civilisations clash. It is not civilisations that clash, but barbarisms."

So the war of words that has broken out between the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and the Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral over Kashmir is a clash of barbarisms. Mr Cook is accused of stirring it in informal chats with Pakistani journalists at a reception in Islamabad, urging Britain's involvement in negotiations over Kashmir's future - but he denies having said anything about Kashmir while in Pakistan.

Then yesterday at a private meeting in Cairo, Mr Gujral supposedly told Egyptian intellectuals that Britain was a "third-rate power", which "has no business to play any role in this issue in any form, since in any case it was responsible for the partition of the country."

Raj buffs will have noticed the cutting choice of the phrase "third-rate power", for it was Viceroy Lord Curzon who declared that if Britain were ever to lose India it would decline to a third-rate power. However, that is all by the by, as the Ministry of External Affairs denied that Mr Gujral had said anything of the sort - though not before his alleged remarks were all over India's pages and the world's television screens.

Whoever was responsible, it seemed an odd way to put out the welcome mat.

It all served to emphasise the contrast with the royal visit to Pakistan. It was Pakistan - so Pakistan claims - which extended the invitation to the Queen to visit the sub-continent, and she was welcomed there with an outpouring of Anglophilia. In India, however, the grudges are mounting up.

Yesterday, Sikhs demonstrated in central Delhi against the British army's ban on the wearing of turbans, and were dispersed by watercannon. The Samajwadi party demanded the return of all treasures removed from India during British rule. Mr Gujral's imaginary broadside threatens to turn the royal visit into a jamboree of grievances.

The Queen took it all in her stride. At Lutyens's sublime masterpiece, the presidential palace, the cannons boomed out their hollow welcome.

At Raj Gat, down by the Yamuna River, where Mohandas Gandhi was cremated after his assassination in 1948, the Queen laid a wreath and signed the visitors' book.

At Mohammad Ali Jinnah's mausoleum in Karachi on Thursday she had signed her name and left it at that. Significantly, at this shrine she wrote a veritable encomium. "Mahatma Gandhi showed throughout his life a tolerance, mutual understanding and respect, virtues as important today as then," she wrote. "His example should remain an inspiration to us now and in the future."

The Queen is doing everything she can to make India like her. But so far it does not seem to be working.