When Deve Gowda Confided In UK PM Against Chidambaram

Heads of state and prime ministers often spend considerable time together during visits and international conferences, but few details of what transpires between them are released, beyond staged photo opportunities or press releases couched in platitudes and diplomatic language. There is an element of extra bonhomie during meetings of world leaders of similar ideologies compared to those between differing or opposing ideologies; for example, it was known that US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shared an easier relationship while in office, or President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi bonded well.

However, a rare peek into the interaction between two prime ministers of differing political persuasions is now available in recently released confidential documents by National Archives. It relates to the week-long visit to India in January 1997 of Prime Minister John Major (Conservative), when H D Deve Gowda was heading an uneasy coalition of 13 partners in the United Front government. A three-page document from Downing Street set out details as recounted by Major when he, wife Norma Major and Deve Gowda were the only ones present during a 150-minute flight from Kolkata to Bengaluru; no officials were around to take notes

At the time, the United Front government was under considerable strain from inside and outside the coalition, which was reflected in Deve Gowda’s remarks to Major. Described as a “virtually unprecedented degree of access”, the note based on details reported by Major and written by John Holmes in Downing Street to Fiona Mylchreest in the Foreign Office says that Deve Gowda “went out of his way to speak frankly to the Prime Minister, for example about internal difficulties”.

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The note says that Deve Gowda and his finance minister P Chidambaram did not always see “eye to eye”, telling Major that Chidambaram was “very good” in the world of finance, but was not inclined to prioritise the problems of rural India, adding that there were “significant strains” within the coalition, explaining how difficult and constraining it was to manage 13 parties.

According to the note, “He (Deve Gowda) told the Prime Minister…Chidambaram was very good but his skills lay in the world of finance and big city life. He was not inclined to give sufficient priority to the problems of rural India”. It adds that he “went on to say that he was very concerned about the future of rural India, and in particular about Indian agriculture…It was clear to the Prime Minister that the way to Deve Gowda’s heart was through extra help for agriculture, for example training, new techniques and assistance of any kind”.

Deve Gowda, who was prime minister between June 1996 and April 1997, went on to make two political claims that were proved wrong in subsequent elections: the note says that he believed at the time that the Congress had been “permanently fractured” and that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was “unelectable”.

The note says: “Deve Gowda began with the Indian political scene…He believed that the Congress Party was now permanently fractured and that in the post-dynastic era of Indian politics (he was particularly scathing about the dynasty phenomenon) they could not regroup. The Party was too corrupt and their time had passed. Meanwhile the BJP was unelectable”.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance went on to win two successive elections in 2004 and 2009, while the BJP formed two governments under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and later won majorities in 2014 and 2019. The declassified note suggests that Deve Gowda developed a rapport with Major, who faced a general election back home in May 1997.

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At a reception in Bengaluru, the note says: “(Deve) Gowda surprised everyone by calling for silence as the Prime Minister was leaving and saying that he was sure everyone present shared his desire to see the Prime Minister win the election (greeted by a round of applause).”

Major’s Conservative party lost the election to Labour led by Tony Blair.

The note adds: “The Prime Minister believes that he has established an excellent personal relationship with (Deve) Gowda, who pressed him and Mrs Major to return to India whenever they wanted, preferably soon. It was noteworthy that Gowda not only came to the reception in Bangalore, but also insisted on coming to see the Prime Minister off, although Indian protocol had insisted beforehand that he could not possibly do either of these things”.

Assam Files: Declassified Despatches And Memories

The National Archives in Kew, west London, is a rich repository of iconic documents and declassified confidential papers, some of them dating back to centuries. It has original documents related not only to Britain’s long colonial encounter with India, but also diplomatic and other official communication related to contemporary India. Declassifying secret papers and periodically releasing them to the public adds to the valuable resource.

One such file recently released revealed new information about a tense period in Assam that I had closely covered as a journalist for The Times of India in the late 1980s, when the secessionist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) had unleashed waves of political violence.

The file triggered memories of my time in the state and the north-east region that reflects much of the best of the idea of India but has long faced neglect and worse from policy-makers in New Delhi, where a security-oriented approach has influenced policy and allocation of resources. The first person to enter my office in Guwahati with a press release was an articulate and politically sharp teenager, who was part of a demonstration outside the then home minister’s house – that teenager is today Assam’s deputy chief minister.

Another person I often interacted with was one of the leading functionaries of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) – he is today the chief minister. In Assam, particularly since the agitation of the mid-1980s, the path to political power has often gone through university campuses and student politics, best exemplified by Prafulla Mahanta and Bhrigu Phukan, who were AASU leaders during the agitation, signed the Assam Accord of 1985, and went on to set an example to others by soon after forming the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government in 1986.

The declassified file relates to developments in 1990, days before the Mahanta government was dismissed and the Indian Army launched Operation Bajrang against the ULFA. It reveals that three of ULFA’s senior functionaries met a British diplomat in Dhaka and sought the UK government’s help to further its cause at the international level. The details reflect a phase in Assam’s contemporary history when it was not clear whose sympathies lay where, for or against the ULFA, and duplicity marked much political discourse.

It was also when the Bodo agitation was at its peak, with the late Upendra Nath Brahma, another student leader I got to know, and who went on to acquire iconic status, followed chapter and verse from the example of the Assam agitation and sought a separate state for the Bodo tribe.

The file shows that while the ULFA, which was banned by New Delhi in 1990 and whose leaders and members functioned from neighbouring Bangladesh, Myanmar and at one time also from China, was attacking British commercial interests in the tea gardens in Assam, but was seeking the UK’s help at the political level and offering a British diplomat posted in the high commission in Dhaka a tour of its training camps in Assam. In 1990, the Mahanta-led AGP government was a constituent of the National Front government led by V P Singh, but it was dismissed on November 27 after the NF government fell and Chandra Shekhar formed his minority government.

On October 2 of that year, the files reveals that ULFA’s three senior functionaries – general secretary Anup Chetia (real name Golap Barua), publicity secretary Sidhartha Phukan (real name Sunil Nath) and Iqbal (real name Munin Nabis) – met the diplomat, David Austin, who reported the meeting to London in a note described as “fascinating”. Austin wrote on October 4 that the ULFA’s “inspiration is the State of Israel. If Israel can survive surrounded by the hostile Arab world, then why not Assam surrounded by hostile Indian forces?”

He was shown photographs, including those of a training camp in the Lakhimpur district of Assam, and some of the outfit’s leaflets. The photographs included one of its commanders-in-chief, Paresh Barua, standing at the China border with a Chinese army liaison officer. He wrote: “The three men asked for help/advice in four separate areas: UK support in publicising the ULFA’s activities and aims; advice on whether the ULFA would be able to set up an office in the UK; an introduction to other Western diplomatic missions in Dhaka; and how to get in contact with authorities in Israel who may be able to help them”. He added that the ULFA’s propaganda effort was a “new one” and that they were able to “approach foreign diplomatic missions in Bangladesh without the possibility of RAW intervening – something it is unable to do in New Delhi”. Austin, however, declined the offer to visit the camps.

On November 5, diplomat D D W Martin in the British high commission in New Delhi described Austin’s note as “fascinating”, and wrote to the Foreign Office in London: “They have obviously now decided to target western diplomats. That they should do so tends to corroborate the periodic press allegations that the ULFA can operate with impunity in Bangladesh, perhaps even with the tacit complicity of the authorities,” he added. According to Martin, the China link mentioned in Austin’s note was “new and interesting”.

He wrote, “I have only heard it mentioned before by a Congress-I MLA in Assam, who alleged that the Indian Intelligence Services knew all about the Chinese involvement, but were keeping quiet for fear of damaging the process of rapprochement between India and China. During their meeting with David Austin, the ULFA were understandably silent about their activities against the tea companies in Assam. But it seems extraordinary that the organisation should make an approach to us on the political level, while at the same time, threatening our commercial interests in Assam”.

On Austin seeking advice on whether he should hold further meetings with the ULFA functionaries, Martin wrote that no such meetings should be held, stating: “The ULFA is a militant organisation pursuing violent means to subvert the established order in Assam. By pressurising tea companies, it also threatens British interests. Contacts with the ULFA would therefore be hard to explain to the Government of India.”

In the late 1980s and 1990, as the ULFA’s ‘publicity secretary’, Phukan had set up what Martin called a “sophisticated PR machine”, which was then focused on the Indian press, with journalists granted exclusive interviews with ULFA leaders. The journalists, he added, were “taken to spectacular press conferences in the bush and exposed to a variety of more or less impressive stunts designed to show off ULFA as a formidable fighting unit”.

This writer was among several journalists in Guwahati at the time who were given access to Phukan and other ULFA leaders, who expounded on their goals to secede from Assam and made declarations in the cut-and-thrust of agitational politics against the state government and New Delhi.

Since the time Austin and Martin wrote their dispatches in 1990, there have been several ULFA-related developments, including the army’s Operation Rhino, surrender by several of its leaders and functionaries, suspension of operations, and talks with New Delhi by a section of the outfit that has come over-ground. Since another section continues with the ULFA’s secessionist aims and subversive activities, the ministry of home affairs in November 2019 extended until 2024 the ban first imposed in 1990 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

Nirav Modi Case: UK Judge Raps Justice Katju, Endorses Mumbai Jail

It was clear in the earlier stages of Nirav Modi’s extradition trial in the Westminster Magistrates Court that the judgement would likely go in India’s favour, when the judge once remarked that he was bound by the ruling in the Vijay Mallya case delivered in the same court in December 2018. Thus, the February 6 judgement recommending Modi’s extradition to the UK home secretary on the ground that there is a case for him to answer in India was not exactly a surprise. But of more interest are the judge’s remarks on Justice Markandey Katju, who deposed on behalf of Modi, and on the Arthur Road jail in Mumbai, where Modi (and Mallya) are to be lodged.

In the UK’s complex extradition arrangements, the magistrates court is the first stage. After all legal avenues are exhausted, the home secretary makes the final decision. Modi will most likely now appeal to the high court within 14 days, as stipulated in the judgement, which means that his actual extradition to India is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Mallya also lost in the magistrates court, as well as in the high court, exhausted all legal options, but remains in the UK, awaiting disposal of a confidential legal matter widely believed to be an asylum application. But unlike Mallya, who remains on bail, Modi is incarcerated in the Wandsworth jail in west London, having been denied bail on several occasions.

The high-profile Mallya trial forced Indian officials in New Delhi and London to make a better case in terms of evidence, response and quality of paperwork. Several previous cases failed due to poor quality of evidence that did not hold up in British courts. Better preparation was evident in the Modi case also, given the volumes of paperwork, data and evidence presented to the court, but some gaps remain, as the judgement notes: “Unlike the evidence from the Defence, the evidence produced by the GOI in the case, through no fault of Counsel, was poorly presented and very difficult to navigate. Observations I note were similarly made by the Senior District Judge…in (the) Mallya (case). I hope the GOI take these observations on board in relation to future requests”.

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Justice Katju’s deposition by videolink from New Delhi in September was not without drama. Often agitated by questions by the Crown Prosecution Service lawyer, at one point he told her: “I know more English literature than you”, besides making some sensational claims about India’s judiciary and actions of the BJP government.

District Judge Samuel Goozee rejected his deposition in Thursday’s judgement with these words: “In cross-examination, Justice Katju made some astonishing, inappropriate and grossly insensitive comparisons…I attach little weight to Justice Katju’s expert opinion. Despite having been a former Supreme Court judge in India until his retirement in 2011 his evidence was in my assessment less than objective and reliable. His evidence in Court appeared tinged with resentment towards former senior judicial colleagues. It had hallmarks of an outspoken critic with his own personal agenda”.

Secondly, the judge upheld India’s assurances and details of the Arthur road jail, which has been a subject of prolonged arguments and counter-arguments in the Mallya and Modi cases. Allegations that conditions in Indian jails pose a risk to human rights have been one of the key issues cited by the defence team (same in both cases) to object to the extradition.

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Sovereign sassurances were provided by the Union home ministry that Modi would have access to medical and other facilities in Barrack number 12 of the jail. A detailed video of the cell was also presented to the court, which encouraged the judge to say that conditions in the Mumbai jail would be better than the current ones he is facing in the Wandsworth prison.

The judge said: “There is no doubt in my mind that the conditions (Modi) will experience in Barrack 12 are far less restrictive and far more spacious than the current regime he is being held in within the prison estate in our own jurisdiction… (The) regime awaiting (Modi) in Barrack 12, when you consider the video, would I have no doubt, be an amelioration of his current conditions of detention, especially when considered alongside the extensive assurances provided by the GOI”.

Modi is the latest of several individuals facing serious charges who have sought refuge in the UK. The long-drawn out legal routes in the extradition process, with avenues to appeal, ensure that actual extradition, if it happens at all, is not easy from India’s perspective. The Mallya and Modi cases demonstrate a new, pro-active approach from New Delhi to bring back individuals facing serious charges, but as these two cases show, eventual extradition remains something of a challenge for New Delhi.

Indian Diaspora In UK Reached A New High In 2020

2020 is a year that many would like to forget due to the coronavirus pandemic and the heavy toll it took in terms of lives lost, economies disrupted and everyday life upended across the globe, but it also saw the 1.5 million-strong Indian community in the UK reaching a new high: its members continued to feature in bad news, but there was more good news during the year.

It remains debatable whether Indians back home should celebrate when members of the diaspora who are born and bred abroad achieve something. They are citizens of various countries and most have a passing acquaintance with India and its realities. This is most vividly reflected in the British parliament, where despite growing numbers of Indian-origin MPs and lords, when it comes to defending India’s interests on sensitive issues, they are conspicuously absent or silent. Indian officials have long despaired over diaspora MPs rarely speaking for India on key issues, but are in the forefront to highlight their ‘Indian’ origins when it suits them.

India and the UK are historically entwined at various levels. But it is in the realm of politics that 2020 saw the near-mainstreaming of the community, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson putting together what Conservative party chairman James Cleverly called the “most desi government in British history” after the December 2019 election, with four MPs appointed to key cabinet posts.

It is a different matter that this does not necessarily mean India’s interests are defended in parliamentary debates, but in the long march of racism and representation, it is something of a landmark not only for the community but also Britain’s policies of multiculturalism and initiatives to encourage non-white representation in politics.

It is no longer rare to see chancellor Rishi Sunak batting for the Conservative party or the government and Labour’s Lisa Nandy countering in widely-watched mainstream news programmes. Sunak and home secretary Priti Patel have been lauded and pilloried in the news media just like any other British politician. The other two cabinet members – Alok Sharma and Suella Braverman – have received similar treatment. Labour’s shadow cabinet has also seen more members from the community, with Nandy, Preet Kaur Gill, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi and Valerie Vaz.

This increased representation is clearly an advance from even a decade ago when the community representation in the House of Commons was mainly confined to Keith Vaz and Virendra Sharma. How much of this results in better, quantifiable relations between India and the UK remains to be seen.

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Besides politics, 2020 also saw leading individuals from the community featuring prominently in mainstream discourse, such as Anand Menon on Brexit, and Devi Sridhar, Bharat Pankhania and Sunetra Gupta on Covid-19. Health professionals from the community were not only among major victims of Covid-19, but were also on the frontline treating patients across hospitals and other settings. Among the deceased was Gulshan Ewing, 92, the pioneering editor of women’s magazines. Hailing from a Parsi family in Mumbai, she was one of the first women editors of leading Indian publications since the mid-1960s, setting benchmarks in film journalism and focussing on women audience. Experts helping the UK government deal with the pandemic included Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan and Lalita Ramakrishnan of the University of Cambridge. Among the first to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were Hari Shukla and his wife Ranjan.

The presence of the large diaspora with links with the homeland ensures that events and issues in India resonate on the streets of London and elsewhere. 2020 saw protests, demonstrations and petitions on issues such as the new laws on citizenship, farmers and Kashmir. As foreign secretary Dominic Raab said during his recent visit to New Delhi: “Your news is our news” because of the diaspora.

Members of the community continued to figure in crime and convictions, while proceedings to extradite several individuals continued during the year, including Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Sanjeev Chawla (who was escorted to New Delhi).

At the University of Cambridge, sociologist Manali Desai became the first head of a department in its 811-year history when she was appointed head of the department of sociology. Also, its department of chemistry was named after its alumnus, Yusuf Hamied of pharma major Cipla.

The Ealing Council in west London announced the renaming of part of Southall’s Havelock Road – named after Henry Havelock, general in the colonial army involved in suppressing the 1857 Uprising – as Guru Nanak Road from early 2021, following a public consultation.

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On the cultural front, while the BBC’s six-part adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1993 tome ‘A Suitable Boy’ received mixed reviews, the London Fashion Week – in a first – showcased the magic of sari as models sashayed wearing saris from various parts of India, and the British Fashion Council appointed actor Priyanka Chopra as its new ambassador. Mahatma Gandhi, who had close interaction with London and the British during his lifetime, continued to make news. His statues in London and Leicester became the focus of protests during the Black Lives Matter campaign. But an unnamed buyer surprised many by picking up Gandhi’s spectacles from his time in South Africa for £260,000 in a Bristol auction

Besides India emerging as the second biggest investor in the UK, 2020 also saw entrepreneur Karan Bilimoria elected president of the Confederation of British Industry, the representative body of 1.9 lakh UK companies employing nearly 7 million people. And Zuber Issa and Mohsin Issa, sons of immigrants from Gujarat, acquired retail giant Asda (valued at £6.8 billion), months after a new report co-produced by the Indian high commission highlighted the multi-billion-pound ‘diaspora effect’ in British business: over 65,000 companies are owned by British citizens of Indian origin.

The Covid-19 pandemic prevented Johnson from travelling to New Delhi for the Republic Day event, but a free trade agreement with India is stated to be one of the priorities as the post-Brexit UK tries to redefine its global role. There is much criticism of the slogan ‘Global Britain’, and platitudes continue to dominate public discourse of bilateral relations between India and the UK, but the fact remains that even UAE trades more with the UK than India. As former business secretary Vince Cable remarked some time ago, Britain no longer produces most of the things that India needs. Officials have nonetheless identified five sectors for a closer look in the post-Brexit UK: information and communications technology and services, food and drink, life sciences and chemicals, with early harvest pacts expected in 2021.