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Welcome to India, Mr Camerooon: how the PM fared with the local media

23 February 2013

How did David Cameron fare with the local media on this week’s trip to India? The third day of his trip attracted the most headlines, when he visited Amritsar. If Mr Cameron, described as ‘Mr Camerooon’ by one enthusiastic TV journalist, and reportedly introduced as James Cameron by another, didn’t have a high profile amongst Indians at the start of his trip, this one act ensured otherwise.

After he’d talked trade with business leaders, met a Bollywood star and performed the obligatory cricket photo opp,  he headed to Amritsar, to Jallianwala Bagh, the scene of a massacre which is etched in India’s history.

It was here, in 1919, that hundreds of Indians were shot dead by British troops, under orders from General Dyer. David Cameron’s decision to become the first British Prime Minister to visit the site, and his subsequent description of what happened as ‘a deeply shameful event in British history’ was enough to exercise the Indian media.

Should he have gone? Should he have gone further and apologised for what happened? Should the Kohi-noor diamonds now be returned?

A picture of him kneeling in front of the memorial was carried on the front page of most of the newspapers, ‘The apology that wasn’t,’ was the headline in the Times of India. ‘Stopping short of a full apology has not impressed historians,’ wrote the paper.

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The TV channels rolled on the visit to Jallianwala Bagh. ‘It was a graceful trip, but others say an apology would be more graceful,’ said a reporter as he went live from Amritsar.  ‘His visit was meaningless,’ said the relative of someone who died in the massacre.

Some did welcome Mr Cameron’s efforts to pay his respects, but his motives were heavily questioned. The Hindustan Times said it was pure electioneering: ‘The gesture as well as the entire Amritsar visit, coming at the end of his three-day trip to drum up trade and investment, is seen by many as an attempt to court around 1.5 million British voters, ahead of a 2015 election,’ said the paper.

For others the decision to visit the site opened up pent up colonial sentiments, one panelist  on a TV show went even further, ‘Even God wouldn’t trust the British in the dark, why don’t we mock them instead of discussing this apology,’ he said furiously.

The primary purpose of Mr Cameron’s visit, the largest trade delegation of its kind, was to boost business between the two.

‘Without mincing words, it should be noted that Britain is now a diminishing power whereas India is a growing power,’ read the editorial in the Free Press Journal, which also lauded UK efforts to improve ties.

A separate Hindustan Times editorial argued that British policy on student and business visas (the latter which Mr Cameron has promised to speed up) was slowly severing migration links which had been a strong part of the relationship.

The trip showed how much and how little has changed between the two nations.  India no longer sees Britain through a prism of Enid Blyton novels, wrote one newspaper, but in some senses, it still clings on to the past, a fact Mr Cameron has had to contend with while here.

Rajini Vaidyanathan is a broadcaster, writer and presenter based in Mumbai.

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Show comments
  • Ty Kendall

    “Even God wouldn’t trust the British in the dark”….

    No offence but… Kettle. Pot. Black. Indians aren’t exactly known for their reliability and trustworthiness.

  • Makroon

    It seems these days that India is de-emphasising Gandhi, and building up the Japanese puppet Subhas Bose and his ilk, as heroic freedom fighters. It’s a shame and is a bit demeaning for India, but all ex-colonies seem to feel the need to dress up their history, (even dear old Malaysia has suddenly discovered some heroic resisters that nobody had ever heard of).
    I think Cameron should have paid more attention to honouring the huge numbers of Indians who fought loyally at our side in two world wars.
    Cameron was also “diplomatic” about Dyer. He was initially treated as a hero, and the army tried to cover up the massacre. He was made a rich man by a public subscription, and was discharged, never having faced a court-martial. He was however, a sick man and died shortly after. It needed Churchill’s intervention to turn the army around.
    Dyer’s boss, the pugnacious O’Dwer maintained that the “action” was justified to prevent a general mutiny, until his death at the hands of a Sikh gunman Udam Singh in 1940.

    • Daniel Maris

      Come on! All nations dress up their history. Wilberforce – who favoured children being made to work long hours – becomes the liberator of slaves. Winston the oppressor of Indians becomes the ultimate advocate of freedom and democracy.

      Lloyd George, who brought prostitutes into the House of Commons and spoke nicely of Hitler and Stalin is in our pantheon a man of principle and integrity.

      • Mycroft

        The old goat regarded as a paragon of integrity? Not when I last looked.

  • Mycroft

    Many of those reactions seem very ungracious (as with the Queen’s last visit), prompted by an enduring inferiority complex; it is a shame really, because there are so many areas in which we could work together in our mutual interest.

  • Russell

    “it should be noted that Britain is now a diminishing power whereas India is a growing power”
    And in India people hack off the arms of their babies so that they will make better beggars when they are a bit older, have forced marriage, female genital mutilation, ‘shame’ murders. What a wonderful country….NOT!
    Britain provided the infrastructure for India with roads, railways, schools, civil service etc. So not everything Britain did as a colonial power in Empire days was bad.

  • Daniel Maris

    We should certainly support India – a lively democracy with an intelligent religion at its cultural heart and some respect for the principles of law at home and abroad – over Cheating China governed by its Communist Clique.

    • huktra

      But increasingly democratic

  • Daniel Maris

    Yep, the dressing up to garner a few Sikh votes in the UK won’t play well in Eastleigh. That’s another few votes to UKIP.

    Why are out politicians expected to dress up? Does the Indian President dress up in velour shell suit when he visits here?

  • Wrath of Rune

    I’d imagine if Manmohan Singh came to Britain and wore a Bowler hat pontificating about British Colonialism whilst ignoring the caste-system, he would get an equally dire reception.

    The British empire was what it was, we can’t change it any more than we can send 1.5 million Indians back to India. Whats done is done.
    India’s problems stem from its own hand, they wanted (rightly) independence, they have no excuses not to do what they think is right now they control their own destiny.

    India will need all the allies it can get with both China and Pakistan ramping up pressure, but so long as this anarchistic ‘anti-British’ mindset still holds, India will always be navel gazing into its past.

  • Archimedes

    “Without mincing words, it should be noted that Britain is now a diminishing power whereas India is a growing power”

    Well, that’s the problem. India isn’t growing nearly as much as would be desirable, and has single-handedly failed to address it’s structural and institutional flaws. The development of India into an effective counterweight against the power of China should be a world goal, and it’s not one that’s going to come easy.

    I have to say, though, kudos to Cameron for marching into India and deciding to set up a few new cities. This sort of thing hasn’t been tried before. Very original.

    • Makroon

      Nineteenth century balance of power “strategy” lives !!
      You will be saddened to know that, (leaving aside a few ultra-nationalist web warriors from both sides), relations and cooperation between India and China are pretty good.

      • Daniel Maris

        Well they aren’t engaged in full scale war, that’s true.

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