Indo-British Relations – The Quantum Leap From Sir Thomas Roe To Narendra Modi

In 1497, the Portuguese King Manuel I commissioned the legendary explorer and navigator Vasco da Gama to lead a voyage to India to discover a viable maritime route from Western Europe to the East. On 8th July,1497, Da Gama sailed from Lisbon aboard his flagship São Gabriel leading an armada of four ships. On 20th May,1498, da Gama  landed in Kappadu near Calicut (now Kozhikode) in the pepper rich Indian State of Kerala after having spent more than two years away from home, including 300 gruelling days at sea, and travelling an awesome distance of over 24,000 miles by sea. Da Gama’s maiden voyage to India was a pioneering milestone in world history as it marked the genesis of global imperialism and triggered a considerable spurt in European voyages to India. The British adventurer John Mildenhall was the first Englishman who arrived in India in 1599 by the arduous overland route. That very year, he met the titanic Moghul Emperor Akbar the Great, with a self assumption of ambassadorial dignity. On 31st December, 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a Royal Charter to the Company named “The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading in the East Indies”, commonly known as the “East India Company”, the right to carry on trade with all countries of the East. Initially, the Company confined its activities to the lucrative spice trade with Java, Sumatra and the Moluccas. By 1608, it had opened a factory in Indonesia and a docking facility near Surat in the Indian State of Gujarat. The resounding victory of the Company over the Portuguese at the fierce naval battle that took place on 29th and 30th November,1612 off the coast of Swally, a village near Surat, gave the Company the raison de’etre to seek a firm foothold in India. It made an impassioned plea to the Moghul Emperor Jahangir, meaning “conqueror of the world”, for exclusive rights to build factories in Surat and other areas. On 24th August, 1608, Captain William Hawkins, a representative of the Company, landed at Surat aboard the Company’s first trading ship “Hector” and thereafter proceeded to the Court of Jahangir in Agra (which he reached on 16th April,1609) with a letter from King James I seeking permission for English merchants to do business in India. Hawkins carried “toyes” for the Emperor and wore a violet and scarlet outfit with a taffeta-lined and silver lace-trimmed cloak” keeping in mind the glitz and glamour of the Moghul Court. He was warmly received by Jahangir, who was irresistibly impressed by Hawkins’ remarkable command of Persian and Turkish, his insatiable appetite for women and his enormous capacity to gulp down copious quantities of wine. Jahangir gifted him an extremely beautiful Christian Armenian maiden named Mariam (whom he subsequently married!) from his well stocked harem of over 5,000 women. He also granted Hawkins access to the royal table where, as the Emperor’s favourite drinking companion, Hawkins narrated wild and wicked tales that invariably made Jahangir explode with peals of laughter. Jahangir affectionately conferred upon Hawkins the epithet of “Inglis Khan”! But due to the vehement opposition of the Portuguese, who even went to the extent of telling Moghul officials that King James was a “King of Fishermen and of an Island of no importance”, and the Surat merchants, Jahangir made a volte-face to the serious detriment of the Company and Hawkins’ mission proved to be utterly abortive. Next year, Jahangir issued a “farman” or “royal edict” permitting the English to establish a permanent factory at Surat. In 1615, a British mission under the renowned parliamentarian and diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, who was the first English ambassador to India, succeeded in obtaining “farmans” from the Moghul Court granting the British the unique privilege of free trade sans the liability to pay inland tolls. Roe’s visit to Jahangir’s court in 1615 was a watershed moment in the history of Indo-British relations. His visit opened the doors of British colonial presence in India, which eventually became the jewel in the crown of the mighty British Empire. The rest is history and need not be repeated here for the sake of brevity!

Time inevitably marches on and exactly 400 years after Roe’s landing in India, the charismatic and vibrant Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in London on 12th  November, 2015 on a three-day historic visit to the UK. Shortly after landing, Modi headed straight for 10, Downing Street, the official residence of the British PM in London, to meet David Cameron. The two leaders engaged in fruitful discussions that culminated in £9bn worth of commercial deals between the two countries in the retail, logistics, energy, finance, IT, education and health sectors. At the joint press conference later in the afternoon, Cameron said, “I believe we are already natural partners, as the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy, we share so many of the same values. And the ties between our people bind us together, with 1.5 million people of Indian origin living here in the UK, the second largest Indian diaspora anywhere in the world…We want to forge a more ambitious, modern partnership, harnessing our strengths and working together for the long term to help shape our fortunes at home and abroad in the 21st century. As leaders, we share similar priorities to create jobs and opportunities for all, to protect our people from terrorism, and to tackle global challenges like climate change…We want a modern, essential partnership founded on old ties, but defined and fuelled by the modern, diverse, dynamic countries that we are both today.” Significantly, the two leaders reiterated “their call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai to justice” even as they underscored their resolve “to work together to disrupt all financial and tactical support for terrorist networks, including ISIS, al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the Haqqanis and associated groups”.

In the first speech by a serving Indian PM to the British Parliament, which received a thunderous standing ovation, Modi said in ringing tones in his carefully cultivated English, “On the way to this event, Prime Minister Cameron and I paid homage to Mahatma Gandhi outside the Parliament. I was reminded of a question I was asked on a tour abroad. How is it that the statue of Gandhi stands outside the British Parliament? To that question, my answer is: The British are wise enough to recognise his greatness; Indians are generous enough to share him; we are both fortunate enough to have been touched by his life and mission; and, we are both smart enough to use the strengths of our connected histories to power the future of our relationship…Strong as our partnership is, for a relationship such as ours, we must set higher ambitions. We are two democracies; two strong economies; and, two innovative societies. We have the comfort of familiarity and the experience of a long partnership… It is also natural and inevitable that our economic relations will grow by leaps and bounds. We will form unbeatable partnerships, if we combine our unique strengths and the size and scale of opportunities in India…But, a relationship as rich as this, with so much promise as ours, cannot be measured only in terms of our mutual prosperity…And, terrorism and extremism are a global force that are larger than their changing names, groups, territories and targets. The world must speak in one voice and act in unison to combat this challenge of our times. We must adopt a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in the UN without delay. There should be no distinction between terrorist groups or discrimination between nations. There should be a resolve to isolate those who harbour terrorists and willingness to stand with nations that will fight them honestly. And, we need a social movement against extremism in countries where it is most prevalent and, every effort to delink religion and terrorism….This is a huge moment for our two great nations. So, we must seize our opportunities, remove the obstacles to cooperation, instill full confidence in our relations and remain sensitive to each other’s interests. In doing so, we will transform our strategic partnership, and we will make this relationship count as one of the leading global partnerships.” At night, Modi attended an “intimate” dinner hosted by Cameron at Chequers (the 16-century mansion in Buckinghamshire which is the country retreat of the British Prime Minister) for which Cameron’s chefs had prepared a British autumn salad of beets and roots as a starter, followed by a main course of porcini mushroom pulao, tarka dal and cucumber salad with mango pudding for dessert.

Next day, Modi made a spectacular rock-star style appearance at London’s famous Wembley Stadium. Modi addressed a mammoth audience of around 60,000 people, mostly of Indian diaspora. In his welcome speech, Cameron highlighted the growing list of British-Indian MPs and predicted that soon a British-Indian might become the UK PM! When Modi’s turn came, he proudly asserted it was “a historic day for a great partnership between two great nations”, hailed India’s “special relationship” with the UK and assured the wildly cheering “Modimanic” audience, “I would like to ensure you that the dreams you have dreamt – and the dreams every Indian has dreamt – India is capable of fulfilling these dreams.” Earlier in the day, Modi, immaculately dressed in a white kurta-pyjama with a maroon “Modi” jacket, had lunch with Queen Elizabeth II within the majestic confines of the iconic Buckingham Palace, after which the Queen showed Modi a rare collection of items from the palace’s repository that included a shawl given to the Queen by Mahatma Gandhi (made of double yarn spun by Gandhi himself and knitted by a Punjabi girl) in 1947 as a wedding present. Before lunching with the Queen, Modi participated in an invigorating Round Table of British and Indian business leaders in 10, Downing Street. On the ultimate day of his visit, Modi visited the Tata Motors-owned Jaguar Land Rover factory at Solihull in the West Midlands region that is characterised as the numero uno Indian investment in the UK. Away from the glare of television cameras and the misgivings of his domestic critics, Modi’s recent visit to the UK not only strengthened bilateral ties, but brought the people of the two great democracies even closer and radically reshaped the contours of Indo-UK relations.

Economics today lies at the heart of Indo-UK relations. Indian companies employ around 1,10,000 people in the UK, while British investments are estimated to provide 6,91,000 jobs in India. Britain, with it’s $22billion investment in India, is the third largest overall investor after Singapore and Mauritius, and the largest investor amongst G-20 countries. It accounts for 9%  of the total investment in India between 2000 and 2015. India, with it’s $19billion investment, is the third largest investor in the UK having come within a striking distance of France, the second biggest investor. With a steep growth of 64% in its investments in 2014 over 2013, India’s presence in the British market is reaching new heights. India’s investments in the UK are more than all its investments in the rest of the European Union strung together.

The true spirit and essence of Indo-British relations was succinctly captured by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at the State Banquet in honour of Earl and Countess Mountbatten way back on 15th March,1956 in the following words –

That relationship was not based on any hoops of steel or ropes. It was a relationship of free will, without even silken bonds. And because there was nothing to tie, there was nothing to break it. We see often enough today all kinds of strong bonds being forced to tie one country to another, bonds of iron and steel. And yet that iron breaks and even the steel melts away. In a moment of crisis, the bond is not so strong as it looks. The manner or relationship which was evolved between India and England is of a different kind and different texture. Because we had known each other both in conflict and in co-operation and had settled our conflicts in a civilized, human way, we have survived many things, many differences of opinion. This is because we fundamentally wished for and developed the mood to co-operate even if we differed. It is a little difficult to define that relationship because it is often the indefinable things that are the most important and the most precious of all.




Supreme Court of India

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3 thoughts on “Indo-British Relations – The Quantum Leap From Sir Thomas Roe To Narendra Modi”

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