Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Diplomatic Gaffes Mar Queen's Visit to India

'Goodwill visit' last week ends up souring ties between Britain and its former colony.

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 1997



LONDON

Britain and India - the former colony once regarded as "the jewel in the crown" - have fallen out, and Queen Elizabeth II has found herself in the middle of the quarrel.

Skip to next paragraph

She returned yesterday to London after seeing Indian police and British diplomats exchange blows at Madras airport in southern India, minutes before her plane took off for home.

It was one of several incidents that marred a royal visit intended to cement the friendship between Britain and India.

Tensions began to develop even before the queen arrived for a tour planned as a celebration of India and Pakistan's independence from British rule 50 years ago.

While the royal party was in Pakistan, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that London could help to find a "just solution" to the problem of Kashmir.

Twice, disputes over control of the majority-Muslim state have led to war between the two countries. When he heard about Mr. Cook's private comments, Indian Prime Minister Inder Gujral reportedly exploded.

On the eve of the queen's arrival in Delhi, he told Indian journalists that Britain was "a third-rate power" and insisted that any attempt to internationalize the Kashmir issue amounted to outside interference.

Mark Tully, a veteran BBC reporter of Indian affairs, blames Foreign Secretary Cook for "stoking the fires of Indian rage." He also thinks British officials generally made a fundamental blunder in assuming that the best way to celebrate India's independence was to send the head of the former British Empire to join the festivities.

"They were seduced by the sentimental, sloppy, and historically forgetful nostalgia ... in which Britain is swamped," he told London's Sunday Times.

During her trip, Queen Elizabeth visited Amritsar, where, in 1919, British troops gunned down 379 unarmed protesters. Despite Indian requests, she had signaled that she did not plan to apologize for one of the worst outrages committed by Britain on Indian soil.

Instead, she laid a wreath at the site of the massacre. But her gesture was soured when her husband, Prince Phillip, said he thought the number of those killed had been "exaggerated."

"The colonial attitude lingers on," the mass-circulation Indian Express thundered on its front page next day.

By the time Queen Elizabeth was ready to board the royal jet, there were hopes her departure at least would be smooth and uneventful.

But it was not to be.

According to reports, Indian police allowed a small group of local journalists to approach the plane, but barred the British press. When Geoffrey Crawford, the queen's press secretary, protested, a scuffle broke out, and he was seized by police.

Asked whether the visit had been a success, the queen's private secretary, said it had been, but added: "The sun simply does not shine every day."

Politics aside, Britain and India appear destined to maintain a close relationship.

Trade between the two nations has more than doubled since 1993, and now stands at around 3.5 billion a year ($5.6 billion), with a target of 5 billion by 2000.