New Delhi, Aug. 22: Britain’s high commissioner to India emphasised his country’s plurality to dozens of Muslim students on Thursday before asserting that the UK was not endorsing Narendra Modi, trying to allay perceptions of a British tilt towards the polarising Gujarat chief minister.
James Bevan, Britain’s top diplomat in India, visited Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi’s largest Muslim higher education institution, to speak to students in what British diplomats conceded was a conscious outreach to a community that views Modi with apprehension.
Three British Muslims were among around 1,000 people killed in anti-Muslim riots that ravaged Gujarat in 2002 after a train fire claimed 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from the temple town of Ayodhya. But recent public gestures by Britain have pointed to a mend in ties with Modi that the UK ruptured after the riots, boosting the perception of the BJP leader’s growing international acceptability but also triggering criticism from his opponents.
“Any engagement with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is not an endorsement of him,” Bevan said, speaking after his address to Jamia students. He reiterated Britain’s concerns over the absence of “justice” for the British citizens killed in the 2002 riots.
Leaders from both of Britain’s two major political parties — the ruling Conservative Party and the Opposition Labour Party — invited Modi, viewed by many as a potential Prime Minister, to address the House of Commons in London. The choice of the subject picked by the British MPs for Modi’s speech — the “future” of India — points to the growing perception among British politicians that they can no longer ignore the Gujarat leader.
But many human rights groups in Britain have criticised the invite, and questioned the message it sends to the UK’s own Muslim community that makes up almost 5 per cent of the country’s population.
Britain also remains the second-most popular destination for Indian students going abroad for higher education, a market its universities are desperate to tap and one that consists of students from across religions.
On Thursday, Bevan used that flow of Indian students to Britain to — in his words —“promote” the country, as a leader in education, science and innovation, and as a tolerant society.
Britain, he said, “has a tolerant society at ease with itself: multi-faith, multi-ethnic, almost universally proud to be British.”
But Britain’s economy remains fragile and increasingly dependent on growing economies like China and India. Britain and India share bilateral trade worth over £12 billion (Rs 120,000 crore) and recently set a target to double that over the next two years.
It was “purely economic reasons” that pushed Britain last year to end its self-imposed freeze in relations with Modi, a senior British diplomat told The Telegraph.
In October 2012, Bevan visited Modi at his Gandhinagar office, promising to strengthen business ties with Gujarat. A British delegation then attended the Vibrant Gujarat summit later that year.
Those were the first diplomatic contacts Britain re-established with Modi after the riots, when many western countries started treating him as virtually untouchable.
“Let’s be clear, we’ll do business with whoever comes to power in India in 2014,” the british diplomat said. “That includes Modi, but not only Modi.”