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Reaction to Boris Johnson's recent India trip

EYE ON ENGLAND | Country’s greatest living historian Romila Thapar's recent 'spicy' interview on various Indian issues

Amit Roy Published 30.04.22, 03:55 AM
Wrong side?

Wrong side?

Two sides

Boris Johnson took several British reporters with him to India. Even though they were mostly interested in politics in the United Kingdom, when Johnson visited a JCB plant in Gujarat, some of them did emphasize, unhelpfully, that its bulldozers were being used to tear up Muslim homes in Delhi. A leader in The Times urged: “Mr Modi’s unwillingness to make a stand against Vladimir Putin’s lawless aggression is incompatible with western interests. If he will not do that, then Britain should not treat him as a partner in security… There should be no question of Britain treating India as a defence partner, sharing sensitive technologies, unless Delhi firmly allies itself with the international community in condemning the Putin regime’s aggression… The most vital interest that Britain and India share is the maintenance of democratic values. If Mr Modi will not make that commitment, and instead cosies up to Mr Putin’s brutal autocracy, then there must be a price.” The trip was defended by Ameet Jogia and Reena Ranger, cochairs of Conservative Friends of India, who wrote in The Times: “A week on from the prime minister’s visit to India, it was disheartening for the British Indian diaspora to hear the shadow foreign secretary David Lammy belittling the visit and calling it a ‘fruitless trip’. To refer to [it] as a ‘mere’ distraction is both disheartening and insulting. It reflects Labour’s continuing anti-India bias.”


Add some spice
At the age of 90, Romila Thapar, who is known as India’s greatest living historian, occupied the “Lunch with the Financial Times” slot last week. She told Benjamin Parkin, the paper’s South Asia correspondent, that she “used to eat [chillies] quite happily until about 10, 15 years ago, when my digestive system said, ‘No more!’” But there was plenty of chilli in her comments when she said the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in India, for example, was being distorted “to justify political agendas”. “This misreading of history, according to Thapar, is used by the BJP to justify divisive policies and rhetoric that critics say target, harass and marginalise India’s 14 per cent Muslim minority,” Parkin said.

Romila Thapar

Romila Thapar

Thapar, who spent decades teaching at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: “What JNU was noted for was the free expression of students and teachers grappling with knowledge and ideas. That has been in a sense terminated.” “It’s tough being a woman historian in this country,” she further admitted. As for her legacy, “I would like there to be a generation that goes on asking questions... and exploring the answers to those questions in a free manner… Any society which gets to the point where they’re not allowed to ask questions, it’s a desperate situation.”

Make friends

When the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, met the British prime minister, David Cameron, at Chequers, the latter’s country residence, in 2010, he took along his son, Bilawal, who was fresh out of Oxford, and his daughter, Asifa.

Cameron was at Oxford, too, as was his contemporary, Boris Johnson. At 19, Bilawal had returned to Oxford to resume his studies after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007. He explained being made co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party by saying “politics is in my blood”. He was given special protection at Christ Church, where his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been a student in the 1950s. Benazir, who had been at Lady Margaret Hall, was elected the first Asian woman president of the Oxford Union in 1976. Bilawal becoming Pakistan’s foreign minister at 33 is not necessarily good news for India. By his 20s, he was bellicose and belligerent and typically promised a party gathering: “I will take back Kashmir, all of it, and I will not leave behind a single inch of it because... it belongs to Pakistan.”

To be sure, that was then and this is now. But unlike Benazir and Imran Khan, he doesn’t appear to have any friends in India. When he came to meet Nawaz Sharif in London last week, he was already being treated as Pakistan’s PM-in-waiting.

Different images

Something struck me about Mother Teresa during her beatification ceremony in Rome in 2003. St Peter’s Square, I remember, was packed with thousands of her followers from all over the world. I thought of her as belonging to India. She was ‘Mother Teresa of Calcutta’, after all. But others claimed her as the most important figure in the Catholic Church after the Pope. And it is the Catholic side of her life that Gezim Alpion is exploring in a lecture tour that is taking him to New York and the universities of Harvard and Georgetown. “The two Teresas are not contradictory,” he told me before leaving for America. Alpion, who is an academic at Birmingham University in the UK and of Albanian origin, has written several scholarly books on Mother Teresa, including one revealing her “dark night of the soul” in Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her Nation. He said that he had attended Mother Teresa’s canonization in 2016. There he met the singer, Usha Uthup, who told him that Mother Teresa “spoke about God, not about Christ”.


Virat Kohli should cheer himself up by buying the latest edition of Wisden. It records that he was “Wisden’s Leading Cricketer in the World” in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The honour went to Virender Sehwag in 2008 and 2009, and Sachin Tendulkar in 2010. This year, Wisden’s editor, Lawrence Booth, has given the title to Joe Root, who has resigned as England captain. “I think you have to distinguish between Root’s batting, which was world-class, and his captaincy, which wasn’t,” Booth told me.

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