London, Sep 30, 2022- It’s been a week since India’s new High Commissioner to the UK, Vikram Doraiswami, has been in office. Perhaps not since P.C. Alexander took up this position in 1985, has a head of India’s diplomatic mission in Britain faced as challenging a circumstance vis-a-vis the Indian origin community in this country.
An Indian High Commissioner’s task in the UK is broadly divided into three responsibilities — improving relations with the host government; ensuring efficient consular services, including the issuance of passports and visas since this is significantly revenue generating; and managing the two million-odd Indian origin community.
Doraiswami, 53, is one of the youngest Indian High Commissioners ever to be sent to Britain. In the past 25 years, career diplomats selected for this post have come either just after retirement or for a final term before doing so.
Salman Haidar, Ronen Sen, Kamlesh Sharma and Ranjan Mathai fell into the former category. Nareshwar Dayal, Shiv Mukerjee, Nalin Surie, Jaimini Bhagwati, Yash Sinha, Ruchi Ghanashyam and Gaitri Kumar belonged to the latter.
Doraiswami to his credit almost unprecedentedly hit the ground running. After landing in London, he went directly to statues of Indian icons in the British capital. He tweeted, “started this new journey of service to #India with a personal moment before #Mahatma Gandhi and #BabaSahebAmbedkar.”
He followed this with a visit to a gurdwara, not to mention an outsourced centre in Hounslow in west London dealing with consular services.
He also promptly attended to the host government, meeting senior officials in the defence ministry, the home office and the foreign office. A limited free trade agreement (FTA) is on the cards between the two nations, with a mutually declared target of concluding negotiations on this by Diwali.
After his discussions with the permanent secretary in the UK’s Ministry of Defence, David Williams, Doraiswami tweeted that he had a “rich exchange” on “imp issues of Defence & Security”, which he added “is an important pillar of India UK Roadmap 2030”. Whitehall is hopeful of enhancing its armaments exports to India.
Following his talks with the permanent secretary in the Home Office, Matthew Rycroft, the High Commissioner said “here’s to progress together on migration, mobility, homeland security”.
This was interpreted in diplomatic parlance as “work in progress”. Emigration to Britain has been a ticklish issue between the two sides since the 1960s.
Finally, Doraiswami exchanged views with the permanent secretary in the Foreign Office, Philip Barton, formerly British High Commissioner to India.
There is a considerable gulf in political perceptions on international matters between New Delhi and London, including a very different analysis of the Ukraine situation by the two. There was a subtle admission of this in Doraiswami’s tweet: “Excited to start a new innings with team @FCDOGovUK and @HCI_London to realise the full potential of a (sic) India-UK ties.”
More to the point, the UK’s even-handedness towards India and Pakistan has historically not been appreciated by South Block, with the present BJP government being particularly sensitive to the British policy.
But where the fresh incumbent confronts a challenge is in uniting a divided Indian origin community in Britain. The primarily three stands of overseas Indians in the UK are Sikhs from Punjab, Gujarati Hindus from East Africa and Muslims from various parts of India and East Africa.
In the more than half-a-century the Hindus and Muslims – both principally Gujaratis and migrants who fled persecution in East Africa – have lived in Leicester, they have generally demonstrated a fair amount of amity and friendship with each other, given their shared experiences. They are also about 50:50 in terms of their respective populations.
Before Doraiswami set foot in Britain for his tour of duty, a statement issued by the Indian High Commission on the recent Hindu-Muslim violence in Leicester was seen as being biased in favour of Hindus.
It said: “We strongly condemn the violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester and vandalisation of premises and symbols of Hindu religion.”
This completely ignored what Hindu extremists had done towards Indian Muslims in terms of provocation and strong arm tactics.
One prominent Indian Muslim organisation in England on condition of anonymity expressed concern about what they called “unbecoming favouritism”.
The Sikh dominated Indian Overseas Congress, which is the oldest of the UK oufits connected with any political party in India, abstained from making a comment.
However, Sikhs in Birmigham joined hands with Muslims to turn hostile against Hindus after the Leicester incidents. As it is, at least 20 per cent of Sikhs, according to a census, are estimated to be inclined towards an independent Khalistan carved out of India.
In effect, Doraiswami has his task cut out to bring Indian origin Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims in the UK on to the same page. He has, though, started on a correct note with an early visit to a gurdwara. (Agency)