Ups and Downs~III

The Commonwealth that emerged after the Prime Ministers’ Conference (1949), was ‘new’ not only because of a change in its nomenclature from ‘British Commonwealth of Nations to ‘Commonwealth of Nations’

Ups and Downs~III

Photo: SNS

The Commonwealth that emerged after the Prime Ministers’ Conference (1949), was ‘new’ not only because of a change in its nomenclature from ‘British Commonwealth of Nations to ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ but also because of the transformation in its character from a white men’s club to a genuinely multicultural and multi-racial association of independent states. Britain had every reason to welcome the Indian decision.

As the leader of a multi-racial community of independent states, her voice carried greater weight in world affairs, particularly in Washington, than was warranted by her military strength, as she could claim to speak not only for herself but also with the knowledge of the aspirations of the emerging nations in Asia. Her role in the Commonwealth also provided a counterweight to her growing dependence on the US. The gains were not onesided either. India did exercise some influence on the shaping of the British government’s policies in Asia of which the decision to recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China is one example.

It was, again, through India’s membership of the Commonwealth that a ‘special relationship’ had developed between India and Canada which enabled the governments of these two states to co-ordinate their policies to end the conflicts in Korea (1953), Indochina (1954) and the Middle East (1956). If the Commonwealth was a force for peace in the world, India’s contribution to it was not inconsiderable. India also played a major role in ending apartheid in South Africa. The Indo-Canadian entente, however, did not last long. Indian views on the Commonwealth have generally been Anglo-centric and, therefore, fluctuations in India-UK relations have also affected India’s relations with the Commonwealth.


During the 1950s, India played a very important role in the transformation of the Commonwealth and this coincided with the period when political and economic cooperation between Britain and India was proceeding apace. Till 1953-54, Indo-British trade constituted about a quarter of India’s foreign trade, and Britain was the largest supplier of foreign private investment to India’s private sector while being the first western country to invest in India’s public sector project for the production of steel, the Durgapur Steel Plant (DSP), to be followed by Soviet Russia’s investments in Bhilai and Bokaro. Indo-British cooperation continued despite serious differences over colonial and racial issues, and more specifically, over the British attitude to the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir.

India’s sharp criticism of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez (1956), and rather a mild reaction to the Soviet armed intervention in Hungary the same year, for the suppression of the nationalist uprising in that state, occasioned adverse comments in Britain and strained Indo-British relations. The Anglo-French invasion of Suez led to a chorus of disapproval from all sections of the Indian Parliament demanding India’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth.

Even Nehru felt disappointed by the British government’s stand in the Security Council debates on Kashmir in 1957 and told the Lok Sabha on 25 March that he had felt ‘for the first time in many years that it (India’s membership of the Commonwealth) may some time or other require further consideration.’ The Commonwealth remains a multi-racial association of independent states, but two of its ideological underpinnings ~ racial equality and freedom of movement of people ~ have been seriously eroded, both in the UK and in post-colonial Commonwealth states in Africa.

Indians living in many of these new-born states in Africa came under increasing pressure, while by the end of the 1960s Britain’s own record of her treatment of the coloured immigrants was considered far from clean. The dominant trend throughout the Commonwealth was, unmistakably, towards “exclusiveness” rather than ‘multiracialism”. The enactment of successive Commonwealth Immigration Acts by the British Parliament during the 1960s, and the Immigration Act (1971) led to the imposition of progressively stricter controls on immigration from other Commonwealth states, particularly non-white Commonwealth states, no doubt because of domestic social and political considerations, must be seen in this context.

This was one of the principal reasons for India’s disillusionment with the Commonwealth in the post-Nehru years. These developments were by a decline in Indo-British economic and defence relations, especially during the second half of the 1960s. The India-China War (1962) certainly led to an improvement in relations, as Britain was one of the first countries to offer unqualified support to India’s stand on the border conflict, and later, in response to India’s request for arms, joined the US and other friendly states for an emergency airlift of arms to India.

On 22 December 1962, President Kennedy and Prime Minister Macmillan announced in a joint statement the grant of emergency arms aid of 45 million pounds to India, the cost to be shared equally by the US, Britain and the Commonwealth. But the good effect of these gestures was dissipated soon by the Anglo-US diplomatic pressure on New Delhi to reopen negotiations with Pakistan for a settlement of the intractable Kashmir issue. The British government, no doubt, succeeded in its mediatory efforts to end the Rann of Kutch conflict in June 1965, but later in the year when the India-Pakistan war broke out, the government’s partisan role during the war and the bad press that India got in Britain brought Indo-British relations to a new low.

The decline in Indo-British relations that had set in during the second half of the 1960s continued in subsequent years because of deliberate changes in foreign policy orientations by both sides and neither Britain nor India ranked high in each other’s priorities, although they continued to maintain friendly relations. Britain seemed to be in a hurry to begin her European odyssey by turning her back on her post-colonial responsibilities and became a Member of the EEC (subsequently EC and finally European Union) in 1973; but before the end of the decade, disappointment developed, particularly because of financial costs of membership of the association.

It led to a hope that Britain may take a renewed interest in the Commonwealth, and possibly also in India. ‘The Festival of India’ held in Britain in 1982, with the two Prime Ministers as chief patrons raised these hopes, and four decades after that, with Britain leaving the EU on 31 January 2020, such hopes may be rekindled. King Charles lll, like his mother, believes that the 56- member Commonwealth is a valuable forum and the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMS) being held since 1971 in the capitals of the different member states provide opportunities for consensus building on issues of common concern. India may not have many Commonwealth ‘loyalists’ today, but there are not many determined ‘secessionists’ either, because the value of the Commonwealth as a ‘clearing house for the transfer of resources and technology from the developed to the developing world is recognized.

As Britain looks for opportunities for increasing trade and commercial relations with the rest of the world, greater access to the Indian market will be important for which FTA negotiations are on. Britain remains an attractive destination for Indian immigrants and in 2021, 1.4 million Indians ~ both people of Indian origin and those who migrated to Britain ~ lived in the country making them the single largest visible ethnic minority community; and they have made significant contributions to different sectors of British economy and society.

The newly anointed King has developed a warm relationship with India over the decades and loves its age-old traditions like Yoga, Ayurveda, and above all its diversity. One may, therefore, expect significant improvements in Indo-British relations, not only in atmospherics but also in substance.