How the UK’s South Asian diaspora can shape UK-India relations post Brexit
April 13th marked the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar India. In commemoration of the terrible atrocities committed that day, Channel 4 released a documentary, The Massacre that Shook the Empire, which traces the events that culminated in the loss of hundreds of lives. 72 years since Partition, the legacy of the British Empire still hangs over the UK’s relationship with India. As the UK seeks to redefine its place in the world post Brexit, this relationship is worth considering.
One of the ways that the government has sought to reinvigorate its ties with India is through its ‘Global Britain’ foreign policy agenda. One of the core principles of Global Britain is to ‘reinvest in the [UK’s] relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage’. As to whether an actionable strategy sits behind this slogan still remains to be seen.
If the UK is to demonstrate the principles set out in its ‘Global Britain’ agenda, it should start by addressing the diverse diaspora of cultures that reside within it, of which South Asian communities make up a large proportion. How policy makers choose to engage with such communities here in the UK will be crucial in defining the effectiveness of this initiative.
In recent evidence to the Foreign Affairs India Global Britain Inquiry on Building effective relations with India and capitalising on shared objectives and values it was stressed that diaspora communities, far from being homogenous units, are constantly being reshaped by various characteristics and differentiated by class, gender, generation and occupation or religion. If we are to understand the identity of such communities, it is therefore crucial that we acknowledge this inherent diversity.
Education will play an important role in determining the kind of engagement that the UK will have with India post Brexit. Currently, younger generations are not being educated about the UK’s history in India. The Runnymede Trust’s 2017 Nations Divided: Teaching the History of Partition of the Indian subcontinent report found that although ‘the subject of the partition of the Indian Subcontinent was of great interest to students and teachers alike’, students should not have to wait until in they are in Higher Education to be provided with a critical understanding of the UK’s relationship with India.
Currently, the lack of education of Partition, and recognition of the UK’s role in partition through academic institutions has made younger generations apathetic towards engaging with India. Hence, better coordination between the FCO and Department for Education on developing a curriculum which is able to explore the relationship between the UK and India is key to developing long term links with India post Brexit.
If we are to best motivate a talented generation who have the potential to develop the UK’s bilateral links with India, we must wholeheartedly embrace the historical narrative, however unpleasant it might be. Equally, we must move away from the strategy of reaching out to India on the basis of an Anglocentric narrative in which only wealthy, educated business-like Indians are the target of the UK’s foreign policy. An approach such as this leaves little room for the nuance and understanding required to build sustainable links with India in generations to come. If policy makers are genuinely interested in working with British Indians for on the Global Britain agenda, they must reach out to younger generations.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals agenda offers the UK a great opportunity to re-engage with India to tackle key global issues. So far, the UK has contributed to delivering the UN Sustainable Goals (UNSDGs) through working in partnership with the FCO, DIT, and the Treasury with a focus on delivering joint economic development priorities in India which will generate jobs and lift people out of poverty. If India is to prosper both socially and economically, economic inequality plagued by caste, class, gender and religion must be tackled properly.
Moving forwards, the UK should to more to promote the delivery of UNSDG 5 (Gender Equality) and UNSDG 10 (Reduced Inequality). Women in India are worth 3.1% of India’s GDP according to a recent report by Oxfam. According to another report by the World Economic Forum, Indian women are less likely to have paid work than men, and are hardest hit by economic inequality. Here the UK can play a key role in empowering women in India through developing a trade policy centred around financially empowering women in India.
To do this a conscious effort should be made to engage with younger South Asian women on issues related to gender inequality. An intergenerational approach to working with Indian women in the UK could help to provide useful insights into how UK Aid might be spent more effectively on tackling gender inequality in India. Explanations of the cultural sensitivities around period poverty, maternal health and girl’s education could help to DFID to tailor effective programmes with greater outputs in rural areas. Engagement in dialogue between first generation, second generation and third generation Indian women would be a useful perspective for policy makers to have to broaden their understanding of women’s role in Indian society.
The UK’s South Asian diaspora community have great potential in helping the UK to realise its international ambitions post Brexit, including its future relationship with India. First, however, we must revisit the UK’s relationship with India at a domestic level through educating a younger generation of South Asians about the UK’s history with India through a revised history curriculum offers one opportunity for engagement. Only when we have become comfortable with the complexities of Britain’s legacy in India will we be able to move forward and develop our bilateral links between the two countries.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Strategy International.