India-UK : Curry, Cricket, Commonwealth & the Elephant in the Room!

Curry is the most favorite cuisine of this island nation, on whose empire, once upon a time, the sun never set. The Chicken Tikka Masala, or CTM, was referred to as ‘a true British national dish’ by Robin Cook, former British Foreign Secretary of State. It was William Philip, the English translator, who first used the term ‘curry’, adapted from the Tamil ‘Kari’ in 1598.

The British Empire became British Raj because of India, ‘The Jewel in its Crown’. Post 1945, many former European colonies in Asia and Africa became independent states, a period euphemistically called ‘decolonization’. The term Empire in British textbooks was replaced to Commonwealth, without critically teaching or understanding the fundamental difference between the two. Commonwealth inevitably meant loss of British power which was prevalent during the empire. Britain dealt with loosing of its empire with a sense of denial.

Fast forward to the current visit by PM Boris Johnson to India, in the scorching heat of 42°C, as against his 16°C London residence. His visit feels much like a ‘Déjà vu’, that hints around the means – as the world watches him visiting the temples and places of cultural importance, for the ends that would be discussed in Delhi. Back in May 2017, former PM Theresa May wore a saree during her visit to India. A year after the Brexit referendum in 2016, Britain felt the need to robustly rebuild its ties with the former British colonies, or as Ms. May puts it, ‘old friends’. Ms. May during her tenure made strict immigration laws making VISA difficult for Indian citizens. Her policies in no way were friendly towards her ‘old friends’. Moreover, the relation between India and UK was not reciprocal when it began. The long relation that is often talked about between the two countries was based on unequal terms, where one was considered superior to the other.

On a second thought, PM Johnson’s visit to Sabarmati Ashram, a first ever by any British PM, shouldn’t come as a shock. His visit to India, like that of Ms. May’s has certain agendas. Agendas that have cropped up due to the changing circumstances in Russia-Ukraine war, India’s unwavering abstaining stand and the increasing gravity of post Brexit UK.

Interestingly, the message by PM Johnson at Sabarmati Ashram’s visitor’s book reads, ‘it is an immense privilege to come to the Ashram of this extraordinary man, and to understand how he mobilised such simple principles of truth and non-violence to change the world for the better’. It was PM Johnson’s country on whom Gandhiji first used his non-violence strategy, paving the way for India’s independence. This absolute minute detail, the grey area between India and UK relation is more than an ‘elephant in the room’, that needs to be addressed. After the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, for which UK hasn’t apologised yet, Gandhiji had said, ‘We do not want to punish Dyer. We have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer’. It was the colonial system that Gandhiji referred to, which legalized torture, validating brutal act as a necessity for continuing the Raj in India.

‘I have always been in favour of talented people coming to the UK’, PM Johnson said to the reporters in Ahmedabad. The operative word here being ‘talented’. Ironically, when Mr. Johnson’s countrymen, centuries ago arrived on Indian shores, they didn’t ask for permission. The British scholar and the author of the book, ‘We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire’, Mr. Ian Patel reveals how racial anxieties actively shaped Britain’s post-war immigration policies after 1945, resulting in Britain’s failure to carve for itself a post-imperial identity.

During the Joint Press Conference on 22nd April 2022, PM Johnson ticked the boxes of culture one by one. He began with addressing PM Modi, as his ‘Khaas Dost’ or close friend, went on to say, he felt like ‘Sachin Tendulkar’ when he arrived in Gujarat with all the fanfare. ‘My face was about as ubiquitous everywhere as Amitabh Bachchan’ PM Johnson said referring to the welcome posters in Gujarat and Sabarmati Ashram. He specifically mentioned how he was the first conservative British PM to visit Gujarat, which is not only the birthplace of PM Modi but also the ancestral home of almost half of all British citizens of Indian origin. One of the major reasons for PM Johnson’s visit was to finalize on the Free Trade Agreement between India and UK. In this regard, PM Johnson said, ‘as the next rounds of talks begins here next week, we are telling our negotiators get it done by Diwali in October. Get it done by Diwali’.

The phrase ‘Khaas Dost’ in Hindi set the stage by checking the language box, references to Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan symbolized tick marks for cricket and Bollywood. The ‘ancestral home’ hinted towards the diasporic connect, while ‘Diwali’ marked the festival link to Indian culture. Although the Free Trade Agreement rests on the terms, conditions, and other economic factors between the two countries, PM Johnson’s speech through the references to cultural connotation re-emphasized the role of culture. They became symbolic representatives of the larger aspects of culture including language, festivals, diaspora, and movies that are today part of India-UK’s cultural relations. Yet the first encounter between India and UK was through colonialism, a historical fact that can never be erased.

This year, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence from British rule, is a momentous time for Britain to apologize for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. An apology for the Massacre would mean an apology for the ‘system’ as Gandhiji observed, for the cruelty, racism, and indifference for Indian suffering that prevailed during British colonialism. An apology will denote not just for the world, but for Britain too, that the principles today’s Britain stands for are different from its colonial past.

Using culture as means to an end is a universal strategy. India introduced to the world Buddha, Yoga, Bollywood among other things and employs it for achieving its ends. For Britain, its British empire, and its high time it owes up to the brutalities of its empire, even while it celebrates the commonwealth.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brief Bulletin.


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