A Moral Conflict – Brian Cloughley

Last week a pair of British clowns visited India. Their purpose was entirely commercial and they managed to amuse many people while achieving their moral aim of selling more weapons to a country that is already the world’s largest importer of military equipment. 

The UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague, and finance minister (‘chancellor of the exchequer’) George Osborne popped into New Delhi and performed a double act that must have had their hosts chortling about how servile and toadying some of their visitors can be.

Since May India has been governed by the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi who undoubtedly possesses enormous charisma, impressive political talent and great energy. He is also the man who in 2000, as chief minister of Gujarat, failed to bring the forces of law to bear on those who were massacring over a thousand Muslims in some of the most horrible savagery India had seen since the Hindu slaughter of 8,000 Sikhs in 1984. 

Most official post-pogrom inquiries stated that Modi was not to blame, but there must have been some substance to the allegations because the US denied him entry. He was refused a US visa in 2005 under US Code 6442 that bans admittance of foreign persons responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom,” and Britain forbade any official meetings with him on similar grounds. The BBC reported that in 2002 “the UK helped to organise an effective ban on Mr Modi travelling to Europe.”

Countries don’t deny entry to people over trivialities. They must have a practical or even a moral reason for so doing. And the object of their disfavour must have done something pretty bad for such action to be taken – obviously with approval at the highest level, as Modi was chief minister of a large state that was business-oriented and becoming quite prosperous.

And it was the prosperity of Gujarat that led in part to reassessment of the high moral principles governing the bans on Modi. The other reason for the slackening and eventual evaporation of condemnation was Modi’s advance to national stature as a prominent representative of the BJP which was becoming the front-runner in Indian national politics. The coalition governments of Dr Manmohan Singh were well-meaning but accident-prone, and the Congress Party was sliding down the opinion polls.

Gradually it came to be considered by western nations that their moral disapproval of Modi’s inactivity during the slaughter of a thousand Muslims could be moderated with profit and even forgotten entirely.

So, as the BBC reported in 2012, “Britain has ended a 10-year diplomatic boycott imposed on a controversial Indian politician accused of failing to stop anti-Muslim rioting that left at least a thousand people dead. Sir James Bevan, the British high commissioner, spent 50 minutes with Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat . . . The conversation is understood to have been focused on business and investment.”

And since then, business and investment have continued to be the UK’s focus on India. There was discard of all this moral nonsense about rapping a chap over the knuckles for sitting back while a thousand people were slaughtered. That was blood under the bridge. It was time to flow on to pursuit of economic opportunities after Modi ascended in the national scene and became the prime minister who was lauded by Britain’s finance minister as a paragon of financial get-up-and-go. 

Chancellor Osborne declared that “it is a measure of the ambition and drive and pace of the new government of Prime Minister Modi that this complete turnaround in sentiment about the Indian economy has been achieved in just seven short weeks,” which was a pathetic gobbet of sycophantic slush.

The fawning oiliness of Britain’s approach was characterised by the visit of the dynamic duo to the site of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, the pacifist who was noted by Hague as having had a “commitment to non-violence.” Hague then announced that there would be a statue of Gandhi erected in London’s Parliament Square – obviously not in commemoration of the previous day’s agreement for a “contract worth £250 million with MBDA UK for the supply of advanced short-range air-to-air missiles for the IAF’s Jaguar fleet.”

Finance minister Osborne was asked on the BBC’s Today programme why Britain was “selling arms to a country with such widespread poverty” and in justification replied that “India has real security issues. It has got some very difficult neighbours.” Which confirms to China and Pakistan exactly how they are regarded by the United Kingdom. India, of course, is not a difficult neighbour to anyone.

Osborne explained modern British morality in clear-cut terms. The Gujarat slaughter was consigned to history and “we took a decision in 2012 to re-establish contact” with the former pariah Modi. He explained that the alteration in national policy was “very sensible given all that has happened since, in the way Mr Modi has managed to win an outright majority for the first time in Indian politics for 30 years.” Majorities trump moralities. 

The Times of India gave Hague and Osborne space for a sparkling joint article composed by their spin doctors and special advisers in which they stated that Britain wants “our defence and aerospace companies to help bring India more cutting-edge technology, skills and jobs”; and then Hague said there was no contradiction between selling weapons to India and extolling the virtues of the pacifist Gandhi, he of the future Parliament Square statue. Britain’s foreign minister declared that “we’re dealing with the Indian government, we’re not imposing anything on anybody . . . There is no moral conflict.”

But perhaps Gandhi would have had problems with that pronouncement. He was, after all, no advocate of arms and armour and told the world that “non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind.” He went further in publishing a list of Seven Social Sins, deploring, for example, “politics without principle” and “wealth without work” which are as evident in the world today as they were in 1925. 

But another of the sins identified by Gandhi was “commerce without morality.” Perhaps that would make a good inscription on the base of his statue in Parliament Square.