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The Carrots Can Wait, The Sticks Cannot: Quaint Ritual for India's Envoy to UK Held up in Covid Times

Indian High Commissioner Gaitri Issar Kumar. (Twitter/HCI_London)

Indian High Commissioner Gaitri Issar Kumar. (Twitter/HCI_London)

Gaitri Kumar has taken over as new High Commissioner to the UK and a horse-led, and horse-fed start to her diplomatic assignment is on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It will be some time before the new Indian High Commissioner to London can get to feed the Queen’s horses. It’s one of those quaint rituals in London that continues for the reason that everyone finds it quaint. As the new arriving envoy, Her Excellency Gaitri Issar Kumar would be due to be taken by a horse-driven carriage to Buckingham Palace to present her credentials to the Queen. After thanking the Queen, she must thank the horses upon return for their strenuous efforts towards launching her new role.

In coronavirus times, this horse-led, and horse-fed start to a diplomatic assignment is on hold. Face-to-face interactions are, of course, sharply curtailed even though the Queen has maintained two metres and more of social distance from just about everyone all her life, and always worn gloves if not a mask. So the horses sit in their stables, most people rest at home, but the High Commissioner has been invited to bypass that ritual start to get to work. Which she did the day after arriving in London.

That could hardly have waited. Boring as Brexit is, it’s coming into effect soon enough at the start of the next year. Both the Indian and the British governments are accelerating a push towards even a limited trade deal between the two countries. How much business follows the line of the governments is another, and proportionately a far lesser matter.

Kumar’s departure and destination ports form a neat axis of new rivalry. Coming from Brussels, Kumar was engaged in dealing with the European Union over that elusive trade deal. She will now be in the lead in negotiations from the other side of the dividing Channel that’s beginning to look more and more like a wall.


An India-EU trade deal has been negotiated for years but never did happen. Among the biggest blocks were those put up by the British government as a part of the EU. It wanted more marked access for many of its own goods, with lower tariffs. What will Britain now give up on that it wanted so much earlier through the EU? We should hear soon enough what worked, if anything did.

Trade issues come and go, but any Indian high commissioner in London will have much to do by way of dealing with Pakistan. Britain has a large numbers of Indians and Pakistanis concentrated into quite small space. Party candidates need their vote to survive politically. Hardly surprising then that subcontinental matters should be so heavily politicised in Britain. Add London’s position as a buzzing media centre for both India and Pakistan, and internationally, and the politics gets amplified, which makes it that much bigger to deal with. Not a time for an arriving envoy to hold her horses.

Muted protest over Article 370

The August protest season in London has been unexpectedly muted at a time when a more than full and more than shrill calendar was expected. To the annual protests outside India House in London, add the August 5 anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370. Some of the Pakistani media was overflowing with projections over past weeks of a massive protest to take place at India House, as the Indian High Commission building in London is called. Indian officials were prepared, and so were the police.

That preparation took on an urgency beyond routine arrangements put in place under a protest protocol. Protesters had pelted the Indian High Commission offices with stones, eggs and tomatoes at a protest last year. Window panes were smashed, the façade of the building defaced. In symbolic, and to an extent actual response, former high commissioner Ruchi Ghanshyam picked up a broom along with her staff to launch a clean-up of the building. It was a visible message to the British government: this is what a foreign envoy is pushed to do when the government of the host country cannot protect her offices against vandalism.

India had made its point. Come that next anniversary in the Kashmir protest calendar on October 27 that marks the accession of Jammu and Kashmir state to India, and the police put up a security ring outside India House tighter than ever seen before. Protesters were walled in by police carrying shields and batons, police convoys patrolled the roads around, and waited poised at every corner. With support from helicopters and horses (the British do seem strong on horses).

Minus the helicopters the police threw a ring around India House again on Aug 5 that anyone could see was not to be fooled with. Protesters were barricaded into a pen on the further of the two-section road. Again, police vans packed with officers waited and watched all around. Mounted police officers faced the protesters, and rode past them every now and then. Not a tomato was in sight, or egg, never mind stone.

It helped that the protesters were no more than 150 or so, a trickle before the few thousand who had gathered last year. Covid had something to do with this no doubt. The Pakistan-heavy areas around Bradford are under a lockdown that blocked any departing buses. The reluctance to use public transport, the high cost of driving into town on a week day, the fear of infection that has begun to rise again meant that fewer people would turn up, and so fewer police officers needed to be around, with little to do.

But the turnout was still smaller than expected under the circumstances. It does appear that anger over Article 370 among those with reason for it has lost some steam. Jammu and Kashmir isn’t exactly normal, but it would have taken strong optimism to have forecast on Aug 5, 2019 that a year on matters could be where they are today. The protesting is of course not over by any means. These protests are in any case only fractionally spontaneous. The ISI that operates actively from the Pakistani high commission in London is no doubt keeping its buses, and its budgets, for another day.