A hundred years ago, all India was in arms. Nearly 1.3 million Indians volunteered to fight in the First World War, serving on the Western Front, in Turkey, in North Africa, in Mesopotamia, in East Africa, even in China.
What dragged those young men half way across the world? What force was so powerful that it could pull ryots from the Ganges plains to the cold mud of Neuve Chapelle? So magnetic that it made farmers from the Deccan drop their ploughs to carry rifles in Tanganyika?
Remember that there was no conscription in India. Every one of those men made an individual decision to enlist.There were several factors at work, of course, and we should be wary of oversimplifying. Some soldiers believed that, by volunteering, they would strengthen the case for self-rule. Some signed up for economic reasons. Some, like young men in every age and nation, were attracted by the glamour. But we shouldn’t ignore the reason given by so many of the men themselves: the belief that they were fighting for freedom. Britain and India, they felt, stood for values that were superior to the enemy’s.
Among the most enthusiastic proponents of this view was Mohandas Gandhi. “If the British do not win, to whom shall we go claiming equal partnership?” he asked in 1918. “Shall we go to the victorious German or the Turk or the Afghan for it?”
A century later, certain values still make the United Kingdom unusual in Europe. And the same values, it seems to me, make India unusual in Asia.
It is human nature to take familiar things for granted, but consider some of the things that set both Britain and India apart from many of their neighbours. The fact that generals are firmly under civilian control, that the Armed Forces have never interfered in politics. The fact that elections are peaceful and regular, and don’t end with anyone being shot or exiled. The fact that the law is a mechanism for individuals to seek redress, not an instrument of state control.
Of how many states currently in the European Union have all these things been true within living memory? Of how many Asian countries?
When those young men wrote to tell their parents that they were fighting for freedom, they were right. So were their sons who, in the Second World War, formed the largest volunteer army in history, 2.5 million strong. In 1944, Sikh soldiers, wearing turbans, helped liberate France. Today, their turbans are banned there. Such an attitude to individual autonomy is unthinkable in the United Kingdom.
That’s the real bond between Britain and India. I won’t trivialise it by talking about the words we borrow from each other’s languages, or our cultural or culinary fusions; I won’t even say it comes from the living link formed by the 1.5 million Britons of Indian origin, whose energy and enterprise have elevated my homeland. No, the true bond between our nations has to do with freedom — with the elevation of the rules above the rulers, and of the individual above the state.
Now for a hard thing that needs saying. Our connection has suffered, and is suffering, as a consequence of Britain’s involvement with the European Union. It suffered, first, because Britain was forced to apply the EU’s Common External Tariff after 1973. Where we had been in the habit of buying textiles and commodities from the subcontinent, we now find ourselves subject protectionist interests elsewhere in Europe. In the days when India, too, was protectionist, this may not have mattered much. Today, it is a real disadvantage to both nations.
In 2014, the EU shelved its trade talks with India — adding insult to injury with its absurd ban on Indian mango exports. Such restrictions damage Britain in particular, linked as we are to India by friendship and family, habit and history. An exporter in my constituency would naturally trade more easily with a firm in Ludhiana than with one in Ljubljana. As well as the English language, the two companies would have the same accountancy systems and commercial practices. If there were a dispute between them, it will be arbitrated under a common law model familiar to both parties. None of these things is true of the EU.
Two generations ago, when most trade was localised and freight costs were high, regional customs unions had a certain appeal. But in the Internet age, geographical proximity has never mattered less. Culture and kinship, language and law, trump distance.
Sadly, they don’t always trump politics. An Indian World War II veteran, arriving at Heathrow Airport, must line up with the rest of the world, while men who might have served on the other side stroll through as EU nationals. Non-EU students, of whom Indians used to be the largest component, are now chased out of Britain on the completion of their degrees to free up space for unlimited numbers of EU migrants, who have the right to settle as if they were British, even when they have no connection whatever to the UK.
Among my constituents of Indian origin, many families have recently experienced problems with visas for visiting relatives. Why? Again because there is a practical limit to the amount of inward migration that any country can take and, as long as we are obliged to open our doors to 600 million EU nationals, we have to crack down on other forms of immigration.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should have an open door to Commonwealth migration, any more than we should have an open door to EU migration. But there should be no discrimination against non-EU nationals. It is idiotic that we are, in practice, forced to turn away computer programmers from Bangalore because their places have been filled by unqualified workers from Bialystok. We should have a fair, points-based system, in which people from all over the world can compete equally.
Let me make a final observation. India is a rising military as well as economic power. George Bush’s unforced and ungrudging acceptance of India’s nuclear status in 2006 was arguably the single most far-sighted foreign policy act of his presidency, preparing the way, as it did, for a rapprochement between India and the West. I’ll go further: the most important geo-political question of this century is whether India self-defines only as an Asian superpower, or also, in part, as an English-speaking democracy.
That’s not a question I can answer, of course. It’s up to Indians. I’ll just observe that India faces, in a different form, the same question as the United Kingdom. Are we defined only by our neighbourhood? Do we identify chiefly with countries that happen to be nearby, or do we not also recognise ideological and institutional affinities that may stretch across continents?
Those jawans whose names are carved on the Menin Gate in Ypres, those sepoys commemorated by India Gate in New Delhi, gave their own answer to that question. They were in no doubt that values held true across oceans, linking people of different races and religions in the defence of liberty.
Soon, in less dramatic circumstances, Britain will have to answer a similar question. Will the EU crowd out our older, global links? I hope that Britons, including Britons of Indian origin, will remember where their truest friends are. There is a world beyond Europe.
Daniel Hannan is a British politician, journalist, author of How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters and Member of the European Parliament, representing South East England for the Conservative Party.