Posted by: John Elliott | January 27, 2009

India raised Ulster when rebuking Miliband on Kashmir

It is now nearly two weeks since Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, upset senior Indian ministers with both the content and style of his behaviour while he was in Delhi. I am writing about it now partly because I was busy on other subjects while he was here, but mainly because of something I have just heard from a highly reliable source.
David Miliband in a north India cowshed - PTI pic

David Miliband in a north India cowshed - PTI pic


I have been told that a very senior government official was so outraged by Miliband’s lecturing on how India should handle the Kashmir issue that he said, in a very quiet but stern voice, “We did not tell you how to handle Ulster and I do not expect you to tell me how to handle Kashmir”.

In diplomatic terms, that was one of the bluntest remarks made to a visiting dignitary for a long time, and Miliband and his misguided advisers from London should not have ignored it.

Miliband and Pranab Mukherjee

Miliband and Pranab Mukherjee

At the end of last week, a Foreign Office spokesman in London said that Miliband was “not off message” when he urged that the Kashmir problem should be solved so as to reduce the incidence of terrorism in India. Miliband delivered this line in both an article in The Guardian newspaper and when he was in Delhi.


But he was clearly off-cue when he wrote: “……resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders……”.

To describe Kashmir in that context is wrong – but it is in line with propaganda that Pakistan deployed to influence Barack Obama’s advisers as they prepared policies before his inauguration a week ago. The fact that Obama has not included India in the Pakistan-Afghanistan brief given to Richard Holbrooke, his special envoy to the region, shows that the US has realised that it is counter-productive to approach India and Kashmir on the Miliband line.

But as I understand what happened, it was not so much the Miliband’s broad statements that infuriated Delhi and provoked the personal rebuke, but the arrogant insensitive way in which this wet-behind-the-ears politician delivered his message – first by writing the Guardian article just as he was about to arrive, and then by his personal and disrespectful style in Delhi.

Miliband and Rahul Gandhi on their rural tour

Miliband and Rahul Gandhi on their rural tour

Publicity on what happened was partially overshadowed by the village sleepover organised for him by Rahul Gandhi in rural Uttar Pradesh – presumably two guys who both expect to be prime ministers one day doing some advance bonding, having first met when Gandhi was living in London.

However, the event is still erupting in the newspapers. the Mail Today on January 24 had an article by its editor, Bharat Bhushan, on “The damage we inflict on ourselves”, complaining that India’s diplomacy has failed to such an extent “that everybody and his dog can come and do as they please in Delhi”.

“David Miliband demonstrated that he was yet to be house trained when he let loose a peremptory lecture to the prime minister of India,” wrote Bhushan.

There is also an odd story doing the rounds about a letter that Manmohan Singh was reported to have sent to Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, complaining about Miliband’s “behaviour and comments”. The prime minister’s office (PMO) denied that such a letter had been sent, but I understand that it was sources in the PMO who first alerted Indian journalists to the letter. Presumably, such a letter was sent, but not quite in the strident terms deployed by the over-eager PMO sources.

As soon as Miliband left, Lord (Peter) Mandelson, Britain’s political-accident-prone business and enterprise secretary, flew in and behaved badly at a CII conference. He made his speech and then left before Pranab Mukherjee, India’s foreign minister, and Kamal Nath, the commerce and industry minister spoke, without making any public apology or speaking quietly to them on the platform. He apparently had an important engagement to do with British firms trying to sell nuclear wares to India, and officials say he had told the CII and Kamal Nath – but that does not excuse the insensitivity of his departure from the conference.

Miliband and Mandelson are clearly supremely self-confident British ministers. They are also supremely insensitive, and Miliband should be seen historically alongside the late Robin Cooke who, as British foreign secretary in 1997, helped to make a hash of the Queen’s visit to celebrate India’s 50 years of independence – again by clumsily trying to tell India off over Kashmir.

Representatives of such a former colonial power need to adjust to the times. It is of course correct to say that India should do more on Kashmir – not least on granting it more autonomy – but not in the context of the Miliband message.

See also my article on The Daily Beast website, which expands on the US-India aspects of Obama’s presidency 



  1. After more than 8 years, one can with even greater assurance than Miliband was not just insensitive, but way off the mark as well. It is one thing to tell some the right thing in the wrong way, but quite another to tell the wrong thing in a wrong way!!

  2. Britian has been hobnobing with islamic extremists for a long time. It had shamefully and foolishly given asylum to a number of world famous islamists and jihadists in the name of “human rights”.

    It has a large population of “kashmiri pakistanis” and UK government and its intelligence agencies had in the past allowed the concept of “jihad and islamism” to spread in this muslim population.

    No wonder that the official british policy does not recognise the “global islamic jihad” and state sponsoring of terrorism by pakistan in the so called “kashmiri freedom struggle”

    India should put this point bluntly to its former “colonial master” and politely remind the “GREAT”britian about its current status of being a – third rate bankrupt european nation !!!!

    Any cunning move by british politicians to form a special relationship should be politely rejected as India has enough of globally relevant super power partners.

  3. I don’t think either Obama or any of his proxies have ever said that Pakistan can “be talked into behaving.” Largely because I don’t think anyone can really believe that.

    They cannot control their own house. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, they suffer from suicide bombs, hate preaching imams, mosques with weapons caches in the capital, and a lawless frontier.

    Pragmatically how can anyone really believe their civilian or even military government can control what happens in Pakistan, or whether their citizens become involved in cross border terrorism? So how can we expect them to control what happens in India?

    Mr. Obama won an election based on walking a fine line, that is what he does probably better than anyone else, playing both sides without offending the other. He is not going to commit to a suggestion he knows is unrealistic. I have never heard him suggest that Pakistan can be “talked into behaving”.

    I believe he has indicated that the civilian and military establishments should be reminded that aid will, or should depend on how it behaves, and whether they are seen to be doing something about terrorists who preach domestically and mujahadeen who take refuge in both border areas.

    But I do not think Mr. Obama is so naive as to think or enunciate a strategy which is not based on the latest catch phrase “smart power”. He knows there will have to be both carrots and unfortunately to protect US interests, a stick occasionally.

    To tell you the truth, India needs to learn how to walk the line as well. We need to look at empowering moderates in Pakistan. Brow beating and fencing for face, does not serve our purpose and strengthens military hard liners who have held sway for much of the last decade in that country.

    Our shock and outrage at the Mumbai attacks is no longer an excuse to not do the needful.

    The Islamic extremist threat is a South Asian one, its time all governments in the region man up, and regardless of our previous prejudices, there needs to be begrudging unity to fight the threat. The alternative is our combined war on terrorism, well its already lost.

    The sub continent seems to have a tendency to install geriatrics into leadership positions at a political and administrative level. Making decisions for a population largely under thirty. People for whom their version of a cold war has lasted their entire lives and careers. Even if they wanted to, they could not look at the relationship through a different lens.

    If we are to at least appear as if we are winning, then looking at our relationships through the lens of a combined threat is the only way. Otherwise we may as well install Islamic theocracies in our respective countries now and call it a day.

  4. The visit by Robin Cook some years ago was bad enough but Miliband was really over the top. I appreciate that he comes from a generation that does not want to be bogged down with history, nor indeed the legacy of Briatin’s role in the creation of the Pakistan-Kashmir-Lashkar-e-Toiba problem in the first place, but to dilute his own Prime Minister’s statement of a “75% Pakistan-connection to Britain’s experienced terrorism” with a flippant “Oh well, I would say it is 60%” trivialises an issue which continues to have murderous impact in India. To make matters worse, Miliband was supported later by a British Foreign Office spokesman urging India to seek “a lasting resolution of the issue of Kashmir which takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people” Seemingly, Britain chooses to ignore the success of the recent elections in Kashmir, clearly unfettered and evidently reflecting the choice of the majority of how they wish to be governed.

  5. If Milliband or whoever wants to be stupid, who’s loss is it anyway? Assume your statement is right: That Obama thinks that Pakistan can be talked into behaving and the Afghanistan issued resolved presumably if a la Susan Rice the Kashmir issue is raised to assuage Pakistan and the Devil take the hindmost Hindustan. What would follow? India would be constantly irritated, the jehadis emboldened and US-India relationships strained. Yes. However, the Taliban would remain strongly grounded in the NWFP and the Hamid Karzai government insecure and NATO forces unable to stabilise Afghanistan. 4 years is not a long time and I am sure, Mr. O wants out of Afghanistan well before that. Well, if Afghanistan is not stablised, he can’t. So who loses?

    It is a different matter, that I do not expect the US to make the same mistake twice. But, then who knows with political powers – great, once-great and wannabe-great.

  6. Was what he said factually incorrect? If the answer is either no or ambiguous, then I would argue it is the Indian establishment that is either “wet behind the ears” or perhaps more accurate would be past its sell by date, for taking such statements as being a sleight.

    Do our politicians and administrators not have better things to do with their time then worrying about whether a visitor and guest committed a faux pas, or spoke too bluntly.

    Is our skin really this thin?

    There are real issues we need to be dealing with. Mr. Miliband was not lying, he did not embellish, he said what everyone already knows.

    Why should this country take that as an insult. I find that we did the real outrage.

    To the poster who said that a former Indian Prime Minister said that “Britain was a third rate power, still living in the past glory of the colonial days.”

    You will have to show me the exact quote, when and where he said it for me to actually believe that was said, and if indeed it was, then it wont be the first time I have been ashamed to call myself Indian.

    It seems to me that we should not be worrying about whether others are third rate, but whether we are ourselves.

  7. Miliband is generally known to have a tendency to lecture and not listen, so it is not just in India that he is proving to be the wrong man in the wrong job.

    Interestingly Riz Khan, in a long interview with Pranab Mukherjee for Aljazeera television, asked about Miliband’s recent meeting and what Miliband had said on the subject of Kashmir. Mr Mukherjee disagreed with Miliband’ s statement and said that terrorism was a general problem, so to localise (as Miliband had done) was incorrect.

    Quite clearly the style and the content of Miliband’s “teach-in” continues to rankle strongly at Indian government level.

  8. Mr. Miliband was singularly insensitive to the emotions of a nation and a people still coming to terms with the Mumbai tragedy. Good friends may be blunt but good friends do not remind us in public “I told you so” about unresolved conflicts when they first meet us soon after such consequences of terror . He was totally out of sync in the cultural context.

    The nation is introspecting, still looking for resolution and sees itself as a victim of terrorism. And the people of India certainly don’t see U.K., represented by its foreign secretary, as a friend in need.

  9. When India’s ex-Prime Minister I.K. Gujaral termed the British as a third rate power, still living in the past glory of the colonial days, he was absolutely correct.
    The British have provided sanctuary to all sorts of extremist and secessionist elements, in the name of free democratic society, and have been exploiting them as tools of their foreign policy.
    The Russians have recently shown, how to deal with the British, and India needs to take a leaf out of their book.

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