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Johnson India trip paves the way for a free-trade deal, but touches a nerve with JCB visit

Johnson India trip paves the way for a free-trade deal, but touches a nerve with JCB visit

The Prime Minister's trip to India has sown the seeds of a trade deal to be finalised by October, along with allowing military equipment sold to India to be shipped more quickly.

The trip's purpose appears to have been to try and decouple India from dependence on trade with Russia. India currently acquires the majority of its military hardware from Russia, abstained on the vote to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has not placed any sanctions on Moscow, and has recently hosted the Russian Foreign Minister. US President Joe Biden described India's response to the conflict as "somewhat shaky".

However, some have accused the Prime Minister of using the trip as an excuse to run away from the ongoing Partygate scandal.

In a joint press briefing with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson said:

"We are making full use of the freedom that we now have to reach a free trade agreement, a deal where you can lift those tariffs – you can, India, Narendra, on our machinery and apples – actually you’ve already done it on apples so thank you for the apples and we in turn, we can lift the tariffs on your rice and textiles."

"We have agreed a new and expanded defence and security partnership, a decades-long commitment that will not only forge tighter bonds between us, but support [Modi's] goal of 'Make in India'."

"Today we’re announcing new measures to make it easier to export UK-made medical devices to India and ensure mutual recognition of UK higher education qualifications. As the next round of talks begins here next week, we are telling our negotiators: get it done by Diwali in October. Get it done by Diwali."

"So as India celebrates its 75th year of independence, I am filled with optimism about the years ahead and the depth of the friendship between our countries, and the security and prosperity that our partnership can deliver for our people for generations to come."

The two nations' leaders agreed upon the creation of a UK-India open-export license that would allow military equipment bought by India to be provided far faster. The UK had previously only granted such a license to the US and to the EU. However, some political commentators have stated they expect the deal to do little to draw India away from Russian military hardware.

Mohan Guruswamy, a director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi, stated:

"Russia's offer to India is always that 'Our cupboard is open', [whereas] Britain doesn’t offer India everything it wants and what it does make available is usually more expensive."

Johnson also managed to draw criticism for being "tone-deaf" regarding some aspects of his visit.

Tensions are high between Hindus and Muslims living in India, with some reports going so far as to describe Muslims being lynched for eating beef. Relations between these groups have only got worse under Modi's premiership. Modi leads the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Modi has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim hatred in the past; for portraying India as a land for Hindus, while labeling Muslims are outsiders. In 2019 Modi and his administration were criticised after he abolished the legal autonomy of the Muslim-majority Kashmir region, blocked the internet and phone signal in the region, and sent in the Indian military. The Indian Public Safety Act allows anyone over the age of 16 to be detained without trial for up to 2 years - with around 10,000 people alleged to have been arrested during the unrest that followed the abolition of Kashmiri regional autonomy.

Over the weekend, as Hindu processions made their way through Muslim-majority areas to celebrate a festival, violence broke out along religious lines. A few days later the state-controlled North Delhi Municipal Corporation used JCB bulldozers to demolish Muslim residences, stopping short of a Hindu temple.

In the recent past, in other regions of India, Muslim residences have been demolished by the state as punishment for disrupting Hindu festivals - with the regional administration explicitly admitting as much.

Thus, when the British Prime Minister visited a JCB factory on his visit he was criticised for being insensitive. Also of note is that JCB's boss, Lord Anthony Bamford, is a major tory donor, although a spokesperson for No. 10 denied this was the related to the visit.

Johnson's spokesperson said:

"He chose to go to the JCB factory because it is a very good illustration of a UK business working with India and the Indian government to benefit both the UK and India."

When journalists asked the Prime Minister if he would bring up the demolition with Modi, along with authoritarianism and abuses of power, Johnson responded:

"We always raise the difficult issues, of course we do, but the fact is that India is a country of 1.35 billion people and it is democratic, it’s the world’s largest democracy."

Amnesty India called his visit to the JCB plant "not only ignorant but his silence on the incident is deafening".

Meanwhile, some are raising concerns that the UK government is quickly racking up a track record for befriending authoritarian regimes guilty of human-rights abuses. In the past couple of months; Johnson has visited Saudi Arabia in a largely unfruitful trip aiming to secure access to Saudi oil; the government has been widely criticised for plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda; now the government is looking to sell more arms to the same Indian administration which detained-without-trial thousands of its own people.

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