Admiral Karambir Singh


by NADEEM BADSHAH

THE Indian Navy’s move to end colonial-style traditions, including the VIP culture, has been met with a mixed response in Britain.

Admiral Karambir Singh, the new chief of staff, called on senior officers to be “disciplined and respectful, but not subservient” in their conduct.

He wants to give the heave-ho to the British Raj practice of “multiple stand-by” cars for a visiting navy chief and lavish drinks, food and cutlery for officers and naval ratings at functions.

The lining up of naval wives and children to receive dignitaries has also been abandoned, as also the practice of presenting them floral bouquets.

The British Raj era is back in the spotlight with ITV’s new Sunday night drama Beecham
House, directed by Gurinder Chadha.

Some experts are on board with the move to water down traditions, which have remained more than 70 years since independence, while others say the world’s fifth largest navy needs to focus on rooting out caste discrimination.

Rajinder Dudrah, professor of cultural studies and creative industries at Birmingham
City University, welcomed the plan but cautioned it would not be plain sailing as it is “symptomatic of a wider issue across south Asia of the VIP culture”.

He told Eastern Eye: “It is a fantastic call, moving in that direction. I hope the Army follows suit.

“But it is entrenched in tradition, the challenge is how it is implemented. It could take decades or a generation or two. The Armed Forced are regimented, are they open to being democratic?

“Words like ‘batman’ [soldier servants] and ‘subservient’ is the language of colonial subjugation and allows us to move away from that.

“I hope they [pro-colonialists] wake up and smell the coffee and are open to this. If a general with years of experience can say this, it is a challenge and an opportunity
to move on.”

Admiral Singh made his demands for a tight ship in his official “signal” of 26 instructions
after taking charge on May 31. He also called for a “reduction” in “unnecessary ostentation” during official events and an end to “clapping/cheering/applause”.

Former major general Sheru Thapliyal welcomed the move, saying: “The batman system in the army is demeaning for soldiers and should have been done away with years ago”.

The Indian Navy has the closest links to Royal Navy traditions and customs. It was formed in 1950 when the country became a republic, three years after its independence. It was previously known as the Royal Indian Navy that was commanded by British flag and senior officers, many of whom continued in service till 11 years after independence.

The English Navy became the Royal Navy after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660.

Armed Forces Day to commemorate the service of men and women in the army and navy was marked on June 29.

Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, whose grandfather served in the Indian Army in Burma, said he disagreed with the admiral’s stance.

He told Eastern Eye: “You are always going to have commodores, admirals, ‘big people’. Of course, you are going to provide extra cars and security for them.

“What they need to do is take caste out of the operation, it is nothing to do with the colonial structures. What Britain left behind was a great system in the army, navy and institutions. Where it has gone wrong is abuses.

“The way lower-ranked people are treated because of caste is abysmal, it’s not about taking things away from senior staff whose achievements and [experience] are phenomenal.

“It’s nothing to do with the heritage or legacy of the British Empire, it is the denigration of their own people in the lower ranks.”

Meanwhile, Chadha believes children are no longer taught about Empire because schools are “frightened of telling the truth” about colonialism.

The director, whose last project Viceroy’s House explored Partition and the end of Empire through the eyes of Lord and Lady Mountbatten, said: “Most children in British schools aren’t even told now that there was an empire, that the British ruled India.”