Bilateral talks with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman turned down over ‘scheduling issues’
A controversy has erupted over British Defence Minister Gavin Williamson’s decision to turn down a date for a bilateral meeting with Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, that would have coincided with a week-long summit on bilateral relations after Brexit.
India had proposed a three-day window for a brief bilateral in June during the U.K.-India week, sources in London and New Delhi confirmed. However, due to scheduling difficulties, Britain’s Ministry of Defence declined the meeting for proposed dates. India had previously cancelled a confirmed trip by the Minister in February, after which a July date had initially been agreed upon. A meeting has now been scheduled for later in the summer.
Nevertheless, the decision to turn down a meeting with India — which London has pegged as one of its major defence partners in the wake of Brexit — raised concern in Britain, coming days after the controversy over the exclusion of Indian students from a relaxation of visa documentation.
Foreign Secretary’s view
The Times of London reported that Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was among those who believed the decision to turn down the opportunity to be “ill-judged” and that India was “spitting blood”.
The Defence Minister herself however played down the issue. “Disappointed, Sunday Times (UK). Baseless story, to say the least,” she tweeted. “The U.K. & India have a robust relationship. A mutually convenient date is being worked out for meeting & I look forward to it.”
Sources also denied The Times’ story, but admitted that there had been some scheduling difficulties over Ms. Sitharaman’s visit, which began when her confirmed trip in February was cancelled by India. After that, diplomatic sources say, both sides agreed on a date in July. However, owing to a diaspora event in London in June, that the Indian High Commission thought she could attend, it proposed the dates in June. The proposal came too late for the British and they had to decline.
Another source said that while describing India’s reaction as “spitting blood” as The Times suggested was a stretch, there had been surprise that a brief meeting within three days was not possible, given the importance placed on the meeting and the fact that it could have tied-in with the U.K.-India summit that several Ministers attended. It also raised questions about the lack of accommodation in Mr. Williamson’s approach to India, the source said.
“The U.K. and India have excellent defence relationships with the Minister for Defence Procurement leading a trade delegation to the country in April and the Armed Forces Minister announcing closer military ties between the two countries in the same month,” Britain’s Ministry of Defence said in a statement. “The Defence Secretary is due to meet his Indian counterpart in the summer.”
“The opportunity for the UK to collaborate with India in defence matters has never been greater….it is therefore, only right that so many senior U.K. leaders from across the political spectrum took the opportunity during U.K.-India week to underline the importance of ties across sectors and issues,” said Manor Ladwa, the founder of UK-India week. “It would have been really good if Gavin Williamson could have spared some time, but let’s also not kid ourselves that the Indians will have lost too much sleep over it,” he said.