Brar attack: UK has moved swiftly

The swiftness with which British authorities have moved to arrest and charge suspects following the attack on Lt Gen Kuldip Singh Brar in London is a reminder that British attitudes towards extremists who indulge in violence have hardened over the years. But dropping the charge a notch from attempted murder to “wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm” is bound to raise eyebrows in India.

Is this all a throwback to the 1980s, when Khalistani and Kashmiri separatist extremists appeared to do as they pleased in Britain, raising funds and attacking moderates? I put the question to Hugo Swire, the government’s new foreign office minister whose very long list of charges also includes India. Swire, who had just delivered an address on India-UK relations at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), took the question quite sportingly I thought.

He was very strong in his condemnation of the attack on Gen. Brar, and gave a clear assurance that “high profile Indian visitors” to Britain were safe.

What is less clear to me is why a man who has been tailed for years by extremists was going about without protection. The way the system works is that every time Brar goes abroad he informs the local army authorities in Mumbai, who tell the high command in Delhi, who are supposed to inform the defence ministry and/or the ministry of external affairs. In turn, someone tells the Indian high commission in London, so that diplomats can put in an application with the British foreign office.

All very bureaucratic, in other words. According to Swire, “The Indian high commission makes an application for protection and they are assessed on an ongoing basis. There’s no danger to high profile visitors provided we are forewarned.”

Both the Indians and the British should have learnt their lessons from the attack on Brar. Indians have been complaining for some time now about the activities of Sikh separatist groups in Britain – the disruption of an Independence Day celebration in Coventry is cited as an example of the kinds of things these groups and individuals get up to. If you turn a blind eye to them for too long, diplomats suggest, things can get out of hand.

But these are not the 1980s, when there were two kinds of terrorists – those that targeted the West, and therefore were bad, and the rest. The attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 have changed the calculations fundamentally. There are no ‘our terrorists’ and ‘their terrorists’ any longer: that (at least in theory) is the fundamental reasoning behind the Global War on Terror.

Brar is clear that the attack on him was an attempt on his life and can be forgiven for feeling a bit disgruntled. But the reason Met Police have changed it to GBH is that it has been advised by the Crown Prosecution Service that it offers the best chances of securing a conviction, which is what everybody wants to see. The advice is based on evidence that may have been gathered from forensic tests, CCTV footage and interrogation. In any case it was always a case of suspicion of attempted murder.

My feeling is that, for the moment, this is warning enough to fend off any more attacks by extremists out there. London remains a melting pot of races and nationalities who are amazingly hard to police. But no one has the appetite for the sort of attack that took place against Brar. Swire called it “despicable – completely unacceptable on the streets of London.”

The 1990s saw a string of pretty tough convictions handed out by British courts to anti-Indian extremists. If anything, the post-9/11 outlook for extremists and terrorists is even tougher. But authorities shouldn’t get bogged down in policing only one kind of terrorist.

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