Britain's Prince Charles plunged into a 13-day tour of India today to find that the normally close relations between the former imperial power and the crown jewel of its old empire are clouded by charges of British racial discrimination against Indians.
Indian anger at what is considered racial bias showed up at St. Stephens College in a melee involving the prince of Wales' security guards and about 60 student demonstrators trying to give him a petition.
After one of his aides was pushed head over heels through a hedge, the prince said, "Cool down. Give me the bloody thing."
The demonstrators carried signs saying, "You are responsible for the virginity tests," referring to a former practice, stopped by British immigration officials in 1978, of checking the virginity of Indian women coming into Britain to get married. British officials claimed they were usually marriages of convenience designed to get entry to Britain.
Charles accepted the petition denouncing virginity tests, then handed it to an aide.
Later, apparently taking the demonstration in stride, he said it made him feel right at home. "I am the chancellor of the University of Wales," he told a gathering in the St. Stephens auditorium, "and have been facing such demonstrations during my visits there."
The charges, brought to the forefront over the last 10 days in a series of newspaper articles and editorials, arise out of proposed British immigration restrictions against residents of its former colonies and recurring complaints by Indians and Pakistanis of harassment by customs and immigration officials in Britain.
That dispute fuels a long love-hate relationship between Britain and India. The Times of London has said, "The Indians expect the British to behave better than anyone else in the world, including the Indians themselves."
For the prince, this trip -- his first official visit to the land his grandfather once ruled as king and, before independence, as emperor -- is a chance to see modern industrial India. He arrived yesterday.
What he will also see, if not on the official itinerary, is the extreme poverty of a country in which half of the 650 million citizens are counted as poor. The per capita income of under $150 a year places it among the 14 poorest countries.
Among the places the 32-year-old prince is scheduled to visit is the Bangalore headquarters of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., which is involved in a disputed contract to produce with British help Jaguar fighters for the Indian Air Force. The French are trying to get Indian to switch to Mirages.
As befits the modern image of a monarch, the prince will act as a salesman for British products during his tour.
While the official response to Prince Charles' visit is enthusiastic, there does not appear to be much interest among ordinary Indians -- except for the upper-crust Anglicized residents who are offering as much as $375 for invitations to receptions.
But tickets to Wednesday's benefit polo match, in which the prince will play, were still available. Yesterday, most people on the streets seemed unaware of who was heading the procession that swept pa t an empty pedestal that once held a statue of Charles' great-grandfather, King George V. It was pulled down after India won independence in 1947.
In Connaught Circus, ringed by colonnaded buildings that date back to the British raj, or rule, one onlooker thought the motorcade was for the new president of South Korea. Another thought it was probably Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, with whom the prince had lunch today.
Some of the newspaper coverage has been tongue in check, as an article in the Tribune suggesting that the prince was really coming to seek a bride and had placed a matrimonial ad reading: "A well-connected foreign boy, aged about 30, belonging to titled family, heir to extensive ancestral property, present pay and perks good, prospects of a very high job in due course, would welcome correspondence with a view to early marriage, dowry, community [caste] and complexion no consideration. Nonvegetarian girl, proficient in English and household affairs preferred."
The Sunday Standard suggested editorially, "Let Prince Charles play polo, let him rush over the muddy plains chasing our pigs [a favorite sport of English military officers here], but let him also chase our princesses," the editorial concluded.
The nearly 200 years of British rule has left an indelible imprint on India. Its parliamentary system, though wild and woolly, is based on Westminster, and its judges still are addressed as "my lord."
The Indian military, formed under the crown, sometimes appears to be more British than the English, with regimental officers' meses maintaining collections of silver and swagger sticks.