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Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Large Inheritance and its Conflicted Parts

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Telegraph, August 15, 2013

Indians, it is often said, have the disconcerting habit of tailoring their views to suit the listener, especially if he/she happens to be powerful or influential. I don’t know if that charge can be levelled against the 1st Baron Sinha of Raipur, a man who conformed to the highest ideal of empire citizenship. Asked by the vicereine, Lady Minto, of the possible consequences of a British departure from India, Lord Sinha replied insouciantly: “If the English left India today in a body, we should have to telegraph to Aden and get them to return as fast as they could, for in a couple of days India would be in chaos.”
Nor was the Bengali peer showering Britons with excessive flattery. Around the same time, Gopal Krishna Gokhale remarked quite matter-of-factly: “The attainment of a democratic form of self-government depends upon the average strength in character and capacity of our people as a whole, and that is far below the British average.” It was a perspective that was even shared by Rabindranath Tagore. In 1923, he answered the same question Lady Minto had posed to Lord Sinha some 15 years earlier: “What should we do if, for any reason, England was driven away? We should simply be victims for other nations.”
That enlightened Indians entertained doubts — at least until the mid-1930s — of India’s ability to replace British rule with something more worthwhile may come as a surprise to a generation that has been nurtured on a diet of over-mythologized nationalism. Maybe in the immediate aftermath of a troubled passage to Independence, some robust flag-waving was necessary to instil self-confidence and a sense of modern nationhood into India. But the passage of 66 years, while a mere speck in the traditional Hindu sense of the yug, is sufficient time for a more rounded and less emotive assessment of two historical currents. First, there has to be an appreciation that the passage to self-government and independence was far more contested than today’s India cares to admit. Second, that the modern Indian state matured and even prospered because the larger philosophy that propelled the British empire in India was left relatively undisturbed. In the world’s largest subject nation, ‘post-colonial’, quite mercifully, didn’t involve too much of a rupture.
The first assertion is relatively non-contentious. Even after 1947, a spirited debate over whether India ‘won’ freedom or benefited from a mere ‘transfer of power’ has agitated intellectuals and political activists. At one level, the issue of an outright victory against a cowering British lion is spurious. Even Winston Churchill, who watched with “deep grief… the clattering down of the British Empire” in 1947, was compelled to admit in a moving speech to the House of Commons on March 6, 1947 that a war-weary Britain had lost the will to persevere with the empire. “Many have defended Britain against her foes,” he lamented, “None can defend her against herself.” At the same time, Churchill cited the voluntary enlistment of more than three million Indians into the British army during World War II, in spite of the fierce opposition of the Congress and the ambivalence of the Muslim League, to suggest that “loyalty to Britain and all that Britain stood for in their lives” counted more than the grandstanding of the “men of straw” who would inherit India.
Churchill was echoing the sentiments of Lord Curzon, another great advocate of empire, who celebrated the fact that more than a million Indians enlisted to fight for the king-emperor in the Great War of 1914-18. “Why are these men coming? What has induced them to volunteer to take part in the fighting?” he asked. “They are thousands of miles away. They cannot hear the thunder or see the smoke of the guns. Their frontiers have not been crossed, their homes are not in jeopardy. They are not our kith and kin; no call of the blood appeals to them. Is it not clear that they are coming because the Empire means something to them?”
Whether it “speaks to them of justice, of righteousness, of mercy, and of truth”, as Curzon believed, or suggested a traditional respect for authority is an issue that can be debated. But the larger questions raised by the former viceroy are calculated to make those who believe that the 190 years after Plassey was a period of monstrous oppression and national humiliation squirm with embarrassment. However much it offends contemporary sensibilities, the fact that British rule was also seen as a force for good and a much-needed respite from post-Moghul chaos and anarchy cannot be seriously doubted.
Acknowledging this simple truth doesn’t necessarily make our ancestors lesser beings who colluded in the national humiliation of the motherland. It suggests that there are serious limitations of viewing the past through the prism of the present and being judgmental. Those who welcomed Lord Clive into their Durga Pujas, endorsed the suppression of the 1857 uprising, flaunted their Rai Bahadur and knighthoods but subsequently joined the clamour for self-rule had their own compulsions.
One of these compulsions was the appreciation of the fact that the British empire in India rapidly transformed itself from being the vehicle of greedy, self-serving merchants into a self- professed trusteeship. Re-reading the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 in the 21st century, it is difficult to not appreciate the nobility and grandeur of the empire’s mission statement. Indeed, apart from the addition of self-government through representative institutions which entered the lexicon of the raj after Sir Edwin Montagu’s declaration of 1917, the spirit of the Queen’s Proclamation can be said to have been faithfully reproduced in the Preamble of India’s 1950 Constitution.
The implications of this are worth considering. That India, among all the former colonies which secured independence after World War II, has an unbroken record of democratic governance is often a source of bewilderment to outsiders. This is particularly so because India, unlike, say, Britain, the United States of America and maybe Holland, didn’t possess indigenous institutions that acted as a deterrent to autocracy. There was no Magna Carta, no Glorious Revolution, no Bill of Rights and not even professional guilds. Even sympathetic officials such as Lord Ronaldshay felt that, apart from the loose bonds of the Hindu faith, there was little in India to nurture common citizenship. Indeed, Montagu’s 1917 announcement of a gradual transition to self-government was greeted with deep scepticism, prompting Lionel Curtis of Round Table fame to wonder, “How much scope can you give people to hurt themselves without destroying the fabric of government altogether?” Curiously, this is a question that is also being asked today.
In hindsight, it would seem that the sceptics underestimated the larger consequences of a system of government which, in spite of its duplicitous imperfections, injected the principle that political power in the colonies, particularly those with “antique civilisations”, was a trust for the benefit of the native populations. Along with the rule of law and, subsequently, representative government, trust added a new dimension to modern statecraft in India. And this ‘duty’ to India was dinned into the minds of the ICS recruits as they embarked on their journey to the East.
As often happens, the empire’s adherence to lofty principles was uneven: the do-gooding impulses of the ma-baap sarkar were invariably offset by arrogance, swagger, condescension and even contempt for the subject peoples. But at least the basic architecture of modern, enlightened governance had been put in place. Independence Day is the celebration of the moment India took its larger inheritance a big step forward.


Mr. Spectacular's Bla bla bla said...

Brilliant Piece Swapan Da !! As usual.

Anonymous said...

A perfect apology for a state. A state is always beneficial even if it rapes because you get to own a "large" inheritance.

How is it any different than earlier dimwits who projected their own inferiority (aka compulsions) on the whole population.

But it is not at all surprising. Intellectuals were and will always be the apologist for any state as they can't survive without the patronages of the political thieves.

Anonymous said...

Why did so many millions enlist to fight for the Crown?

One can take this question further back in time: why did Sikhs who had just been defeated in the Second Anglo-Sikh war of 1849 stand steadfastly with the British in 1857? To ask this question is to answer it. One of the unfortunate aspects of post-Independence Indian history writing was to whitewash all that happened in India before the British showed up. And here lies the problem.

The "secularists" cannot deal with the brute hard facts of pre-British India and they have had a loose liberal "conspiracy" to completely distort the facts of Muslim rule. If you face the facts of Muslim rule, you can understand why the Sikhs or the Gurkhas (or the Rajputs) were so eager to fight for the British crown. But this is a fact that neither side wants to face. The "seculars" for obvious reasons and the "Hindu nationalists" also for obvious reasons starting with Savarkar.

We know what Muslim rule was like. Do we now want to contemplate what it would have been like to have been ruled by the French? or the Dutch? or the Portuguese? Or the Spanish? Or the Germans? Or the Italians? So there.

Anonymous said...

Dear Swapan,
A strange coincidence that I was watching the 'Making of Mahatma' again yesterday before reading your article where it was evident that for all the struggles of Gandhi, be it in South Africa or India was the underlying principles of the empire as applicable to all its subjects. This is not to deny the negative economic impacts of colonization.I currently stay in one of the gulf countries and wonder if in the absence of any such professed or actual commitment to similar principles, Gandhi or his methods would have been effective in enlisting equal rights to the expats.

Anonymous said...

Often non-congress leaders from Dalit movement, communist, jan sangh, muslim league and South Indian Social Justice movements are labelled unfairly as less nationalist than the congress leaders like Gokhale, Tagore and Nehru. Your article just reflects that all leaders across the board were a product of their times. Nobody neither congress nor others was more nationalist and freedom loving than the others.... perhaps Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his followers were an exception to the rule?

Sagar said...

Why did so many enlist? Simple. They were hard up and needed the money. This is no lose talk. A simple research to find whether the two wars were preceded by famines would confirm this.

Anonymous said...

Why did so many enlist? Simple. They were hard up and needed the money. This is no lose talk. A simple research to find whether the two wars were preceded by famines would confirm this.

This is incorrect. Punjab was not starving - Punjabi farmers had continued to do much better than people in the rest of the country (as the land was so fertile). Punjab had no famines in British times. If this theory of deprivation were true, then people from the very poorest parts of India would have made up a disproportionate number of the recruits for the (British) Indian Army (Bihar for example).

In fact, the British were very careful in recruiting heavily from the so-called "martial races" of India. Pathans, Sikhs and Gurkhas were deemed the most valuable "martial races" by far along with the Rajputs. If you were not from the "martial races", you had to be in excellent physical condition and demonstrate that you would make a good soldier. The British never believed in simply hiring cannon fodder. This is the reason that even Germans were stunned at the bravery and the discipline of the Sikh soldiers in World War I. Had the British simply recruited from the poorest people in India to serve as cannon fodder, they would have been chewed up by their Germand and/or Austrian counterparts in World War I (and also World War II). That this did not happen testifies not just to the fighting qualities of the Indian soldiers that fought but also to the ability that the British had in recruiting from the best fighting "talent" in India and honing it through superb training and also by providing it with good leadership.

We can have disagreements about whether the Empire was good or bad. But we cannot deny today that many people were ambivalent about the British leaving India. My own grandfather told me stories of the rapid increase in corruption right after the British left. He was not that unusual among educated Indians of his generation.

Vipul sharma said...

Please read this article written by a labour party activist. makes me sad to know how people want to stop a person from contributing to society.

Anonymous said...

Proclamation of 1858 is targetted at Princes/ the Indian elite and not the Indian people. The proclamation tells you how the the Indian ruling class would be chosen.

However, the preamble of the constitution is addressed to the people of India. The preamble tells as to how the people of India will live.

If the founding fathers had destroyed the instruments of state (inherited from Britain), we would have ended where Iraq ended in a post Saddam situation.

A weakness of independent India has been :
1. Creation of few (inadequate) new institutions/ instruments of state
2. Institutions are not structured to serve the people of India, but serve the interests of the state. Focus of anti-corruption efforts of the Government is on the loss to exchequer and not whether people take bribes as a consideration for decisions. This is a colonial mentality.