Revisiting The British Raj
Our attempts at historical revisionism must cover not just ancient and medieval periods, but also look at a more balanced position regarding British rule. That would indicate a maturity that we lack right now.
O ur dim-witted, hysterical Leftist commentators are opposed to changing the name of Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi. But they never said a word when Irwin Road was changed to Baba Kharak Singh Marg and Curzon Road was converted into Kasturba Gandhi Marg. Now with due respect to the admirers of Baba Kharak Singh and Kasturba Gandhi, and definitely intending no offence to them, I would like to humbly submit that Irwin and Curzon were and continue to be more important figures in Indian history, than the worthy Baba and the worthy Ba.
The interesting thing is that Irwin was actually likable and Curzon, even when controversial, was an intelligent achiever. The former stuck his neck out and was willing to face up to the anger and scorn of the nauseated Churchill by parleying on equal terms with a “half-naked fakir”, who just happened to be the undisputed giant among the leaders of India. Signing the Gandhi-Irwin pact was another courageous act as it gave a signal to the diehard British conservatives in India and back home, that the Raj indeed had to deal with Indian aspirations not from a superior position, but from an equal one.
Curzon literally saved India’s archeological treasures. His Preservation of Ancient Monuments Act is an extraordinary tribute by a conquering government to the heritage of a conquered people who had a past worth being proud of, worth preserving. Curzon can be seen as a precursor of the UNESCO. He was five decades ahead of his times. Trying to erase memories of Curzon and Irwin has been a shameful act on the part of free India.
The post-1947 discourse in India, which set out to relentlessly denigrate the Raj, has resulted in disastrous consequences apropos the quality and nature of intellectual debates in our country and this in turn has led to quite a few completely non-constructive social and political fallouts. The biggest tragedy has been that we have been denied the opportunity of building upon a sensible conservative intellectual tradition. Consider one of the repeated arguments made by Leftists that the Hindutva followers (the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS) did not participate in the so-called “freedom struggle”. This is a criticism completely without meaning. Because, funnily enough, many did not support Gandhi’s call for the British to “Quit India” or the young Nehru’s “Poorna Swaraj” call in Lahore. And these opponents were not only Hindu Mahasabha folks. Ambedkar not only opposed the Congress’ Non-Cooperation and Quit India movements, he was actually a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council throughout the Quit India days. Tej Bahadur Sapru was in favour of a continued British connection for India, as were Ramaswami Aiyar, Srinivasa Shastri, Biren Mitter, C.H. Bhabha, Mirza Ismail, Jadunath Sarkar, Ramaswamy Naicker, Cornelia Sorabji, Sankaran Nair, Akbar Hydari, Jyotiba Phule, Ramaswami Mudaliar, M.R. Jayakar and many more. C. Rajagopalachari supported Non-Cooperation, but opposed Quit India. All of these persons individually and collectively represented an authentic Indian intellectual and political conservative tradition. Just because leftwing NCERT textbooks ignore Irwin and Curzon and downplay their Indian friends, does not make either group unimportant.
Of course, the JNU coterie of Leftists who call themselves historians, routinely play down the fact that our comrade friends opposed Gandhi throughout and the Quit India movement in particular. Their behaviour had nothing to do with intellectual convictions or political judgment. They were merely stooges of the Comintern and puppets of the murderous Stalin. They responded to their master’s command like Pavlovian dogs, underlining the fact that Pavlov was a favourite of the Soviet tyrant! Perhaps it is just as well that the Leftist fiction writers (historians) downplay the repeated foreign control over the treacherous comrades.
One significant reason for the attachment of many of the leaders and intellectuals to a continuing British connection stemmed from their deep understanding that gradual political change was better than an abrupt one. Looking at the millions killed due to Mountbatten’s abrupt pulling of the plug, who can say that they were wrong? One can in fact argue that Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong benefited from a longer British connection which ratcheted down more slowly. If nothing else, they did not descend into the trap of autarkic dirigiste state socialism, which ensured that our self-imposed Permit-Licence Raj suppressed Indian citizens in the economic sphere much more than the departing British Raj, dooming us to poor economic performance and to having the largest population of poor in the world to this day.
Even social radicals like Phule, Naicker and Ambedkar were in favour of legislative change. They did not favour violent revolutionary change. Ambedkar went on to make sure that the Burkean vision was enshrined in the Indian Constitution when he consciously decided to use the Government of India Act of 1935 as its foundation, both in broad terms and with respect to a host of details. Ambedkar doubtless was acutely aware that the GOI Act was one of the legislative glories of the British Parliament. More importantly, the social radicals were in the same corner as upper crust conservatives in believing that the British Raj was not an unadulterated evil, but in fact did result in a positive release of creative energies in India. This view goes back all the way to Rammohan Roy who viewed prolonged British rule as a necessity or there to be an overdue renaissance in India. The conservative Hindu position evolved in part from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s insight in Ananda Math that British rule was providential in order for Hindus to recover from civilizational decline associated with defeat and conquest by Muslims. It is this point of view that the conservatives in the Hindu Mahasabha embraced.
Whether one agrees with Bankim’s ideas or not, one must concede that the Hindu Mahasabha’s approach to World War II was in some sense far-sighted. The British were actively recruiting Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen. The HMS saw this as an opportunity that was at last being given to a people who had been consciously disarmed for long. The situation was aggravated as the Muslim League and the Punjab Unionists were encouraging their followers to join up. If everyone went along with the anti-war position of the Congress, there was a clear risk that at Independence, the number of Hindus in the armed forces would be woefully low.
Luckily, this did not happen and we had enough soldiers and airmen to fight in Kashmir in 1948. It is also significant to note that many who joined the officer corps during World War II went on to become seniors and chiefs in the Indian armed forces. So perhaps “cooperating” with the British was a pretty smart move after all! A simplistic anti-British position and a criticism of anyone who did not toe the Congress line in all ways, misses out on nuances of this kind.
If we are today planning to make an attempt at presenting Indian history in a more nuanced way in our schools and in our public discourse, perhaps one can make the point that while there may very well have been an active “freedom struggle”, an equally strong case can be made, as argued by Meghnad Desai, that in fact what we had was a series of actions from Whitehall and legislations from Westminster whose logical culmination was the India Independence Act of 1947. The Regulating Act and the Pitt India Act of the 18th century laid the foundation. The simple and fortuitous detail of making the Governor of Bengal, the Governor General and having the Governors of the Bombay and Madras Presidencies reporting to him, deserves a great deal of attention. This was the beginning of the administrative unity of India. If this had not happened, the map of our sub-continent could and would have been radically different from what we have today.
The most significant event of the 19th century was the Queen’s Proclamation which guaranteed religious freedom and equality in the eyes of law to all Indians. That government actions were not always informed by these ideals, does not detract from its epochal significance. The 20th century witnessed reasonably febrile action virtually every decade, almost consciously charting a path to convert the Raj’s subjects into citizens of a free country. The Minto-Morley reforms, the admission of India as a participant at the same level of importance as Canada, South Africa and Australia at the Peace Conference in Versailles, dyarchy under the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, the entry of Indian athletes as a separate team at the Olympic Games, the induction of Indian officers (albeit a limited number) into the army, and the semi-finals represented by provincial autonomy under the Government of India Act of 1935—despite setbacks (think of the Rowlatt Act)—these and other related events can be viewed almost as a systematic linear development.
On similar lines, we can and we should look at Indian leaders and organizations through more sophisticated lenses. Not all who saw some positives in British rule, who were in favour of tactical cooperation with the British or who thought that a longer term British connection as being desirable were wicked and unpatriotic. The positives of British rule were not just about railways, post offices, telegraph lines and cartographic surveys, although it should be noted that in 1947, we had a far bigger and far more sophisticated railway system than China. It was also about the absorption by Indians that the ideals of the Magna Carta had no racial restrictions and could be and should be incorporated into India’s own traditions producing a sui generis democracy. The economic liberals who believed that Indian entrepreneurship could prosper not only in India, but follow the British flag into East Africa and Burma represent one section of those who were positively disposed towards British rule. Many are not aware that the Bombay Stock Exchange is the oldest in Asia, older even than the Tokyo Stock exchange. The irony is that in 1989, an Indian businessman actually told this writer that his grandfather had greater freedom to operate and more positive government support than he had. In fact, rather than support, he faced active hostility and multiple hindrances from our own government!
The social radicals believed that British rule and the egalitarian principles that the British espoused (albeit with limitations when it came to their own sense of racial superiority) could become the basis of making fundamental changes in the hierarchical traditions that burdened us. The Hindu conservatives believed that British rule had opened up for them opportunities in education, in professions, in commerce, in politics and in the free practice of their religion which had been earlier circumscribed. The political constitutionalists believed that step-by-step movement towards dominion status a la Canada or Australia would in fact lead to stable and sober outcomes. They may have also secretly cherished the hope that the imperial connection would ensure that India would not slip into autarky, but would creatively engage with the English-speaking world.
Even the “non-cooperative” Gandhi, while in the middle of the Round Table Conference deliberations, made the British an astonishing offer: India would give the British privileged tariff access (and restrict Japanese imports), if the British moved faster on Indian demands. The votary of Swadeshi turned out to be a votary of negotiated international trade also! This only goes to show that Barrister Gandhi was in some measure a conservative.
Net-net, it is time that our attempts at historical revisionism cover not just ancient and medieval periods. We must look at a more balanced position apropos British rule. The naïve Leftist position about the evils of imperialism, needs to be questioned. Equally, their dismissal of all collaborators (the strategic ones as well as the tactical ones) as traitorous compradors, amounts to a meaningless and wrong-headed analysis. It is by understanding the intellectual legacies of these individuals, who were as patriotic as any of the non-cooperators, that we can arrive at a meaningful understanding of a vibrant Indian conservative tradition. And such an understanding is needed in order to strengthen today’s conservatism.
The excessive sensitivity our present government has shown to the criticism that they are a “suit-boot” government clearly demonstrates the risk. It is only a robust conservative who will be able to proudly stand up for suit-boot and dhoti-turban at the same time, and ensure that the debate does not get derailed.
The author is the former CEO of MphasiS, and was head of Citibank’s Global Technology Division. He is currently the Executive Chairman of Value and Budget Housing Corporation (VBHC), an affordable housing venture. Rao is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Swarajya.
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