In­dia’s Raj

While Bri­tain con­tin­ues to have a prom­i­nent pres­ence in South Asia, it must re­de­fine its role in the re­gion to make the re­la­tion­ship more fruit­ful and pro­duc­tive.

Southasia - - Cover story - By Semu Bhatt

The seeds of mod­ern In­dia were sown dur­ing the Bri­tish Raj, not­with­stand­ing the fact that the process was set in to fa­cil­i­tate Em­pire’s trade and to pro­long its rule. The coun­try was made into a sin­gle ad­min­is­tra­tive unit un­der a legal sys­tem ap­pli­ca­ble through­out that unit. The de­vel­op­ment of mod­ern trans­porta­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and canal net­works un­der the Bri­tish rule were the foun­da­tion stones of mod­ern In­dian in­fra­struc­ture and econ­omy that en­hanced in­ter­nal trade and mo­bil­ity and ini­ti­ated the process of ur­ban­iza­tion. Laws were passed abol­ish­ing so­cial evils like “satee” (im­mo­la­tion of a widow on her hus­band’s fu­neral pyre), child mar­riages, slave busi­ness and hu­man sac­ri­fices; women ed­uca- tion and widow re­mar­riages were en­cour­aged. The idea of na­tional me­dia also emerged dur­ing that colo­nial era – mod­eled on the then Bri­tish me­dia gi­ants.

West­ern science, health­care and the mod­ern ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that were in­tro­duced in In­dia by the Bri­tish, con­se­quently went on to cre­ate a pro­gres­sive out­look to­wards life amongst In­di­ans, and a high in de­mand pool of In­dian doc­tors, sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers. In­tro­duc­tion of the English lan­guage went on to be­come a com­mon link that fa­cil­i­tated ex­change of ideas in the multi-lin­gual pop­u­lace. To­day, English-pro­fi­ciency has cre­ated mil­lions of jobs for the In­dian youth and brought in bil­lions worth of out­sourc­ing busi­ness to the coun­try. In­de­pen- dent In­dia re­tained and cap­i­tal­ized on many Bri­tish in­sti­tu­tions like the legal sys­tem, bu­reau­cracy and po­lice ser­vices; con­cepts like the rule of law and the Par­lia­men­tary sys­tem were in­spired by the Bri­tish Con­sti­tu­tion. In fact, var­i­ous laws formed un­der the Bri­tish rule are still in ef­fect with some mod­i­fi­ca­tions.

While on the one hand, his­tory books in school tell us about the strug­gle for In­dian In­de­pen­dence and the atroc­i­ties of the Bri­tish­ers; on the other hand, the same books men­tion the nu­mer­ous pro­cesses of mod­ern­iza­tion un­der the same Bri­tish rule. The young stu­dents of to­day, whose grand­par­ents were prob­a­bly born just be­fore or af­ter in­de­pen­dence, are hardly emo­tion­ally at­tached to the whole saga of free­dom

fight. They as­sess the ac­com­plish­ments and am­bi­tions pre and post 1947 in a rather clin­i­cal man­ner. Sixty plus years is a long time to as­sess what has come out of the fa­mous “tryst with des­tiny.”

The re­al­i­ties of In­dia in 1947 and 2011 have some strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties and stark con­trasts. The spread and suc­cess of vi­brant democ­racy amongst a poor, il­lit­er­ate, di­verse pop­u­la­tion is the sin­gle big­gest achieve­ment of In­de­pen­dent In­dia. Con­trary to the obit­u­ar­ies writ­ten about it, In­dia nei­ther dis­in­te­grated nor slid into an­ar­chy. The Union formed through in­te­gra­tion of var­i­ous princely states, stayed to­gether un­der a “unity in di­ver­sity” ethos and a sec­u­lar Con­sti­tu­tion de­spite the mul­ti­plic­ity of cul­tures, eth­nic­ity, re­li­gions and lan­guages. Yet, suc­cess of the great In­dian ex­per­i­ment with democ­racy em­pow­ered peo­ple in prin­ci­ple, but shar­ing of power stayed sig­nif­i­cantly un­equal – just like the old days when only those in the good books of the Em­pire had power.

The dreaded famines ceased to re­turn thanks to the Green Revo­lu­tion that en­sured self suf­fi­ciency in food grains; but farmer sui­cides go on till date. Ed­u­ca­tion has fi­nally found its way into the Con­sti­tu­tion as a fun­da­men­tal right of ev­ery child in the coun­try, but the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion re­mains ques­tion­able. The in­sti­tutes of higher ed­u­ca­tion like In­dian In­sti­tutes of Man­age­ment (IIMs) pro­duce world best man­age­ment grad­u­ates in a half il­lit­er­ate coun­try, while the ed­u­ca­tion to mil­i­tary ex­pen­di­ture ra­tio stays more or less in the same zone as it was un­der the Bri­tish rule. Ex­cel­lent med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties in met­ros prompt the idea of med­i­cal tourism; how­ever, the gen­eral health care fa­cil­i­ties in ru­ral ar­eas re­main ex­tremely poor. The ro­bust eco­nomic growth pro­duces more bil­lion­aires a year than any other coun­try in the world, but In­dia con­tin­ues to be home to one-third of the world’s poor; so while an In­dian boasts of liv­ing in the costli­est house of the world, mil- lions of In­di­ans don’t have a ce­mented roof on their heads.

Gand­hiji had once said that In­dia would cut off from the Bri­tish Em­pire, not the Bri­tish Nation. Alas, the um­bil­i­cal cord to the Em­pire is still not sev­ered com­pletely. The Bri­tish Raj legacy of di­vide and rule and fill­ing cof­fers of those in power at the cost of poor In­di­ans, have been re­tained by many po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and par­ties. In the mad race to gain power, iden­tity pol­i­tics is get­ting nar­rower, thereby erod­ing the so­cial fab­ric and co­he­sive­ness of the coun­try. Reser­va­tions, de­mands for new states based on lan­guage, hooli­gan­ism against peo­ple from other states, com­mu­nally in­flam­ma­tory re­marks...it is all done in the name of the game, which is pol­i­tics. Ram­pant corruption at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment loots the pub­lic ex­che­quer of amounts that can al­le­vi­ate poverty in no time. Elected mem­bers of gov­ern­ment and gov­ern­ment bod­ies stick to their chairs de­spite hav­ing ex­posed of in­dulging in crores worth of scams. The sit­u­a­tion is so bad that no work gets done quickly in pub­lic of­fices with­out bribe or in­flu­ence; graft has come to achieve the sta­tus of a nec­es­sar­ily evil amongst the masses.

Thus, while on the one hand In­dia is tak­ing gi­ant strides in the global econ­omy and stature by be­com­ing an IT su­per­power and one of the fastest grow­ing economies; on the other, it is pulled down by moral bank­ruptcy of po­lit­i­cal par­ties and ram­pant cor- rup­tion and poverty. In­dia ac­tu­ally is turn­ing a full cir­cle by once again be­com­ing “the golden spar­row” of the pre-Bri­tish Raj days, which was one of the wealth­i­est parts of the world but with a pop­u­la­tion that was di­vided along the lines of caste, re­li­gion, lan­guage and state, and was in­ter­ested only in pre­serv­ing its nar­row self in­ter­est. And more and more the re­al­iza­tion is set­ting in that in­stead of build­ing an In­dian Nation our great grand­par­ents had as­pired for when we were un­der the Union Jack, we in­stead are build­ing an In­dian Raj un­der the Tri­colour.

In the mean­while, given In­dia’s grow­ing eco­nomic clout in the world and its prized po­si­tion as the world’s largest democ­racy in the shift­ing sands of geopol­i­tics that is mov­ing to­wards mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism, the Bri­tish nation has once again found the wis­dom in Lord Cur­zon’s fa­mous words: “While we hold on to In­dia, we are a first-rate power. If we lose In­dia, we will de­cline to a third-rate power.” Of course, since 1947, the re­la­tions be­tween the two na­tions have been mostly friendly and mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial. In­dia is one of the big­gest in­vestors and em­ploy­ers in the United King­dom, while Bri­tish for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment in In­dia stands at fourth largest. Bri­tain was the first G8 nation to sug­gest that In­dia be al­lowed to at­tend the G8 sum­mits and is an open sup­porter of In­dia’s case for the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil per­ma­nent mem­ber­ship. The shared his­tory, lan­guage, demo­cratic sys­tems and legal frame­works bol­stered by a 1.6 mil­lion strong In­dian Di­as­pora in the UK, make the part­ner­ship be­tween the two na­tions log­i­cal and unique.

It is In­dia’s emer­gence at the world level in the chang­ing global sce­nario that has made Bri­tain take it to the next level through an­nounce­ment of a “new spe­cial re­la­tion­ship” on the lines of the UK-U.S. spe­cial re­la­tion­ship. In­dia, be­ing wooed by many at this point in time, is view­ing this pro­posal as just one of the many good strate­gic

part­ner­ships it en­joys with the out­side world. This dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the fu­ture of Indo-Bri­tish re­la­tion­ship sug­gests that the spe­cial friend­ship is a much big­ger as­pi­ra­tion for the lat­ter than the for­mer.

The in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of Indo-Bri­tish co­op­er­a­tion in the past cou­ple of years is re­flected not only in trade, en­vi­ron­men­tal or cul­tural ex­changes, but also in de­fense ties, counter terrorism and in­tel­li­gence co­op­er­a­tion. While these are strong ba­sis for a solid strate­gic part­ner­ship, the pos­si­bil­ity of shap­ing of an ex­tra­or­di­nary re­la­tion­ship would call for novel diplo­matic strate­gies from Bri­tain. For one, it can con­sol­i­date its po­si­tion as one of the big­gest aid donors to In­dia by as­sist­ing the coun­try more as­sertively in achiev­ing its Millennium De­vel­op­ment Goals.

Se­condly, it can build on the com­mon­al­ity of Indo-Bri­tish world­view vis-à-vis terrorism, with the se­cu­rity ma­chiner­ies of the two coun­tries co­op­er­at­ing to put up a united stand against terrorism at a global level. Thirdly, it can fa­cil­i­tate In­dia’s en­try into the in­ter­na­tional sys­tems. But more than any­thing else, the emer­gence of an ex­cep­tional re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two coun­tries de­pends on how much Bri­tain can stick out its neck for In­dia. David Cameron’s crit­i­cism of Pak­istan con­cern­ing terrorism dur­ing his visit to In­dia last year was an in­di­ca­tor that he is will­ing to take that ex­tra step to ca­jole In­dia. How­ever, it will re­quire a lot more to show that In­dia can con­sider Bri­tain as a de­pend­able, all-weather part­ner.

In the 21st cen­tury, touted as the Asian cen­tury, Bri­tain can greatly ben­e­fit from In­dia’s ex­cep­tional eco­nomic growth, if it carves a sep­a­rate niche for it­self amongst many of the In­dia woo­ers. What Bri­tain needs is to re­de­fine its role apro­pos In­dia to be­come – a ge­nial guide who watches over and sup­ports In­dia’s baby steps into the global power league; a de­ter­mined guardian who thrusts for pos­i­tive trans­for­ma­tion of In­dia’s bil­lion plus pop­u­la­tion; and a de­mand­ing guru who con­stantly re­minds In­dia of the val­ues In­dian nation was to be formed on. The writer is a Mum­bai-based in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst spe­cial­iz­ing in se­cu­rity and gov­er­nance is­sues. She is co-au­thor of ‘Cost of Con­flict be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan’ and ‘Cost of Con­flict in Sri Lanka.

Over the years, In­dia has en­joyed cor­dial

re­la­tions with Bri­tain.

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