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.
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.