Ashis Ray on a provocative book that fearlesslyvoices unorthodox views on the sensitive theme of British rule in India
In a speech at Oxford in 2005, Manmohan Singh, then Indian prime minister, remarked: ‘Today, with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian prime minister to assert that India’s experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too.’
Now Dr Kartar Lalvani – an innovator and scientist, founder and chairman of Vitabiotics, Britain’s leading producer and seller of vitamins –has taken a cue from the former PM. An observer of history who migrated to Britain from Indiaand has lived in his adopted country for over 55 years, he has written a book entitledThe Making of India: The Untold Story of British Enterprise.
‘Had I been old enough to have been an adult during the last decades of British rule, I too would have joined the struggle for independence,’writes Lalvani.Yet he is not afraid to examine the positive aspects of British rule in India, however unfashionable that might be today.
In an era in which populism reigns, this book is a remarkable effort, careless about what conformists may say, and copiously filled with facts and figures about what he calls ‘feats of public works [in India by Britain] that remain unparalleled today’. He does not deny the British ‘undoubtedly took unfair advantage of their unique position of power, more so during the period of the East India Company rule’. But, he argues, there was also a liberalism that was ‘high minded and enduring in its benefaction’.
‘It continues to sadden me,’ Lalvani records, ‘that even when I speak to my British compatriots there is an uncomfortable reluctance to speak of British rule in India.’ There is a reason for this. In the traditional British character it was considered fitting to be understated, not to trumpet one’s achievements but to let them speak for themselves. Primarily, this is why Britons of earlier generations refrained from harping on their accomplishments during the Raj.
Sir Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party opposed the independence of India tooth and nail.Churchill believed unambiguously that Britain’s withdrawal from India, and the transfer of power into Indian hands,would be a disaster, that India would disintegrate.In the end, freedom was granted by a Labour government under the premiership of Clement Attlee, and Churchill’s gloomy prediction proved unfounded.
Subsequently, over time, colonialism became a dirty word, and a large segment of the UK’s younger generation wanted to disassociate themselves from the notion of imperialism. Furthermore, the rise of India as an economic power since 1991 has attracted a degree of international respect. As a result, the last thing British governments or British businesses wish to do is to ruffle feathers by referring to British rule in India. Whitehall is noticeably conscious of the fact that exports to, and contracts and investments from, India are valuable to Britain. Given the imminence of Brexit, there is no way it would jeopardise future economic relations with India.
ButLalvani’s book correctly reflects that India was, in fact, quite disunited when the British arrived there. The writ of the Mughal emperor did not run much beyond the outskirts of Delhi, providing a symbolic umbrella over the subcontinent but not much more. The Marathas from the west had overrun most of northern India. Besides, there were several autonomous regions ruled by Maharajas, Nawabs and such like. So India was by no means a unifiedentity.
In light of this scenario, it is fair to say the British presence and role in India – their conquest of India, if you like – acted as an adhesive. A vast expanse of land mass from the borders of Afghanistan and Iran on the west to Burma on the east, from the Himalayas in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south, amalgamated into an Indian identity. But ironically, when the British conceded their control of India, the unity did not endure. Pakistan, carved out of India, came into being. Thereafter, Pakistan broke into two, with its eastern wing becoming Bangladesh.
Still, India was not left divided as compared to when the British had entered it, and the concept of India was undoubtedly enhanced duringBritain’s 190-year hegemony. The south was, for instance, incorporated into the fold, which even Emperor Aurangzeb failed to do. Yet it is also true to say Britain left India partitioned, not intact.
When matters veeredout of control under the East India Company, the British parliament, to its credit, took action to rein it in. Indeed, after the Indian mutiny of 1857, the Crown took direct charge of governing India.
A priceless residue of British rule is the English language, which has given India an advantage over its competitors. It has also helped to keep India connected, because it has remained the country’s link language. All communications between the central and state governments are conducted in English. It is the medium of science and technology, predominantly also of the internet, where India is, unsurprisingly, excelling.
All major sporting disciplines were introduced to India by Britain. In hockey, India became world champions in 1928 and continued to be invincible in every competition, including the Olympic Games, up to 1956. As for cricket, the financial hub of the game today is India, with the Twenty20 Indian Premier League, in particular, contributing significantly to the Indian economy each year.
Lalvani reels off a plethora of other overwhelming statistics to argue his point. The British, he cites, established modern education and healthcare, a judiciary, an administration, communications and infrastructure, including 136,000 bridges and 45,000 miles of railways.
Former British prime minister, Tony Blair, praised The Making of India, calling it ‘absolutely excellent; informative, well-argued and passionate’. Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, added: ‘This is a courageous and meticulously researched book.’In the foreword, erstwhile Indian cabinet minister and legendary lawyer, Ram Jethmalani, writes: ‘I fully concur with Dr Lalvani that Indians should be grateful for some of the permanent blessings of colonial rule.’
The tantalising question the author poses – thereby summarising his contention – is: ‘What would India be like today if the British had simply chosen to stay at home?’This is a book that will surely upset Indian nationalists. But they should try to analyse it instead of being abusive.