While the 70th anniversary of Partition is marked by a cultural festival and historical reflections, questions about future relations seek an answer, writes Rita Payne
For the next few months, Britain is going to be in the grip of India fever. As India marks the 70th anniversary of Partition and independence, there will be many high-profile events celebrating a UK-Indian relationship that goes back centuries before 1947, and continues to evolve today.
Flocks of Indian politicians, writers, musicians and celebrities have been visiting the UK to talk about the cultural and intellectual treats in store for Indophiles. They included the Indian Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, Arun Jaitley, who launched the UK-Indian Year of Culture 2017 with a whirlwind tour, crammed with interactions with political and business leaders.
The high point was a reception at Buckingham Palace, hosted by the Queen. A team of about 15 chefs took over the royal kitchen to prepare a spread of close to 5,000 canapés that represented the best of both British and Indian cuisines. A specially created Indian dance was performed for the Queen and her guests.
The year-long culture-fest was jointly announced in 2015 by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his then counterpart, David Cameron, a commitment reiterated during the visit to India by Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, in November 2016. There will be exhibitions, literary events, and festivals of music and dance in the UK and India, affirming that the two nations are bound together by history and shared values of democracy, the rule of law and pluralism.
One highlight will be an Independence Gala on October 4 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, featuring everything from Indian indigenous dancers and Dindigul drummers to Scottish bagpipers and British Morris dancers. Leading artists include the renowned Indian violinist, L Subramaniam, and British soprano Christine Rice.
Dr Subramaniam will also be performing his own composition, the Bharat Symphony, with the London Symphony Orchestra. The virtuoso said it was a celebration of 70 years of Indian independence, ‘and to perform it at the Barbican with the LSO is very symbolic of the mutual respect and co-operation we’ve had, and hope to continue to have, between both cultures’.
London’s Science Museum will highlight India’s tradition of scientific thought, which long predates that of Britain and the rest of Europe. As Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group, explained: ‘India’s history and culture are built on a rich tradition of scientific thought and innovation. The stories we will be showcasing through this vibrant season not only shaped India, but had global significance.’
Running from September 2017 to May 2018, Illuminating India will centre on two exhibitions. One is an unprecedented survey of photography in India from the emergence of the medium in the 19th century to the present day. The other will trace the history of scientific thought in India from ancient times, pointing out, for example, that the mathematical concepts of zero and the decimal point originated there.
The anniversary has also spurred historians and film-makers, with India’s multi-faceted celebrity politician, former diplomat and author, Shashi Tharoor, touring Britain to promote Inglorious Empire, his damning critique of the British Raj, while the British Asian film-maker, Gurinder Chadha, released her take on the events leading up to Partition, Viceroy’s House. In the film, Hugh Bonneville, playing Britain’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, says: ‘Whatever their differences are, all Indians have one thing in common: they can’t wait to get rid of us’ – a statement that sums up Tharoor’s approach.
The master performer told sell-out audiences that India was one of the world’s richest countries until the advent of the British who, after 200 years of rule, left behind an abject and impoverished nation. He acknowledged the usual counter-arguments – that the British gave India a common language, a railway network, and so on – but said these were for their benefit, not that of Indians. The British had not lived up to their own values, being primarily motivated by self-interest.
Tharoor admitted that an element of deference for Britain remains among Indians today. For an Indian writer to be taken seriously at home, he said, their book has to be published in the UK. The reason? The British ‘colonised the minds’ of Indians, imposing the study of English literature at the expense of Indian works, though he noted that attitudes were changing, and major British publishers had now set up imprints in India.
But the historian was no kinder to the narrow nationalism which prevails in India today, recalling that the freedom movement had been inclusive, with Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees, women and diverse groups fighting for a common cause. History could teach wrong lessons, he said, citing the example of the Babri mosque, demolished by Hindu nationalists who believed it had been built on Ram’s birthplace, an event which triggered widespread Hindu-Muslim violence.
Chadha’s film also recalls an era of violence, the time of Partition. She told an audience at the House of Lords that her film was a British Asian perspective on the events, which was not the same as an Indian or Pakistani view. Viceroy’s House has not yet been released in India, where the comparatively rosy picture it presents of Lord and Lady Mountbatten may not find favour, but in Britain it has been criticised for identifying Winston Churchill as to blame for rushing into Partition, costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims. According to Chadha, documents show Mountbatten was not directly responsible for the crucial decisions which had such devastating consequences.
But it is impossible to dwell on past history without contemporary events intruding, as India’s Minister Jaitley found. During his British visit he was pursued by a flurry of questions from local Indian journalists, including one about Tharoor’s book, which demands that Britain should apologise and make reparations for its brutal exploitation of India under the Raj. Did the minister agree?
Jaitley declined to comment, but was more forthcoming about the impact on India of Britain’s exit from the European Union, especially on the service sector. ‘We have always stood for expansion,’ he said. ‘India remains one of few countries which has opened up considerably. Protectionist thinking is not on India’s agenda.’
If anything is likely to reverse the traditional relationship between Britain and India, it is Brexit. While the two countries are busily promoting shared culture and heritage, the balance of power has changed dramatically from the days of the Raj. Now it is Britain which is courting India as a growing economic force.
Shashi Tharoor was asked how long he saw the Commonwealth surviving, since it was born out of the British Empire. Indian nationalist leaders adopted the attitude of ‘forgive and forget’ when the Commonwealth was created, he replied. The Commonwealth was viable, he believed, until Britain joined the EU, when India lost its special status and became less relevant. But he thought there could be a resurgence after Brexit.
Tharoor recalled a conversation he had with the former Israeli President, Shimon Peres, who said he hated history, because ‘it only teaches you to hate’. But the writer insisted that his book should not be used as an instrument for score-settling, saying history is ‘its own revenge’.
Seventy years after Partition, India and Britain are putting the negative narrative of exploitation and colonialism behind them, instead celebrating and strengthening cultural ties. But tables have turned to the extent that it is now the UK that is desperate to trade with India, and India that is calling the tune. Tharoor’s point exactly.