A nationalistic upsurge in rhetoric about India’s struggle for freedom from Britain is mainly for domestic political purposes, writes LK Sharma. Britons need not worry
Gone but not forgotten. The British Empire is no more, but Britain continues to live in India’s popular imagination. Sixty-nine years after the Union Jack was replaced by India’s national flag, the former colonial master is being remembered while celebrating the anniversary of India’s independence. Significantly, bouquets, not just brickbats, have been offered to Britain.
The current outbreak of nationalism in India has not led to any bashing of Britain, although it momentarily swayed a Star Sports TV commentator covering the India-Britain women’s hockey match at the Olympic Games in Rio. He shouted that it was time for India to avenge 200 years of British rule. Time to settle scores for the Kohinoor diamond, perhaps?
In India, the official celebration of the independence anniversary is more extensive and of longer duration. Nationalism is going to be an issue in some coming state assembly elections, with Modi Government ministers going from state to state holding the Indian Tricolour high. Radio and TV channels are telling the stories of the freedom movement with greater gusto, but the Gandhian freedom fighters describe their frequent jail terms and violence by the British police without bitterness, even though their accounts of sacrifices highlight a more cruel and repressive side of British rule.
That era is over, but it still divides India’s political establishment, a division which has become sharper since BJP leader Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. If the role of the revolutionaries and leaders such as Subhash Chandra Bose in the freedom struggle is being highlighted, it is partly with a view to diminishing the legacy of Congress, currently in opposition in Parliament. Congress leaders like to point out that the ideological forerunners of the BJP and its mentor, the RSS, had ‘collaborated’ with the British during some crucial phases of the freedom struggle, led by Congress.
References to British rule keep cropping up in the course of political debate. In his Independence Day speech, Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said the people of his state were being treated by the Central Government as ‘half-citizens’ (because the elected Government of Delhi enjoys only limited powers). Delhi, he said, had regressed to British times, when people chose their representatives, but the representatives had no powers. He compared the situation to that in 1935, when the British introduced this farcical system.
Even when Modi was condemning Pakistan’s repression in Balochistan, a British angle was discovered. Indian media reported that historical accounts showed Balochistan remained independent even after the formation of Pakistan. It was two British officers posted there who staged a ‘coup’ that facilitated the merger of Balochistan with Pakistan.
Away from the field of international affairs and politics, the pre-independence Swadeshi movement (boycott of British goods) is being enlisted by a leading maker of consumer products. The Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev, whose company makes hundreds of items of daily needs, is using Swadeshi as a marketing tool to challenge the multinationals selling soaps, shampoo, toothpaste, beauty creams and biscuits in India.
Running a massive advertising campaign for his Patanjali brand, Baba Ramdev blames the multinationals for sucking out India’s wealth. He even cites the East India Company, whose name reminds generations of Indians of the treachery of those who came as traders and became rulers. Although modern Indians are not troubled by such memories, or swayed by the Swadeshi rhetoric, they are impressed by the businessman’s campaign against items suffused with harmful chemicals. Patanjali goods are doing so well that in a very short period, Baba Ramdev has been outstandingly successful. As for the East India Company, it has nothing more to lose: it now exists only in Britain, and that too only in name.
In any case, it did not take long for Indians to forget Gandhi’s call to use Swadeshi goods and boycott British textiles. More recently, economic liberalisation has fuelled the aspirations of well-to-do Indians, and distinctions in the marketplace between Indian and foreign goods have become irrelevant.
Talk of self-reliance became unfashionable, even in the Government, and adverse references to multinationals have ceased to figure in the official policy documents.
And despite all the evocations of India’s freedom movement lately, it would be a mistake to believe that they have created any anti-British feeling. On the contrary, India’s cultural elite continue to show their attachment to the English ethos and British institutions. Builders in India find it easier to sell apartments named ‘Berkeley’ rather than Shanti Kuteer, for example, while walls in town and villages are hand-painted with advertisements for ‘Oxford English Classes’, many promising young Indians that they can ‘Learn English in 10 Days’.
Britain is often held up too as a positive example in political debate. Editors and commentators have pointed out that the law of sedition was abolished in Britain, and want the Government of India to scrap this colonial-era relic, used in recent months against many protesting or dissenting citizens.
Meanwhile, the British judicial system was applauded by no less than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India, in his Independence Day speech. He said the British system did not ignore the principle that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’, unlike the Indian one, where court cases drag on for decades. Over-worked judges are unable to cope with the thick pile of pending cases, according to the Chief Justice, who criticised the Government for neglecting the appointment of more judges.
On Independence Day, the general secretary of Modi’s party, Ram Madhav, also remembered Britain. He wrote an article beginning with Winston Churchill’s comment: ‘If independence is granted to India, power will go to the heads of rascals. Rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low caliber… They will fight among themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India.’
Ram Madhav said with a degree of candour: ‘We do find several of those things in our country; but they happen as much in the UK or any other democracy. He quickly clarified that ‘we are not rascals, rogues, freebooters (as alleged by Churchill); neither are the people of the UK’. That welcome clarification shows that when India celebrates 70 years of independence from Britain next year, the mutual memories will mostly be favourable, whatever the day-to-day rhetoric.
L K Sharma, a journalist for more than four decades, was European Correspondent of The Times of India, based in London, and reported from Washington as Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. He edited three volumes on innovations in India, and has completed a work on VS Naipaul