Colonial heritage is the model of modern India


If there is consensus across all political parties and ideologies, it is about the unflinching immorality of British rule, our colonial past and colonial legacy. All ills, from poverty to social backwardness, are attributed to the iniquitous Raj. And every action, including Amar Jawan Jyoti’s “merger” at the iconic India Gate with the nearby National War Memorial flame, is justified in the name of erasing the colonial past. Therefore, it is time that our colonial heritage – whose wickedness is assumed rather than analyzed – be rationally examined.

Reason and common sense tell us that our perception and understanding of British rule has nothing to do with its reality. All of us, from Communists and Socialists to Hindutva and Congress leaders, view it as an absolute disaster. In their scheme of things, British rule was a complete disaster with unsavory repercussions on the economy, society, arts, culture, religion, the collective psyche, in fact all spheres of life.

With eyes wide closed, we are unable to see a simple truth: the India we and the world know was made by the British. It is, however, reluctantly accepted by everyone that the British, despite all their sins, built institutions: civil service, police service, standing army, modern judicial and judicial system, rudiments of democracy, representative government, central banking, comptroller and auditor general, a good and inclusive education system, the railways, etc. But these are often dismissed as instruments to produce poorly paid clerks, further imperial designs, and perpetuate exploitation.

Our textbooks teach us how pretentious, selfish and exploitative the British imperialists were. The famous statement of Thomas Macaulay is particularly mentioned: “We must now do our best to form a class which can be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of people Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, opinion, morals and intellect.

The quote seems to expose the nefarious plot to create, in coo-love lingo, “a comprador class”, the quislings and Jaichands who bowed down to their imperial masters. Sanskaris particularly hate this class; they even coined terms like Macaulay-putra and Macaulay-putri.

But neither jingoist and doctrinal miasma nor semantic innovation can alter the fact that Macaulay was one of those Britons who prepared the model for modern India. It is the educational system he designed that is predominant not only in India but also in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The political, literary and scientific elites – in fact the entire intelligentsia – of the three countries are imbued with the Macaulayan system.

Same with our justice system. Almost single-handedly, Macaulay created the Indian Penal Code over a century and a half ago. In Pakistan, it became, section by section, the Pakistani Penal Code and in Bangladesh the Bangladeshi Penal Code. Of course, it wasn’t perfect; the section on sedition was an example, as was that on adultery (now repealed). But the fact that the substantial part of the penal code was accepted by three nations of different faiths testifies to the fact that the great imperialist had the foresight to enact laws in accordance with local requirements and the modern imperative, the imperative that many of Indians have adopted.

If democracy has survived so long in India, it is thanks to the institutions that the Raj built and maintained; British rule also gave birth to modern literature and a free press that continue to strengthen democracy.

More importantly, the British brought the ideas of the Enlightenment to Indian shores, although this was mostly unintentional. They came here for profit; witnessing a political vacuum during the decline of the Mughal Empire, they became politically ambitious; thanks to their superior organization, they ended up governing the country. The result, in any case, is that they sowed the seeds of modernity in India.

That’s not to say the Raj was without its drawbacks; no one, not even conservative British historians like Niall Ferguson, denies the plunder, rapacity and cruelty of many conquerors. However, that was how the world was at that time. It must be mentioned here, however, that the Britons were not as depraved as the conquerors who preceded them; unlike Abdali and other Muslim invaders, the British did not enslave and sell women. Again, unlike their Muslim predecessors who left behind only tombs and kitchens, the British, in the words of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, created and shaped “all that was good and alive in us” .

In this context, vitriolic hatred for British rule is irrational, somewhat racist. Worse still, it results in outlandish statements, a lack of respect for convention, and wayward decision-making. In April 2010, Congress leader and former Union minister Jairam Ramesh called convocation robes at universities “barbaric colonial relics”. His party colleague, Shashi Tharoor, blames the British for the caste system.

The saffron establishment, for its part, wants to tear up — even literally — everything it sees as colonial legacy. This is why Amar Jawan Jyoti has been “fused” with the National War Memorial flame.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.



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