The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Even if the British were philistines, they were gentlemen

Some years ago, I suggested in these columns that the cultured elite of Bengal were prone to be dual-nationals. Once upon a time they used to be Bengali and British, but more recently they had taken to being Bengali and Russian, or Bengali and Cuban, or Bengali and Chinese. My tease was meant to provoke, and it did, with letters of protest descending upon Prafulla Sarkar Street and flooding my own mail box.

I now have a confession to report. I too am a dual-national, a citizen of India who is nonetheless an admirer of British ideas and British institutions. Brown on the skin, white inside, I am a paid up member of the Coconut Club of which the late Nirad C. Chaudhuri was the founder president.

What do I admire about the British' I can do worse than quote a dead Coconut once as highly esteemed as Nirad babu himself. This was Frank Moraes, an Oxford graduate who went on to edit both The Times of India and The Indian Express, and whose many books include an important study of Jawaharlal Nehru. In his autobiography, Witness to an Era, Moraes writes: “What did England give me' Primarily, I think, a sense of tolerance combined with a habit of evaluation which, while enabling one to listen to the other man’s point of view, did not necessarily imply that one accepted it. I suppose this attitude of mind really adds up to democracy. England also taught me to recognize the importance of standards in human relationship and individual conduct which in a way spells civilization. I think the most valuable gift England gave me was a sense of proportion.”

Unlike the French and the Germans, the English are a profoundly non-ideological people. Their empirical and pragmatic cast of mind allows them to assess things as they are, not as they theoretically should be. Even though it was an English writer, Sir Thomas More, who coined the term “utopia”, their later political practice has been emphatically anti-utopian. They have brought about social change through slow, incremental methods, by negotiation and compromise, rather than by attempting rapid reorganization from above. Their spirit of tolerance has meant that dissent and opposition have been tolerated and even encouraged. This is why their political history has been far less violent than that of France, Germany, Russia or the United States of America.

What then of the British experience in the colonies' I am perfectly aware that as rulers the British could be very insensitive and arrogant. In India they showed little interest in the glories of our art, our architecture, our food, and our music. (Macaulay, while in Calcutta, was disgusted by the “stench of the native food and the sound of the native music”.) But while they were philistines, they were also gentlemen. When faced with irrefutable evidence of the damage done by their rule they had to retreat. When told that justice did not mean democracy at home and autocracy abroad they set in motion the process of decolonization. It helped that, on the other side, their adversaries were gentlemen too. Such as Mahatma Gandhi, who preached the “beauty of compromise”, a credo he had learnt from his mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who, in turn, got it from the British Liberal thinker, John Morley. (Morley’s tract, On Compromise, was translated into Gujarati and Marathi in the late 19th century.)

The great Bengali writer, Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, once published a marvellous alternate history of India, a history “as seen in a dream”, which speculated on what might have been if the British had not conquered the sub-continent. Bhudev assumed that in such an eventuality, Indians would have ruled themselves. In truth, there was no earthly chance of this happening. The choice was between the French, the Dutch, the Portugese and the British. I, for one, have no regrets that it was the British who succeeded. Think of the brutality of the Dutch occupation of Indonesia, or of the Portugese colonization of coastal Africa. I know that there are some bhadralok thinkers, reared on the films of Truffaut or the novels of Camus, who believe that it would have been better for us to have been ruled by France. To them I shall only quote the words of the Vietnamese nationalist, Ho Chi-Minh: “If Mahatma Gandhi had been fighting the French, he would have given up non-violence within a week.” This is why our nationalist struggle spilled far less blood than did the Vietnamese one, and why our post-colonial relationship with Britain is so much more pleasant than that of the Indonesians with the Dutch or the Algerians with the French.

When confronted with principled opposition from the “natives”, British colonialists became insecure and uncomfortable. Their task was not made any easier by anti-imperialists at home. Leader writers in Washington and New York are fond of drawing parallels between the American imperium of today and the Pax Brittanica of the 19th century. They gloss over one fundamental difference: the fact that when it was at its pomp, British imperialism had to contend with influential dissenters from within. Bishops, lords, members of parliament, editors of major newspapers — these were among the kinds of people who demanded that the British quit their colonies (their work is described by A.J.P. Taylor in his book, The Trouble-Makers). The anti-imperial Englishman was often to be found at the heart of the British establishment. By contrast, home-grown opponents of the American Empire operate at the very margins of their society. Noam Chomsky can write for an extreme left-wing weekly but never for The New York Times.

The sense of proportion manifest in British politics (at home and abroad) is manifest in their scholarship as well. This is especially true of the genres of history and biography. To be a successful historian or biographer one must be prepared to empathize, to understand from within the mind of another individual or the mentality of another society (for the past, as the British novelist L.P. Hartley famously wrote, “is a foreign country”.)

When writing about an individual or a society, one must be sensitive to the “greys”, the areas of ambiguity and uncertainty. But scholars driven by ideology are more prone to stress the black and the white. In the Continent (and in India) history is seen as a branch of social science; in Britain, as a branch of literature. Arguably, one can write good history from either perspective. But one can only write good biography if one sees it as literature. As the critic Desmond McCarthy long ago wrote, “the biographer is an artist under oath”. Not surprisingly, many of the best historians are British, and virtually all the best biographers.

Admittedly, there are several aspects of British culture that are less than appealing. Their food is execrable. Their cricketers and footballers are boring — relying as they do on fitness and hard work, rather than grace and flair. Their classical music is mediocre, as is their modern music — with the exception of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And, physiologically speaking, they are the worst looking of all the peoples of Europe.

The last is cancelled out by the glories of the British landscape. And the other deficiencies pale into insignificance when set against British achievements in literature and politics. Which is why I am happy to call myself a Coconut. I realize that this is a deeply unfashionable choice, at least for Indians of my generation, whose intellectual models come (or came) from France and Germany and political models from Russia and China.

But I sense that my choice will be even less palatable among Indians younger than myself: among those who worship America for its power and ideological cohesiveness. If Jawaharlal Nehru was the last Englishman to rule India, then I am probably the last Indian intellectual to declare himself an “Anglophile”. The thought is depressing beyond words.

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