Indians, it is often said, have the disconcerting habit of tailoring their views to suit the listener, especially if he/she happens to be powerful or influential. I don’t know if that charge can be levelled against the 1st Baron Sinha of Raipur, a man who conformed to the highest ideal of empire citizenship. Asked by the vicereine, Lady Minto, of the possible consequences of a British departure from India, Lord Sinha replied insouciantly: “If the English left India today in a body, we should have to telegraph to Aden and get them to return as fast as they could, for in a couple of days India would be in chaos.”
Nor was the Bengali peer showering Britons with excessive flattery. Around the same time, Gopal Krishna Gokhale remarked quite matter-of-factly: “The attainment of a democratic form of self-government depends upon the average strength in character and capacity of our people as a whole, and that is far below the British average.” It was a perspective that was even shared by Rabindranath Tagore. In 1923, he answered the same question Lady Minto had posed to Lord Sinha some 15 years earlier: “What should we do if, for any reason, England was driven away? We should simply be victims for other nations.”
That enlightened Indians entertained doubts — at least until the mid-1930s — of India’s ability to replace British rule with something more worthwhile may come as a surprise to a generation that has been nurtured on a diet of over-mythologized nationalism. Maybe in the immediate aftermath of a troubled passage to Independence, some robust flag-waving was necessary to instil self-confidence and a sense of modern nationhood into India. But the passage of 66 years, while a mere speck in the traditional Hindu sense of the yug, is sufficient time for a more rounded and less emotive assessment of two historical currents. First, there has to be an appreciation that the passage to self-government and independence was far more contested than today’s India cares to admit. Second, that the modern Indian state matured and even prospered because the larger philosophy that propelled the British empire in India was left relatively undisturbed. In the world’s largest subject nation, ‘post-colonial’, quite mercifully, didn’t involve too much of a rupture.
The first assertion is relatively non-contentious. Even after 1947, a spirited debate over whether India ‘won’ freedom or benefited from a mere ‘transfer of power’ has agitated intellectuals and political activists. At one level, the issue of an outright victory against a cowering British lion is spurious. Even Winston Churchill, who watched with “deep grief… the clattering down of the British Empire” in 1947, was compelled to admit in a moving speech to the House of Commons on March 6, 1947 that a war-weary Britain had lost the will to persevere with the empire. “Many have defended Britain against her foes,” he lamented, “None can defend her against herself.” At the same time, Churchill cited the voluntary enlistment of more than three million Indians into the British army during World War II, in spite of the fierce opposition of the Congress and the ambivalence of the Muslim League, to suggest that “loyalty to Britain and all that Britain stood for in their lives” counted more than the grandstanding of the “men of straw” who would inherit India.
Churchill was echoing the sentiments of Lord Curzon, another great advocate of empire, who celebrated the fact that more than a million Indians enlisted to fight for the king-emperor in the Great War of 1914-18. “Why are these men coming? What has induced them to volunteer to take part in the fighting?” he asked. “They are thousands of miles away. They cannot hear the thunder or see the smoke of the guns. Their frontiers have not been crossed, their homes are not in jeopardy. They are not our kith and kin; no call of the blood appeals to them. Is it not clear that they are coming because the Empire means something to them?”
Whether it “speaks to them of justice, of righteousness, of mercy, and of truth”, as Curzon believed, or suggested a traditional respect for authority is an issue that can be debated. But the larger questions raised by the former viceroy are calculated to make those who believe that the 190 years after Plassey was a period of monstrous oppression and national humiliation squirm with embarrassment. However much it offends contemporary sensibilities, the fact that British rule was also seen as a force for good and a much-needed respite from post-Moghul chaos and anarchy cannot be seriously doubted.
Acknowledging this simple truth doesn’t necessarily make our ancestors lesser beings who colluded in the national humiliation of the motherland. It suggests that there are serious limitations of viewing the past through the prism of the present and being judgmental. Those who welcomed Lord Clive into their Durga Pujas, endorsed the suppression of the 1857 uprising, flaunted their Rai Bahadur and knighthoods but subsequently joined the clamour for self-rule had their own compulsions.
One of these compulsions was the appreciation of the fact that the British empire in India rapidly transformed itself from being the vehicle of greedy, self-serving merchants into a self- professed trusteeship. Re-reading the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 in the 21st century, it is difficult to not appreciate the nobility and grandeur of the empire’s mission statement. Indeed, apart from the addition of self-government through representative institutions which entered the lexicon of the raj after Sir Edwin Montagu’s declaration of 1917, the spirit of the Queen’s Proclamation can be said to have been faithfully reproduced in the Preamble of India’s 1950 Constitution.
The implications of this are worth considering. That India, among all the former colonies which secured independence after World War II, has an unbroken record of democratic governance is often a source of bewilderment to outsiders. This is particularly so because India, unlike, say, Britain, the United States of America and maybe Holland, didn’t possess indigenous institutions that acted as a deterrent to autocracy. There was no Magna Carta, no Glorious Revolution, no Bill of Rights and not even professional guilds. Even sympathetic officials such as Lord Ronaldshay felt that, apart from the loose bonds of the Hindu faith, there was little in India to nurture common citizenship. Indeed, Montagu’s 1917 announcement of a gradual transition to self-government was greeted with deep scepticism, prompting Lionel Curtis of Round Table fame to wonder, “How much scope can you give people to hurt themselves without destroying the fabric of government altogether?” Curiously, this is a question that is also being asked today.
In hindsight, it would seem that the sceptics underestimated the larger consequences of a system of government which, in spite of its duplicitous imperfections, injected the principle that political power in the colonies, particularly those with “antique civilisations”, was a trust for the benefit of the native populations. Along with the rule of law and, subsequently, representative government, trust added a new dimension to modern statecraft in India. And this ‘duty’ to India was dinned into the minds of the ICS recruits as they embarked on their journey to the East.
As often happens, the empire’s adherence to lofty principles was uneven: the do-gooding impulses of the ma-baap sarkar were invariably offset by arrogance, swagger, condescension and even contempt for the subject peoples. But at least the basic architecture of modern, enlightened governance had been put in place. Independence Day is the celebration of the moment India took its larger inheritance a big step forward.