As a civilization nurtured on ethical concerns and elaborate ritualism, it is intriguing that collective bouts of introspection in India are reserved for just the two national days — August 15 and January 26. Important as these days are to India’s recent political history, their primacy over other secular commemorative occasions has not been without unintended consequences. It would almost seem that the entire history of India has been reduced to a process that began tentatively in 1885 or, if you so wish, 1857. In terms of secular public holidays, the Indian experience has been reduced to the struggle for independence. With other important occasions dubbed religious — and, therefore, regarded by the upholders of a “scientific temper” as impermissible intrusions in political life — India has been denied both a pre-history and a post-history.
The consequences of this rather limited view of our national experience are profound. For a start, there is an obsessive deification of the Mahatma. From burdening him with the inappropriate sobriquet Father of the Nation, as if there was no India before him, the country has been compelled to accept his tactical political philosophy into an article of faith. True, many of the quirkier facets of the Mahatma’s vision, including celibacy and anti-industrialization, have been quietly discarded but his overall celebration of meekness, masquerading as moral superiority, continues to overwhelm a part of the Indian mind.
The second consequence of our excessive preoccupation with the national movement is more contentious and less readily admitted. Since the struggle for freedom involved a contest with the imperial power for the political rights of Indians — and a simultaneous battle against the racist assumptions of the British raj — there is an understandable tendency to look at nearly 200 years of history as a variant of the dark ages. The disdain that greets any invocation of Empire in Bollywood’s patriotic films is indicative of a very Indian political correctness. It was this correctness that drove cosmopolitan India to ostracize Nirad C. Chaudhuri for his controversial dedication to the British Empire in his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. In fact, it is this silent dread of being dubbed a lackey that is at the heart of India’s refusal to countenance revisionist history.
The tragedy of this insidious conformism is that the baby has also been discarded with the bathwater. There was much that was wrong with the Empire. But as Niall Ferguson’s deliciously provocative Empire: How Britain made the Modern World points out in rivetting detail, a process that had its roots in piracy and plunder evolved into something more elevating. What Lord Curzon once described as “the fascination and the sacredness of India”, lured some of the best and brightest of Britain into a mission to make the Empire tick. Yes, there was the element of the white man’s burden and greed but all the debit side entries cannot wish away the fact that at least in the 90 years after 1857, India was blessed with su-raj (good government), if not swaraj (self-government).
Over the past five decades, under the veneer of a puerile anti-imperialism, there has been a contrived repudiation of this legacy. It is not the discourtesy of not saying a quiet thank you for shaping “all that was good and living within us” — Niradbabu’s defining phrase — that counts. What matters is that in turning our back on the British Empire, contemporary India also turned its back on the institution of Empire. It is this rejection of an idea that is proving costly today.
At the root of the problem is the equation of Empire with economic exploitation and political subordination. Yes, there were abhorrent features of the imperial experience but they did not constitute the whole story. Standing side by side with the disagreeable was the philosophy that lay behind the words Civis Britannicus Sum. There was a universal vision that defined the British Empire, a vision that brought India and South Africa, Trinidad and Canada, under a common umbrella. It was an enterprise propelled by a deep sense of mission and it didn’t leave Indians unaffected. It is, after all, no great revelation that until the Thirties, the conventional view was that the raj was a spectacular improvement over all that had existed before. India, to use Ferguson’s argument, was inextricably tied to a global force that, in the context of the times, epitomized the great and good. There was a British Empire that made up the mass of red on the world map but there was also a British-Indian Empire that gave the imperial project its mission and muscle.
It is important to recognize that India had a certain momentum of its own, quite separate from Whitehall. The strategic dimensions of the British-Indian Empire were spelt out quite lucidly by Lord Curzon in his budget speech of 1903. Indeed, despite the demonology created around Curzon for his Partition of Bengal, the fact remains that he was also an Indian nationalist who recognized a role for the country that was both complementary and separate from Britain. To him, the long arm of India extended from Aden in the west to Singapore in the east, and from Tashkent in the north to Colombo in the south. The “foreign department in India”, he noted with a measure of smug satisfaction, “is becoming the Asiatic branch of the Foreign Office in England”.
It is a matter of regret that the strategic thrust of India that Curzon so clearly identified was abandoned in the first four decades after independence after Jawaharlal Nehru embraced a woolly doctrine of non-alignment. It is a matter of reassurance that the doctrine has been rediscovered in the aftermath of India turning nuclear in 1998. The process also coincided with the recovery of Indian entrepreneurial instincts following the collapse of the socialist order.
Tragically, this shift has been imperfect and not accompanied by a conscious articulation of the Indian vision. Since Empire remains a term of abuse, the mindset and expertise that follow a desire to extend spheres of national influence haven’t quite made their presence felt. There is still inadequate appreciation of the fact that the American Empire isn’t built on military and economic foundations alone, just as the now defunct Soviet Empire wasn’t crafted on the strength of its inefficient industrial muscle. There is a universal vision that was captured in rousing Churchillian terms by British prime minister Tony Blair in his speech to the congress last month. “Tell the world why you’re proud of America. Tell them that when the star-spangled banner starts, Americans get to their feet. Tell them why Americans, one and all, stand upright and respectful. Not because some state official told them to, but because whatever race, colour or creed they are, being American means being free.”
It was our inability to imbibe this big picture — a function of the distorted understanding of our own past — and craft strategic alliances with an empire we are naturally at ease with, that prevented India from grasping the opportunities presented in the Iraq project. Fortunately, such squeamishness has not been evident in Afghanistan and long-forgotten names like Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif have returned to India’s diplomatic map.
Yet, the process is imperfect. If India has to claim a permanent membership of the United Nations security council and resume the role it abandoned after 1947, it has to create its own ideal based on imperial partnership. It has to be willing to transcend the humdrum of domestic squabbling, look outwards and think big. It has to create a new Global Indian blessed with the spirit of adventure and enterprise.
Tragically, none of this is possible unless there is a formal recognition that the Republic of India is the rightful inheritor of the British Indian Empire.