There are times in a year when Indians love a robust bout of Brit-bashing. This month, even as bombs were exploding in London and jihadis were trying to destroy the Ram temple in Ayodhya, there were people who were agitated by the speech of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to Oxford dons while receiving an honorary doctorate on July 8.
It was, by the rigid standards of Indian political discourse, a slightly unusual speech. First, it steered well away from hectoring. There was none of the sanctimonious third-world-ism associated with the G-8 summit at Gleneagles. Second, it invoked a type of history that 'detoxified' Indian historians find distasteful. Singh began with Mahatma Gandhi's observation in 1931, during a weekend in Oxford as the guest of the Master of Balliol, that India must cut itself off 'from the Empire, completely; from the British nation not at all'. He then went on to deftly quote Jawaharlal Nehru's tribute to Lord Curzon, a former chancellor of the university and, arguably, the most gifted British viceroy to India. Finally, while conceding the debilitating economic consequences of imperial rule, he asserted that 'with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian prime minister to assert that India's experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too.'
Even two decades ago, such a refreshing speech would have met with the hysterical response that greeted Nirad Chaudhuri's forthright dedication in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, published in 1951. It is a sign of the times that the outrage this time has been muted and, in many ways, proforma ' although Sushma Swaraj's description of the speech as an application for a Rai Bahadur award was cutting.
An India brimming with self-confidence does not deem it obligatory to preface its understanding of Indo-British relations with hoary anti-imperialism. After 58 years of independence, India is more at peace with the imperial legacy than it is with, say, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Raj nostalgia which, only a decade ago, was an exclusively British prerogative, has gently influenced contemporary Indian design. India has haltingly accepted the imperial inheritance as its own.
Yet, Indian attitudes to the erstwhile mother country remain quirky. Sir Rob Young, the former British high commissioner to India, once observed that 'all overseas journeys of Indians are through London'. He may have been overstating the point, but I don't think there is any doubt that for a sizeable chunk of the Indian elite, the United Kingdom is a familiar stomping ground, a home away from home if you like.
The appeal is more than just common language, familiar street names and the easy availability of good Indian cuisine. There is a certain civility, orderliness, predictability and cosmopolitan homeliness about Britain that makes it appealing to Indians. The high comfort level of civil society helps offset the justified gripe over its high-cost economy, indifferent standards of service and the menace of drunken louts on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Unfortunately, these terms of endearment are not always reflected in the public discourse. The Indian media's British reportage is laced with an unwarranted sneer. Indian journalists writing for an Indian audience seem more intent on scoring imaginary debating points rather than reflecting the society and politics of the country they live in. The condescension that is the hallmark of some Western journalists working in India often finds its mirror image in Indian journalists operating out of London. There is a discernible lack of empathy for the host country. The casual reader is often left with the feeling that Britain is insufferably arrogant and riddled with archaic prejudices. The mismatch between a Britain painted in the media and the country some two lakh Indians travel to each year couldn't have been more marked.
This fashionable false consciousness is not a problem of the media alone. A few years ago, at an official dinner in London, I was seated next to an Asian 'community leader' who had been raised to a peerage by the Labour government. For nearly an hour I was subjected to a passionate discourse on the ingrained racism of the British establishment. Some of her observations were pertinent, but some of her grudges were so fanciful that I couldn't contain myself any longer. 'If Britain is so disagreeable,' I remarked, 'Why do you continue to live here'
It was the wrong thing to say in a Britain that is infuriatingly sensitive to its so-called ethnic minorities. Having internalized its self-image as a multi-racial and multicultural island, there is an insidious fear among 'white' Britons of being dubbed racist. At one level, the new social norms have helped Britain adjust to the realities of post-imperial life. However, its flip side is the reinvention of British nationhood. The three pillars on which modern Britain was constructed ' the Crown (a euphemism for social hierarchies), the Church of England and the Conservative Party ' have been so hideously disfigured that old certitudes have been subsumed by permanent confusion. One manifestation of this is the squeamishness over Englishness. It is ok, for example, to be Scottish, Welsh, Irish or even a Londoner, but the assertion of English identity is perceived to be outside the realms of respectability. Therefore, when the prime minister, Tony Blair, talks about upholding 'our way of life' in the face of a terrorist threat, it is often greeted by either cynicism or studied incompre- hension.
In the rush to be all things to all people, Britain has allowed itself to be guilt-tripped into self-flagellation. For at least a decade, it was becoming obvious to most observers that radical Islam was emerging as a threat to both social harmony and national security. Rather than confront it head-on, the post-Margaret Thatcher establishments pursued a policy of appeasement. They overlooked the fact that the issue wasn't one of Muslim alienation caused by inadequate opportunities. The problem was ideological. Inspired by networks built around neo-literate maulvis in ethnic ghettos, thousands of British-born Muslims rejected every tenet of Western civilization. Their demand was the destruction of the West.
These were acts of treachery which no country should have tolerated. Unfortunately, overwhelmed by post-imperial guilt, the social theorists of Cool Britannia fell back on moral relativism. The values that once saw Britons creating the world's mightiest empire were unceremoniously junked. In such a void where being British meant nothing in particular, the medieval certitudes of radical Islam offered a grotesque alternative. From finding comfort in a community of others who had rejected the West from within, to the emergence of cricket-loving suicide bombers, was but a small step. It was not an inevitable progression but one which was facilitated by a dominant culture of self-deprecation.
Yet, all doesn't seem to be lost for Britain. The ghastly tragedy of 7/7 saw Britain responding with enormous dignity and resilience. The world applauded the return of the stiff upper lip and the gritty business-as-usual spirit. The British, it used to be said, are at their best in adversity. The imagery invoked last week was that of the Blitz ' a time when courage and determination were laced with a sense of humour and the tune of 'There'll always be an England'.
That was the Britain India re-sisted but admired. That was the Britain the world glimpsed on TV after the terrorists struck. That was the Britain the Indian prime minister saluted from Oxford. He may have ruffled some nationalist feathers at home, but it was nothing compared to his monumental rebuff to the peddlers of post-imperial Angst. Singh spoke for India but his message was for Albion.