| Argument and beyond
Our prime minister is a mild-mannered man; no one, not even his friend, fellow economist and Oxford contemporary, Amartya Sen, would ever call him an 'argumentative Indian'. Yet a speech he recently delivered at Oxford has kicked up an almighty row. He is alleged there to have given an undeserved good chit to British rule in India and, by so doing, slighted and shamed the generations of Indian freedom fighters who fought so heroically to free us from the colonial yoke. These criticisms have come principally from the two edges of the political spectrum, from groups whose own forbears had rather less to do with the freedom struggle than they now like to claim. Commenting on the Oxford speech ' which, incidentally, she showed little signs of having read ' the Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Sushma Swaraj, accused the prime minister of abandoning the admiration of Mahatma Gandhi in favour of the worship of Sonia Gandhi. This was rich, coming from a representative of a parivar which is known to have detested the Mahatma, and known also to have had less-than-ambivalent feelings about his assassination by one of their own former members.
The sanghis we can dismiss, but the leftwing critics we might pause to take just a little more seriously. These have included not just party hacks but also esteemed scholars. The Marxist economist, Prabhat Patnaik, claims that the prime minister praised what the British did then in order to support the spread of market economics under neo-colonial influence now. He also berates him for failing to mention that it was under British rule that Indians were 'converted for the first time into inferior beings in their own country'. The professor should try running that one past his Dalit friends. They would tell him how, from well before the British came, the Dalits were treated as very inferior beings in their own homes and hamlets all across the land. Indeed, it was only after the British came that Dalits were, for the first time in a millennium and more, allowed by law and economic change to place themselves outside the tyrannies of the caste system.
Partha Chatterjee, meanwhile, has seen in the prime minister's praise of good governance an endemic fear of the subaltern classes. Singh's speech, he claims, 'expressed a no longer secret desire of the Indian elite'. 'The more popular democracy deepens in India,' he informs us, 'the more its elites yearn for a system in which enlightened gentlemen could decide, with parental authority, what was good for the masses.' Now I do not profess to be an authority on subaltern theory, but a careless reader of those words might conclude that what Chatterjee is here indicating is a preference for the politics of Laloo Prasad Yadav over that of Manmohan Singh.
For days on end the Delhi papers carried responses to the prime minister's Oxford speech, some pro, other contra. Among the less outraged contributors was the historian, Harbans Mukhia, who sensibly distinguished between the intentions of the British in India and the consequences of their rule. They might indeed have come to plunder and exploit, but in doing so they brought this ancient, hierarchical society willy-nilly (or kicking and screaming) into the modern world.
My own reading of the prime minister's speech was that it was both reasoned and reasonable, but also incomplete. If he had chosen other examples or ' for once ' been more argumentative, he might have not excited these so righteous reactions. I wish, for example, that he had spoken of the countless British politicians, from Wilfred Scawen Blunt down to Clement Atlee, who recognized and supported the essential justice of the Indian claim to political independence, thus acting as an eventually successful counterweight to the reactionaries like Winston Churchill (and many, many more). I wish he had laid emphasis on the British tradition of political moderation, which appealed to both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi liked to speak of the 'beauty of compromise', and his mentor Gokhale personally translated the Liberal thinker John Morley's famous tract On Compromise. In his autobiography, Witness to an Era, the once widely respected editor, Frank Moraes (himself an Oxford man), wrote that what he learnt from the British and from his years in England was this love of moderation, as in the abhorrence of extremes, especially in politics and ideology. It is this moderation which informs our Constitution, its emphasis on the accommodation of differences, as well as its corresponding avowal of political pluralism. It is also this moderation which, more than anything else, has helped to keep this diverse and divided nation together, and keep it democratic.
I think the prime minister might also have spoken of the attitude towards the British, at the personal rather than political level, of the greatest of modern Indians. Mahatma Gandhi was considered an enemy of the British, yet two of his most intimate relationships were with British people: with his adopted daughter, Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade) and with Charles Freer Andrews, who was certainly his closest male friend. Those who admired Gandhi (and there were many) called him 'Mahatma', 'Bapu', or 'Gandhiji'; those who disliked him (and these were many too) called him 'Mr Gandhi', 'that man Gandhi', or 'the half-naked fakir'. As far as I know, it was only Andrews who called him by his first name: 'Mohan'. That is a mark of how close they were.
Were the prime minister to have followed this line of argument, he could have more effectively shown that the one thing we must always remember about the India/Britain tie is that no other relation between an ex-colony and its former rulers has been anywhere near as harmonious. The two countries, and cultures, share such a mutual warmth and understanding, and have had such a rich traffic of people and ideas, that one forgets that only sixty years ago one was an empire and the other its colony. This is especially striking when compared to the residues of animosity and bitterness that characterize the relations of other European powers with their former colonies ' whether France with Algeria and Vietnam, or Italy with Ethiopia, or Germany with Poland, or Russia with Afghanistan, or the Dutch with Indonesia. Due principally to the Gandhian insistence on non-violence, there was much less loss of life in British India than there was in nationalist struggles waged where the Dutch and the French ruled. Due also to the far-seeing British radicals who saw the justice of the Indian claims, there was, and has been since, much less ill-will.
I suspect the prime minister could not frame his argument in this manner because of the diplomatic eyebrows it might have raised. To compare the Indo-British relationship with the Dutch-Indonesian one would not have gone down well in either Amsterdam or Jakarta. There might even have been some who would have read in such a comparison an indirect chastisement of the situation in Iraq, where, whatever happens between now and eternity, the relation between colony and colonizer will never be anywhere as benign as ours with the British.
I wish, finally, that the prime minister had quoted what is my all-time favourite comment on the ties that bind India to Britain. It comes from the great Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who once said that 'if Mahatma Gandhi had been fighting the French, he would have given up non-violence within a week'. This is a very funny line, which would have had an Oxford audience rolling in the aisles. It is also a most perceptive one, for while the British were culturally philistine, they were also gentlemen, who were embarrassed by the sight of thousands of women and men offering satyagraha, embarrassed in a way the French would never have been.
Were Ho Chi Minh to have been invoked in Oxford by the prime minister, Paris might have been compelled to recall its ambassador in New Delhi. That said, I would still be interested in the reactions of the Professors Patnaik and Chatterjee to Ho's immortal quip .