In the week past, there has been a huge outcry – some called it ‘fury’ – in the British public regarding the continuance of developmental aid to India. While some arguments in favour of cancellation of aid seem justifiable what is particularly worrying is that the call for halting aid is being linked to a defence deal for fighter jets. ‘Aid for trade’ is a reality, a dirty open secret, but the fact that it so shamelessly being articulated by British leaders is somewhat shocking. Now most of these leaders are conservatives or righties, so we should not expect them to be polite in any sense, but even then… shocking. What particularly attracted my attention, however, is that some voices (most) from Britain feel that they, the British government, should have been accorded some advantage considering ‘the historic links’ between the two countries, India and Britain. This is interesting because, somehow, it fails to dawn upon many British folk that the historic links do not necessarily endear them to Indians. Nostalgia for the Raj might be prevalent in Britain but most Indians see the about two centuries of the Raj it as nothing but a dark period of rapine which ended perhaps in the worst tragedy of the modern world – the partition riots.
A few comments.
I don’t know what school curriculum in Britain says about the nature of British Rule in India but what I gather from various discussion boards and comments sections on news sites is that a large majority believes that the Raj was rather benign. One gets the usual list of things ‘we’ did (for the natives) : created India from a civilizational mess, ‘gave’ India technology, etc. etc. I must admit that most of this seems extremely short-sighted and uncritical, and even somewhat surprising, especially considering that a lot of brilliant scholarship from Britain about the ‘real’nature of the British Raj. Maybe it doesn’t ‘trickle-down’ into popular discourse. But it most likely is a matter of choice between which version of history ‘feels better’ and that which one asks difficult questions, more often than not also the right ones.
(The Indian response is no less one-sided. The one-dimensional picture sees the British as looters, plunderers, thieves who are most likely to be blamed for the ills that plague India even today. This view totally ignores the role of a large number of Indians, especially the aristocratic class, in the maintenance of the colonial order.)
As I mentioned above, there has been a significant amount of scholarship which has challenges and, indeed, repudiates the idea that is traditional – that colonialism was, in some way, the herald of modernity in Asia, Africa or even Latin America, for that matter. But why does this idea of what I called in India’s case the ‘benign nature’ of colonialism still hold considerable weight in the popular imagination?
I think it has a lot to do with a particularly short-sighted view of a modern world. I particularly refer to the whole discourse about western values democracy, equality, freedom of expression, of voice and identity, etc. These western values, the discourse holds, form the basis of the modern world. (One can add to this the idea of the nation-state.)
So, there is considerable pride in the ‘fact’ that colonialism, whatever its ills, introduced to the colonized world, or even trained them in, these values that form the basis of modernity. I should point out that I am not referring to this in the sense of ideas about racial superiority, eg. The White Man’s Burden. Racism, in global politics, I believe is all but dead. I am referring to a very prevalent sense of cultural superiority, even chauvinism.
Coming back to the point about ‘historical links’ I think the idea behind this is that since the Indians learnt from us (the British) about democracy, modern technology, government, etc. they should be, somewhat, grateful to us. Of course, it is not always put in such a direct way. One may, for example, talk about our shared love for curry and cricket and all things nice.
This view ignores so much. Especially that what are considered as Western values are, in fact, deeply embedded cultural and even civilization trends. So, the idea of equality adopted by post-colonial societies like India, while using the language and terminology of western liberalism, embodies within it notions that have a very long tradition, ranging from, say the Upanishads to the Bhakti or Sufi movements in the 16-17th century. And as regards Western science and technology, what is conveniently ignored is the fact that the great advances of the Scientific revolution in the West very much do, in fact, build upon the long traditions of Indian, Chinese or Arabic learning.
It is easy to see that this thinking stems from the view of the West being a civilization apart. Is this view being questioned?
Well, this post is a question that I pose, more than anyone else, to myself. I will seek to address these issues in subsequent posts.