Friday, July 30, 2010

The great debt

Image of map of the British Indian Empire from...Image via Wikipedia
It was the 25th of January this year, a day before Republic Day, when we were roaming the beautiful old campus of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla built during the days of the British Raj like most of Shimla, perched on the edge of a steep mountain side looking out to the higher permanently snow capped ranges of the Himalayas. The sun was on its way down; its mellow mood cast a mesmerizing golden glow on the magnificent building and the little on-campus canteen where we were taking a  break after a day of walking around the picturesque little hill town and we were absorbed in the delightful view before us. Then among the handful of tourists also wandering through the campus, I heard one of them bring up a theory which is very commonly thrown around especially among us, the educated English speaking, so-called 'elite' and which never fails to irritate me ever so much.

"We owe the British so much for everything that they have done for us!" is a refrain still heard frequently around our country and unfortunately even from the nearest and dearest ones within my own family. "Without the British, there would have been no English based education system, no consequent social reform of traditional Indian society, no Indian Railways, no internationally renowned Indian Armed Forces and indeed no concept of India as a country. We would be more like the Baltic countries permanently engaged in fruitless battles against each other. Gandhi's non-violent freedom struggle wouldn't have worked against any other colonizers as the others were not as cultured as the Brits." is the elaboration given on the above point. While all that is probably true but do we actually owe them anything at all considering that it is a historical fact that we were taken over by the Brits (like most of the world at that point of time) and every tiny little benefit or the most major benefits that happened during their rule were mostly unintended side-effects of an oppressive system set up by them to enhance their Empire which in time were used against them. It's like saying Adolf Hitler was cute just because he actually had a major role to play in the development of the Volkswagen Beetle.

"Still..." say the Brit lovers, "Would we have been able to build all those roads to our remote Himalayan hill stations, discovered our own lost heritage through archaeological finds in dense jungles, built those magnificent monuments and structures which house our government now and developed a stable, hopelessly complicated yet magically (at least 20%) functional democracy?" Who really knows what would have happened if Robert Clive had not won the Battle of Plassey? Who knows how peaceful or violent India would have been if it hadn't seen the vicious bloodshed of British fuelled Partition? Who knows what stage of development this land we call India today would have progressed to if we didn't have a group of foreign masters driving us to grow indigo while the rest of the world rapidly developed their technology in the golden age of the Industrial Revolution, a critical time when most of the countries which we now call 'developed nations' made hay? These are questions which can never have a conclusive answer, no matter how good or harrowing a hypothetical situation we simulate or no matter how patriotic or pessimistic we feel about the potential of our nation.

One thing I am sure of as of today is that our erstwhile colonizers did make pot-loads of money at our expense while they did what they did, good or bad or someplace grey. So for all the social change and infrastructure 'development' that they engaged in; building roads, bridges, administrative systems, education systems and what not, I have a very relevant question, relevant especially in the modern world's way of looking at things for anyone who says that we must somehow be completely grateful to the English for their contribution as opposed to having a realistic view that yes, we gained on some important grounds but that's mere co-incidence not gracious planning. The all important question is - Tell me, o kind sir, who footed the bill? 
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2 comments:

Debaleena said...

Loved the part when..'developed nations' made hay.
I think still eulogising the British Raj for whatever little we have come from growing Indigo is like faking a gourmet meal out of someone's stale leftovers.

Roy said...

Yeah, I just hate it when people make a big hoo-haa over the supposed 'contributions' of the British Sahebs!