Thank God for Britain

                                                                                              Posted on 1-October-2006

     "When I visited Freetown in February 2002, three months before free elections, one man I met exclaimed, on learning my nationality:'Thank God for Britain!                                      Niall Ferguson, Empire, Footnote, Chapter 3


      Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. It is also among the most prestigious. A doctor's degree from there, even an honorary one, is for many people a coveted trophy. I have described in The Waste Sad Time a minor storm there in 1975 over the university's proposal, in the event abandoned, to award an honorary doctorate to an Asian head of government. Very recently, talking to an eminent Indian scholar who teaches at a British University, I mentioned that episode and wondered what value such degrees had for politicians, especially the democratically elected kind, for whom after all the approbation that should matter more than any  should be of their own people. He demurred, saying I must not undervalue the importance of an Oxbridge degree. He was probably closer to political realities than me.

     Dr.Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India who had earned a real doctor's degree from Oxford, having, as he said, "burnt the proverbial midnight oil", was "truly overwhelmed" when the same university gave him an honorary one in July 2005. In his acceptance speech he thanked the university in a manner required by the occasion. He made a glance at the impoverishment of India during the two hundred or so years of British colonial presence and described Mahatma Gandhi's view of relations between Great Britain and a post-independence India. He went on to talk of the advantages that came to India from its association with Great Britain during the period of British colonisation  and said:

"Today, 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. Our notions of the rule of law, of a Constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age old civilization met the dominant Empire of the day. These are all elements which we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served the country well.

"Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language and the modern school system. That is, if you leave out cricket! Of course, people here may not recognise the language we speak, but let me assure you that it is English! In indigenising English, as so many people have done in so many nations across the world, we have made the language our own. Our choice of prepositions may not always be the Queen's English; we might occasionally split the infinitive; and we may drop an article here and add an extra one there. I am sure everyone will agree, however, that English has been enriched by Indian creativity as well and we have given you R.K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie. Today, English in India is seen as just another Indian language.

"The idea of India as enshrined in our Constitution, with its emphasis on the principles of secularism, democracy, the rule of law and, above all, the equality of all human beings irrespective of caste, community, language or ethnicity, has deep roots in India's ancient civilization. However, it is undeniable that the founding fathers of our republic were also greatly influenced by the ideas associated with the age of enlightenment in Europe. Our Constitution remains a testimony to the enduring interplay between what is essentially Indian and what is very British in our intellectual heritage.

"The idea of India as an inclusive and plural society, draws on both these traditions. The success of our experiment of building a democracy within the framework of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society will encourage all societies to walk the path we have trodden. In this journey, both Britain and India have learnt from each other and have much to teach the world. This is perhaps the most enduring aspect of the Indo-British encounter."

     These remarks were received with raised eyebrows by some in India who probably heard in  Dr.Singh's remarks  a resonance similar to that in the discourse of latter day panegyrists of the British Empire  like Niall Ferguson. In his book, Empire, Ferguson lists the English language, the English form of land tenure, Scottish and English banking, the Common Law, team sports (of which cricket), representative assemblies and the idea of liberty among the beneficial influences the British brought to a country they governed. He also talks glancingly of how India whose share of world output was 24% in 1700 had by the beginning of the twentieth century slid to the bottom of the league table. The similarity between what Dr.Manmohan Singh said in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre and the views of Niall Ferguson is probably merely fortuitous but it may yet be useful to look at what the Indian Prime Minister listed as the benefits that came to India from 190 years of British involvement in the business of governance in India.

     English is by far the most widely used language in today's world. In some walks of life such as for example conversations between airline pilots on international flights and flight control towers or between telephone operators handling international calls it is almost the universal language. In other areas such as international scientific conferences, the internet and the world wide web, international shipping, banking and insurance, even discussions within a body like the European Commission it is the dominant language so that for people everywhere, knowledge of the English language is an advantage. A great deal of the spread of English has taken place after the Second World War. I recall a number of French people I knew in the mid-nineteen seventies who used to tell me that till about 1950 the most preferred foreign language in French schools used to be German but since then English had overtaken German by several laps. Similar would have been the case in Germany, Italy, Russia and a very large number of other countries. The spread of English in the second half of the twentieth century,  more rapid and  wider than in all the previous centuries of British Empire, has much to do with the primacy of the United States of America in science and technology, international finance and business, the entertainment and communications industries and international politics.

     But it is Great Britain that gave the English language to India. Because the British ruled India, English became the language of administration, law and higher education. That is how it has  largely remained in post independence India. Since it is the only foreign language Indians know it is for them the only vehicle of exchange of ideas with the outside world.  Because of the inability of a multi-lingual population to agree on a common Indian language for the whole country it became a political necessity to retain English as the language of law and administration. Agreeing to keep English as a 'link language' was for India's political leadership an easier, more painless expedient than the sweat and the slow, laborious, long haul of persuasion and education that would have been necessary for adopting an  Indian language acceptable to the whole country as a common language.

     This description of the position of English in present day India does not make any less questionable the assertion that English has become an Indian language. After all English is nominally spoken and understood by only a thin minority--between 2 and 3 per hundred?-- of India's population: mainly those who are involved in administration, teaching, the professions and a section of business use it. Of these perhaps half barely understand or express themselves in the language and, excepting a very small number, the remaining who use it are as innocent of the cadences of high literary style as of the creative inventiveness of any one using his native language. The overwhelming majority of Indians who use the language, mangle it, causing I know not what anguish or amusement to an Englishman, a Canadian, an Australian or an American who hears or reads them. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Thai, the Bulgars, the Rumanians or the Italians cause the language as much injury, but the Prime Minister of none of them claims it as their own.

     It is true that some Indians have produced creative literature in English. Most of such writing is fiction and, mercifully, not poetry or drama. Some have received literary awards too. There are all the same, two problems with most of English language fiction written by Indians. One is that the characters that inhabit the world of this writing are mostly lifeless, two dimensional and urban,  so completely different from those who inhabit the world of creative writing in Indian languages: poor or lower middle class townsfolk or peasants and workers or native merchants and landowners smelling of the earth they live so close to. At least for the reason that Indian language creative writing has a much larger readership than English fiction written by Indians, that writing is much closer to 'real' India than Indian literary output in English. The second problem is that very little of Indian fiction written in English breathes in the same way as the writing of Prem Chand, Manohar Shyam Joshi, Phanishwar Nath Renu, Nirmal Verma or scores of others who have written so well in Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and all the other Indian languages whose creative work to my great regret I am not acquainted with. The work of R.K.Narayan who wrote about ordinary people in small town or rural India and Mulk Raj Anand who wrote about the downtrodden and the indigent appeals but does not pulsate. The work of later, more modishly popular writers, writing not for the large Indian public but for a narrow audience in urban India or for people elsewhere in the English speaking world, does so even less.

     Satyendranath Bose, one of the world's foremost physicists of the first half of the twentieth century held and expressed the view that the creative faculties, including the creative imagination so necessary for understanding science and technology, of young people are best developed and nurtured if they are educated in their native languages. Many padagogists and educationists have spoken similarly. I cannot remember which of the many education commissions appointed by Government of India went on to say that for many students in schools and colleges, English is their best subject but so much of their effort goes into mastering it that their learning of other matter suffers. Yet in spite of such advice given by so many people who should have known what they were talking about, India has not only retained English in most places as the medium of higher education, but there has also been a proliferation of 'English medium', 'Public' or 'Convent' schools where the relatively well off or those aspiring to the status of the well off send their children, and where much of the learning is still done by rote or by similarly uncreative methods. Such is the importance of English in the popular mind that in the smaller Indian towns there seem to be coming up unorganised 'English medium' private schools imparting I do not know what quality of education.

     English education in India has produced, excepting a very small number, not, as Macaulay in 1835 had hoped, 'a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect', but generations of more and more half baked individuals like me, as ill-tutored in the lore and intonations of my people as in those of Britain or Europe. The resultant culture of those in urban India who say they are anglophone and who in varying degrees are anglophile, is like a product of hydroponics, unattached to the soil of the country. People inhabiting this world which some like calling 'India' have not more than a vague acquaintance with the surrounding country which they like calling 'Bharat'. I wonder if the hiatus which separates Indians educated in English who populate Indian administration or  the management of Indian corporations or  'intellectual' circles where India's problems and prospects are endlessly but futilely discussed, from the people who live in provincial and rural India is not the cause of the numerous failures of governance. I wonder likewise if India would not have been better off if soon after independence it had  started teaching its young their science, mathematics, economics, history and literature in their native languages and teaching them English as a foreign language to a very high degree of proficiency. That is what the Germans, French or Russians do and they are none the worse off for it; they also produce excellent creative work in German, French or Russian. Had India changed over from English to native languages in its higher and parts of its secondary education it would not have added to the numerous divisions in its society one more: that between a small number who write and speak a kind of English, occupying dominant positions in society and the rest. But for such a change to happen India will need to shed the illusion that English has become an Indian language. For today's India English  is a very important, but nonetheless foreign, language.


     Once when an ambassador of Cuba said to me that British rule had brought modern civilisation to India, I snapped back with the question if he was suggesting that we would have been living in trees if the British had not ruled India. Reading in Dr.Manmohan Singh's address at Oxford that 'Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories' were born out of our contact with 'the dominant Empire of the day' my usually quiescent sense of national pride was aroused, almost offended. I thought not only of the Meiji modernisation in mid-nineteenth century Japan but also of the modernisation drive of King Chulalongkorn in Thailand at the end of the 19th  and the beginning of the 20th century. The first was never a British colony and in the second the British were content to enjoy large trading privileges. If these two Asian countries could import and adopt modern ideas, practices and institutions from Europe without the intermediary of a colonial administration, an India without the British could also have done it, I thought. For a brief moment I let myself be carried away by Sanjay Subrahmanyam's counterfactual essay, 'Dreaming an Indo-Persian Empire in South Asia 1740-1800' in which he visualises what might have happened if during his sojourn in Delhi in 1739-40 as a guest of the defeated Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah, the Persian Nadir Shah had decided to merge the Mughal Empire with his Persian domains. Such an Indo-Persian Empire, prosperous, well-organised and above all served by an efficient, well disciplined strike force like Nadir Shah's Qizilbash, combining the strengths of the Mughal Empire with those of Nadir Shah's Empire, would have been well nigh impossible for the East India Company to conquer.

     But it is silly to quarrel with history. The fact is that all the structures of the state--the bureaucracy, the army and the police, the law courts, criminal and civil laws, the modern educational system and a great deal of the basic physical infrastructure-- that the British transferred on 15th August 1947 to the rulers of independent India had been fashioned by the British colonial government in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. To a very large extent the Indian Constitution is a fleshed out version of the Government of India Act of 1935. Even though for most of its existence the British colonial administration was autocratic, it is through contacts with the British that Indian political and intellectual leaders became acquainted as much with  modern political ideas of liberty, equality, justice, individual responsibility and accountability of  government to the people, as with modern science and technology. The fire that burnt in the hearts of 19th century Hindu social reformers was also ignited by contacts with the British. For me acknowledging what came to India from the British should not be a problem; the more difficult question is about what India has done with that legacy.

     Independent republican India feels flattered when others describe it as the world's largest democracy which it is in form, since elections  to representative bodies are organised regularly and governments are frequently voted out of power. Almost all the institutions inherited from the colonial administration or  established under the Constitution of India, promulgated within about two and a half years of the end of British rule, or others created later continue nominally to exist and function. It is the progressive dilution of the political and social values which Dr.Manmohan Singh said came to India during British rule and the draining of life from institutions that should engage the attention of thinking Indians much more than it does. Not only has rule of law weakened during the past sixty years of Indian independence but there has grown far too widely a tendency to flout the law and treat it with contempt. Weak law enforcement and the near collapse of the criminal justice system enrage and arouse public opinion only episodically. Our daily news brings to us so many instances of all this that all the above observations should sound axiomatic.

     In the nineteenth century, colonial administrators and Indian social reformers collaborated to outlaw female infanticide, the custom of sati and child marriage. Between one hundred and one hundred and seventy five years later there still are occasional cases of sati--at least in one case a few years ago not only did a woman perform sati but a shrine was built in her honour, with local political leaders defending the action and law enforcement agencies averting their gaze--and more frequent ones of child marriage, while female infanticide transformed into female foeticide, even though illegal, is now practiced on a larger scale than ever before. India's governments are not able,  sometimes not willing, to stop any of it. Some of these questions are impossible to discuss seriously without touching upon intangibles of culture and ethics, for which this is neither the place nor the occasion. Admittedly greater respect for the law and suppression of evil social practices cannot be achieved by governmental action alone. The entire community has to create moral pressure as much in support of the law as of social progress.

     On the other hand the state, the government and the political leadership have the  primary responsibility for protecting, nurturing and building up the institutions of the republic. They have all failed. About a decade ago a committee appointed by the Government of India reported on the increasing involvement of professional criminals in the political process. That trend has strengthened. As many years ago members of the legislature in the most populous state of India used furniture, microphones or whatever movable objects they could get hold of as missiles against each other within the legislative chamber, in the midst of a session of the legislative body. Such scenes have become commoner and very recently members of two opposing political formations nearly started a street fight in the midst of a session of the lower house of the Indian Parliament. In that street fight a member of Dr. Manmohan Singh's government egged his followers on. On the slightest pretext, members of the principal opposition party in the Indian Parliament, in power till about two and a half years ago, noisily block sober debate and discussion or walk out. Members of Dr. Manmohan Singh's political party acted in the same way when they were in the opposition. And yet in spite of it all we in India like to think that our legislative bodies are modelled on the Parliament at Westminster. Some of us have no difficulty in  declaiming at home and abroad about the strength of our democratic institutions.

     In two recent instances of violence against the Indian Constitution, Dr. Manmohan Singh's government itself became an active participant. The first of these was the hurried dissolution by his government of the legislative assembly of Bihar, done one and a half years ago, so obviously to prevent an opposition political formation from forming a government in that state. When the Supreme Court of India declared the dissolution unconstitutional, the Governor of Bihar, a mere tool, albeit a willing one, lost his job. Government of India showed no other sign of contrition.

     The other instance is in many ways even more egregious. The republican political and constitutional principle of separation of the powers of the executive and the legislature is old and established. One of the articles of the Indian Constitution barring members of legislatures in India from holding any office of profit under the central or state governments is based on that principle. But since, according to the same constitution, no one who is not a member of the legislature can be a member of the government in a state or at the centre, it became necessary to make a law to say that offices of ministers of government were not to be defined as offices of profit for the purposes of that constitutional ban. Later, when it was decided to give officially designated leaders of opposition in legislatures the same salaries and perquisites as to ministers in governments, the law was changed to say that offices of leaders of opposition would also be exempted from the constitutional ban.

     That is how the law had been for a quarter century till it was discovered in the beginning of this year that many members of the federal parliament and state legislatures held positions that could be described as offices of profit under different governments. Since these people had held those offices at the time of their election, their elections could be annulled in the same way as the election of one member of the federal parliament was. Members of legislatures facing similar disqualification could have resigned their seats in legislatures, resigned from the offices they held and sought re-election to the legislative bodies. In doing so they would have strengthened the the Indian Constitution. Instead many state governments passed laws exempting large numbers of offices from the constitutional ban. All political parties represented in the federal parliament joined hands with the Government of India to pass a law, to be effective retrospectively, exempting some four dozen offices from the constitutional ban. Members of legislatures who hold such offices are now secure in them as well as in their legislative seats, protected by a duly enacted law. There is no dearth of people with ratiocinative skills in India who can find justifications for what the government and the parliament in Delhi have done. That the Indian Constitution has received another wound is beside the point.

     Also beside the point is another thought. One of the first duties of any government is to uphold and apply the law.  The constitution of a country is the most basic of all laws. A government and a political class ready to mock the letter and the spirit of that fundamental law  cannot help encouraging widespread disrespect and contempt for all other laws among the people. Such disrespect and contempt are in fact becoming a  prominent characteristic of Indian society creating an ambience in which it will be very difficult for the beneficial gifts of the British Empire listed by Doctors Manmohan Singh and Niall Ferguson to survive.


     I have no doctor's degree, real or honorary. I never had the opportunity nor the determination and the perseverance to burn the midnight oil and get a real one. No university, let alone Oxford or Cambridge, will ever think of giving an honorary doctorate to  one  with such slender achievements and so great anonymity like me. But institutions like individuals sometimes commit follies. If  Oxford were to commit the unimaginable folly of giving me such a degree, I would be so overwhelmed that I would find it difficult to stand  on my feet and talk coherently. Yet, I think I would talk of the many good things that came to India  from its association with the British under the British Empire and thank them openly and wholeheartedly. I would then add:' The seeds you sowed in India sprouted, but time, climate and our practices caused the plants to atrophy and wither away. If we found a new gardener who could come with new seeds to sow and tend the seedlings till they became full grown trees with roots deep in the ground, we would welcome him with open arms, give him palaces to live in and full freedom to partake of the wealth of our land '.

     It is time to  wake up from my reverie, as the town electricity supply has just been switched off.

Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time



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