The year that is now drawing to a close has been a special one for India and Pakistan. Seventy years have passed since they went their separate ways after independence. Few would have thought that they would not have settled their differences after such a period of time, much less fought three wars along the way. Many blame the former colonial power, saying that that a failure to prevent the 5,000 inter-communal deaths which took place in Calcutta a year before independence should have alerted it as to the possible consequences if it failed to deploy the military in the run-up to independence.
At this distance in time, is it possible to take an objective view of the British role of the good, the bad and the ugly of what took place? Perhaps not quite. There are still numbers living whose early lives were traumatised by the unexpectedly bloody partition insisted on by ambitious Hindu and Muslim politicians. Both the government in New Delhi and Gandhi did not want the sundering of a sub-continent, which through guile, able administration – and yes, from time to time, brute force – had worked cohesively for two-hundred years.
Had the colonial power been stronger, and not itself traumatised as well as impoverished by combating German militarism in two world wars, it could have refused those ambitious politicians independence, until such time as they agreed to work together. In other words, it could have said: “We will stay for as long as it takes. You have shown yourselves able to co-exist for two-hundred years and we will not see this good work thrown away.”
What a benefit that would have bestowed, had that been possible. The unified former British India would by now be far and away the world’s largest country. Instead of building up nuclear arsenals, and spending crippling amounts confronting each other, it could have deployed that money to place itself at the forefront of the world technologically. It is difficult to think of a single instance in history where such an opportunity was thrown away. The British had been a strange mix of arrogance, barbarity and enlightenment. Always determined to get their own way – because they considered they knew best – if you buckled down, and accepted what was on offer, they could be good and decent folk to deal with. If not, the consequences could be deadly, and they often were.
Did, then, the sub-continent benefit or suffer from the British experience? It is true that by the time Westerners arrived in any numbers it was enjoying a period of sheer brilliance and prosperity under its Moghul (Muslim) conquerors. Some have estimated that at its height it represented 25% of the world’s GDP. However, a few generations following the arrival of British merchants it had fallen into anarchy. In a remarkably short time, those merchant traders formed themselves into the world’s first multi-national company. Soon the company morphed into the most effective power in the land; it saw opportunities and riches which dazzled, and to protect its developing interests it formed an army (mostly of locals) but officered by its own people.
It had never been The Company’s intention to take over the land. Quite the reverse, such an enterprise seemed to it burdensome. But the alternative guaranteed only a continuance of anarchy, and that was not conducive to making money. In the end you had something unique in human history: a company, not a political power, ruling an entire country – one of the largest, most glittering and most populace lands in the entire world.
So, was the rule of The Company and later The Crown oppressive, even cruel? No more – and many would argue a lot less – than the terrible consequences of the breakdown of Moghul law and order and all that that entailed. So bad did things become that travel between towns became a dice with death. Murderous Thuggees (the term from which we derive the word thug) roamed the land. The new rulers made short shrift of such practices.
Many of the early British arrivals were rapacious chancers. Their sole aim was to get rich quick. Their duplicity broke all records in double-dealing. But, among the newcomers were also men of great integrity, such as Warren Hastings. Such men dressed like Indians, took Indian wives, adopted Indian customs and had no notions of racial superiority. They were hugely interested in India’s past civilisations including its ancient, almost lost, language of Sanskrit which they resurrected. Five universities were set up, one of which became the second largest in the world and the School of Oriental Studies began its work. Great institutions were established along with a free press. Some of the most gifted and dedicated young men ever to leave Britain’s shores were trained at a public school, Haileybury, specially set up to teach them Indian ways as well as languages. It was the alma mater of Clement Attlee himself, the prime minister at the time of independence.
I will not bore you with a full list of the engineering projects; the millions of acres brought under cultivation; the 40,000 miles each of railways and canals; a superior version of our own Common Law tailored specifically to meet Indian needs; the banning of widow burning; the restoration of crumbling architectural wonders, including the Taj Mahal, that took place over the next two centuries; also, the most incorruptible civil service in the world, the ICS, (Indian Civil Service), whose entrance examination equalled that of the Mandarin system in China.
Although a land run by a company for the first half of its existence, it was, undeniably, an empire – an empire in the days when empires were fashionable and, yes, like all empires it was created and ultimately sustained by force. The Indian Mutiny – known to locals as the first war of independence – was put down with a ruthlessness which surprised – and appalled – many back home. Abominations did take place even decades later, such as the almost 1,000 mercilessly gunned down by an out of control colonel at Amritsar in 1919 who feared a new Indian Mutiny. It led to a Commission of Inquiry, with Churchill calling the massacre “monstrous” and widespread British condemnation. But, having said all this, the question remains: could never more than 100,000 Europeans have sustained their position and administered 400 million people for 200 years without a huge amount of local participation and – dare it be said – consent? And what should history make of the 2 million who came to Britain’s aid in two World Wars? It was the largest volunteer army in history.
As empires go, the British version is often said to be one of the better ones. Why else, people argue, would the leaders of 53 countries travel from the ends of the earth every two years to enjoy Commonwealth gettogethers? (There are no such nostalgic gatherings, they point out, for the French, Spanish and Portugese former empires.) And why, with the two exceptions of Canada and Ireland, did they all adopt the British national game of cricket and make it their own? For many, these Test Match contests played around the globe are almost the most exciting item in their calendars.
Today we all accept that no one has the right to impose their systems – however elevated they believe it be – on someone else’s country, but that take is a relatively modern one and we see things now through different eyes. Neither the money-obsessed Georgians, who began it all, nor the Victorians, who believed they were doing God’s work, saw anything wrong in empire-building. That’s what you did in those days if you had the means. It had been going on since time immemorial. With the fall of the Soviet empire – which absurdly it refused to accept was an empire – that phase of human aggrandisement, thankfully, came to an end. Today, with all our international forums, it is safe to say we have seen the last of them.