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In Awe Of The White Man's Burden

In Awe Of The White Man's Burden

Author: Partha Chatterjee
Publication: The Times of India
Date: July 19, 2005
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1174625.cms

The British built abridged institutions, Mr Singh

There are reasons why the last surviving English gentlemen are today only to be found in India. They have brown skins, they don't speak the Queen's English, but in their hearts they are deeply appreciative of the legacies of British colonial rule. They care little for most aspects of contemporary British culture, though. They have no interest in British domestic politics. They have no taste for British art. They sneer at the British fondness for badly cooked curries. They rejoice in the fact that the best English literature today is produced by the ex-colonised. They watch the English football league on television but are fearful of the fans.

It is not the real Britain of Blair and Bradford and British Rail that they think about when they speak longingly of the British connection. The Britain they conjure up in their minds is an idea that once had real referents that have now almost completely vanished from the face of Britain. Yet the myth continues to gain strength among India's elites.

One wouldn't have suspected that Manmohan Singh might become an articulate proponent of this myth. But then the weight of mediaeval ceremonies practised at Oxford convocations can have strange effects. As he admitted, it was "a very emotional day" for him, even when he had already earned an earlier doctorate from the same university - one for which he had laboured hard. But then, come to think of it, why shouldn't Singh believe in the supposed virtues of the British empire? He is an economist-bureaucrat, virtually untouched by the rough and tumble of electoral politics. It shouldn't surprise us if he shares the desires and prejudices of India's professional middle classes.

What is this myth of "the beneficial consequences" of British rule? The PM spoke at Oxford of "good governance", mentioning, in particular, the rule of law, constitutional government, a free press, a professional civil service, modern universities and research laboratories. He forgot to add, however, that each of these elements of modern governance was introduced into India not in the form in which it was practised in Britain but always with crucial exceptions.

Thus, the British in India resisted the jury system or even habeas corpus outside the Presidency towns, resisted the trial of Europeans by Indian judges and, at every whiff of "sedition", enacted emergency laws that would have been unthinkable in Britain. Constitutional government was introduced, but even in the last elections held before Independence, less than 10% of Indian adults were eligible to vote. Elected provincial ministries were allowed, but British governors had virtually unlimited powers to accept or dismiss ministers, and civil servants were required to send confidential reports directly to the governor without the knowledge of elected ministers.

A free press? Yes, but only in the English language. Everywhere in India, until the last days of the Raj, the vernacular press lived under severe censorship laws. Singh is highly appreciative of the civil service, especially the district administration, created under British rule. The much celebrated steel frame epitomised the paternalist, and profoundly authoritarian, ethos of British colonial rule. Indians, it was believed, were moral infants, unable to protect or look after themselves. They had to be ruled by a benevolent master.

It was a form of government that was, of course, being abandoned in Britain even as it was introduced into India. Can one imagine a twentieth-century Britain governed by district magistrates? Finally, it is astonishing that Singh believes that the modern universities and research laboratories of India were set up by the British. Of the 20 universities of pre-Independence India, the majority were funded through endowments and donations by Indians. All postgraduate departments and science institutes were set up at the initiative of Indian educationists and against the vested interests of the colonial survey establishments. Modern education in India was a nationalist achievement, not a colonial gift.

All regimes, even the most repressive, have some beneficial effects: this is trivially true. The interesting question is when, where and why one chooses to point them out. We are being told that it is a sign of our growing self-confidence as a nation that we can at last acknowledge, without shame or guilt, the good the British did for us.

I suspect it is something else. The more popular democracy deepens in India, the more its elites yearn for a system in which enlightened gentlemen could decide, with paternal authority, what was good for the masses. The idea of an Oxford graduate of 22 going out to rule over the destiny of 100,000 peasants in an Indian district can stir up many noble thoughts in middle-class Indian hearts today.

But then, one should not be too harsh on the PM. He has, one assumes, only expressed a no longer secret desire of the Indian elite. Mahatma Gandhi, always more perspicacious than others, had noticed it 100 years ago. What the Indian middle classes, clamouring for self-government, really wanted, he said, was "English rule without the Englishman".

The writer is director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

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