The Untold Story of British Enterprise
There are books galore on the sins of imperialism which has possibly accrued every problem in the subcontinent as a direct fallout of British colonialism, hardly anyone has dared to correct the score. Offering the other side of the argument and asserting India’s infrastructural development owes a great deal to the British, Dr Kartar Lalvani has come up with The Making of India: The Untold Story of British Enterprise
LONDON MUSINGS By Manish Tiwari
When I was growing up in India, I often heard elders in the family – my extended family had a few members in the Indian civil services – that the nation was better governed under the British Raj. Despite the nationalistic lore and patriotic prejudice prevalent against the colonial masters of the past, the sentiment that at least during the British rule there was no corruption was very much widespread amongst the middle class society in India.
This led me to become pragmatic very early in life and of the opinion that corruption is something which was to be accepted as a part and parcel of Indian life. Later, I realised that this view was embedded perhaps too deeply in the Indian system and had become widespread not just in commerce but in the very social and public life in every sphere. Reflecting back I believe there was something to do with this very all pervasive corruption that made me even consider moving to Britain in spite of growing up with intense national pride (my maternal grandfather had denounced his Police Career in the 1942 Quit India movement and was seen as a champion of Swadeshi sentiment later in the Acharya Vinoba Bhave Bhoodan movement in post Independence India).
However, while there are books galore on the sins of imperialism which has possibly accrued every problem in the subcontinent as a direct fallout of British colonialism, hardly anyone has dared to correct the score.
Offering the other side of the argument and asserting India’s infrastructural development owes a great deal to the British, Dr Kartar Lalvani has come up with The Making of India: The Untold Story of British Enterprise.
Informative, factually accurate, with a wealth of fascinating material Dr Lalvani through his book addresses and opens these very debates, which most Indians in the garb of patriotic fervour decide to ignore or not to address.
The imperial motivations of the British Empire and the colonial aggression has been well documented, and the ills of it have been universally acknowledged but what Dr Lalvani brings to the fore is the acknowledgement of the fact that there was a certain public decorum under the British Raj and there were benefits for the colonies they ruled in particular India.
The book takes us through the journey, the liberal and progressive milieu in the empire did far more nation building during its 200 years reign than united India or even the India 800 years before the rule, when India suffered multiple aggressions and were tortured, killed or subjected to slavery from barbaric invaders. Even during the British rule, parts of India such as Goa, which were ruled by the Portuguese faced a lot more severe religious persecution as well as forced conversions than in British India.
The book makes a balanced case looking microscopically at various facets of the Indo-British collaboration as masters and subjects as well as the very the foundation of where the Indian identity stands today.
Dr Lalvani rightly points out it was under the British rule that Indians finally started to come together for work and as a community – irrespective of religion, caste or creed. It was the British who created the institutions we are proud of today – such as the Indian Army, railways, post and telegraph. And we continue to draw from those very liberal tenets and values of equality irrespective of what we are born as. It is another point of contention that as Indians we tend to wrongly attribute the worse cases of bureaucratic red tape to the British but in reality it is more likely a result of the corruption in public life post independence.
He convincingly points out that there were less riots or conflicts based on caste and religion during the 200 years rule of British India than independent India. All minorities felt safer or were given safety during the British rule across the Undivided India. So, the British truly shaped the multicultural, multilingual, multi-religious Indian society, gave it structure and legitimacy and almost 75 years later in modern Britain we see a reflection of the Raj; Britain’s many erstwhile colonies creating what Prime Minister David Cameron calls the most successful multicultural, multilingual, multi faith democracy in the entire world. Indeed something which the world has to learn from Britain even today.
One of my favourite writers and great explorers of the 20th century Paul Brunton made India a theme of his explorations and Sir William Jones founded the Asiatic society. These men gave Indian culture and heritage a platform on the world stage and showed how ancient India was a great source of learning and perhaps cradle and the dawn of human civilisation.
It would not be exaggeration to say that the British gave as much to India or more perhaps more than the fabled riches they took away. (Like former minister Shashi Tharoor in his Oxford Union speech last May sought a “symbolic pound a year for the next two hundred years, as a token of apology” along with several ministers now demanding the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond.)
While many would probably argue that the British developed India so as to loot the country’s riches more efficiently but the point is that the British-built bridges, canals, telegraph, universities, public utilities, sewers and grand buildings have all endured and created a pathway for today’s modern democratic India possibly unparalleled in the history of European imperialism anywhere in the world. The liberals in British politics always championed the Indian cause and the parting in 1947 was a graceful transfer of power. Contrary to what Indians would like to believe there are many who felt that the Raj was a drain to British resources and as early as 1856 advocated that Britain would be happier without its colonies.
With this book Dr Kartar Lalvani has done a great service to the future generations of Indians who are constantly confused whether to love or hate their former masters even as they try to speak and write in impeccable English, dress up in suits for their most important days such as weddings and try to excel in all matters English but nevertheless are told that the poverty of their nation and society is due to this very Britishness. Indeed, an argument well made.
This article originally appeared in Asian Lite.