A well-known quote, incorrectly attributed to Churchill, says that if India were given independence, “Power will go to rascals, rogues, freebooters. All leaders will be of low caliber & men of straw ….” The quote may be spurious but many Indians probably agree with its underlying message that Indians must be grateful for colonial rule and that they are worse off today than they were under colonial rule. One cannot entirely blame these anglophiles. After all, Indian politicians have fulfilled pseudo-Churchill’s prophecy. Pervasive poverty, non-existent free speech, rampant corruption, absent infrastructure, an unscrupulous media, pandering to obscurantist minority religious beliefs, and non-accountability of public institutions testify to the sad plight of India. The anglophile prism creates a chimeric view that this sad plight is due to the ending of colonial rule and not its inevitable effect.
In a recent op-ed, A Large Inheritance and Its Conflicted Parts, a well-known and usually sensible Indian writer, Swapan Dasgupta, viewed Indian society through the anglophile prism. He makes some valid observations. The preceding Islamic rule had systematically laid waste to Indian society. Guilds had been destroyed. India lacked the means to effectively defend herself against autocratic rule. But then the prism warps his view and Dasgupta proceeds to approvingly quote colonial British luminaries that millions of Indians enlisted in British army to fight in faraway lands because of “loyalty to Britain and all that Britain stood for in their lives.” The Empire must have meant something to those Indians.
Taking this strange line of thinking to its logical end, one must conclude that millions of Indians ended up as bonded laborers in Burma, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, and South Africa because of their loyalty to plantation owners. Plantation lifestyle must have meant something to those Indian “coolies.”Millions of blacks ended up as slaves in the USA because slavery must have meant something sublime to them. Gypsies chose to live as outcastes in Christian Europe because such a lifestyle meant something profound to them. Dalits embraced a life of untouchability because it must have had a mesmerizing appeal to them!
You see the fallacy of this line of reasoning, don’t you? In social psychology, it is called fundamental attribution error.It is characterized by the fallacious tendency to ignore situational factors and instead explain away behaviors by appealing to one’s own biases.A perusal of scholarly research would have informed Dasgupta of the situational factors that drove millions of Indians to join British army.
The distinguished historian, R. C. Majumdar, in British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance, Part I, pp. 836-837, describes how British colonial rule destroyed traditional agriculture and other cottage industries to serve imperial greed. Between 1849 and 1914 CE, as Indians starved, the export of essential produce increased twenty-two times. The resultant famines alone caused the deaths of over twenty million Indians. In Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, the British scholar Mike Davis presents incontrovertible evidence that British colonial rule impoverished Indians beyond one’s imagination. Is it any surprise that such desperation and hunger drove millions to take to any form of available livelihood whether it was in the minefields of the British war theater or the sugar plantations of the Caribbean? Do not the poor toil under repressive conditions in Saudi Arabia to save money for their family’s future? Wouldn’t it be silly to suggest that the Saudi working conditions appeal to those workers?
British colonial rule perpetuated the institutions of zamindari and ryoṭwāri. Feudal landlords were empowered to squeeze the citizens and fill the coffers of the Empire. In turn, the Empire turned a blind eye as these feudalists looted their hapless subjects. Do you expect such feudal lords to miraculously take to a life of scruples and empathy when India gained independence? Hell no. They emerged, with the blessings of the departing British, as the ruling political class of India. Their descendants continue to plunder India.
It is true that law and order was better under British colonial rule. It was a product of necessity. A colonial empire needs native informants and a well-oiled machinery to keep it going. It is the best strategy to ensure a continual supply of revenue to the Empire’s coffers. It would be naïve to think that colonial rulers were moved by some kind of unfathomable love for the natives. Any tendency on the part of Indians to assert themselves was met with brute force. In 1857 CE, as Philip Jenkins points out in Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, pp. 135-139, when Indians rebelled against the British Christian powers, the latter responded with the Christian holy war of extermination called ‘herem warfare.’ They openly called for the genocide of Indians. It is strange to argue that such a legacy has somehow benefitted Indians.
Dasgupta assures us that India’s democracy is the result of colonial rulers injecting the “principle that political power in colonies, particularly those with ‘antique civilizations,’ was a trust for the benefit of the native populations.” Well, British colonial rule extended over numerous ‘antique civilizations’ such as the Islamic nations of the Middle East, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Has Dasgupta ever pondered why the British injectionof the alleged principle only had the desirable effect on India?
The answer is easy to find if one doesn’t commit the logical fallacy of fundamental attribution error. Hindu traditions valued local governance and individual liberty. Even more pertinently, Hinduism inculcated a commitment to truth and probity in public life. Hindu role models were not the marauding world conquerors; rather they were the benevolent emperors with a keen sense of justice. India had been a seriously wounded civilization by the time she became independent. However, she had not been completely destroyed yet. A number of public officials, especially in the ICS and IAS, who held office in the newly independent India were Hindus raised in those traditional values. They derived their sense of justice from the Saṅgam literature, the Tirukkuraḻ, the Hitopadēśa, and the Bhagavad Gita. As a result, they tried to provide a good administration even though the political class was increasingly dominated by Nehru and his cronies.
However, this cadre of honest officials was soon replaced by the corrupt. These corrupt officials serve their political masters and loot the nation just as the feudal lords under British colonial rule served the Empire and looted civilians. Most of the corrupt politicians too, whether they are from the Congress or the DMK, were created and sponsored by the British and hence are the products of British colonial rule.So, India’s sad plight today is the inevitable consequence of British colonial rule. Indians need not be grateful to their erstwhile colonial masters for bequeathing this terrible legacy upon them.
Reality is very different when not viewed through the anglophile prism.