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India looks beyond British Raj excesses

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India looks beyond British Raj excesses

Sunday, 15 September 2019 | Swapan Dasgupta

On the morning of September 11, readers of The Times in the United Kingdom may have been a little stunned at the front page photograph of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, lying prostrate in his traditional red robes. The photograph was from Amritsar where the visiting religious head of the Church of England (the monarch being the titular head) had prostrated himself before the Jallianwala Bagh memorial to express his “profound regret and shame” over the massacre of some 400 people by British troops in 1919.

In a statement the Archbishop went on to say: “I recognise the sins of my British colonial history, the ideology that has too often subjugated and dehumanised other races and cultures.” Then, adding the necessary religious dimension to his message of contrition, he noted that Jesus Christ had called on the faithful to “turn away from sin — not just repenting old ways but to live in a new way that sought the kingdom of God.”

Whether the Archbishop directed his message at Indians or an audience at home is not very clear. However, it is a commentary on differing national interests in history that whereas The Times thought his message significant for page one, almost none of the mainstream Indian newspapers — I don’t know about the coverage in Amritsar — thought the Archbishop’s dramatic genuflection all that newsworthy.

There was a minor flutter in 1997 when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh made a trip to Amritsar and there were some expectations of a national apology from the British head of state. It didn’t happen — not that the token expression of sadness and regret was in any way responsible for that Royal visit ending up as an unmitigated disaster — and life went on as usual. India-UK relations has its own dynamics but it is definitely not governed by the issue of either a British apology over Jallianwala Bagh or the return of the Kohinoor.

In my reading, the issue of colonial guilt is principally a British domestic issue. Indians have a rather curious attitude to Empire. At one level, particularly in the public utterances of politicians, there is the inclination to rail against colonial hangovers and debunk alien institutions that were planted in the soil of India. There is also a caricatured view of British rule in official history that pits “bad” goras against “good” desis. At another level, however, there is in civil society a qualified acceptance of the reality of the British legacy. This starts from the armed forces and judiciary and extends to the way we aspire to communicate in English. The whole attitude to the Raj is ambivalent and extends from hate to nostalgia, not to mention the period chuckles over the many Indians who actively propped up the Empire. There is no black and white view.

My friend Shashi Tharoor, for example, made quite a splash with an eloquent denunciation of the British Empire in a speech to the Oxford Union. He subsequently elaborated this into a book that essentially regurgitated Dadabhai Naoroji and Rajni Palme Dutt. It was a best seller in the UK and was much talked about. In India, however, the book was a modest success and certainly didn’t feature in any public debate. The reason is simple: Indians are not obsessed about the Raj. It was a reality but I don’t think it is seen as a national catastrophe. Between the fierce denunciations of Empire — and the simultaneous upholding of the PG Wodehouse legacy of humour — and the adulatory view of British rule — Zareer Masani has managed to occupy this vacant space — there is a middle path that, like the Hindu way, is difficult to define.

What can be said with a measure of certainty is that no Indian expected the Archbishop of Canterbury to genuflect and make a public show of his anguish over the British Empire. It was a form of self-flagellation that may appeal to multiculturalism, the most recent European fad which has landed the continent in a lot of trouble, but doesn’t alter the way India thinks of contemporary Britain. There is the constant gripe in some circles over the condescending attitude of Britons who know they are no longer a great power. At the same time this disdain for racist attitudes squares uneasily with the fact that the Home Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are both Asians whose families originated from the subcontinent.

Trying to put order into history is tempting but ultimately a self-defeating exercise. Britain has its own issues with its past. It is best to leave it to resolve its existential dilemmas without India adding its one pice contribution to a self-indulgent debate. India is looking forward. It is to be hoped that the UK does likewise. It will be better for both countries.

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