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Oi, brown sahebs!

In one of those long, usually unresolved arguments I have with myself in the week leading up to 15th August every year, I had a big fight over whether British rule over India was good (for Indians, that is). Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Aug 13, 2011 23:02 IST
Indrajit Hazra

In one of those long, usually unresolved arguments I have with myself in the week leading up to 15th August every year, I had a big fight over whether British rule over India was good (for Indians, that is).

The answer to this Independence Day Eve party question is usually fashioned by the mood we are in as a nation, and by how anally patriotic the individual answering the question might be. If we’re feeling particularly ‘9% growth-like’ and have been following the riots in Faire Game England, we may not even remember that people from over there once ruled and taxed us. The irony is that Independence Day celebrations kind of remind us that, like the ex-wife, they did rule us. As for the ‘Jai Hind!’ nationalist, he’ll find a connection between the Beatles and Jallianwala Bagh no matter what Paul McCartney sings.

By itself, outsourcing the administration of a country isn’t such a terrible thing. In the 80s, I used to fantasise about how things would be swell if Calcutta was leased for 20 years to the Japanese. Apart from infrastructure being better, the taxis would have been converted long ago from the rotten rattly Ambassadors to Suzukis if not Hondas. I now blame that line of thinking on my fondness for Nintendo video games and Subhas Chandra Bose.

The usual arguments in favour of British rule are similar: without those Johnny Boys laying all those rail tracks and introducing modern jurisprudence and an administrative system, Indians would have continued to travel on bullock carts, widows would have jumped into funeral pyres, zamindars would have got zonked on liquor while the people would have grown brinjals till they dropped dead before reaching 30. All of 20th century India would have resembled much of 20th century India — or, in today’s patronising jargon, India would have been Bharat — weren’t it for British rule. Or so goes the argument that’s careful to avoid split infinitives but not gin-soaked diphthongs.

Well, whatever be our feelings about British rule from August 12, 1765 — the day the East India Company wheedled the legal right from the Mughal emperor to collect taxes from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa — to August 15, 1947, in my cost benefit report, its effect on India was that of Count Dracula on a long-necked girl with collateral benefits.

Britain pauperised the lands they ruled in the Indian subcontinent. For any doubts, read Madhushree Mukerjee’s stunning book, Churchill’s Secret War, which focuses on the 1943 Bengal famine that was directly a result of British imperial policy. She also lays out the 182-year spree of asset-stripping that ranged from exacting inordinate ‘rent’ (taxes), to funding wars, and a litany of economic traumas whose climaxes were ‘man-made’ famines that killed millions.

I have always been sceptical of the notion that everything was hunky dory before the Brits arrived. And the British did bring about social reforms that would have taken decades otherwise considering the fractious nature of pre-Raj India. But as Mukerjee writes, providing one disturbing case study after another, a mix of greed, opportunity, and the desire to firm up a vast market by ‘civilising’ it marks one economic power gobbling up another. The policy-driven murder of 10 million people (a third of the province’s population) in the 1770 Bengal famine and 3 million in the 1943 famine, throws the ledger book of any apologist of British imperialism out of the window.

As for ‘darkness’ lingering across India if the Brits hadn’t ruled us, the fact that trade would have got 19th-20th century India trains and factories seems to have eluded many a brown saheb. As if Japan (here I go again) got its trains only after it was ruled by a technological imperial power. (Japan actually bought locomotive technology and hired a Briton to lay its first railway network.) So while I’m no patriot — I’ve always asked what the country can do for me, not what I can do for the country — I have no doubt that India would have been, in the long and short of it, better off without British rule. As for the British imperial invention of India, it was always overrated.

Happy Independence Day, old chaps!