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Colonial hangovers

On December 31, 1600, a group of London businessmen banded together to create a quaintly named company, Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies. A royal charter gave it all privileges of trading in that part of Asia. Raghav Bahl writes.

india Updated: Jun 20, 2010 22:41 IST
Raghav Bahl

Has China’s more turbulent British colonial history and India’s more ‘civilising’ one given the former the edge over the latter in the 21st century?

On December 31, 1600, a group of London businessmen banded together to create a quaintly named company, Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies. A royal charter gave it all privileges of trading in that part of Asia. Little did these gentlemen realise that their British East India Company (known better under this popular shorthand) would unleash a dynamic whose reverberations would ripple across the world 300 years later. The Company became the common womb from which two stepchildren, British India and colonial China, sprang to become non-identical Asian twins.

There were few buyers for British broadcloth and other European goods in Asia, but large buyers in Europe for tea, silk and porcelain from the East. In China, the Company ran into another problem; Chinese traders were unwilling to sell unless they were paid in silver. British merchants had to move with devil’s speed to plug this one-sided drain of gold and silver. They devised an

elaborately devious plot to trade opium at auctions in Calcutta, mix it with tobacco, smuggle it across the seas into China, and finally use these illicit earnings to pay for Chinese exotica.

Since opium imports were banned in China, Emperor Daoguang sent a polite but firm protest to Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, the letter was whisked midway and it never reached the Queen; history may have been different if an informed Queen had clamped down on the British East India Company’s illegal intentions. In 1839, after a decade of aborted anti-opium campaigns, the Chinese monarch ran out of patience. He confiscated and destroyed 20,000 chests of ill-gotten opium and detained an entire foreign community.

The events escalated into the world’s first drug war — the First Opium War (1839-42) — between the Qing dynasty and the British East India Company. The Chinese were pummelled into submission and forced to sign the first of many unequal treaties which rankle ordinary citizens to this day. The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing granted an indemnity of 21 million dollars to the Company and opened the ports of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai to opium imports.

Ultimately, the burden of humiliations became too heavy to carry for the Qing rulers; led by Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese Revolution of 1911 put paid to the monarchy.

Surprisingly, the British East India Company authored an utterly different edition of colonial rule in India. Perhaps the two situations were not comparable to begin with. In China, one dynasty was ruling over the entire country, and several colonial powers vied to carve the ‘single’ melon on offer. India’s situation was a mirror image of this: Britain was the single colonial power, but India was carved up into hundreds of intrigue-ridden, weak ‘kingdoms’. It was a lush but unguarded orchard of ripe ‘cherries’, easy to sweep away into a tidy political basket.

The British East India Company rapidly expanded, plucking more ‘cherries’, annexing territories and small princely states. In the 1830s, Macaulay created a new charter for the British East India Company which completely transformed India’s legal edifice. An all-India legislative council replaced regional legislatures. Law-making powers were taken away from the provincial governments in Bengal, Bombay and Madras Presidencies. One set of laws and courts were established for everybody. In his other task, Macaulay’s famous Minute on Education (1835) brought English out of its imperial closet; with one stroke of his powerful pen, he made English the official language of India and the medium of instruction in all educational institutions.

By 1882, over 60 per cent of the primary schools were teaching the Queen’s language. English was called the ‘milk of tigress’, creating a new energy and opportunity for the natives. Even the Indian National Congress, which led India to independence, conducted most of its proceedings in English!

Over the Himalayas, the Chinese Civil War broke out in 1927 — Mao Zedong’s Communists orchestrated the Long March, a military revolt against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Nationalists. The Japanese army jumped into this cauldron in 1937; ultimately, Chiang’s Kuomintang was defeated; Chiang fled to modern Taiwan, politically separating it from mainland China.

Thus it came about that China’s and India’s destinies converged, for a fleeting moment in history, in the late 1940s. The British parliament passed the Indian Independence Act, 1947, and royal assent was granted to free India from colonial rule on August 15, 1947. Barely over two years later, on October 1, 1949, Mao founded the People’s Republic of China at a massive rally in Beijing.

But history’s tangential moment was all too brief. China became a totalitarian State. India became a parliamentary democracy. Once again, these ancient civilisations — the non- identical twins — were flung irretrievably apart. The British would often pompously describe their rule as one which ‘civilised’ India; it has to be admitted that they ‘adopted’ India as a subordinate State, transferring several institutional strengths.

On the other hand, China’s colonial history was far more turbulent under several rapacious rulers, without a similar ‘institutional osmosis’. But could this also explain China’s stout confidence and India’s self-doubt? Did centuries of wars and strife make China’s leaders tougher, more martial, bigger risk-takers? As against this, have the ‘civilising’ niceties of British domination made India’s leaders more timid and less confident? As the British themselves would say, it’s worth a thought, old chap!

( Raghav Bahl is founder and editor of Network18. He will be writing his column, Superpower, once a month. His book Superpower: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise, Penguin Allen Lane, will be published in August. )

*The views expressed by the author are personal