British legacy alive and kicking in India
Dumping symbols of two centuries of British rule remains a popular, if sometimes jingoistic, policy in India even 60 years after it became independent.Updated: Aug 13, 2007 10:12 IST
In a nondescript corner of Delhi, white marble statues and busts of British royalty and viceroys, including King George V, languish in a park filled with filth, faeces and wild undergrowth.
In the next month or two, 13 cities and towns in southern India, including the IT hub of Bangalore, will give up their anglicised names and revert to their vernacular versions -- the latest in a list of places burying their colonial nomenclature.
Dumping symbols of two centuries of British rule remains a popular, if sometimes jingoistic, policy in India even 60 years after it became independent.
But it has not been as easy for the country to chart a completely independent new path, as some of the more enduring legacies of the Raj have become a big part of its identity and symbolise much of what is right with it, as well as what is not. <b1>
The English language clearly tops the list, with India home to between 300 and 400 million English speakers, thought to be the largest in the world.
"It used to be said that the sun never sets on the British Empire," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a speech at his alma mater, Oxford University, after he was awarded a honorary doctorate in 2005.
"I am afraid we were partly responsible for sending that adage out of fashion," he said.
"But if there is one phenomenon on which the sun cannot set, it is the world of English-speaking people, in which the people of Indian origin are the single largest component."
Inheritance of the language -- as well as an accompanying university system -- has helped India produce millions of English-speaking engineers and back-office workers, pushing the country's IT industry to the global centre-stage and earning billions of dollars for the economy.
New world coolies?
Today, children in cities and towns are taught English alphabets -- "A, B, C, D" as they call it -- at nurseries even before they are three years old, much before they learn to read or write their own native tongues.
Earlier this month, a Bangalore-based firm announced it would teach English to South Koreans through the Internet, saying Asians would benefit from learning it from non-native speakers.
Acquiring English has raised the prosperity levels of middle-class Indians, just as it brought a sense of equality under British rule by undermining the hierarchy of caste-ridden society, says renowned author and teacher UR Ananthamurthy.
But today, with market forces dominating and offering lucrative jobs to young men and women who can "speak English with the right accent", India's rich heritage of regional languages was being undermined, he said.
"We are not an economic force, we are a workforce of the world," Ananthamurthy said. "It is some kind of modern coolie work. This is a very illusory kind of development."
Historians also credit British times for giving India the notion of the rule of law, a parliamentary democracy and constitutional government, an organised civil service, police force, military and the legal system -- essentially, all the key institutions that run a country.
While they served the subcontinent largely well until the early part of the 20th Century, some of them have atrophied into corrupt and inefficient monoliths blamed for many of India's ills, laments Mark Tully, a former India bureau chief of BBC and author of some acclaimed books about contemporary India.
The police force, known for corruption at the lower levels, brutality, torture, and a tradition of being in favour of the government under the British, continues to function under a similar structure and with a similar psyche, he said.
The Indian Administrative Service, successor of the powerful Indian Civil Service, wields enormous clout in almost every branch of administration although many officers "are doing jobs they are not qualified for in any sense at all".
Colonial-era laws have remained in place and are exploited by the political elite just as they were exploited by the British. Other laws long abandoned by Britain, like one outlawing homosexuality, have never been rescinded in India.
"The most damaging legacy, which is still enduring, is an administrative structure which was designed to run a colony is used now to run a democracy," said Tully, who has lived in India for more than 40 years.
"Even during its last days of running a colony, this structure was very much on its last legs," he said, adding that reforms were overdue.
However, it is not just the inability of independent India's leaders to adapt these systems to modern times that perpetuates the legacy of colonialisation.
Cricket, often described as an Indian sport discovered by the English, and the Indian railways, the world's largest employer, are credited with uniting the country like few other factors.
Indians writing fiction in English are winning accolades and awards around the world while Indian military bands cherish ending ceremonies with the Christian hymn "Abide with Me", introduced to the country by Britain.
Most young Indians still address their seniors as "Sir". "English Wine" shops dot the towns, and veterans often remark cynically that "life was better under the British" or poke fun at rebellious youngsters as "aristocratic progenies" of the Raj.
In hindsight, as Prime Minister Singh said in his Oxford speech, India certainly gained from British rule.
During a visit to England in 1931, freedom movement leader Mahatma Gandhi was asked how far he would cut India off from the Empire. "From the Empire, completely," he replied. "From the British nation, not at all, if I want India to gain and not to grieve."
First Published: Aug 13, 2007 09:52 IST