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Good things to the Raj times

The British did not break up India when they left, they did their best to keep it together. It was our leaders who split it as they failed to get on with each other, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2008 13:24 IST

When I submitted a collection of articles written by English men and women, compiled by me over 30 years ago to Penguin-Viking under the title Sahibs who Loved India, I hoped it would make the top of non-fiction best-sellers list. It did not. Besides Lord Meghnad Desai’s favourable notice in Outlook, it only got a few patronising paragraphs in other journals. Lord Desai is a Britisher and a friend. I expected him to be kind to me. I was disappointed as I felt strongly that our historians had painted a negative picture of British Raj without giving it credit for its positive contribution to the making of India. They have a lot to say about the rapacity of men like Clive & Warren Hastings, about the diabolical massacre of innocents at Jallianwala Bagh, their racist arrogance, ‘Whites only Clubs’ and keeping their distance from Indians and the nasty things they had to say about everything Indian. However, there was the other side of the coin. Let me draw your attention to some of its salient features.

The British Raj made us conscious of being Indian. We were Punjabis, Awadhis, Biharis, Bengalis, Oriyas Andhras, Tamils, Malayalis, Maharashtrians, Rajputs — also Hindu, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. We remained all these but also became Indians. All of us had one passport — Indian.

The British built us telegraph, connected our cities by roads, railways, laid networks of canals, dams to produce hydro-electricity. They started the process of industrialisation. They also introduced democratic institutions like municipalities, states and Central legislatures. During the British rule, there was more respect for the law. There were fewer riots, bandhs, and gheraos; blocking roads and rail traffic, burning buses and trains. Smashing of cars etc. was little heard of. There was less corruption. Rarely did English officers indulge in bribery. Now it is rare to find an honest, civil servant who can’t be bribed. Ask any Indian of my generation and he will confirm that life and property were safer in British times than in India today.

Comparison with Princely States is pertinent. Most ruling princes lived in huge palaces, had fleets of Rolls Royces, amassed jewellery, maintained harems of wives and concubines, squandered public money lavishly. Not even the Viceroys of India lived in the styles of our maharajas and nawabs.

Many Englishmen supported India’s freedom movement. The founder of Indian National Congress was an Englishman, A.O.Hume; Mahatma Gandhi’s closest disciple was an English woman, Mira Ben. Amongst his closest associates were Reverend C.F. Andrews and Polak. Two Englishmen were involved in the Meerut Conspiracy case to put an end to the Raj. There were dozens of other English journalists, civil servants, Boxwallahs who lent active support to our freedom movement. The British did not divide us to rule, as is often alleged by nationalist historians. Maulana Mohammed Ali was right in holding ‘We divide and they rule.” The British did not break up India when they left, they did their best to keep it together. It was our leaders who split it as they failed to get on with each other. The British left the country with good graces. They did not have to be pushed out as other European colonists like the French, Dutch & Portuguese. That is why many Indians have nostalgic memories of the Raj.

And finally, lots of English people went out of their way to befriend Indians. I was lucky in knowing quite a few and felt I should do my bit in knowing quite a few of them and my bit in setting the record right. I am an unashamed Anglo-phile.

What a great fall

During the monsoon of 1960, I witnessed the most awe-inspiring, spectacular and picturesque sight of nature as its best — the majestic Jog Falls. The vast expanse of water of Sharavathi river, falling from great height as Jog Falls was composed of four distinct sub falls — Rocket, Roarer, Rani and Raja. With a perpetual rainbow across them and the sides of gorge veiled in white vapours, the scenic view and tranquil atmosphere at the government guest-house made one feel like being in paradise. The first page of the visitor’s book had the opening remark: “What a waste of Water”.

This remark was written by none other than the noted centurion, renowned engineer, able administrator, illustrious son and Dewan of erstwhile golden state of Mysore-Bharat Ratna Dr. Mokshagundam Visvesvarya.

During the summer of 1964, I again visited Jog Falls as student of college of Military Engineering, Kirkee on a study tour. With the river Sharavathi having been dammed and water diverted into penstocks for generation of hydro power, the dream of visionary Visesvarya had come true, but at the cost of leaving the mighty Jog Falls high and dry. Rocket had taken off for good, never to return; Roarer had been silenced for ever and was no more music to the ears; Rani had deserted her beloved Raja; and the lonely and lean stream of Raja was reduced to an exaggerated version of ‘Mannikin Piss’ of Brussels.

Before endorsing my remarks in the visitors book, out of sheer inquisitiveness, I glanced the last remark written by a tourist with the popular American name Henry (neither Ford, nor Kissinger, nor Fonda, the illustrious sons of America). His ingenious and original remark read as “I know of a plumber in Texas who can repair this leak.”

(Courtesy: Col. Trilok Mehrotra, New Delhi)

First Published: Nov 14, 2008 23:00 IST