What if 2011 India was a British dominion?

A God-save-the-joke look at a nation of 1.2 billion loyal subjects to the British queen.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2011 14:28 IST
Patrick French
Patrick French
Hindustan Times

In retrospect, the turning point in modern Indian history was the 1949 putsch when the short-lived premiership of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru came to an abrupt end. The `moderates' who went into eclipse in the 1930s reasserted their influence, arguing that after the chaos of Partition, the last thing India needed was for workings of the government to be disrupted.

For the moment, said the Liberal leader Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, India had "equality with other governments of the British dominions" such as Canada and Australia.

The writing of a new Constitution was all very well, but could wait for "more propitious times", and it would be foolhardy to go down the "modern road" of becoming a republic, rather than retaining the link to the British crown that accompanied dominion status. Whether the stiff Maharashtrian lawyer Dr MR Jayakar was the ideal replacement for Pandit Nehru remains a matter of debate.

The recent visit by the newlymarried Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has been widely viewed as a success, and republicanism appears to be on the wane again. As the governor-general, Lady Patil, told the royal couple in a welcoming speech: "Your journey across our fair dominion marks the beginning of your journey into the heart of every Indian.

As loyal subjects of Her Majesty the Queen Empress Elizabeth II, we are both honoured and delighted that you have chosen India for your first official tour together." Barring the unfortunate incident when a garland of shoes was tossed at the Duchess while driving through Calcutta, large crowds turned out to wave the Union Jack at the newly-weds. And as the Governor of West Bengal, sir Swapan Dasgupta, said later: "That was no more than the rank impertinence of a few young ruffians."

Back in the 1970s, few would have predicted that India would still be a dominion so many years later.

Influenced by those who thought the import of British socialism had damaged the nation's competitiveness, and by those who believed India needed to break all colonial ties, the popular mood was moving against London.

The rupture came unexpectedly following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when India (as a member of Nato) joined the US in launching a covert war against the Soviet Union. This military adventurism at a time when the government was short of money led indirectly to the civil war of 1982-83, which culminated in south India making a unilateral declaration of independence, leading to the bombing of the breakaway capital of Madras by the Royal Indian Air Force. The nation was again partitioned, with the Republic of Dravidia breaking all ties with the former colonial power.

In the period of retrenchment that followed, the now truncated dominion of India sought to emphasise its distinctive characteristics.

The princes of Rajputana gained increasing political influence in New Delhi, and traditional Indian values were taught in schools. The wearing of the ghunghat became mandatory for women in public places, and some of the tentative land reforms that had been introduced in the 1950s were reversed.

Sports such as shooting and pig sticking came back into fashion. Those who argued that India could no longer continue without a written Constitution, which protected the rights of minorities and Scheduled Castes, were told that Britain managed perfectly well without one.

Through all this, relations with London remained good despite the diplomatic debacle in 1992 when the Duchess of York was photographed on holiday in Lonavla, having her toes sucked by her Gujarati `financial adviser'.

In the 21st century, as we move towards a globalised world, there are voices both in business and in civil society who believe India is constrained by its retention of dominion status. Some of the reciprocal legislation between India and Britain causes social disquiet. Because Britain gives citizenship to around 2,50,000 new people each year, India is obliged to do the same.

Many of the new Indian citizens, who often hail from Newcastle or Manchester, keep to themselves and refuse to learn local languages.

Politicians argue that Indians should be more welcoming to immigrants, and say the country is forging a new multicultural identity in which fish and chips with boiled peas and chips with boiled peas is the new national dish.

The other rule that causes worry is India's adoption of the European Union's working time directive, which limits employees to a 35-hour working week. The Duke of Bombay, Mukesh Ambani, has led opposition to this legislation, and points out that rival companies in China and Dravidia often insist on a 72hour working week, which gives them a competitive advantage.

Might things have gone differently if India had become a republic? I tracked down the only surviving child of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, who lives in a bungalow in Almora in retirement. She was scathing about the state of the Indian government today. "It is a mockery of everything my father's generation stood for. His generation fought for purna swaraj, for complete freedom from foreign rule, and now nearly 70 years later we have Indian taxpayers paying for a royal tour by the family of the Queen Empress Elizabeth II. We should have become a republic straight after 1947."

Still feisty at the age of 94, Mrs Gandhi has two sons: one is an airline pilot, and the other works at the Maruti Suzuki plant in Gurgaon. "As for the proposal by this so-called dominion government that Prince Harry should become Governor of Bombay," she continued, "it's a com plete disgrace. They say it's because he's a party boy, and will feel at home there! If I were in charge, I would dock his pocket money."

Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait (Allen Lane)

First Published: Aug 19, 2011 16:04 IST