Occidental Empire: The Accidental Catalyst of Indian Democracy

Shashi Tharoor's essay, "'But what about the railways ...?' The myth of Britain's gifts to India"
, would be more appropriately titled -- "Boo to the Villains of the Past." Although a vociferous critic of imperialism, I found Dr. Tharoor's article vacuous and regressive. Here, I shall critique this article, and present the following cases:

1. Even though India's historical association with the British empire brought many lasting benefits, crediting the British is absurd.

2. Even though the British rule of India was a terrible period in history, blaming the British is a waste of time today.

3. There are concrete policy reforms India can undertake today, to undo some damage inherited from the British empire, and set the country on a more progressive course.

4. The way forward is to co-opt and transform empire from within. "Embrace and Extend" was Microsoft's strategy, and it should be ours.

To begin, let us ask -- Did the British really sow the seeds of discord in India, or did they just opportunistically add fuel to already burning fires? To answer this question, let us parse a sentence from Dr. Tharoor's article: 
"Large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims (religiously defined), only began under colonial rule;" 
This sentence cunningly cherrypicks history with arbitrary qualifications: "Large-scale", "between Hindus and Muslims", and "(religiously defined)". Removing these confining clauses, I now bring a broader dataset into consideration, and derive a more comprehensive picture, which contradicts Dr. Tharoor. Literary epics from the region depict large-scale wars fought over land, or women. The Aryans conquered and subjugated the Dravidians. The Mughals took over a lot of the region in a series of bloody conquests. The Sikhs and Rajputs were in violent conflict with the Mughals. Numerous petty rajas and nawabs were in continual territorial warfare with each other. All this turmoil and bloodshed was happening in the region, well before the British arrived. How is it relevant whether the violence was "religiously defined" or not? The British once opportunistically incited religious violence, and gained power with their policy of divide and rule. But (let's be quite honest), so did Mr. Narendra Modi, and we forgave him.

In reality, we don't have any means of knowing what might have happened if the British had not colonized the region, though one can spin off several fanciful fantasies:

1. The region could have been liberated by China, and be a proud member of a pan-Asian communist block.

The region could have continued with Mughal rule, and today all "Indians" would be living under "sharia" law, and the dwindling non-Muslim population paying a "jazia" tax.

The region could have become a stagnant backwater as the maharajas and nawabs continued fighting for power and territory; struck by famine in the absence of good governance and resource planning, the bay of Bengal could be notoriously pirate-infested, ala Somalia.

4. The region could have prospered as a trading destination on the Silk Road, attaining its own version of the Enlightenment, which ushers in rationality and secularism. Although several independent homegrown democracies take birth, there is never a unified India. Instead, a tenuous umbrella organization, much like the European Union, is eventually formed.

Each such dystopian/utopian past is an absurdist exercise in futility, since these hypotheses are scientifically untestable today. None of them is quite what we want, and none adds up to a modern, unified, secular, and democratic nation called "India." The very notion of the spontaneous emergence of a unified democracy in the region, without the catalyzing influence of British empire, beggars even the richest imagination. 
There is very little evidence to support Dr. Tharoor's claim that an Indian ruler would undoubtedly have unified the subcontinent from Afghanistan to Burma, in a span of 200 years. However, there is plenty of evidence in history against a supposed "impulse to unity".

1. Consider the long and violent history of separatist and secessionist movements in India. Khalistan. Naxalites. Kashmir.

2. Consider the ever-rising number of states in India.

3. Consider the resistance from non-Hindi-speaking states to using Hindi as the official language.

It appears that India is not exactly a collection of free people, living harmoniously in a common union by choice. Without a single, powerful force to repeatedly, and violently crush separatist mutinies, dear India might have crumbled to pieces long ago.

Even if a local ruler had unified the region, what you would get is a dictatorship, ruled by a maharaja. Maharajas are widely known for their corrupt, decadent and debauched lifestyles, and not usually as wise and benevolent leaders with the interest of the people at heart.  The maharajas were the original kleptocrats who exploited the poor, and sold the control of ruled territories to the British, in exchange for their own short-sighted, selfish rewards. Tales of the maharajas cruelty, greed, and bloodlust are rife.

Dr. Tharoor, funny that you should mention racism, when your prayer seems to be, "If a boot is going to kick me hard in the spleen, please let it be on a brown man's foot, and not a bloody Britisher's."

But let's not confine our discussion to the narrow elitist history of the rich and powerful few. What about the quality of life for the common man? Does it matter that local artisans produced exquisite luxury goods for the enjoyment of the maharajas, if most people were suffering abject poverty? Was there really prosperity, in a time and place where farmers were (probably) being drafted as soldiers, and killed in bloody wars, fought at the whims of their corrupt rulers?

And what about women? Would women have achieved the right to vote sooner in the region, if the British hadn't arrived? From Razia Sultana, to Laxmi Bai, Indian history mentions scant few women in positions of real political power. Without borrowing the ideals of Western Enlightenment wholesale, India might never have boasted of one of the first female heads of state. Indeed, the fate of women's rights in a traditionally patriarchal, male-dominated society would have been grim.

Throughout his essay, Dr. Tharoor fails to provide evidence of a long-persisting, uniting Indian identity. Instead, we have an anecdote by way of Maulana Azad, translated across languages, distorted by history, in which someone lumps together many people into one labelled group. There is nothing to imply that those people objectively had a common country, national identity, loyalties, language, and culture. The label, "Hindi", when used by anonymous Arabs long ago to group together foreigners from faraway lands, is about as meaningful as the label, "Firangi", which might once have described all Europeans. Need I say, Europe is not a country.

As for the ancient coinage of the word, "Bharatvarsha" ( भारतवर्ष ), perhaps we should refrain from reading too much into it. Just because a word has been coined, doesn't mean that it refers to something objectively meaningful. Take the Sanskrit word, "Vimana" ( विमान ), meaning "aircraft". Do you really believe that actual people once flew in a physical aircraft, nonstop from Sri Lanka to Ayodhya, thousands of years ago? If you do, I've got your press release ready:
"Dear Theresa May, As a result of the British stealing our ancient flight technology and muddling our traditions, India still has to import its aircraft. As reparations, British Airways should provide a lifetime of free flights to all Indian citizens."

Jokes aside, mythopoetic flights of imagination are a far cry from stark reality. We would do well to stop pining for a mythical past that never was, and take responsibility for shaping our own destiny. Playing the victim card and blaming the villains of the past, however justifiably, will only get you so far. More than money, India needs to restore its self-respect. In the long run, blaming the British, and continually defining India in relation to its former colonizers, is detrimental to the nation's self-image. Change begins at home, and there are many steps India can take to start repairing some of Britain's harmful, and continuing legacy. 

1. Institute a Uniform Civil Code. All people should be equal in the eyes of the law, with no exceptions made for any religion.

2. Abolish institutionalized caste-ism. Economic need should be the only basis for reservations. There should be various quotas for the poor, not for scheduled castes/tribes.

3. Stop organizing the Indian army under divisive categories given by the British. For example: The Sikh regiment could be renamed the Bhagat Singh regiment.

4. Adopt Open Source Software, and stop entrusting imperialist powers with your data.

5. Grant gay people the right to marry, and further India's reputation as a forward-thinking nation that celebrates diversity.

Britain once played a unifying role by becoming the common enemy to a number of disparate people. Today, the United Kingdom is no longer seen as the enemy in India, where India-England cricket matches are enjoyed over sips of chai. In this fluid current context, dwelling on the colonial past, dredging up old scars, and trying to stir up Two Minutes Hate with a "British, bad. Indian, good."-rant, are really unnecessary.

Meanwhile, the CEO of Google, the CEO of Microsoft, and the Mayor of London are busy transforming empire from the inside out. The antiseptic turmeric in the curries dished out by Southall's Indian dhabas, is surely healing the colo-rectal tracts of Londoners with the postcolonial blues, even now. Feel the spicy revolution within!

Update: Changed "Mr. Tharoor" to "Dr. Tharoor", throughout. My apologies for the mistake.

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