Did the British Raj have a beneficial side?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at Oxford University last week that the British Raj, despite its ills, had a beneficial side. It brought good governance and new institutions that Indians value even today. Predictably, the BJP and Marxists are outraged by what they see as kow-towing to imperial masters.

Marxist historian Irfan Habib accuses Dr Singh of seeking applause from the sahibs. He sneers that Dr Singh values institutions like the IAS so much that he can forget “the lives of millions of Indians in famines such as those of 1896-97, 1899-00, and 1943; forget too the heavy taxation of the poor; the suppression of modern industry by all possible devices; the miserable level of expenditure on health and education; the exclusion of Indians from all high offices and positions of power; and the suppression of civil liberties (Dr Singh’s attribution of a free press to Britain notwithstanding). Indian civilization did not meet the British Empire, it was laid low by the latter by the sword and shot….We may well expect our Prime Minister to visit Washington, to beg the United States (now Britain’s senior partner) to extend its own expertise in good governance to India, the benefits of which should not surely remain confined to Iraq.”

That’s very eloquent, but a gross misrepresentation. Dr Singh did not mince words at Oxford about the travails of the Raj. “India’s share of world income collapsed from 22.6% in 1700, almost equal to Europe’s share of 23.3% at that time, to as low as 3.8% in 1952. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the brightest jewel in the British Crown was the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income.”

Let me be blunter than Dr Singh. The British looted, plundered, killed and raped in India, no less than previous conquerors. But in one respect they were different: they brought in new values and new institutions shaped by the European Englightenment. Notions like liberty, equality and fraternity did not come from Aurangzeb, Shivaji or earlier Indian rulers, they came from Europe through the Raj.

Caste-conscious Hinduism rejected equality. Karma held that the poor and oppressed were responsible for their own plight: their travails were retribution for sins committed in past lives. The jaziya was an unashamedly communal tax. The European Enlightenment created very different institutions based on very different values.

However, it was hypocritical for a conquering ruler to extol liberty, equality and fraternity. The ruled soon absorbed these values, and on the basis of the conqueror’s values demanded independence! It is no accident that leaders of the independence movement were often products of British university education, and wanted partnership with the British even while demanding independence.

When Mahatma Gandhi’s visited Oxford, he was asked “How far would you cut India off from the Empire?” He replied, “From the Empire, entirely; from the British nation not at all, if I want India to gain and not to grieve.”

Dr Singh has cited Rabindranath Tagore, another votary of Indo-British partnership.

“The West has today opened its door.

There are treasures for us to take.

We will take and we will also give,

From the open shores of India’s immense humanity.”

Such sentiments did not endear Gandhiji or Tagore to the RSS or Marxists. The RSS saw Gandhiji’s non-violence as neo-Christian. The Marxists repeatedly accused Gandhiji of being a British collaborator. No wonder they make the same accusation now against Dr Singh.

At Oxford, Dr Singh said “Our notions of the rule of law, of a Constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age-old civilization met the dominant Empire of the day. These are all elements which we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served the country well. Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language and the modern school system. That is, if you leave out cricket!”

The ultimate irony is that Habib himself is a creation of the Raj, if only he had eyes to see. He boasts a degree from Oxford University. He is a professor (a post created by the Raj) of history (a university discipline created by the Raj). He taught at Aligarh Muslim University, which was created with British encouragement, and so exemplifies the Indo-British give-and-take which Habib claims is illusory. He writes in the English language, and gets published by British publishers.

Habib believes in the right to criticise the ruler without fear of being beheaded. Ancient Hindu and Muslim monarchs, who beheaded critics without a second thought, would have been appalled by Habib’s adoption of the values of British conquerors.

What do you think?