Jewel in the Crown

Unlike modern occupiers, the British were honest and unapologetic about their intentions in India. The geographic entity that was yet to be defined as India was a fertile ground of spices, textile and priceless stones, waiting to be plundered. And over the 190-year occupation, she was plundered repeatedly and mercilessly, first by the East India Company Limited and then by the British Empire (no less!) when Queen Victoria placed the stolen Koh-i-Noor diamond in her crown and declared herself the Empress of India.

The contributions of the British in India, from industrialization (the Indian Railways network, for instance, was established to facilitate the movement of goods from villages to important ports like Calcutta and Bombay) to education (Lord Macaulay's aim was to build an army of English-speaking clerks that would remain subservient to their English political masters) were not acts of philanthropy, but shrewd business moves to reap long-term commercial benefits. However, the real legacy of the British Raj continues to be a deeply divided society, split along religious lines, as a consequence of their disastrous Divide and Conquer policy.

The first step in this direction was the Government of India Act of 1935 that proposed separate electorates along religious lines. Although most proposals of the Act were not implemented, the seeds of communalism had been successfully sowed and with gentle stoking and ruthless exploitation culminated in the eventual independence of a weakened and partitioned India.

As pointed out in this week's New Yorker magazine, this was no mean "achievement" given that a Babelish diversity of languages, cultures and traditions existed in British India cutting across religious communities, and few people identified themselves exclusively through their ancestral faith. The Pashton tribesmen in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), for instance, had absolutely nothing in common with the jute farmer in the far eastern province of Bengal, barring their religion. Yet the British policy of defining communities based on religious identity had the effect of radically altering Indian self-perceptions, and began to raise the awareness of their religious roots over societal bonds that had existed among neighbours for years.

This was perfected almost to an art-form when Sir Winston Churchill, the self-professed hater of Indians, was elected Prime Minister of England during World War II. Alex von Tunzelmann's thesis in his new book "Indian Summer" is that by encouraging Hindu-Muslim antagonism and opportunistically supporting Muslim separatism, Churchill became “instrumental in creating the world’s first modern Islamic state” and this cynical pandering to political Islam has had far-reaching consequences.

Cyril Radcliffe was given the unenviable task of carving out a Muslim Pakistan from the Indian subcontinent, and he did so without taking the pain of visiting either of the two states, Punjab and Bengal, that his pen doomed to the horrors of partition. That such an arbitrary division was unrealistic was proved in 1971 when the Bengali-speaking citizens of East Pakistan rebelled against Islamabad's political and linguistic domination to form the independent Republic of Bangladesh, the first country to be born over a language dispute.

India has come a long way since 15th August 1947 when Jawaharlal Nehru declared, "A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance". Although India's soul has indeed found utterance in her powerful democratic ideals and unwavering faith in secularism, as well as intellectual contributions in today's Information Age; at the societal level, the scars of the Raj's misguided policy remain indelible.

Why the pink blackguards bothered to tax Indians I will never understand, for they had successfully stolen everything they needed for centuries, from the jewelled inlays of the Taj Mahal to the Kohinoor on their queen's crown, and one would have thought they could have done without the laborious extraction of the Indian working-man's pittance. But there has always been something perversely precise about British oppression: the legal edifice of the Raj was built on the premise that anything resulting from the filling of forms in quadruplicate could not possibly be an injustice.
Shashi Tharoor, The Great Indian Novel