What would India be if the British never came?

Sunanda K Datta Ray

As Theresa May wrestles — albeit not very effectively — with the task of quitting the European Union, I am reminded of a Danish politician telling me long ago that the British could never be fully European because their historic |links with India had left its imprint on their character and culture.
The reverse is far more obvious. The language in which even a robust Hindu nationalist like Narendra Modi makes his most portentous announcements, the bureaucracy that decides every detail of our lives, our parliamentary democracy, schools, colleges and the postal system, the Army that defends us, the courts to which we look for justice, and, indeed, the very models of social success are legacies of the only ruler that, as P.V. Narasimha Rao had once said in Singapore, India didn’t absorb.
Britain steered India’s transition from medievalism to modernity. As some British Sikhs seek to distance themselves from other Indians, one of the community’s most successful members, 86-year-old Kartar Lalvani, argues that the sense of unity that prompted Sikhs and Muslims, Kashmiris and Nagas to regard themselves as part of the great Indian family was the finest achievement of British rule.
As he says in his book, The Making of India, British rule “helped to create a unified India out of multi-cultural, multi-linguistic and divided regions of the vast Indian subcontinent”.
Talking to the soft-spoken and reclusive black-bearded Sikh recalled Nani Palkhivala saying that freed of governmental restraints, an Indian abroad can buy from a Scotsman and sell to a Jew and still make a profit. Britain has allowed the Karachi-born refugee Lalvanis the opportunity to live up handsomely to that maxim, which might explain the rosy view Kartar takes of the British Raj. Although the preface of his book frankly admits Britain’s exploitative role, there can be no doubt about his meaning when he says: “It is worth pausing to consider what India would be like today if the British had chosen to stay at home. This is the untold story.”
Britain’s legacy has been the theme of anguished and exultant debate for decades. Jan Morris evoked the magic of empire. Jon Wilson’sIndia Conquered argues that “the purpose of imperial power was to do nothing more than maintain imperial power”. The missioncivilisatrice (or civilising mission) in which Kipling gloried was the rationale of Macaulay’s Minute on Education.
On our side of the divide, Rabindranath Tagore passionately bemoaned the filth and squalor that he saw as the residue of British rule. It was left to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to strike a balance with diplomatic precision.
Asked how far he would cut India off from the empire, Gandhi famously replied: “From the empire completely; from the British nation not at all, if I want India to gain and not to grieve.”
The Lalvani clan’s career could be an epitaph to that claim although their accomplishments are not as well known in India as they should be. NRIs like the Hinduja brothers, Lakshmi Mittal and the ubiquitous Swraj Paul grab the limelight but people of my generation remember the excitement when Reita Faria, a medical student from Mumbai, was crowned Miss World and was reportedly squired around London by a turbanned young Sikh called Gulu Lalvani. Years later he was linked with Princess Diana. Gulu is the founder-chairman of Binatone, which manufactures digital cordless phones, and now lives in Phuket in Thailand where the family has substantial hotel interests.
His elder brother Kartar, who lives in London, is a pioneer in nutritional science and founder of the huge company Vitabiotics that has a cure for everything. You name it, Vitabiotics makes it. The company was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise. No wonder the subtitle of his formidably informative and meticulously researched book is “The Untold Story of British Enterprise”. Highlighting the point, the cover reproduces photographs of the Iritty Bridge in Kerala and a Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway train drawn by a steam locomotive.
Not many Indians would have dared to defend the Raj like the courageous Kartar. Dr Manmohan Singh’s Oxford speech in 2005 provoked criticism at home because it’s still thought unpatriotic to praise the British. In fact, one of the reasons I decided many years ago not to stay on in Britain was this awareness of implicit tension between unnecessarily rival loyalties. Even much later when a friendly British diplomat arranged residency for me and my family, I let the privilege lapse.
It’s different for other nationalities. Poles and Serbs can take a pragmatic view of Britain, but Indians are too closely tied up in the British past for the relationship to strike an objective balance. The Indian politician the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) met during his Indian tour understood this emotional dimension. When the prince asked what more Indians could want since everyone he had seen looked happy and contented, the politician replied: “Self-respect, Sir!”
Given this antidote to the achievements Lalvani lists in such detail, it might be safer to defer a conclusion, taking a leaf from Zhou Enlai’s book. It may be recalled that when Zhou was asked in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, he replied it was “too early to say”. However he may have meant it — and there are now alternative interpretations — the reply is quoted to emphasise the Chinese ability to take a long view of history.
To return to Britain’s Indian connection, the attractive young Romanian restaurant hostess at London’s Hilton Hotel where Kartar and I were dining said she’d been to India. Seeing my surprised look, she explained: “My husband is English. He wanted to spend our honeymoon there. You know the English have this thing about India!” It’s reciprocal.