July 05, 2020
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Cry Babies

The Brits didn't do it, we Indians brought it on ourselves

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Cry Babies
Midnight's children are all grandparents now. Yet, even three full generations after independence, many of us are still captives of a xenophobic pre-independence mindset, as evident from the furore over PM Manmohan Singh's comments at Oxford on British rule. Worse, colonial exploitation remains the perennial excuse for all our ills.

That excuse is inexcusable. The British, of course, did not conquer India out of altruism, but to exploit the country for their own benefit. Still, it would be dishonest to ignore the many incidental benefits of British rule—that it ended the political chaos and rampant banditry that prevailed in India in the eighteenth century, and laid the foundations on which a modern economy, society and state could be built.

Our backwardness was not caused by the British. We were backward when they arrived. But what about the statistics that the PM quoted at Oxford, that "India's share of world income collapsed from 22.6 per cent in 1700...to as low as 3.8 per cent in 1952"? The figures are no doubt true. But we have to see them in their historical context. The main reason for the precipitous decline of India's comparative economic stature was the industrial revolution that transformed the Western world, but ruined many of our traditional crafts. It was technology that did us in. British exploitation was only a contributing factor.

But what about the famines during the British rule? That was nothing new. Famines were a perennial problem in India, of which there are many harrowing accounts in ancient and medieval Indian literature. Well then, what about racial discrimination? Yes, it certainly was humiliating to be treated as a second-class people by the British in our own country. But our caste system was far more discriminatory, keeping a large section of the people, the untouchables, outside the very pale of society.

In any case, whatever be the ills of colonial rule, we have to get over the victim syndrome of blaming others for our problems. We can't shirk responsibility for whatever happened to us. If others exploited us, it was largely because we were vulnerable. Ultimately, we alone are responsible for our present predicament.

As for our future, there are several Asian countries that began modernisation with far greater disadvantages than we had, but are today way ahead of us—countries that suffered much worse colonial exploitation under the French and the Dutch than we did under the British, were vandalised by the Japanese during the World War II, and were in some cases torn asunder by civil wars and rebellions. Why are we so far behind these countries?

We should also ponder why we have not produced a single Nobel laureate in all these years after independence. Several Indians working abroad have won this honour, and so too a European nun working in India, but no Indian working in India. Why not? Evidently our environment is not congenial for high achievement, and we are not disciplined and hard working enough. Instead of dealing with our problems realistically, our common inclination is to strut about thumping our chest and boasting what a great people we are. Or, alternately, to sit on our haunches in a corner whining about our fate. Neither is helpful. We have to get on our feet and move on. And we have to take our destiny in our own hands. The other day the prime minister said that we should not be satisfied with third-rate or second-rate results, but should aim at nothing but the very best. This is the mantra to energise us to surge ahead.

It is hard to imagine it today, but we were once a dynamic civilisation, well integrated with the other great civilisations of the ancient world, before we slid into the Dark Ages around the sixth century, and curled up into our shell. As Albiruni, the great Arab scholar of the 10th century, wrote, Indians thereafter came to "believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.... They are haughty, foolishly vain...if they travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not so narrow-minded." These attitudes still prevail in India.

In our rapidly shrinking world, xenophobia is another anachronism. Just as tribalism lost its relevance with the emergence of the territorial state, nationalism is now steadily losing its relevance. Now, as the world advances towards a global economy and culture, it is not so much our self-sufficiency as our integration with other countries that will determine our destiny. Year by year, there is less and less space for cultural or religious or national conflicts on this tiny mote of coagulated dust called earth, floating in the infinite vastness of space.

(Historian Abraham Eraly has authored two books on India, Gem in The Lotus and The Last Spring. He's currently working on a study of classical Indian civilisation.)

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