Indians' attitude to the English language and to Britain is, without doubt, schizophrenic
The death of Queen Elizabeth II earlier this month has evoked worldwide admiration for the manner in which the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch conducted herself over a difficult century. In part, the sympathetic response may well be due to the fact that she reminded us all of our grandmother.
This sympathetic response has raised at least two questions in India. First, why are we still impressed by the feudal trappings of pomp and pageantry despite having been a republic for nearly three quarters of a century?
Second, why are we still in awe of the British and the English language?
The answer to the first question is simple. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have renamed Rajpath as “Kartavyapath”, but most Indians are still in awe of feudal vestiges, including the Raj. Forget the British monarch, many of our gods, our heroes and heroines are the kings and queens of our long history and we continue to celebrate their valour without questioning their feudal character.
Maharaja Shivaji is as much a hero for republican Indians as the Rani of Jhansi because they raised their sword against the invaders. The fact that they were also feudal chiefs is not yet an issue for most Indians who live with feudal attitudes and practices even in this day and age.
Little wonder then that a politician like Jyotiraditya Scindia, who is a member of the Union Cabinet, still likes to be referred to as “Samant”, a feudal title that he inherited, and the cricket player Mansur Ali Khan was much better known as the Nawab of Pataudi (Junior). Erstwhile potentates, deprived of their titles and privy purses by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1969, are still referred to as Raja and Rani even by the media. Worse, from business leaders to university vice-chancellors, everyone refers to ministers in the government as “honourable minister”, a feudal honorific, shying away from the more republican “Mr/Madam Minister”.
The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. Our attitude to the English language and to Britain is, without doubt, schizophrenic. Even as we deplore Lord Macaulay for imposing the teaching of the English language on us, millions of aspirational Indians, especially from the socially and economically deprived sections of the population, now insist on being taught English. It is not only a global language, but also opens up doors to new possibilities.
Apart from our attitude towards the Queen and the English language, the growing UK-India relationship in the shadow of Brexit, with Britain desperately looking for markets and friends to replace the European Union, has raised once again the larger question of India’s attitude towards its former imperial conqueror.
Britain has been reminded of the drain of wealth from India and the purloining of diamonds and much else. Some believe that Britain must make amends. Within the UK itself, the memory of empire has been erased, as I discovered lecturing to audiences in London and Norwich. Some others believe that this year, when India marks its 75th year as an independent nation, it is time to adopt a more balanced view of not just Britain but also of the Indo-British relationship.
While Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao tried to build bridges in 1993 launching the Indo-British Partnership Initiative (IBPI), along with then British PM John Major, the boldest attempt to recast the relationship between the colony and the coloniser was made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Addressing the students of Oxford University in 2005, Dr Singh asserted that “despite the economic impact of colonial rule, the relationship between individual Indians and Britons, even at the time of our Independence, was relaxed and, I may even say, benign”. He then quoted Mahatma Gandhi who, when asked “How far would you cut India off from the Empire?”, replied: “From the Empire, completely; from the British nation not at all, if I want India to gain and not to grieve.” Gandhiji added: “The British Empire is an empire only because of India. The emperorship must go and I should love to be an equal partner with Britain, sharing her joys and sorrows. But it must be a partnership on equal terms.”
Dr Singh went on to ask: “What impelled the Mahatma to take such a positive view of Britain and the British people even as he challenged the empire and colonial rule?” He offered his answer in these words: “I believe it was, undoubtedly, his recognition of the elements of fair play that characterised so much of the ways of the British in India. Consider the fact that an important slogan of India’s struggle for freedom was that ‘Self-Government is more precious than Good Government’. That, of course, is the essence of democracy. But the slogan suggests that even at the height of our campaign for freedom from colonial rule, we did not entirely reject the British claim to good governance. We merely asserted our natural right to self-governance.”
I drafted this speech for the PM in close consultation with him. The draft was then shown to foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who advised the PM against making such positive statements about Britain, since this would be politically controversial. Dr Singh rejected the advice on the grounds that this was how he felt and he was quoting the Mahatma in his defence. The time had come, he felt, for Indians to take a more balanced view of our colonial heritage, weighing the negative against the positive.
As expected, Dr Singh was criticised at home for his speech by all political parties. His own party remained silent even as the Left and the BJP pilloried him for, what the media dubbed as “genuflecting before the Crown”. The hypocrisy of the Indian elites was on full display. While Indian politicians and diplomats, and the power elite in general, happily send their children to English medium schools, and then on to paid education in the UK and other English-speaking countries, at home they pontificate in public against English and the empire. There is no denying the rapacious loot of India by the East India Company and the British imperial state. However, and despite this, the cultural and social connect between Britain and India has endured, surviving the end of the Empire. That one must grant.