Reappraising the Raj

Tue 12 Sep 2017

The grand narrative of modern Indian history has come to be dominated by the triumvirate of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar. No doubt, it is a well-deserved recognition. But it also relegates several freedom fighters and national leaders to the status of foot soldiers. Towering leaders like Rajaji, Sree Narayana Guru, Lala Lajpat Rai are no longer part of our collective consciousness. Still worse, they are downgraded to local and ethnic levels. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule is only celebrated by Dalits and most backward class groups.

Our collective amnesia does more injustice to all those from the British Isles and associated with the Raj. A Lord Lytton or a Reginald O’Dwyer deserves all the opprobrium. What about a William Bentinck or a Lord Ripon? And what about, above all, Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay?

It is time the country embarked on a new estimation of the pantheon of modern India’s nation builders. Such a process will be fraught with contestation and controversy. And much needed.

Time for a forgiving gaze

Fortunately, the constant reappraisal of history is taking place, not at the behest of some government agency but by common people. Consider this. While scholars question the wisdom of ‘colonial hydrology’, Sir Arthur Cotton who built a barrage on river Godavari (and several others) is gratefully remembered by people in coastal Andhra Pradesh. He is called a Modern Bhagirath and his statue is kept in a temple. Newspapers in the State carry special articles on occasion.

It is natural that a generation remains bitter towards an oppressive regime, foreign or home-grown, that it managed to overthrow. And the subsequent generations would be more forgiving, if not forgetful. It is emblematic of the times that we now witness the reverse in India.

Generations that lived under British rule had had a more equanimous and sympathetic view of the times though people fought for its end. The self-induced outrage at British rule reflects home-grown jingoism.

Hardly a generation ago, it would be natural for a history teacher to extol the greatness of this or that Briton who may have happened to be associated with the Raj — and faced no consequences. Nowadays, even the students would drag such a teacher out of the classroom and teach him a lesson.

In 1982 I could write a newspaper article on Macaulay, using the vignettes my undergraduate history lecturer narrated in the class. It’s another matter that he had disapproved of my temerity to blindly print his memory without any research!

Macaulay’s bequest to India

Macaulay in 1833 was the first on record among those ruled India to reject caste and communal distinctions in categorical terms: “…the worst of all systems was surely that of having a mild code for the Brahmins… while there was a severe code for the Sudras. India has suffered enough already from the distinction of castes, and from the deeply rooted prejudices which that distinction has engendered. God forbid that we should inflict on her the curse of a new caste, that we should send her a new breed of Brahmins!”

“It is the genius of this man,” wrote eminent historian K.M. Panikkar in his estimation of Macaulay, “narrow in his Europeanism, self-satisfied in his sense of English greatness, that gives life to modern India as we know it. He was India’s new Manu, the spirit of modern law incarnate.” A generation later historian Ramachandra Guha echoes a similar viewpoint: “The software revolution in India might never have happened had it not been for Macaulay’s Minute. And India might not have still been united had it not been for that Minute either.” (These two quotes are taken from Zareer Masani’s excellent biography, Macaulay: Pioneer of India’s Modernization .)

Panikkar and Mr. Guha highlight Macaulay’s two gifts to India, the rule of law and English language; they have played — and still play — a critical role in building and keeping India as a functioning democracy. An unintentional side effect of an arrogant and racist coloniser? By no means. For Macaulay, the following ought to be the mission statement of British rule in India: “It would be, on the most selfish view of the case, far better for us that the people of India were well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us; that they were ruled by their own kings, but wearing our broadcloth, and working with our cutlery, than that they were performing their salams to English collectors and English magistrates, but were too ignorant to value, or too poor to buy, English manufactures. To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.” Patronising? Yes. Lacking in good faith? No.

No doubt, his detractors dismiss him as an imperialist and a racist, tossing in a few other charges including that of incest. Save the last one, Macaulay left enough ‘evidence’ to sustain the charges against himself. He said things that can still upset several groups: Americans, Indians, Germans, Russians, the French, the Irish, Jews, Bengalis, and, above all, the Catholics. But his omissions and commissions are beside the point.

The case in point is the recent controversy over Mahatma Gandhi’s quite uncharitable comments on Black Africans and consequent demands in several countries from Ghana to South Africa to pull down his statues. The shortcomings of these two great men are not good enough to deny them of their rightful place in history.

Can we continue to ignore Macaulay’s foundational contributions towards making modern India? Is it a mere quibble about history? An informed public debate on what it means to celebrate the legacy of Macaulay will help us appreciate the whys and wherefores of much of the current angst in the country.

The current dispensation is seeking to replace the legacy of the Raj — especially, English education — with a desi version nobody knows anything about. Whatever one knows is the spectre of gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) performing their dharma of protecting the holy cow and also playing the ancient trick of lynching Dalits as cow-killers. In an India of Macaulay’s vision Dalits would enjoy equal rights and freedoms while gau rakshaks are put behind bars. And India would trade with Britain as an equal.

A man with such a vision must be an Indian and if he happens to be the first to have that vision, he must be a Mahatma!

D. Shyam Babu is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal


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