This year being the 70th anniversary of the partition of India has seen a renewal of the debate over the legacy of British Rule. As usual with such debates there has been little attempt to provide a balanced view of the Raj.There has been the widely read condemnation by the Indian writer and politician Shashi Tharoor and the answer to Tharoor by the British-Indian historian Zareer Masani, black and white views of the Raj. It could be argued that 70 years is a long time and this argument doesn’t matter any longer, but I think assessing the legacies of the Raj in a balanced manner is still important because some of those legacies have been positive in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, and should be treasured while others which linger on still have a malign influence.
We can argue for ever about whether the Railways were a beneficial legacy of the Raj or not, or whether the advantages of the introduction of English outweigh the disadvantages of the creation of an English-speaking anglicised elite, and the damage the dominance of English has done to subcontinental languages.
On the positive side of the Raj’s legacy is the concept of democracy. I do believe that the Westminster system of democracy has served South Asia well and the people value it. It is highly significant that after just eighteen months Indians rejected the autocracy of the Emergency. Ever since the defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977 there has been no threat to the parliamentary system of government. In Bangladesh there have been periods of military rule but Bangladeshis have always clamoured for the right to vote and regained it. The same could be said for Pakistan too. However what in my view cannot be denied is the harm caused by the survival of the institutions of the Raj, and the failure to reform them so that they become suitable for democracy. The survival of the colonial ethos among government employees comes with those institutions.
It should surely be obvious that institutions designed to support colonial rule are unsuitable for a democracy. The prime purpose of the institutions of the Raj was the maintenance of law and order and the preservation of British colonial rule. Their aim was to govern not to serve. Economic development, one of the main aims of democracy, had very low priority under colonial rule. That is shown by the fact that the British Raj left the county they ruled one of the poorest countries in the world. In a democracy there have to be institutions to provide governance but it should be governance by the people for the people. Those who govern should see themselves as servants of the people, not their rulers.
There is no doubt the failure to reform the unsuitable institutions of the Raj is a crucial reason for democracy failing to deliver good governance in South Asia. As India is the largest country of the former British Indian Empire, the country with a history of democracy only interrupted by the eighteen month long emergency, forty years ago from now. I have chosen it to illustrate my point.
Several eminent former senior Indian civil servants and police officers, and one prominent still-serving civil servant have been very critical of the functioning of the institutions of their country. To take one example, Tejendra Khanna, a former Chief Secretary of Punjab and Lieutenant Governor of Delhi has written a paper published in the Journal of the National Police Academy in which he said, “The raison d’etre of public governance is service of the public.” He went on to say, ”However, as a matter of practical reality public perception about the quality and efficacy of governance to which they are subjected and of which they are meant to be the beneficiaries is often negative ......... There is a disappointing sense among people of being short-changed at the hands of public functionaries, instead of being served by them with honesty, courtesy and efficiency.” Note the word “subjected”. Indians are still subjects, as they were in colonial times, Tejendra Khanna implies, not citizens.
Let’s take honesty first of those deficiencies in the functioning of Indian institutions. Sadly, Indian officials, especially the police, are renowned for corruption. There is a myth that there was no corruption in the days of the British Raj. This is not so. In the senior services, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and the Indian Police (IP) corruption was rare and the corrupt faced the risk of being ostracised if they were discovered, but corruption was rife at the level of the officials who interacted with the public, the patwari for instance and the thanedar.
Then we come to courtesy. For some reason or other the lack of courtesy of the officials who deal face to face with the public is not often remarked on. I will always remember asking a villager why he didn’t complain to the Block Development Officer when he couldn’t get a Below the Poverty Line Card entitling him to government benefits. The villager replied, “Because he would just say to me “jao, jao, jao” (get out, get out, get out). This insulting attitude springs from the Raj’s ethos of ruling rather than serving which is still the ethos of the bureaucracy today, making bureaucrats conscious of the power they wield rather than their duty to insure their authority is exercised fairly and politely.
Now for inefficiency. Mahesh Buch, a member of Indian elite civil service cadre the IAS or Indian Civil Service renowned for his honesty and courage, once told me of a breakfast meeting called by Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, to discuss town-planning. Rajiv Gandhi was arguing that India should go in for high-rise housing, Butch told him the space between the buildings would get filled with garbage. Rajiv Gandhi didn’t agree saying, “I have seen high-rise housing in Singapore and I can tell you that doesn’t happen there.” Butch shot back, “Yes sir but they have a government there.” He was clearly implying that the Indian government was inefficient and ineffective. Rajiv Gandhi admitted his government was not competent to deliver development when he said that only one tenth of the money allocated for village level development ever reached villagers. The present government believes that digitalisation will automatically lead to corruption-free efficient governance but the economist Ashoka Mody was surely right when he said, “Technology without new institutions will never deliver core education, health services, and public services.”
There are many reasons for India’s inefficiency but two hark back to the Raj – the institutions are unreformed and they are not given the autonomy a functioning democracy demands. In a democracy the institutions are meant to act as checks on each other and maintain balance in their functioning. In the Raj they served the interests of the rulers who distorted their functioning to suit their needs. In India today politicians who regard themselves as the rulers are allowed to interfere in the functioning of the institutions so that they serve their purposes. In that way the institutions are unable to perform their duty to check and balance. This is particular true of the police who are particularly prone to being misused by politicians. Recently one of India’s most highly respected police officers, Julio Ribeiro, said, ‘politicians of all parties and ideologies treat the bureaucracy and the police as private fiefdoms that will bow to their wishes as and when demanded.”
The seriousness of India’s failure to reform the crumbling institutions of the Raj was summed up by the senior civil servant who is currently the Governor of Kashmir, N.M Vohra. In his book Safeguarding India he said, “India could face chaos, turbulence, and serious unrest unless public administrative systems become more efficient, responsive, productive, honest and accountable.” I would suggest that the same danger faces the other two countries once ruled by the Raj – Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The writer, a former Bureau Chief of the BBC, New Delhi, covered the Liberation War of Bangladesh.