Tuesday, 27 September, 2022

British Rule in India and Enduring Legacies

Sikandar Ali

For those of us who grew up in the countryside, far from the maddening crowd of city life, as schoolchildren in the 80s, the British Broadcasting Corporation served as the key source of information, indeed the only window on the world. These were the times when, at the approach of the night, with the twilight glow fading away and a stillness settling down, we would always make a point of picking up our band three radio to tune in to BBC. Invariably, there came a voice announcing ‘London theke bolsi’. That is how gradually London came to be a part of our being.

We loved to listen to and read about the city, the river Thames, the Bangla Town, the Queen, the Princess of Wales, the palace, the royal Yacht and the romances, marriages and break ups of the royals. All these raised ripples in our mind as still we tended to see everything British through rose-tinted glasses.

But things about the British Empire were not all rosy. It had its fair share of good and evil. British India was the biggest colony that England ever ruled. India’s chief allure for Europeans was its wealth. Its natural resources, opulence, jewels and grandeur attracted the British too. According to a recent data released by the renowned economist Utsa Patnaik, Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during the period 1765 to 1938.  A staggering sum indeed!

The incident that has left a lasting sore on the minds of the people of this subcontinent is the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. This predatory attack on a peaceful crowd not only shook the trust of the people in the colonial rulers but also ignited a movement for freedom.

Another matter people found hard to come to terms with is the forced indigo cultivation solely to serve British economic interest. Slavery is the last thing the people of this land would have liked to bear with. It is also widely believed that to sell their own cotton goods, the East India Company cut off the weavers’ thumbs in order to stop production of the Muslin.

Then, there are pride possessions you never want to part with. Koh-i-Noor diamond is one such thing which was stolen by the East India Company and gifted to Queen Victoria who used to wear it as a brooch. This jewel again adorned the head of Queen Elizabeth II on the day of her coronation. Indian people have not given up their claim to it yet.

To look at the British side of the story, life in India was not full of milk and honey. India as a colony was not financially rewarding. The military and civil officers were paid a pittance so that they had small savings when they returned home. Sometimes when long-looked-for retirement was in sight, the whole family was swept away by cholera with none left to visit their graves.

The separation between parents and children was the most agonising experience every English family had to go through. Most Anglo-Indian parents were forced to send their children to England for reasons of health and schooling while they stayed back to nurse their wounds which never healed. Many widowed or single white women, unable to return to England, were forced to sell sex for food and languish in the brothels. The nightmare that still haunts the British people is the account they read of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 in which countless British citizens were killed.

While evaluating the colonial past, we should not fail to take stock of the door of possibilities that interaction with the British opened for the subcontinent. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the most erudite person of his time as well as a social reformer, was quick to appreciate the benefits of British presence. He was the first Indian who visited England as a representative of Mughal Emperor Akbar II and delivered a speech at the British parliament. He was a staunch supporter of adopting British education in India.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who as a schoolchild ‘sighed for Albion’s distant shore’, finally made it in his mid 40s. It is because of his western grooming that we have got a fine classical scholar who rose to become one of our pioneering literary figures. Tagore’s stay in England brought him close to the best English writers of his time which, in return, earned him fame all over the world. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, an ardent admirer of the Raj, dedicated his autobiography to the British Empire in India and frankly acknowledged that “All that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the British rule.”

Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952. The world watched her change from being a shy princess to a glamorous young queen, a mother and grandmother, from a blonde, curly-haired child to a white-haired old lady, over many decades.

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, England’s role had shrunk drastically on world stage. A list of former colonies began declaring independence, beginning with India in 1947. Her role became mostly ceremonial. The most remarkable aspect of her reign is her willingness to modernise monarchy and embrace changes. Far from keeping herself behind the thick walls of the royal palace, the Queen began to appear on television regularly and speak directly to people. She engaged herself in extensive charity work. She threw the doors of the royal places open to the visitors and even allowed pop concerts at Buckingham Palace.

That there is a light side of life was borne out by the Queen’s quick wit and refined sense of humour. There were occasions when she did raise a smile on the lips of the people around her. President George W. Bush once accidentally said that the Queen had celebrated America’s bicentennial in 1776. The queen poked fun in her speech later, saying, “I wondered whether I should start this toast by saying, when I was here in 1776…” On another occasion, she was not recognised by a group of tourists while she was taking a stroll at her Balmoral country home. The group asked her if she had ever met the Queen, and Her Majesty pointed to her protection officer and said, “No, but this policeman has.”

The Queen was truly an epitome of grace, elegance, kindness and beauty. For seventy long years, the Queen had been a mother-figure not only to her own countrymen but also to the peoples of the Commonwealth countries who loved her and respected her immensely.

Some people never cease to complain. They will go on telling you that the Queen never apologised for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre during her visit to India. The fact is that the Queen visited the scene of massacre and paid tribute to the dead. Isn’t that as good as an apology? Indeed that is the royal way of offering an apology.

The Queen has had a soft spot in her mind for Bangladesh. It is the ordinary people that interested her. She visited a model village at Gazipur. She was ‘touched’ by her ‘memorable’ visits. She gave Bangabandhu due recognition as the architect of an independent nation by greeting him at Buckingham Palace on 8 January 1972 after he had been flown to England from Karachi.

Currently, England is home to millions of Bangladeshis living for generations. Moreover, we have had our representatives of Bangladeshi origin in British Parliament. What can be a better way of paying back a former colony than this? It is high time we appreciated this fact.

The British Empire is gone but the legacies persist. As long as you boast of being a graduate of the Oxford of the east, your doctors go to England for FRCS and Barristers for Bar at-law degrees, you send your children to English medium schools and your universities decide to teach English literature, your countrymen hanker after British or American passports, your politicians stick to parliamentary system of government, you marvel at the architectural magnificence of the Curzon Hall, you visit Cox’s Bazar and St Martin island for holidaying and as long as you take a stroll in Victoria Park in the old Dhaka, you are carrying on colonial legacies.

You simply cannot undo history no matter how hard you wish it.


The writer teaches English at Shahjalal University

of Science and Technology, Sylhet. He can be reached at [email protected]