India has still not moved on from the British Raj

A new book by Shashi Tharoor lays out the iniquities of British colonialism. But, writes Faisal Al Yafai, colonialism is alive and well in India today

A still from the film Viceroy's House, depicting the last days of the British Raj (Bend It Films / Pathe / Gulf Film)
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Around the start of the 18th century, as the Mughal empire started to fragment across India and European countries began their interest in the continent, India's share of world GDP stood at 27 per cent. To put it another way, India then was as rich compared to the rest of the world as the United States is today.

Since then, the reversal has been stark. As the Indian politician and writer Shashi Tharoor has put it: “The British conquered one of the richest countries in the world and reduced it, after over two centuries of looting and exploitation, to one of the poorest, most diseased and most illiterate countries by 1947.”

This colossal change was a catastrophe for India, but, as Tharoor explores in his book about the British Raj, Inglorious Empire, it is one that the British, and even Indians themselves, have largely forgotten. Decades after colonialism ended, India still has to come to terms with what happened. Indeed, far from ending in 1947 with independence, India's journey away from British occupation has barely begun.

The effects of colonialism do not end when the last troops depart. They linger like a disease, festering in the body politic and in the minds of the formerly oppressed.

Everywhere where one power imposed itself on another population – in India, in Africa, in the Arab world, in post-Soviet Europe – that population has retained a relationship with the former colonial powers. That relationship is often based on consent – the formerly oppressed still strongly desire a relationship.

This relationship can be hard to explain in the abstract. India, therefore, provides an example, but it is an example with wide applicability. The relationship between India and Britain is analogous in many ways to the relationship between Algeria and France, Indonesia and the Netherlands, Nigeria and (again) Britain and too many others.

At the heart of this relationship is a view of the self, a view of the country that has been constructed during the colonial period. It is a colonisation of the mind, a belief that the habits, society, literature and lifestyle of the colonisers is somehow superior.

Colonialism is always accompanied by a narrative of duty or deliverance from darkness, the mission civilisatrice. With the Raj, this was the idea that the British were helping India. As Tharoor points out, everything that Britain did in India – the railways, the justice system, the English language – was done for the benefit of Britain. Any benefit to India was incidental.

But this narrative of deliverance can be extremely powerful. It manifests itself in a thousand ways: the preference for lighter skin in India; the preference for English and French in the Arab world; the preference for western literature in Africa.

Even the history of the country itself is distorted. “What would India be today without the British?” is a common question. The idea is that, without British rule, the country would not be united or educated or modern. But this ignores the fact that 200 years have passed since the British entry into India – in that time, India's rulers would surely have enacted policies of their own, perhaps worse than the British, but perhaps much better.

This is where the narrative of deliverance overlaps with that other staple of Orientalist thought, the “eternal East”, the belief that non-western civilisations are forever preserved in aspic. One can often hear that criticism, even today, about Muslim societies. But the India of the 1700s would not have been the India of the 2000s. Just as Europe progressed, so would India.

Disentangling these strands of thinking for the formerly colonised is complicated. It isn't enough to simply reject everything that colonialism brought. Parsing what was a genuine effect of colonialism and what was simply part of the times (many countries laid down railways over that period); what was a foreign imposition from what was the natural result of contact, can be hard or even impossible.

That is why there is such a preference in India for nationalist ideas. The belief in some “pure” past, untainted by the effects of time and other cultures, is very seductive. The same thrust to the past is evident in Islamic societies, where there are intellectual threads that want to return to a supposed golden age.

But removing the remnants of colonialism – the “germs of rot”, as the post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon called them – is not the same as jettisoning three centuries of culture and ideas. Yes, society must be re-evaluated, and that re-evaluation must encompass all aspects of the society, just as colonialism did.

But such a re-evaluation is also a normal aspect of societies. Post-colonial countries don't need to constantly re-evaluate their societies in order to get back to a period before they were colonised. They need to do so because that constant process of re-evaluation and change is how societies progress.

So much of the post-colonial experience is the imitating of or seeking affirmation from former oppressors. But countries that are genuinely independent don't need to imitate: they can create a new, evolving identity from their own past. A future that incorporates both the best moments of their history – and the worst.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai