By Chandini Jaswal
“They shot up like volcanic lava”, wrote Robert Delavignette, a former French colonial administrator, about the independence movements that had occurred in the European colonial possessions. Initially, Decolonisation appeared to be a force “gathering from deep causes and bursting forth uncontrollably” i.e. more physical and political independence as the colonists agreed to depart from the country (Betts 2012: 23). Decolonisation, in simple words, refers to the withdrawal of the coloniser from the oppressed country. But does political decolonisation guarantee that the colony is free? Is complete decolonisation even possible? More importantly, would the colonies even want that to happen? As India celebrates her independence on August 15, I look at her quest of 75 years to extricate herself from her colonial past— and how successful she has been in doing so.
India has always been an eye-catcher. While people visiting India today may come to seek a road to salvation, marauders like Nader Shah eyed India “to pluck some golden feathers from the Mughal Peacock” (Dalrymple 2019: 40). Whatever the reason, India has seen a sea of foreigners. Thus, new culture, language, architecture, and administration are not alien concepts to the Indian homeland.
Then, why British colonisation?
Once the largest empire in the world – the British Empire, covered at its zenith (around 1913), nearly 25% of the world and ruled more than 410 million souls. Each British colony has a different decolonisation story – for many, it ended acrimoniously. However, for a few (actually one: USA), it ended on a note of unity – a reflex to collectively secure themselves “should history repeat itself”. Colonisation in India took nearly 200 years – wiping medieval structure and replacing it whereby the British firmly established colonial rule. When colonisation took such a long time to establish itself, aren’t seventy five years too short a time for complete decolonisation?
For many, these lines from the speech by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, said on the night intervening 14/15 August 1947, resonate as the beginning of political decolonisation in India – the celebrations began as streets dazzled with euphoric people flocking to listen to the leaders give speeches. Many stayed away, reeling from the loss of loved ones incurred in the goriest division in history – the partition of the country into two parts, a tragic outcome and a huge price to be paid for throwing off the colonial rule.
Political decolonisation, Professor Mridula Mukherjee had remarked in a panel discussion, emanates from a “feeling of loss” and a struggle for independence (it could be violent like an armed revolution, guerrilla warfare, or nonviolent like disobeying the rules, non-cooperation). However, freedom in 1947 did not mean a break with the colonial past; the old institutions of police, civil service, army and judiciary, introduced by the British which continue to function in India today, only suggest a bridge with the bygone era.
The opposing school of thought uses the same argument to maintain that the framework of the supreme law, the Indian Constitution, is ‘Un-Indian’. The Indian Constitution faced ire from the makers themselves (members of the Constituent Assembly). K.Hanumanthiya commented, “We wanted the music of veena but we have the music of an English band. That is because our constitution members were educated that way.”
Lokand Mishra also felt, “The constitution was a slavish imitation to the West, much more—a slavish surrender to the West.” Lakshminarayan Sahu went to the extent of saying that: “The ideals on which the draft constitution is framed have no manifest relation to the fundamental spirit of India…This constitution would not prove suitable and would break down soon after being bought into action” (Lakshmikant 2017: 3.13).
They were not alone in believing so. Many others felt that with her diversity (religion, caste, language) and deeply entrenched poverty, Independent India was bound to disintegrate. American scholar-journalist Selig Harrison said in 1960: “The odds are almost against the survival of freedom and… the issue is whether any Indian state can survive at all.” Times correspondent Neville Maxwell conveniently concluded in 1967 that “The great experiment of developing India within democratic framework has failed”. He had predicted that the then forthcoming general elections would surely be the last in the country (Chandra and Mukherjee 2008: 5).
In 2022, one can confidently say that India has proved Mr Maxwell wrong: if she were truly ‘dependent on somebody’, she would never have stood the challenge and I, like others, would not be contemplating the degree of success of Indian democracy right now.
The Great (later not so great) Indian Economy
An awestruck Sir Thomas Roe (1581-1644), the first English ambassador to India wrote in his diary: “Rubies as big as walnuts—some greater—and pearls such as mine eyes were amazed at….in jewels which is one of his felicities, he [Jahangir, Mughal ruler of India] is the treasury of the world, buying all that comes, and heaping rich stones as if he would rather build [with them] than wear them” (Dalrymple 2019: 17).
However, the rule of the British East India Company deprived posterity from ever witnessing the Mughal grandeur as they strategically drained revenue (worth trillions today), jewels (unaccountable), and historic artefacts (priceless) to their country. The former Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron, even conceded: “If you say yes to one, you would suddenly find the British Museum to be empty. I am afraid [the Kohinoor diamond] would have to stay put” (Tharoor 2016: 282).
So, what is economic decolonisation? Would the British pay reparations (approximately $45 trillion ) to decolonise India? Since this sum has never been paid, is India still economically colonised? The British conquest was unique because unlike previous conquests, it had brought a drastic change in the economic structure— robbing people of their livelihood. The colonial system of production had set a precarious cycle in motion: where India exported raw materials (cotton, jute, oilseeds, minerals) she imported manufactured products from Britain (biscuits, shoes, machinery, railway engines). This continued even after India had developed its labour-intensive industries (Chandra 2008: 11-12).
Dr Shashi Tharoor has given some brilliant arguments regarding colonialism. In a fiery attack on Niall Ferguson’s stance: “Without the spread of British rule, the success of liberal capitalism in so many economies today would not have been possible”, Tharoor retorts, “the continuity of today’s world with the British Empire, is most strikingly evident in economic dependence of much of the postcolonial world on modern empire states… The East India Company has collapsed; however, globalisation has ensured that its modern-day successors in the formal imperial states remain the predominant instruments of capitalism” (Tharoor 2016: 277).
In my opinion, Globalisation is a ‘necessary evil’ today. As Tharoor himself later writes, “the successful and prosperous countries are those who look beyond the spinning charkha [spinning wheel] to silicon chips.” Until India is self-reliant enough to harness technology and set up indigenous MNCs, she will have to depend on first-world countries, some of which also happen to be colonial masters (coincidence?).
While the picture might look dismal here and suggest that India has still not decolonised itself economically, facts stated by Professor Aditya Mukherjee look encouraging. In 1947, according to Mukherjee, India imported nearly 100% of machine tools for running its industries; this decreased to 9% by 1970—implying that India has to quite an extent undergone economic decolonisation. (1)
The Zamindari System introduced by colonial rule in 1793 that had reduced the peasants to tenants on their lands was abolished as early as 1950. This was not only a major agrarian reform of independent India; it was the first step India took towards economic decolonisation. Then again, economic colonisation doesn’t necessarily stand for all things wrong. For example: In the 1940s, India had paved roads measuring 65,000 miles and laid down railway tracks covering nearly 42,000 miles, geographically unifying the country and making rapid transit of goods and people possible (Chandra and Mukherjee 2008: 17). Now that India is decolonised, does it imply that we dismantle all railways tracks or destroy all roads? Certainly not.
The 180° reversal of the colonial past in India, or for that matter any other former colony is never possible, but it sure isn’t a smooth continuity either. In the words of Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty, “the process of decolonisation as a historical process was necessarily clumsy, complicated and inherently incomplete” (Bandhopadhyay 2015: 476). Thus independence was not a sudden rupture from colonial history but a process of gradual adaptation (it still is).
Even today, in several countries (Canada, Solomon Islands, Australia and New Zealand), the Crown continues to be the head of state. While political decolonisation has not been initiated in these countries, it has certainly not impeded their path to progress. Then again, we must not forget or underestimate the importance of ideological decolonisation. After the Revolt of 1857, British governor Lord Elphinstone advised London in 1859, “Divide et impera was the old Roman maxim: it should be ours”. Sir John Strachey had also said, “the existence of hostile creeds among Indian people is essential for our political position in India” (Tharoor 2016: 120-121).
And the rest is history. Even today, the presence of religious neighbourhoods (in both India and Pakistan) alludes to the incomplete decolonisation of people’s minds, still governed by the British ‘divide and rule’. And the fact that I have both thought and written this blog in the ‘coloniser’s language’, English, implies that even the current generation, the fourth since India got independence has still not extricated from colonial habits (which isn’t ‘unethical’, as long as Indians and the rest of the colonised communities do not end up severing ties with their native language and culture). I’ll end with the words of the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
I am grateful to Mrs Poonam Devasher and Dr Mini Grewal (Department of History, Mehr Chand Mahajan DAV College for Women, Panjab University, India) for their invaluable comments and inputs on this blog.
(1) For facts and figures on import-export by India, see Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration Initiative ‘Decolonisation of British Empire’, 20 September 2020. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=pTym9NMckCo)
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Betts, Raymond F. “Decolonization: A Brief History of the Word.” In Beyond Empire and Nation: The Decolonization of African and Asian Societies, 1930s-1970s, ed. ELS BOGAERTS and REMCO RABEN, 23–38. Brill, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w8h2zm.5. Accessed 19 July 2022.
Chandra, Bipan, et al. India since Independence. Rev. ed, Penguin Books, 2008.
Dalrymple, William. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.
Hickel, Jason. ‘How Britain Stole $45 Trillion from India’. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2018/12/19/how-britain-stole-45-trillion-from-india. Accessed 17 Sept 2020.
Karwaan:The Heritage Exploration Initiative. ‘The Decolonization of the British Empire.’ Youtube. Panel Discussion by Professors Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mukherjee, Sucheta Mahajan, Dipesh Chakrabarty. 24 Sept 2020. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=pTym9NMckCo)
Laxmikanth, M. Indian Polity for Civil Services Examinations. McGraw Hill, 2017.
Tharoor, Shashi. An Era of Darkness: The British Empire In India. Aleph, 2016.
‘How Big Was the British Empire and Why Did It Collapse?’ The Week UK, https://www.theweek.co.uk/history/93820/british-empire-how-big-was-it-and-why-did-it-collapse. Accessed 18 Sep 2020.