He is justifiably revered as the spiritual father of Indian independence, the man who helped end British rule through his moral leadership, yet Mahatma Gandhi’s attitude towards the Empire was complex. He once said that: “India would be nothing without Englishmen.” Those words are far removed from the current historical orthodoxy, which holds that the British Empire in India was nothing more than a vehicle for ruthless oppression and commercial exploitation.
Recent events have exposed how prevalent this version of history has become. As the Mail recently reported, the eminent Oxford theologian Professor Nigel Biggar has come under ferocious assault from academics for the thought-crime of daring to argue we should take a more balanced, less negative view about the legacy of Empire.
At the weekend, Balliol College, Oxford, confirmed it had removed from its magnificent hall a portrait of the great Viceroy of India Lord Curzon, because undergraduates had branded him ‘a colonialist’. Meanwhile, historian Tony Adler has revealed how even the National Archive has fallen prey to insidious political correctness. It was forced to admit that in some of its displays it had ignored Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery, and in a blog to mark the 70th anniversary of the partition of India, blaming this nation for the bloodshed that followed.
As a scientist of Indian origin myself, who has spent decades researching colonial history, I am only too familiar with the climate of post imperial guilt. I came to England in 1956 to study pharmacy at King’s College, London. After gaining a doctorate from Bonn University, I chose to settle here and founded my vitamins business in 1971. In all my 60 happy years in this country, I’ve rarely heard any Briton utter a positive word about the British in India. And yet there is so much to be positive about.
The Empire brought not only wise civic administration but also an advanced physical infrastructure that fuelled both economic progress and a sense of national unity in the vast sub-continent. Far from looting India, British governance promoted education, fostered enterprise, revolutionised transport, created an impartial judicial system, nurtured intellectual debate and tackled barbarism.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the two centuries of British rule were the most progressive 200 years in the last 1,000 years of the sub-continent’s history. And with India poised to become the world’s fifth largest economy in 2018, it is fair to say it would not have been possible without the legacy of Empire.
British rule did, of course, have its darker aspects, particularly under the East India Company, a private monopoly occasionally characterised by corruption. However, the company’s influence effectively came to an end after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 when the British Government took over direct control of the Raj. But too much emphasis on these failures ignores the far more beneficent side of the ledger, in which the British brought India a unique mix of liberalism and innovation.
To restore some balance to the debate, last year I wrote a book, “The Making Of India”, that highlighted the untold achievements of the Raj. I wrote that the ‘sheer audacity and scale’ of the endeavour ‘have no parallel in human history’. I pointed to the incredible efficiency of the Indian Civil service (iCs) which with fewer than 1,000 officials governed effectively a vast land of 500 million people spread over 1.27 million square miles. No authoritarian regime would have been able to establish that kind of legitimacy, but the iCs did so through its reputation for incorruptibility and its willingness to recruit from the indigenous population.
By 1922, 15% of civil servants were Indian and by 1941 that figure had climbed to over 50%. When the British handed over power, they did so to a highly qualified, well-trained bureaucracy.
Imperial rule also built an Indian army, in which high standards and respect for ethnic identities cultivated a profound sense of pride among recruits, as shown by the heroic service of Indian soldiers in both world wars. The same sense of respect shone through the courts system. In keeping with the tradition of British liberty stretching back to Magna Carta, the Empire ensured justice was available to every inhabitant of the multi-lingual, multi-faith sub-continent.
In 1880 the Marquess of Ripon, the Liberal Viceroy, abolished a rule that Indian judges could not conduct the trials of white defendants in criminal cases. Denouncing opposition to his measure, he asked: ‘Is India to be ruled for the benefit of the Indian people of all races, classes and creeds, or in the sole interest of a small body of Europeans?’ The Empire’s fine administration was matched by a huge infrastructure programme — the founding of great cities like Madras, Calcutta and Bombay, the establishment of India’s universities, technical colleges, hospitals, libraries, museums and public buildings, as well as the development of industry, canals, roads, dockyards, tele-graph and postal services.
London was connected telegraphically to India in 1852, even before New York, while, by the end of the Raj, a quarter of land in the subcontinent was irrigated. Perhaps most impressive was the construction of the huge railway network — 10,000 miles of track in 25 years. The benefits of Empire could be seen in a host of other ways: a smallpox vaccination programme and the improvement in water supplies dramatically improved life expectancy. Yes, of course, the Empire enhanced Britain’s wealth, but India also gained enormously.
Under British rule, Indian entrepreneurs had the full freedom to engage in commerce, imports, exports and other business opportunities. Thanks to British belief in free trade and the open market, some of the Raj’s most successful enterprises were started by Indians, such as the Bombay spinning Mill, while the Tata family — now owners of Jaguar Land Rover — were involved in a whole range of industries during the Empire. Contrary to the misguided modern narrative of oppression, British rule encouraged freedom of speech, a free Press, and political association. India’s first nationwide political party, the National Congress, was founded in 1885 by a British liberal civil servant, Allan Octavian Hume.
The Empire also led to vital social reforms that protected human rights, including the prohibition on female infanticide and the ban on the savage practice known as suttee — burning alive widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Furthermore, British administrators and scholars were vigilant in the restoration of India’s heritage, especially its ancient temples, languages, records and artefacts.
If the self-righteous and ignorant Balliol undergraduates understood any real history, they would have known that Lord Curzon devoted much of his energy as Viceroy to remedying the neglect of many of India’s historic monuments — he more than anyone helped save the Taj Mahal. He was the Viceroy most admired by Nehru, the first leader of independent India. in 2007, the prominent Indian entrepreneur, Jaithirth Rao said: “The British gave us a sense of our past, they gave us our feel for the land in real material terms … They mapped our country, analysed and described it.”
In fact, without the British, it is unlikely that India, as a nation, would exist at all. Before the Empire, the sub-continent was divided into numerous kingdoms and principalities, more than 500 in all. When the Raj ended in 1947, Britain left behind the largest democracy in the world. That should be a source of pride, not shame, for Britain for centuries to come.