“Many hundreds of years before the coming of the English, the nations of India had been a collection of wealthy and highly civilised people, possessed of great language with an elaborate code of laws and social regulations, with exquisite artistic taste in architecture and decoration, producing conceptions which have greatly influenced the development of the most progressive races of the West.” ~Henry Mayer Hyndman, 20th Century British politician.
In the first three instalments of this series, I highlighted how India gave the modern world a panoply of its most prized gifts, from numerals, medicine and radio communications, to democracy, philosophy and multi-faceted spirituality.
“Indian philosophers’ subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys.” T. S. Eliot, British playwright.
This, the penultimate article of this series, seeks to explain how British perceptions of India (and by extension, those of a once prosperous Africa, China and Middle East) are still unwittingly framed through the capricious prism of supremacist colonial propaganda. Firstly, for a country which a number of respected scholars have suggested may be thegreatest single contributor to human civilisation, such perceptions of India are not just crassly derogatory, but factually untenable.
“So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked.” Mark Twain, American author.
A primary indicator of the success of any civilisation is its economic standing, which often directly impacts the quality of social justice, human development, polity, governance, as well as achievements in science, innovation and the arts. By this vital yardstick alone, India has been the most successful nation in recorded history.
According to the painstaking calculations of Cambridge University economic historian, Angus Maddison, India was the world’s largest economy for the majority of the 1,700 years before the entrenchment of the British East India Company.
India had accounted for as much as 33% of global GDP – more than three times that of the whole of Western Europe combined – with even a GDP per capita often exceeding that of Britain. During the eras of loot, war and colonisation that preceded the British Raj, the ‘Indian way’ remained largely intact and as a result, India was still the second largest economy in the world, briefly overtaken by her giant sister civilisation, China (which was also subsequently brought to her knees by Imperial Britain).
“India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or Asia. She had great merchants, businessmen, ship building – nearly every kind of manufacture known to the civilised world was already in India”. Rev J. T. Sunderland, American Christian minister.
By 1700, India was again the world’s largest economy, accounting for 24.4% of global GDP, more than that of the whole of Europe combined, and almost ten times the size of Britain’s economy, whose growth had already began benefiting from ‘trade’ with India, China and Africa. By the time of independence, a socially, economically and industrially devastated India’s share of global GDP had plummeted to a mere 4.2%.
“A significant fact which stands out is that those parts of India which have been longest under British rule are the poorest today.” Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India.
By independence, the world’s leading ship building, metallurgy and textiles industries had been systematically decimated (and subsequently cloned in Britain); a society with a system of mass education was now almost fully illiterate; and callous Imperial policies led to a population explosion that India is still grappling with today.
One of the most macabre manifestations of the malevolent intent and unequivocalineptitude of British rule – which is still shamefully projected as ‘benevolent’ and ‘efficient’- was the genesis of mass poverty and famine throughout what is now called the ‘developing world’. Tens, of millions of people in India – and hundreds of millions throughout the colonised world – died from starvation alone during such ‘Victorian holocausts’.
During a visit to Pakistan, Prime Minister David Cameron stated that many of the modern world’s problems were the product of Imperial Britain’s legacy. These words do not merely apply to the conflict and strife that prevails from Syria and Egypt, to Israel and Palestine, but also to the destitution, the poverty, the illiteracy, the corruption, and the deep-rootedpublic sector inefficiencies and nepotism institutionalised by British rule, which today afflicts vast swathes of the (re)developing world.
“..I was filled with astonishment and indignation at the apparently conscious and deliberate bleeding of India by England throughout a hundred and fifty years. I began to feel that I had come upon the greatest crime in all history.” ~ William Durant, American historian.
One of Mahatma Gandhi’s principle grievances against the British was not merely that of Britain’s presence in India – he even accepted allegiance to the Crown. Instead, it was how Britain had systematically dismantled painstakingly nurtured Indian systems of administration, food and water management, industry, grassroots economic prosperity, education and social cohesion.
“When the British came, there was, throughout India, a system of communal schools managed by village communities. The agents of the East India Company destroyed these village communities. Instead of encouraging education, the Government encouraged drink.” ~ William Durant.
Starving children in Africa, malnourished villagers in India, despotism in the Middle East and the corruption, gender crimes, illiteracy, social decay and destitution that afflicts more than half of humanity are the real and overwhelming legacies of colonial rule.
It is of no irony that virtually all former British colonies, from Kenya to India, and Egypt to Pakistan, have been cursed with almost identical Imperial footprints; the same set of existential problems, the same Victorian social character, and the same wholly disingenuous post-colonial narrative.
In this context, and given her relative size, India’s achievements since independence are particularly astounding given the scale of the existential threats that she faced in 1947, and the fact that she has pursued a path which she ostensibly first gave to the world – democracy. Despite the ugly headlines that dominate our view of an India that is still recovering from the direct impact of colonial rule, the country has lifted more than half a billion people out of poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy and achieved rapid strides in science, technology and the arts.
Graduates from Indian universities such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and Management (IIM) are of the most prized in the world; a disproportionate number of Silicon Valley start-ups, Intel’s Pentium chip, the USB stick, Google search algorithms, Hotmail and fibre optics are just some of the major new economy contributions derived from the exacting standards of Indian education (US Ivy League universities have been back-up options for Indians who have failed to gain admission to an IIT or IIM).
A national ID system that was considered too complex and costly to develop for Britain’s 60 million people, is being swiftly implemented in an India of 1.2 billion people; electronic voting, which we are still grappling with in Britain, was first implemented in India in the 1980s, with all-electronic voting having been in place for a decade. Whilst a hypocritical London of diesel-powered taxis pompously lectures New Delhi and Beijing about the environment, India has diligently enforced natural gas-powered taxis, buses and auto-rickshaws for almost two decades; and whilst much of Britain still wastes precious food and desists from recycling, India has an intricate but effortless system of door-to-door recycling derived from an ancient respect for the environment.
India is today one of the largest private sector investors and employers in Britain, and Indian aid to Africa is centred on the development of health, education and communication infrastructure, as opposed to the economic exploitation and patronising heavy-handedness that still defines European approaches to ‘engagement’ with an Africa that we comprehensively devastated in the first place.
“India, which has just announced that it will do what Britain could not do – send a space probe to Mars – is now a country with more technological prowess than our own. Its economic progress has been remarkable.” ~ Theodore Dalrymple, English writer & psychiatrist.
Astonishingly, this is still only the prelude of India’s revival. The country is on track to accomplish in just one century what the United States and Europe took up to threecenturies to accomplish in the modern era, and in the case of post-Roman Britain, the best part of 1,500 years. Moreover, India’s resurgence is devoid of the military or forced economic colonisation of any other nation or people.
According to various studies, including by PwC, Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank, India is again expected to become the world’s largest economy within the next few decades, barely a century after independence.
Unlike the historical blip of short-termist, aggressive and iniquitous Western economic dominance, India is once more expected to sustain its economic pre-eminence over centuries, by virtue of the inherent wisdom of a socio-economic system that is defined by high savings ratios, a long-term approach, compassion for the poor, a strong protection of the interests of labour, and a far more benign style of leadership and management – all of which are counterintuitive to Western economic and management logic.
“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of [England] is today keeping the world in chains. If [a country as large as India] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Mahatma Gandhi.
In next week’s final instalment, I will address some of the most commonly perpetrated myths about British rule in India, as well as explain my motivation in writing this series. I will end this piece with a quote that exemplifies how the resilience, ingenuity and capability inherent in deep rooted Indian value systems also imbue humanity, compassion and emotion at their very core (the same qualities that incidentally – and very wrongly – give the impression that Indians are meek walkovers):
“It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.” Dr. Arnold Toynbee, British Historian.