Magazine article The Spectator

India Then and Now

Magazine article The Spectator

India Then and Now

Article excerpt

There has been an apologetic tone to much British comment on the 50th anniversary of India's and Pakistan's independence. The widespread assumption seems to be that the British should not have been there in the first place.

Many young people seem to believe this, or at least assume it. It seems to be implicit in what they are taught in our schools.

But to think thus is not to think historically. From the beginning of history until the 1940s to 1960s, what is now referred to in derogatory terms as 'imperialism' was the norm. The great mass of mankind lived under empires of one kind or another.

Many of the anti-colonialist politicians and intellectuals of today come from cultures and parts of the world which themselves were once imperialist powers. Islam conquered much of Europe. Before the British, the Indian sub-continent was ruled by a series of empires. Imperialism is not the invention of Western capitalism.

By the first half of the 18th century, and the rise of the Western seaborne empires, the question about the Indian sub-continent was which European power was going to rule it. As it happened, it was the British.

We must judge that rule not by some ideal liberal standard of today but by what else would have befallen the sub-continent's peoples, either under other European powers or under the region's own dynasties. Judged thus, British rule does not emerge too badly, though in phrasing it as modestly as that, even we are perhaps making too great a concession to the antiimperialist spirit of our own age.

There are great stains on British rule of India, just as there are great stains on British rule of the British isles, or on preRaj rule of India. There was the 1942-43 Bengal famine, fresh in British minds because of a Channel 4 programme this week. Britain comes badly out of that. Like most famines, some of the causes were indigenous to the region. But Churchill too long restricted grain shipments to India in order to save ships for the war. Wavell, however, opposed him, and Wavell was British viceroy. Under Wavell's pressure, Churchill asked President Roosevelt for ships to bring wheat from Australia. The Americans, those campaigners for Indian self-government, refused, in the words of Patrick French's new book on Indian independence, `for fear of damaging their own war effort'.

But, in this anniversary week, surely Britons should remember the good of British rule rather than the bad. This good includes democracy and the rule of law. …

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