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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Over-reacting to the Raj

The fixation with erasing the traces of our colonial past shows we haven't accepted it

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

All this hullabaloo over New Delhi’s centenary reminds me of a socially aspiring Bengali tycoon wisely informing a visiting European that only those who couldn’t join the Bengal Club used the Calcutta Club. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that in the era of which he was speaking, no Indian (including him and his ancestors) could enter the Bengal Club except through the servants’ entrance. A Daily Telegraph correspondent had to smuggle Mahatma Gandhi into his bedroom because it would have been the South African train episode all over again if Gandhi had been detected. The best Indians joined the Calcutta Club.

Squabbling like jackals over the leftovers of the Raj is as demeaning as preening possessively among someone else’s relics. Let us take pride in the education, administration and justice systems that the British left behind (though we are doing our best to destroy them) and let us glory in the discipline, fighting skills and superb ceremonial of the defence forces. But let’s not gloat like Kipling’s jabbering bandar-log in the ruins of the abandoned city over institutions that were created as symbols of white supremacy over the native population.

New Delhi is one such. The British built it to escape Bengal’s increasing swarajist militancy. Northern India, home of their pet martial races, seemed more comfortable. The climate suited them better and Simla was more convenient for the annual exodus whose size, scale and cost drew criticism from liberal British such as the Statesman represented. More significantly, Delhi pandered to the Mughal illusions that Queen Victoria had nursed ever since she was proclaimed Kaiser-i-Hind in a piece of royal one-upmanship over the Tzar of Russia, German Kaiser, Ottoman Sultan and Emperor of Austria.

The Delhi Durbar with its two separate amphitheatres fostered the Mughal myth. The smaller was for the nobs, the bigger for ordinary folk, thus, replicating for King George V and Queen Mary the Diwan-i-Khas and Diwan-i-Aam of imperial Mughal audiences. The Indian role in a fantasy whose carefully researched and constructed make-believe world Eric Hobsbawm describes in detail was restricted to a handful of contractors who made fortunes out of cement and climbed many notches up the social ladder. They did as they were bid, like any obedient servant.

The current junketing confirms India hasn’t come to terms with its past. The Soviet authorities meticulously rebuilt the Winter Palace as a national heritage in what is now once again St Petersburg without glorifying the Romanovs. Soviet guides used to be fully informed about the royals associated with the palace. Similarly, Communist China takes loving care of what Lord Elgin’s vandalism and looting left of the Forbidden City. That does not, however, make the Chi’ng dynasty China’s national model.

India’s situation is more complicated because the past we are trying to exorcise and exalt, reject and embrace, was imposed on us by foreigners. It’s bound to provoke strong emotions. I can understand the Bengal agitation to remove the Holwell Monument commemorating supposed victims of what the British called the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” But I can’t understand the point of hauling down the statues of viceroys and generals and placing Gandhi or Patel on the same plinths. If we can claim the plinths as our own, there’s nothing to stop us from one day claiming the entire setting as our very own handiwork.

Without the colonial statuary, with British coats of arms erased and old street names changed, who can prove that independent India did not through its own skills and toil build Rashtrapati Bhavan, North and South Block and Vijay Chowk? After all, we have carefully removed all the evidence to the contrary! I have met people who are convinced Kolkata’s Shaheed Minar was raised by or for freedom fighters. They have never heard of General Ochterlony who defeated Nepal and whom the British honoured with the minaret in 1848. So should India for, without him, Darjeeling, Dehra Dun, Simla and much of Kumaon, Garhwal and the Terai wouldn’t have been Indian.

Singapore is the one former colony without any hanky-panky about the past. It happened, its relics are there, but they don’t impinge on today’s serious business of making money. We could learn from that pragmatism.

It’s said that when the French statesman, Georges Clemenceau, visited India he was shown the remains of History’s seven Delhis and then taken to the site where the new British capital was being built. “And what a magnificent ruin this will make!” he exclaimed.  

First Published: Sat, December 31 2011. 00:06 IST