Wednesday 19 November 2008

The British Raj was good for India?

Here is an unexpected take from the prominent Indian novelist and journalist, Khushwant Singh. This article came across my radar recently and doesn't seem to have been picked up by others in the UK yet. In line with his reputation for being a bit controversial, he is countering a particular 'politically correct' line which Indian patriots (are expected to?) take:

Good things to the Raj times- Hindustan Times
When I submitted a collection of articles written by English men and women, compiled by me over 30 years ago to Penguin-Viking under the title Sahibs who Loved India, I hoped it would make the top of non-fiction best-sellers list. It did not. Besides Lord Meghnad Desai’s favourable notice in Outlook, it only got a few patronising paragraphs in other journals. Lord Desai is a Britisher and a friend. I expected him to be kind to me. I was disappointed as I felt strongly that our historians had painted a negative picture of British Raj without giving it credit for its positive contribution to the making of India. They have a lot to say about the rapacity of men like Clive & Warren Hastings, about the diabolical massacre of innocents at Jallianwala Bagh, their racist arrogance, ‘Whites only Clubs’ and keeping their distance from Indians and the nasty things they had to say about everything Indian. However, there was the other side of the coin.

Let me draw your attention to some of its salient features. The British Raj made us conscious of being Indian. We were Punjabis, Awadhis, Biharis, Bengalis, Oriyas Andhras, Tamils, Malayalis, Maharashtrians, Rajputs — also Hindu, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. We remained all these but also became Indians. All of us had one passport — Indian.

The British built us telegraph, connected our cities by roads, railways, laid networks of canals, dams to produce hydro-electricity. They started the process of industrialisation. They also introduced democratic institutions like municipalities, states and Central legislatures. During the British rule, there was more respect for the law. There were fewer riots, bandhs, and gheraos; blocking roads and rail traffic, burning buses and trains. Smashing of cars etc. was little heard of. There was less
corruption. Rarely did English officers indulge in bribery. Now it is rare to find an honest, civil servant who can’t be bribed. Ask any Indian of my generation and he will confirm that life and property were safer in British times than in India today.

Comparison with Princely States is pertinent. Most ruling princes lived in huge palaces, had fleets of Rolls Royces, amassed jewellery, maintained harems of wives and concubines, squandered public money lavishly. Not even the Viceroys of India lived in the styles of our maharajas and nawabs.

Many Englishmen supported India’s freedom movement. The founder of Indian National Congress was an Englishman, A.O.Hume; Mahatma Gandhi’s closest disciple was an English woman, Mira Ben. Amongst his closest associates were Reverend C.F. Andrews and Polak. Two Englishmen were involved in the Meerut Conspiracy case to put an end to the Raj. There were dozens of other English journalists, civil servants, Boxwallahs who lent active support to our freedom movement. The British did not divide us to rule, as is often alleged by nationalist historians. Maulana Mohammed Ali was right in holding ‘We divide and they rule.” The British did not break up India when they left, they did their best to keep it together. It was our leaders who split it as they failed to get on with each other. The British left the country with good graces. They did not have to be pushed out as other European colonists like the French, Dutch & Portuguese. That is why many Indians have nostalgic memories of the Raj.
And finally, lots of English people went out of their way to befriend Indians. I was lucky in knowing quite a few and felt I should do my bit in knowing quite a few of them and my bit in setting the record right. I am an unashamed Anglo-phile.

Hmm. Immediate thoughts (for that is all I seem to have time for these days!) are that it's a selective argument with selective examples - counter examples exist for each point. And, of course, a major gripe is that he is mixing observations at a national political level with those at a personal level - of course there were lots of nice English people involved with India but that doesn't give them the right to subjugate the country! What do you think?
p.s. Have come across this useful full discussion about this debate.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Obama wins historic US election

"It's a new day, it's a new life, it's a new dawn, and I'm feeling good..." You said it Nina.


"Democratic Senator Barack Obama says "change has come to America", after being elected the first black president of the United States.". Speech in full can be watched here.

Am stunned. Cannot write anymore.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Obama makes history (and Victoriana)

Excellent though the news is about Watermans, tonight has got to be all about the probable history being made across the pond. That the USA tomorrow might have a black President-elect is still truly stunning to me.

It hits me anew each time I think of it even though I know there's a multi-layered debate here:

- Obama is equally white (but he's perceived as black)
- the colour of his skin shouldn't matter (but it does to so many people, anti- and pro-)
- race and sex are no predictors for level of progressive policies (for sure, we saw that in the UK with Thatcher...)
- what difference does it make anyway? (hey, don't be so cynical, not yet)

For now I can only defer to more articulate bloggers and websites - see Liberal Conspiracy for live blogging by a UK team of the US election from, well, about now! And see the Politico website for 'liberal' coverage from the USA.

For me, however, even the election of Obama as the USA's 44th President cannot stand in the way of my having to finish sewing a 'Victorian' (goddamit) costume for my little daughter's 'Florence Nightingale day'' at school tomorrow (yes, they've done Mary Seacole too, thankfully) - the shame of it if I get it wrong! Good luck Mr Hussein.

Saved! The Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford, London

The London Evening Standard today brings this gratifying news about an arts venue in west London which has consistently show-cased theatre, film, comedy and more, on British-Asian themes :

Brentford arts centre wins back funding
Louise Jury, Chief Arts Correspondent, 04.11.08

ARTS Council England is to restore nearly 60 per cent of the funding axed from the Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford, in recent cuts.

It reassessed its decision after the venue threatened to go to judicial review and will pay an annual grant of £240,000 for three years.

The new Arts Council support is specifically targeted at Watermans'programme of work with Asian artists and for Asian audiences. Ninaz Khodaiji, Watermans' programmer for Asian arts, said: "We are at a crossroads in Asian arts development with audience needs becoming more diverse than ever."

Watermans' tradition in Asian arts goes back to its 1984 opening when sitar player Ravi Shankar was the first to appear at the venue.

Why should this matter? Do we need specific 'British-Asian' arts? Aren't there plenty of other arts venues in London? Important questions. Quick answers are, yes, it matters because there has been no other similar forum in London which has consistently introduced and promoted some wonderful British-Asian artists e.g. Sanjeev Bhaskar, amongst many others, started here.

I caught an as-yet-unknown Sanjeev performing there in the mid-1990s when I did a review for Eastern Eye of his then-burgeoning comedy act with, of all people, Nitin Sawhney (check his website, he had a slick PR company even back then...). The British-Asian experience has not been adequately reflected in other theatres around London. Not only that but Watermans also hosts some Indian Punjabi theatre companies too. It's a wonderful riverside venue in a great setting - see what's on here and check it out sometime.